Do we really want to volunteer?

thank-you-volunteers

I have met volunteers from all walks of life while managing volunteer-based community and conservation projects for the past few years. Everyone has something to offer, bringing different invaluable skills and experiences, providing manpower, coming up with suggestions and recommendations to solve problems, etc. It is about having a wonderful volunteering experiences, not just to share and contribute but also to gain insights and experiences working with the community in conservation.

Putting fun aside, there were also times when having volunteers is challenging. I often asked volunteers the reason(s) they volunteer. Volunteers who did their research about the projects before signing up had a better idea of what they would be doing at the project. But, there were also those who came because they or their parents thought volunteering would look good on their CVs, they just wanted to volunteer but were not keen on doing much, they had some time while travelling and did not know what to do or where else to go, they wanted to help turtles but did not know it involves patrolling on the beach at night, etc. Then I wonder, why would they sign up to something without knowing what they were signing up for?

I am writing this as I think that there are a few things people who plan or want to volunteer should know before signing up for it. This is so that projects and volunteers can meet each other’s expectations.

First of all, ask ourselves why do we want to volunteer and what do we want to gain?

This is important because it helps us to know what to look for while searching for projects and decide whether or not a project is suitable. For example, if we dislike children, we should not volunteer for a project that requires us to spend time every day with children. Not only will we struggle to work with children, the children also sense it that we don’t like hanging out with them. The reason we want to volunteer will be our motivation that decides how much (more) we want to be involved while volunteering. If we are there just to pass time, that is what we will do. However, if we want to learn about something, we will make sure we utilise our time there to gain those skills.

How much budget do we have? How long can we volunteer?

Look for projects that are within our budget. Anything less than one week is probably not sufficient to learn or contribute much, especially when it involves work that needs specific skills. Most work that the projects carry out require a certain level of skills and experiences, which can be acquired through training (with time). Unless we have the skills and experiences, we need to allow us some time to go through the training and practice. For example, it is overly ambitious to think that we could get certified as an open water diver and do dive surveys in one week period, even if the project tells you otherwise. Some people are natural divers but some become one with experience, plus it requires training to do surveys for research. Understanding this means we are able to tell if we have the skills and experiences to volunteer for a certain project, or we probably need to pick up the necessary skills first and if not, stay longer.

How much time are we willing to spend on volunteering every day?

Not many people put much thought about it. At most projects, it is a full working day every day. However, if we have in mind, from the beginning, that we only want to volunteer half a day and have the rest of the day free to explore the area, then look for a project that gives us the flexibility to do so. Some projects have more rigid schedule that requires volunteers to follow through a fixed itinerary. Find out as early as possible whether or not certain arrangement can be made.

Once we know what we want, do the homework!! There is no shortcut to have a good volunteering experience. In most cases, volunteers do not have a pleasant experience because the project has not met up to their expectations. At the same time, projects also feel the pinch as they have to put up with unhappy volunteers. This could happen because volunteers do not receive full information about a project, finds out later that what is happening on ground is far from what it is on the brochure/website or they do not take the effort to find out more about the project. Be more cautious of anything that sounds too good to be true. If we are booking through agents, make sure we get the right information. I personally prefer to get in touch with the project I am interested to volunteer with, rather than booking through an agent. Look online, find out more about the project and read up reviews by past volunteers (if any). Project’s website only explains briefly what they do and agents probably tell us what we want to hear but it is from volunteers’ reviews that we know more about the day-to-day work and living conditions. Every volunteer has his/her standards so be smart in gauging the reviews.

Good projects tend to have certain requirements when looking for volunteers. Be honest. For instance, if we are not swimmers, don’t say that we can swim. This is because for projects that do snorkel surveys, instead of us helping them in the surveys, they have to constantly look out for us and make sure we don’t drown. Projects have risk assessments and safety measurements but it is also our responsibilities to inform them about our health conditions so that they can take appropriate measures when necessary. Not all projects have good or any medical facilities in proximity.

All of this is essential, if we are serious about volunteering. Take the initiative to get in touch with the project before arrival to find out if there is anything else we should know or prepare. Every project differs, some are organised and some not, which is why we should take the time to look for projects where we can share experiences and learn new skills. Lastly, having the right attitude is utmost important while volunteering. Volunteer because we want to help. Having say that, Happy Volunteering!!

Because Every Picture Has A Story to Tell

When I first read about sea turtle photo identification, I was really excited because it provides an opportunity to study more about the sea turtles at Perhentian Islands. There is a lack of research done on sea turtles here, hence a paucity of data about the population around these islands. Moreover, tagging has not been practised for more than a decade.

Photo identification is a reliable method of identifying every individual turtles. Each turtle has unique facial scale and spot patterns on both sides and these features are visible on photos. It is less invasive to sea turtles as no physical contact is needed. Moreover, tagging only studies the nesting females on the beach but photo identification enables the study of both juveniles, male and female adults at nesting beaches and feeding grounds in the sea. Even if a turtle loses its tags, it is still possible to identify the individual through its face. It also enables the understanding of sea turtle habitat use around the islands. More interestingly, the locals and tourists can participate in the study as many take sea turtle photos when they encounter one. Of course, this is all possible if the photos are clear and sighting data such as date, time and location the photos are accurate.

Out of curiosity, I started looking for sea turtle photos that I have and looked at the facial scale patterns of these turtles. True enough, it is actually possible to identify each and every one of them! Hence, the Perhentian Turtle Project was set up in hope to better understand the sea turtle population size here. As some turtles were seen more than once and for a few years, I realised photo identification is not merely about identifying individuals and knowing their movements. It also enables us to monitor their progress, more of like every photo taken of the same turtle at different times shows how the turtle is at a particular time.

For example, we saw P15F for the first time in May 2012. The next recorded sighting of P15F was in August 2014 and the photos showed a cracked shell, which looks like boat strike. However, lucky for the turtle, it survived and the injury healed. The scar is visible on photos taken in May 2015.

P15F, a female adult green turtle first seen feeding in 2012

P15F, a female adult green turtle first seen feeding in 2012

When P15F was sighted again, it had a cracked shell

When P15F was sighted again in 2014, it had a cracked shell

In 2015, P15F was seen with a scar on its shell that showed a healed injury from the hit by boat propeller

In 2015, P15F was seen with a scar on its shell that showed a healed injury from boat strike

Unfortunately, P5F, an adult female green turtle, suspected to be hit by boat, may not be that lucky. The first photo of P5F was taken in 2012. In 2013, it was seen having tags on both of her front flippers. After zooming in the photos, the tag numbers showed 5911 (left) and 5912 (right). They were tags from SEATRU (UMT Sea Turtle Research Unit). SEATRU confirmed that P5F was tagged in May 2013 and up to July that year, she laid 9 nests at Redang Islands. It was seen again in September 2013 at Perhentian Islands. It has been around since. It is one of the tame turtles that don’t mind having snorkellers watching it feed. Sadly, when it was seen on 8th September this year, it had a huge crack at its shell. She seemed to be feeding like normal, only God knows how it felt. The crack looked severe and I can only hope it survives the hit and continue to live and breed. It has not gone back to Redang Islands to nest since 2013. If it survives, it may still in the future lay more nests. Most feel for injured animals. In this case, P5F is not just an animal. As it is frequently seen, it feels like I know P5F, which is why the more heartbreaking it is to see this happening to it.

P5F was first spotted in 2012

P5F was first spotted in 2012

One year after, it was seen around Perhentian Islands with tags at its front flippers

One year later, it was seen around Perhentian Islands with tags at its front flippers

Recently, P5F was seen with a really bad cracked shell

Recently, P5F was seen with a really bad cracked shell

Every adult female can lay on average of 100-120 eggs, between 2-10 nests a breeding season. Most conservation efforts are put into protecting the eggs and hatchlings because sea turtles have a very high mortality rate when they are young. It is believed only 1 in 1000 to 10000 hatchling survive to adulthood. It takes them an average of 25 years to become sexually matured. The fact that only that small number of hatchlings will make it to adults makes it more important to increase protection measures to protect these adult turtles so that they can continue to breed.

Boats are one of the main threats for sea turtles at Perhentian Project. There are many identified turtles with injuries and scars from boat strike. Some survived, some didn’t. So far this year, the project received 3 reported death of sea turtles. 2 had decomposed and were beyond identification. Meanwhile the other one was not found on the database, meaning it has not been spotted anywhere in the water or on the beach.

Malaysia has started using TEDs to reduce turtle bycatch which is also one of the main threats to sea turtle besides turtle eggs consumption. What about threats from boat propellers? To come up with mitigation measures, that everyone agrees to, is always the hardest part. Everyone acknowledges the problem and when it comes to solutions, there are conflicts. To entirely protect the feeding grounds by not allowing boat traffic is not entirely impossible but locals would disagree because their livelihoods depend on bringing tourists to these areas to see turtles. To enforce a rule that every boat needs to slow down the speed of their boats at feeding grounds needs continuous monitoring which requires manpower that the authorities involved lacks of. Maybe a boat propeller cover can be a solution, as long as it doesn’t affect the speed and fuel usage of the boat.

However, the mortality of juvenile or adult sea turtles is increasing in an alarming rate. Is it really enough to only increase the efforts on nesting beaches without taking more protection measures to mitigate threats to sea turtles in the ocean?

The project is new and we only have photos from 2011. An on-going photo identification research allows a better and more comprehensive understanding of the sea turtle population, their habitat use and movement around these islands. Any turtle photos taken, even from previous years, can be submitted to the project for identification. Conservation efforts can be improved with a strong and sound understanding, which is what the project is trying to achieve.

To consume or to conserve?

As I was trying cookies and pastry while checking out their food products at the famous Koi Kei in Macau, my brother shouted at me and pointed at something that he knew would gain my attention. True enough, in a glass display cabinet, I could see packets of shark fins. Honestly, if I had not studied conservation and made a decision not to consume shark fin, the sight of shark fins would not have stir up any emotions in me.

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Shark fins are still in demand despite the high price.

It is not until I started to do conservation work on ground, especially in creating awareness through education, that I realised, it is common for someone who does not grow up consuming certain food, such as turtle eggs or shark fin soup, to try to persuade and explain why one should not eat these species. When I talked to a local at Perhentian Islands about turtle egg consumption, my questions was simple. I wanted to understand why do they consume turtle eggs as studies have shown that the turtle populations are in declining trends. The old man looked at me and tried to explain that my question would sound similar to his if he was to ask me why do I eat chicken eggs. From his perspective, turtle eggs have been a food source for the locals for decades or more. In fact, every marine life in the ocean is perceived as food source. From his point of view, even with the consumption of turtle eggs, turtles are still around. His personal reason to the declining turtles population is increased number of boats with propellers which leads to higher turtle mortality rate. Our conversation showed me how conservation is perceived if seen from a different perspective, which also explain why locals still consume turtle eggs. Partly they do not believe turtle eggs consumption is one of the main causes to sea turtle extinction.

I did not grow up eating turtle eggs but shark fin soup. I rarely eat it but it is commonly served during Chinese New Year and at wedding dinners. Years ago, I decided to stop eating shark fin soup after understanding about shark finning. There is a fishwife who pushes a wheelbarrow around the village selling fish. I often see blacktip reef sharks, mostly juveniles, among other fish stocks. Once, over a Malay dinner at her house, I subtly started a conversation about sharks. I briefly made a statement that the number of sharks is reducing and if we continue to catch sharks, they might go extinct. She just smiled and replied that if I felt that way for sharks, then I shoud not be eating fish or other marine life too. From her perspective, sharks are food. I also often see local guys catch sharks, together with other fishes, when they go fishing. Unlike shark fin soup, they consume the whole shark. Many of these village women have continuously, until today, persuade me to try curry shark. Sedap they said, literally translated as delicious. I refuse as I understand the decline of sharks as top oceanic predators is among the most important functional changes in marine system.

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Shocked at first and sad to see a shark carcass.

When someone talks about banning shark fin soup, what is the reason behind it? Is it to protect this species based on what he/she understands about shark conservation? Or due to the cruelty of inhumane shark finning? The article “What shark finning means (and doesn’t mean): a primer and quiz” mentioned that not all sharks are categorized as threatened species. Non-threatened shark species, if caught according to a science-based quota is the goal of responsible shark fisheries management. This makes me wonder how can I tell whether or not the fins served in shark fin soup are supplied through shark finning or well-managed shark fisheries. Many are disgusted about the consumption of shark fin soup and sometimes judge the people who consume. Although easier said than done, I try my best to be neutral and not make any judgement because I have yet, probably, understand or able see things from their perspectives. Nowadays we have a choice in choosing what we eat. In the past, coastal communities relied on the ocean for food source, just as how inland communities had cattle. Unlike cattle that are raised as livestock to supply food for humans, aquaculture is limited to breed only certain fish species. Therefore, we harvest sharks in the wild. This leads to the decline of sharks as their population recovery to overharvesting is slow.

Conservation is on-going and has never been easy. Sometimes I feel it makes more sense to study human pyschology in order to understand human behaviour or the reasons behind an action. As we humans share the same resources as the animals, conflicts are inevitable. Although biologists usually only study every aspects of a species for better conservation management, I think it is also very important to understand how humans fit into the management plan because there are always human-animal interactions, that are too complex to comprehend.

12-Hours Turtle Patrol

29th June was the start of Ramadhan this year. Due to the fasting month, the Fisheries staff had asked for our help to patrol the beach during the time they break their fast and go for prayers. We usually stay the whole night on the beach and only leave the next morning. It can be busy at night and sometimes overwhelming, not because of the number of turtles climbing ashore, but the constant presence of poachers. My first three consecutive nights patrolling the beach had been awesome though!

Turtle Beach and hatchery

Turtle Beach and hatchery

The view from Turtle Beach - early morning (top left), sunny morning (top right), sunset (bottom left) and stormy evening (bottom right)

The view from Turtle Beach – early morning (top left), sunny morning (top right), sunset (bottom left) and stormy evening (bottom right)

29th June 2014

When I agreed to help the Fisheries staff, I had expected a very long night, from 6 in the evening until 7/8 in the morning. What I did not expect is a busy night. The beach is only about 400m long and we usually patrol once every hour. Hence, I thought we could get some sleep at some point. The first night was so exhilarating that I was on the move most the time. Never in my life had I patrolled the beach for 12-hours straight wearing a sarong. This was the longest turtle patrol I had done. We were soaked wet while getting out of the boat at Turtle Beach as the waves was so big. I did not want to catch a cold so changed into a jacket and a sarong. We only started our first patrol at 8pm after dinner. There was a turtle coming up on the first patrol. We walked towards the end of the beach and set up our mat there. On the second patrol at 9pm, we saw a new track but it was a ‘half moon’ that indicates a turtle had come up and left without laying eggs. While we finished the second patrol, our two volunteers, Megan and Katie, said that they saw a turtle leaving the beach and they had no idea when it came ashore. I went to check and it was another ‘half moon’.  As we continued waiting and chatting on the mat, a turtle climbed past us and headed towards the vegetation. When it was out of our sights, we heard the sound of sand splashing against the vegetation. It had started to dig a body pit. Our intern, Nazirul, and I went off to check on the first turtle while Megan and Katie stayed with the one that just came up. While we waited for the turtles, a boat approached the beach. From afar, Nazirul and I could see flashes of lights when the people on the boat shone their torch to look for turtle tracks, as well as when the girls flashed back. Nazirul and I did not know what the situation was at the other end where the girls were so we stayed put. Fortunately, the boat did not come to our side because we definitely did not want them to find the turtle.

It was a huge relief when the Fisheries staff came to the beach after their prayers. Their presence itself deters poachers from coming to the beach. While we were waiting for both turtles to lay eggs, another turtle came up past 11pm. Two turtles laid eggs. It was almost 3am when the third turtle left without laying eggs. Fisheries staff had a good time watching the turtle crawling over our mat. After going back and forth between turtles, checking what they were doing, it was nice to finally to be able to sit down and rest. I went for to pee half an hour later and thought that since I had already walked more than half of the beach, I might as well do a patrol until the end. It was quite a surprise to see another new track and as my eyes followed the track, I could see the shape of a turtle, slowly crawling up the beach. After the turtle was near the trees, I continued walking and went back to get the rest. It was past 4pm when Fisheries staff prepared for their last meal before they start to fast for the day. It was almost 7 in the morning when the last turtle left. It was quite a magnificent sight watching it going back to the ocean leaving the eggs behind. These eggs will hatch in 2 months time and they too, will follow the footstep of their mother. Although physically exhausted, it was all worth it! We saw 6 turtle, saved 3 nests with more than 300 eggs on our first night.

30th June 2014

The second night was also another 12-hours patrol with Sabina, Amber and Mark. A turtle almost came up not long after 7pm. We began our first patrol at 8pm when the storm subsided. We saw a track immediately in front of the Fisheries accommodation and a turtle just came up. After it climbed further up the beach, we continued to patrol until the end of the beach. When we walked back, it had started to dig beside the turtle hatchery. An hour later, we found a ‘half moon’ track and another turtle on the beach. While we watched the first turtle laying eggs, a boat came near the beach. We flashed and they left. We waited beside the turtle as we were afraid poachers might come. Every time the turtle used its flippers to camouflage its nest, we had sand splashing at us everywhere. Fisheries arrived not long after. Just as they flashed at the hatchery, we saw hatchlings in the hatchery!! The whole moment reminded me of my time working with turtle at Tortuguero, being covered in sand and watching hatchlings crawling into the sea. After successfully putting the eggs to safety, we went to the other turtle and waited there. As we were there, another turtle came up. It was interesting to chat with the Fisheries staff as they shared their stories about their work and how turtle conservation has evolved all these years. Fisheries collected the eggs and it was already past 12am when both turtles finished laying eggs. Fisheries invited us for a drink. We went back to our hut as it started to feel like it was going to rain. We patrolled every hour after that but no more turtles came up. I think we all managed to get some sleep on the second night after seeing 4 turtles, hatchlings and saved 3 nests.

1st July 2014

The third night was just me and Nazirul. For once, the sea was calm when we arrived. After Nazirul broke his fast, we went for a patrol. Unlike the nights before, it was very quiet that night. We did not see any turtle tracks on the first few patrols. When Fisheries came, they found hatchlings in the hatchery. We decided to sleep out on the beach. There was no clouds and the sky was so clear that the stars were shining bright. Star gazing was always part of the fun during turtle watch. I downloaded an app, Google Sky Map, to check out the names of the stars. After the 12am patrol, it started to feel chilly and we could see dark clouds approaching. We went into the hut. Fisheries staff told us to get some sleep. We did another patrol at 3am, again, no turtle, nor hatchlings. I knew Fisheries staff would be up by 5pm to have some food before they start fasting. I decided to sleep until the next morning as three nights patrolling in a row started to take its toll on me. Besides it was almost not possible to sleep during the day with all the work and heat. I was quite thankful for the non-happening night.

Let’s help to protect the turtles together!

We are determined to help out every night. At the moment, due to our work schedule during the day, we are not able to patrol all night every night but at least we could help out a few hours when Fisheries staff could not be there. I am extremely grateful for all the help from Ecoteer’s and Blue Temple’s team and volunteers! I hope we could continue to patrol the beach every night and ensure that the eggs are safe. Thanks to YOU all for making it possible!

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A Whole New World Underwater

This year Ecoteer collaborates with Blue Temple Conservation to set up a Marine Research Station at Perhentian Island Village. We conduct dive surveys using Reef Check survey method to monitor the health of the coral reefs. Apart from the usual work that focuses on educational awareness activities, this year we begin to do research. Before the start of the season, Sue from Reef Check trained Neil, Sabina (founders of Blue Temple) and I as eco-divers. Although I have been at Perhentian Islands for more than 2 years, I seldom dive, partly due to my busy work schedule but mainly due to the difficulty to equalise when I descend. I, however, realised equalising becomes easier with more dives. It doesn’t hurt as it used to be which usually ruined the whole dive experience. Neil and Sabina have been very supportive all the time!

Neil and Sabina from Blue Temple

Neil and Sabina from Blue Temple

Since the start of the project, things have been hectic for all of us. I still remember when Daniel told me to help set up the project, I was quite worried but looking at where we are now, I think we are doing great! Part of the project is to involve local boatmen in the dive surveys. By participating in the surveys, we hope the boatmen would then know the diversity and the condition of the coral reefs around their islands. We educate and create awareness among the locals on the importance to protect the coral reefs.

We just trained three local guys to dive. The whole Open Water Dive Course took up more than 2 months. The theory took longer than expected as I had to translate. I have to admit, it was not easy but I actually enjoyed doing it! It was funny to watch the locals’ reactions as they did not understand the video. At times, Jimie would fall asleep half way. I think it is time that PADI prepares course materials in Malay. It was a relief when they passed the quizzes and final exam!

Dinie, Annas and Jimie completing the theory and getting ready to dive!

Dinie, Annas and Jimie completing the theory and getting ready to dive!

We could only do the dives with the guys on our day off on Sunday, which is also the reason why it took so long for them to complete. It was actually so much fun doing it with the guys as they were so excited every time! They did say they were nervous in the beginning but no one could tell. Three of them diving together = craziness!! They were posers, even when they were doing the skills, they always noticed where the camera was and not forgot to pose! To be frank, diving with them has been awesome and exhausting, trying to keep up with their nuisance, in a good way though!!

Dinie

Dinie

Annas

Annas

Jimie

Jimie

We were all really happy when they completed the course! It was really a pleasure to be able to help out in training the locals! Immediately after they qualified as divers, we did a celebration BBQ party. It is not a big deal to be a certified diver but we made ours a big deal! We got them to finish a cup of non-alcoholic mixer (F&N orange, Zapple, 7-up, Pepsi, soy sauce, kimchi sauce, salt, rose syrup, grape syrup and sunquick) using a snorkel and wearing special mask!

Yay to our first batch of local divers who would help us in the dive surveys!

Yay to our first batch of local divers who would help us in the dive surveys!

A celebration with our new divers!

A celebration with our new divers!

Apart from helping to train the locals up, I also went for dive clean up, dive survey on corals, invertebrates and fishes and of course fun dive! I even did my first night dive with Blue Temple! All the time the thought of being underwater in the dark freaks me out. I was nervous about it but, for God-knows-what-reason, it did not feel that scary but exhilarating! A totally different experience from diving during the day! The underwater world looked so different! The marine creatures seemed idle and hiding among corals, coral polyps extended their colourful tentacles from their skeleton to feed and everywhere I shone the torchlight, there were many pairs of shiny eyes reflecting back! I got really excited to see a turtle sleeping under the ledges.

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Previously the fear of not being able to equalise was bigger than the joy of seeing the underwater world. However, I realised it is easier and my ears don’t hurt when I equalise constantly, pretty much non-stop while I descend. When I don’t have to worry about the pain in my ears or having nosebleed when I ascend, I can actually enjoy the view underwater! It can be very mesmerising to watch the behaviour of the marine life, e.g. a damselfish rubbing itself against a rock or chasing other fishes from its territory, a clownfish swimming out of the anemone to protect its family, two rabbit fishes chasing each other, a hawksbill turtle feeding on corals, etc. It is also very heartbreaking to see the damage to the coral reef ecosystem due to human impacts!

Sylvia Earle quotes that our past, our present and whatever remains of our future, absolutely depend on what we do now. Many of us ask what can I, as one person, do but history shows us that everything good and bad starts because somebody does something or does not do something. Everyone’s action has an impact, no matter big or small. If one person thinks that throwing a bottle into the ocean is not bad, imagine everyone on Earth thinks the same. Instead of having one bottle in the ocean, we will now have 7.166 billion bottles in the ocean. I have known that in reality, there is no 100% conservation or protection but I disagree with 100% destroy of our nature for development. I learn to believe in creating a balance between development and conservation! Easier said than done but definitely possible! Let’s continue to protect our nature! If you love the ocean and would like to lend a helping hand towards marine conservation at Perhentian Islands, do check out Blue Temple Conservation’s volunteer project!

Recycle Magazine

Things have been really busy at the project. I remember when I first started working at the project 2 years ago, it was hectic. Eventually it became easier when I got the flow of the work. Second year was more relaxing and I had wonderful interns who were extremely good! This year, Ecoteer collaborates with Blue Temple to start up a dive research project based at Perhentian Island Village. Nothing has been smooth sailing but that’s the challenging part and being able to get the project started is fulfilling. Neil and Sabina run the dive research project and having them here at Perhentian is awesome. We help each other to get both projects to run smoothly.

We spoke about recycling waste to raise fund for the projects and I showed them a few stars made of magazines. Despite the never-ending work, Sabina and I made a pair of earrings. As a trial, the earrings look good! We’ll make more to bring them to our awareness booth at resorts and hopefully raise some money for the project!

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Recycle Glass

It all started with the idea of fund raising for Ecoteer Perhentian Project. Every week, we went to different resorts to do safety briefing to their tourists before snorkel tour. We also set up information booth at different resorts at Perhentian to speak to more tourist, hopefully informing them on eco-snorkelling and marine conservation.

A few gave suggestions of putting a donation box. Our aim was conservation through education, therefore we didn’t accept any donation. We thought if anyone would donate to support the project, we could provide them a gift as appreciation. That was when I thought it would be nice to create these gifts by recycling glass found on the beach.

There were plenty of ideas to create keychains, earrings, necklaces, photo frames, etc, all made of glass. These broken glasses have been in the ocean for so long that the edges are blunt. It is like the ocean acting as sandpaper to make them smooth. We collect them in bulk whenever we do beach clean up.

It was just a trial and we picked pieces of smaller glass to put on friendship bracelets and anklets. The island team did a few, including necklace. The trick is to drill one or two holes on the glass. I decided to do one for myself as a start. I stopped when I left the island and only remembered it recently so I decided to finish it.

My anklet

My anklet

Bracelets, anklets and necklaces made by Ecoteer Island Team (November 2013)

Bracelets, anklets and necklaces made by Ecoteer Island Team (November 2013)

My Snorkel Experience

I went snorkelling two days ago. The monsoon is approaching and almost every evening there is a storm and the current has become stronger. Despite of that, the visibility in the sea was perfect. It felt like I was swimming in a swimming pool. There were less tourists and most snorkel sites were not crowded. I had seen more fishes around the reefs, however, they looked hungry. I wanted to see coral fishes in the reef but I did not want them to circle me as if I had food for them or thinking I was THE food! This is the reason why we should not feed the fish! This is not an aquarium and these fishes are not pets! By feeding them bread, we change their behaviour. In areas where snorkellers do not visit often, fishes are more sensitive to the presence of humans and they usually swim away. However, at snorkel sites where snorkellers are always present to feed the fishes, they start to associate human with food! I’ve seen certain fishes that would usually go the other direction as I swim nearer but the same type of fishes elsewhere where snorkeller activities are frequent, display a different behaviour. Not only do they not swim away, they just continue feeding on corals, even when I swim really close by. What happens is the fishes that always feed on bread provided by snorkellers probably still find their own food but depend highly on humans for food supply. So the question is what happens during the monsoon season when tourism slows down? No snorkellers equals no food supply. As much as I would like to think that the bread given is extra food supply for these fishes, assuming they usually are capable of finding food on their own, but I seriously doubt so.

It is a wonder how the marine ecosystem works and how every single marine life holds a place in the complex food web. Nature has its way to function and it is humans who always disrupt the functionality of the nature. I find it interesting to watch the marine life’s interactions – an adult back tip reef shark chasing after a coral fish, a damsel fish guarding its territory, a clownfish hiding among the sea anemone, a pair of rabbitfish swimming together, a parrotfish feeding on corals, a green turtle feeding on sea grass, etc. It is a beautiful sight and I believe in practising respect for others and this includes non-human organisms! Humans have developed and progressed so much that we have technologies that enable to go to places like the ocean and space but having the privilege to go underwater doesn’t mean we own the ocean and have the right to do as we wish. Sadly, not many act so. I have seen humans stepping on corals, harassing and chasing turtles, grabbing clownfish out of its home, throwing sea cucumbers around, picking starfish out of the ocean, etc. In short, touching everything just out of curiosity! Where’s the respect for marine life and its environment?

This year I have also seen snorkel guides luring reef sharks so that their customers see sharks and moral eels. Hello??!! This is an ocean, not an aquarium! There is no guarantee that we’ll definitely see a shark! Shark Point is a common feeding ground for the black tip reef sharks but they roam around in the ocean and they swim fast! It is common to miss them even when someone else snorkelling beside sees it! If the harmless coral fishes associate humans with food, imagine when these marine carnivores associate us as potential food?? The last time I saw an adult reef shark swimming around and when it swam towards me, I was asking myself in my head, did it think I had food or I was food! There have been cases of humans being bitten by reef sharks and moral eels even though under normal circumstance, they do not attack humans.

Talking about attacks reminds me of triggerfish that always attack divers to fend their nests. Lately the sighting of triggerfish is high. For the first time, I actually saw a pair of triggerfish at Turtle Bay. The common instinct when I see a triggerfish is to avoid it and swim off the other direction. Two days ago while conducting a coral survey, I dived down to compare the colour of the corals using a chart. For some reasons, I actually turned before swimming upward and that was the moment where I think my heart beat actually stopped for a second when a triggerfish was like 1m in front of me. Lucky me, it swam off while I frantically swam away from it too! What an experience!

Every snorkel tour has been awesome and never once the same! The marine ecosystem is dynamic and ever changing. However, human behaviours stay the same. Almost 2 years at Perhentian, not once have I not encountered humans touching turtles, stepping on corals, kicking the corals with fins and the list goes on. Many accused the authorities for their weak and lack of enforcement but I always believe that everyone plays an important part to make a difference. With awareness and knowledge come responsibility to do what is right! This world is not about summoning and giving out fines whenever someone breaks the laws. Do we litter just because we know there is no enforcement? No!! We throw our trash into the bins because it is the right thing to do! Humans are the most advanced organism but sometimes our actions prove otherwise. There were times when I told the snorkellers not to feed the fish and not to step on corals or simply pulled them away from the turtle, I received negative remarks, such as ‘What’s your problem?’, ‘Apasal menyibuk?’, etc. Well, I’m sorry if it didn’t feel good being pulled but that could be how the turtle felt too! I don’t like being the bad guy but to ignore and let this continue is like seeing and allowing the marine environment to deteriorate. I really hope with more environmental education and awareness, humans can think and act right. Treat the Earth and all that dwell thereon with respect.

The Earth does not belong to us. We belong to the Earth. 
– Chief Seattle –

Conservation Through Education

Every year we have groups of volunteers from schools, universities and corporate companies volunteering at the project. Last week, we had 15 staff from Star Publication doing ‘teambuilding with a cause’. The theme for this group was ‘Marine Awareness Campaign’. Hence they learned and spread the words to conserve the marine environment. They prepared a puppet show and a play for the kids during school club. They also taught the kids how to do it and they all performed it to the local villagers. The volunteers had also designed a signboard to create awareness!

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This year we started a campaign to create awareness among tourists who are here to snorkel and/or dive. There are cases of snorkellers being hit by boat propeller every year. We began to collaborate with resorts and chalets to brief their guests before snorkel tour. Apparently many are not aware of the rules in Marine Park. Unfortunately, some know but are just plain ignorant. Awareness starts with knowledge. We briefed our volunteers on the dos and don’ts in Marine Park. We set up information booths every Saturday morning and the volunteers will speak to tourists who walk by.

Perhentian Islands are paradise and most snorkel sites are just a few meters deep. As much as everyone enjoy swimming with the marine life, we hope everyone practise eco-snorkelling to help protect and conserve the marine environment! Here are a few things that everyone should be aware of during snorkelling.

Wear a Life Jacket and Swim within Designated Snorkel Area

Life Jacket

Swim Within Designated Area

Please wear a life jacket when you are on a boat. You are encouraged to wear a life jacket when you snorkel as it keeps you afloat, even if you get tired. More importantly, by having a life jacket on, the boatman can see you from far and avoid yourself from being hit by propeller. Therefore, please always swim within the buoyline because there is heavy boat traffic out of the buoyline.

No Fins during Snorkelling

No Fins

Only snorkel guides are allowed to use fins for emergency purposes to swim faster to a casualty or bring the tourist back to the boat. At times, the corals are really shallow and by having fins on, you might accidentally kick and break the corals, especially if you are floating vertically in the sea.

No Fishing

No Fishing

Perhentian Islands are designated as Marine Park. Fishing is only allowed out of two nautical miles from the islands.

No Touching Marine Life

No Touching

Perhentian Island is rich in marine life. During your snorkel tour, you’ll stop at different snorkel sites to see corals, coral fishes, turtles and sharks. It is an amazing experience to swim with the marine life. Please respect them by not touching any marine life. Some marine life can be poisonous or they sting, such as jelly fish, sea urchin, etc.

No Touching or Harassing Turtles

No Touching Turtles

It is quite common to snorkel around turtles. They are most of the time feeding on sea grass. However, they surface to breathe. Please don’t harass the turtles but watch the turtles at a distance so that you don’t stress them out. Imagine if you are having your lunch, would you like it if strangers touch or harass you? Turtles spend longer time on the surface to breathe if left undisturbed.  It happened before that a turtle laid her eggs in the sea because she was disturbed.

No Feeding

No Feeding

Feeding the fishes is not encouraged because it changes their behaviour. That’s the reason why when you go into the sea, fishes come around and try to nibble you because they start to associate human with food. This is not an aquarium and you will not be here every day to feed them. It is not necessary to feed fishes or sharks because they are capable of finding their own food.

No Touching or Stepping On Corals

No Stepping on Corals

Corals are living organisms. The hard corals take months to grow just a few centimeters. Please keep your feet away from the corals so that you don’t hurt yourself. They are also fragile and break easily when you step on them.

No Litter (Bring Your Trash with You)

Don't Litter

If you love the marine environment here, please help to keep the island clean. Please always bring your trash, such as water bottles, plastic bags, etc, with you after snorkel tour. Marine life is not as smart as human. For example, turtles will consume the plastic bag, assuming it is a jellyfish as they are not as smart as human. If you swallow a plastic bag, you could tell someone to get it removed but it isn’t the same for marine animals. That’s the reason why you find trash inside of animals’ guts.

Please help spread the message around. Everyone plays an important role to help protect and conserve the nature! A huge thank you to Ecoteer Perhentian Island team and volunteers for designing the posters and participating in the awareness campaign!

Pollution beyond damage control

One week later after the pontoon was swept ashore at Teluk Keke, Ecoteer volunteers and school children were back to do another beach clean up. The rubbish collection has started on 15th April. If this is done on a daily basis, supposedly no operators would bring the rubbish to the pontoon. Although the pontoon was anchored back to its original place, it might not be for the best because when there is no collection, they will start to transfer all waste to this floating rubbish dump site and pollution will once again happen.

Majlis Daerah Besut did come and clean up the mess but sorry to say this, the effort wasn’t good enough. There were still rubbish lying on the beach and plenty of plastic bags floating in the sea. It had rained for almost a week and maybe nature has its way to cleanse the ocean. However, looking at the amount of trash we produce, it’s way beyond what nature itself can do. Hopefully a beach clean up would at least tidy up the beach a bit.

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Perhentian Islands are paradise. Tourism industry has developed fast but is it sustainable? If pollution continues to happen and nobody cares, the environment conditions will only deteriorate. I see before my eyes how rubbish, solid or liquid waste goes straight into the sea. As much as the country wants to promote tourism and develop the island, it is crucial to protect the environment and its wildlife.

Not all operators have proper waste system. Even in the village, the sewage system can’t be considered good. There is just a fence to block physical waste from flowing into the sea. What about waste that human eyes can’t see, like E. coli, etc? If I were just a tourist, I would be here just a couple of days and then I would be gone. However, for villagers who have been here for centuries and for a better future, how can anyone still choose to be ignorant?! Most locals admitted that the economic has increased since tourism started, however has their environmental awareness improve? Even if the community is aware, they need a waste management system. There are not enough rubbish bins in the village or anywhere else at Perhentian. Where to throw the rubbish if not in the bins? Is it alright to dump the waste at the dump site knowing well that there is no collection? Open burning is forbidden but that’s the only solution to get rid of the rubbish if it is not shipped out of the island!

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There might be things that is beyond our strength, however, being a responsible tourist helps a lot. Please don’t litter and if possible, bring your waste out of the island to reduce the accumulation of rubbish. After living on the island for more than a year, I see how much waste we can produce every day and how severe pollution is due to human! Wherever human is, there is rubbish! Please…

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