by Roger Vaughan
I got here to Tioman Island, just off the east coast of peninsular Malaysia, about a week ago. My routine goes like this: up at 7am, swim in the warm clear water, 8am breakfast in the restaurant next door to my room. Scuba dive, 2 tanks in the morning, lunch on board the boat, then return to base by 2pm for study sessions on corals, fish species, other reef critters and Malay language. Dinner at any of several local restaurants – delicious seafood, veggies and noodles, rice, flatbreads, curries, chicken, beef – no pork, as this is a Muslim country. Chat until about 9pm, maybe see a reef video or review the pictures we’ve taken during the day’s dives, then crash under my mosquito net (not that I’ve really needed it) with a good book until I fall asleep anticipating another day.
On today’s dive trip we saw a pod of pilot whales which followed the boat for a while, then dove around a nearby small island removing the pesky crown-of-thorns starfish which prey on the branching corals of the reef. Their only natural predator is the triton trumpet shell, which has been virtually eliminated worldwide by the shell-curio trade, so the starfish are very numerous. Our 4 teams of divers removed nearly 100 from the reef today, and it would have been more except that many were deep in the coral and would have required destroying what we are trying to save, in order to remove them. I got a few coral scrapes, and one or two small pokes from the starfish (they are toxic), but no big deal.
We also saw several huge bumphead parrot fish, a small school of squid, lots of beautiful butterfly and angel fish, spadefish, small barracudas, large groupers and sea bass, acres of live hard and soft coral of hundreds of varieties, and other weird and wonderful creatures often grouped as the “spineless wonders” – sea cucumbers, urchins, shrimp, crabs, shells, giant clams, gorgonian fans, basket stars and on and on.
Last weekend we went on a hike through the rainforest to the other side of the island, and saw amazing butterflies, mouse deer, fruit bats, pottoes, types of birds I’d never seen before, and gorgeous trees, vines and shrubs of all kinds.
Tioman Island has been a National Park under the protection of the Royal Family since the mid-1990s, with a total no-touch, no-take policy for fishing or collecting of any kind, within 2 miles of shore. The resident population of the island is 3000 people, most of whom earn their livelihoods directly or indirectly from the tourist trade, but there is only one “resort” in the American sense, on the island. Most visitors stay in small single story local hotels, eat at the village restaurants, and come to snorkel, dive or hike. The fact that most of the people speak at least some English makes being here very easy – no chance of getting lost or not getting where you intend to go.
But it’s not just about having fun! We are taking an active role in the Blue Ventures Malaysia program too, doing assessments of reef health and risks, developing a series of educational videos on responsible boating, diving and snorkelling practices, working with the local dive and boat operators to insure sustainable practices in their use of the reef, and developing a definitive photo library of fish and other creatures found on the reefs. We will also assist in teaching English in the local schools, do reef and beach cleanups, and, of course, the crown of thorns monitoring and removal.
By the end of this week our training in fish identification will be completed and my current team of volunteers (me, a British couple in their early 60s, and a young Ph.D. scientist from Spain) will begin contributing to the collection of reef health data. Our group is rather unusual since most volunteer teams have 6-10 members and often in their 20s and 30s, but we try to make up in experience what we lack in youthful energy. There is no lack of enthusiasm, as we all look forward to seeing things we’ve never seen before on every dive.
As evening is falling, I am looking out through the palm trees past the tree squirrels and the plumeria trees, wondering how many of the ripening mangoes will wake me during the night by falling on my roof. The sea is nearly flat calm, with a gentle wave-ripple at the shore that makes falling asleep really easy anytime. We’ll lay out tomorrow’s schedule before heading off to dinner, perhaps at the seafood barbecue shop just down the main street. Wish you were here. Don’t you?