By Neil Hagan. “This is not a beach holiday” – a favorite saying of our fearless (except when you mention floating, smiling vampires) expedition leader. Katie, I happen to agree with you, this is certainly not a beach holiday.I have been on Tioman, a beautiful tropical island, for three weeks now. In that time I have not been in a pool, I have not been given a massage, I have not relaxed on a cushioned lounge chair, and I rarely get to sleep in. These, I would argue, are just a few of the many reasons this 6-week expedition is NOT, as Katie would eagerly say fighting back a smile, “a beach holiday”. In my mind this expedition is an experience far more enjoyable and rewarding than any beach holiday I have ever been on (and Hawaii is quite nice).
Everyday I learn something new – from how to tell the difference between a corallimorph and a zooanthid, to the body shape of a “little” poisonous jungle viper. I’ve spent hours underwater being shown the difference, first hand, between fish species, coral types, and algae thickness. I’ve seen how to properly mount a fellow diver, and have been shown what not to do to when you see a sea snake. I’ve contributed to the systematic murder and mutilation of a sea star simply living its life (Crown of Thorn Starfish, of which there is a plague on Tioman), and sung a song about its death. All this knowledge and all of these experiences (along with the great number of facts too numerous to list off here), which I have gained both above and below the calm surface of the South China Sea, is enough by itself to surpass any luxurious beach holiday in which only a sunburn and gut is gained. However, my argument does not end here.
On how many beach holidays does one get to meet a motivated, intelligent, funny, sociable, and diverse group of people? …Perhaps a few, granted. But on how many of these beach holidays does one get to live and work with these people everyday – trusting to them your safety and well-being under the water during the day, and sharing a cold a drink and a laugh at night? On how many beach holidays can you trek into the heart of the jungle, camping amidst a cacophony of insects noises, and wake up to a smiling guide, ready to lead you up to the summit of the island and gladly point out to you all the poisonous plants, thorny branches, slippery rocks, and unbeatable scenery? On how many beach holidays can one wake up in the morning and be absolutely certain that today you will laugh, smile, sweat, itch, be tired, see something brand new, float weightless 20 meters below the surface of the ocean, be hungry, be full, and thoroughly enjoy every moment of it?
Granted we, as volunteers, do have certain “chores,” but even these, with the right mindset, can be more enjoyable than sipping a Mai Thai by the pool. Raking the beach at 8AM may sound less than fantastic, but when you walk out of your room in the morning, step out on to the beach, look out over the unbelievably calm water, listen to the small waves gently lapping upon the shore, and soak in the warmth of the early morning sun on your face – you begin to realize that at that very moment, there is nowhere else in the world you would rather be. Why would I want to be on a beach holiday when even the chores bring a genuine smile to my face?