2019 – Stay Strong and Have Faith

Wow, I did not realise my last post was in January. I have not written anything since. I have not been active in updating any updates or posts on social media as well. I actually find all of it daunting. With all the writing (for my PhD) and posting (for study- and work-related) on social media, I just do not feel like writing anything else that is not required. In fact, this year I read more books than the years before. What I miss about blogging is not so much about writing but more of reading back on places I have been, things I have done, people I have met. It brings back memories. As usual, before a new year begins, I reflect upon the current year before it ends and write a blog about it so that I could read back again in the future on the year of 2019.

India

I love to travel, to explore into the unknown. It feels exhilarating. However, this year I travelled abroad less. The only trip abroad that I planned was to India for Salima’s wedding. Thankfully she got married, otherwise India would still be on my bucket list of countries to visit. It was a hectic yet very meaningful trip. As usual I wish we had stayed longer. It was my first Indian Wedding in India and the preparation and packing were quite stressful. Of all my life, I had never put on a sari or any Indian attire. I am glad that a few Indian friends lent us their saris and lenghas. We managed to prepare a few different attires for different wedding events. Before the wedding, we spent a few days in Mumbai to explore the city. We even went shopping in Mumbai for accessories. Dad needed his too! Guys always had it easier, I think. Mumbai was much exciting and safer than I thought. People were polite and friendly too. Food tasted better than I thought although Dad was pretty much done with roti and Chicken Briyani by the end of our stay there. Thankfully, no food poisoning or diarrhea. The weather was hot during the day. I could not fathom the way they drive there. No rules applied and the honking was insane! We met so many scouts and guides there which made our daily schedule packed. If we had more days there, perhaps the meetups could be spread out so that our days were more relaxed. Not only were we attending different wedding events, in between we were scheduled to meet scouts and guides and attend different scout events. There were times where I just wanted to stay in and rest. Nonetheless, I really appreciate the warm hospitality. While I was walking on the streets in Mumbai, I realised how much I miss travelling. I remember telling myself “I wish I could do this every day”! It felt energising. The longer I am in my PhD journey, the more I feel tied up to it. This means if there is no solid reason for me to do something (non-related to my PhD), then my conscience reminds me constantly that I should be writing my thesis. This is one of the reasons I have not been able to plan another trip other than India. There was no reason to. In 2020, instead of letting my thesis tied me down, grounded at a place, I am going to make it a point to travel more. Life passes by each day and time flies. Just gotta go with the heart and do it.

YSEALI Boot Camp

YSEALI started in 2014. Back then I was interested to apply for the Professional Fellowship. Five weeks in the US sounds like once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. However, I was not eligible to apply and by the time I finish my PhD, I would be past the eligible age. I grabbed an opportunity (PhD) and missed the other opportunity (YSEALI), that’s life I suppose. When I saw the advert for YSEALI Boot Camp 2019, I was debating for a long time whether or not to apply. It was not just a 2-day boot camp, the winning teams would have to execute the solution they pitched. I did not think I have the time for another project. In the end, I applied after knowing Wid and Melisa were joining. Little did I expect that our pitch would be the winning pitch. I barely remember what I learned throughout the 2-day boot camp. At that time I was actually confused (big time) with what we were supposed to do. In such a confusion, I was surprised that we won. USD2,000 was not a lot but the project that we had to execute required a lot of commitment and time. It sounded simple, the planning looked straight forward but there were challenges and frustrations. But hell, we managed to co-organise the Run for River Terrapin with the Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia. During the grand finale, I felt relief that it was over. I still remember one of the slogan “Never Too Young to Lead”. It did not relate so much to me who was already 35 years old. “Never Too Old to Lead” would have been more appropriate. Their enthusiasm was really something! Although I could not apply for the Professional Fellowship, I am glad for the opportunity to join the YSEALI Boot Camp. It would be my first and last YSEALI programme because I am now past the eligible age of 18-35 years old.

(Virtual) Run for River Terrapin 2019

During the YSEALI Boot Camp, we were tasked to brainstorm a solution to a local problem faced by a local NGO. Our team, Hungry, pitched a solution for the Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia (TCS) to raise public awareness about the society and its work in conserving freshwater turtles as well as to raise funds for them to carry out conservation and research work. In a team of five people, we proposed to organise a physical run in conjunction with the TCS annual river terrapin release programme in October. However, we decided to organise a virtual run instead so that the project could be completed before the deadline at the end of September. Few of the main challenges included (1) coordinating among team members as everyone had their own schedule and other commitments, (2) promoting the run to get more people to register and (3) troubleshooting issues encountered by runners while tracking their run using the app. Nonetheless, we managed to pull it through with Daryl being the main force in making sure that tasks were completed. We had lots of support from TCS, BiiB+ (the online platform/app we used for this) and Me.reka. It was a great experience. This idea was pitched with the aim to make it an annual event. Lessons learned from the first time orginising this event could be used to anticipate and mitigate issues so that the upcoming events would run more smoothly, reach out to more people and raise more funds. Besides being in the organising team, I also participated in the run with my family and friends. I do not particularly enjoy running but in that month I walked/jogged between 5-15km every day. I did not know where I got the motivation from but seeing my parents walked every day pushed me to do the same. It was like a competition. I felt relieved when the run ended. I was more than ready to go back to swimming and Zumba.

Sea Turtle Photo-ID Project

I have a thing for photo-identifying sea turtles. I like looking at the scale patterns. Since the start of a photo-ID project in the Perhentians, more and more sea turtle projects are starting to identify individual sea turtles using this methods. All of us are a part of the Malaysian Sea Turtle Photo-ID Network. SEATRU is the last to join the network in 2019. Thanks to Lyvia and SEATRU for making this happen, from bunting design (check out the bunting here!), distributing buntings to receiving sighting photos from citizen scientists. Not many members of the public have submitted sighting photos but we hope to engage more people. Szabina also helped in collecting sighting photos on nesting beaches. Sea turtle conservation has begun at Redang since the 1980s but conservation efforts focus primarily on nesting beaches. Photo-ID is a cost-effective and less invasive way to identify sea turtles in the water but gets more time consuming as the database increases.

Minggu Penyelidikan dan Inovasi (MPI) 2019

Thanks for SEATRU’s involvement in taking part in this Research and Innovation Week, I had the opportunity to participate and be part of the team. Lyvia and I submitted an entry to present about the photo-ID project at Redang Island. However, the project at Redang Island had yet to begin so we used the outcome from the Perhentian Turtle Project to show how a citizen science sea turtle photo-ID project could raise the interest and engage the public in sea turtle conservation. At the same time, it helps us to better understand about the sea turtle populations, for example the number of individuals present in an area and the threats they face. I truly enjoy myself during MPI as there were a lot of other interesting research and innovation being presented, not only from higher education institutions but high school students! Very proud of SEATRU for winning the special prize for their Turtle Lab at Taaras Redang Resort. Besides, Lyvia and I also won a bronze medal for the photo-ID project. Overall, it was a great experience.

International Congress of Conservation Biology (ICCB) 2019

The ICCB is an international conference that brings people from a diverse fields of study in conservation together. Attending it in home country was an advantage for Malaysians as we could save up a lot more than attending one abroad. It was nice to catch up with friends and meeting people whom I only knew from social medias. There were so many concurrent sessions, making it hard to decide which to attend. The schedule was back-to-back from morning until night. Every day was well spent, listening to other people’s work, meeting new people, learning new knowledge, etc. It was a place to listen to conservation optimism stories and get inspiration from others. Definitely hope to attend it again in the future!

Fifi (My Cat) and My Aunt

My aunt and my cat left one after another within three days. It was the lowest point in my life this year. Not long after Fifi stopped eating on her own, my aunt was hospitalised after a stroke. We had hope that they would get better but they left in the end. It was already sad to grieve for my aunt. When Fifi left, I was devastated. The loss was unbearable, knowing that she won’t be around anymore in the house or rubbing herself against our feet. There was guilt, wondering if we could have done something earlier to save her. She was only with us for less than 3 years but she was already our family. She did not just come into our house but she entered our hearts and brought so much joy and companionship. I never knew it would hurt so much when a pet leaves. Pets are not just pets, they are indeed our family. The only comfort of their passing was to know that they were no longer in pain. As a Buddhist who believes in reincarnation, I am hoping the next life would be a good one. I hope Fifi will have a healthy life.

Paper Publication

This deserves to be mentioned here as writing this paper took three years plus until it was accepted for publication. Allim and I started writing separately in mid 2016. It was not until November 2016 that Dr. Ja, our supervisor, began organising writing sessions to work on the paper together. We first submitted the draft to a journal in mid 2017. After not hearing back from them for half a year, my supervisor wrote in to inquire about the status. It turned out they had not sent it to the reviewers. Three months later in March 2018, we were informed that the paper was rejected. On the positive side, there were comments to improve the draft. At that time, we thought that paper could be split into two papers. My supervisor suggested to take out a part to make it into another paper. I did but just to find out from my supervisor later that the paper would not make sense without the part that was taken out. So we worked on the initial draft but improved it before sending it to another journal in November 2018. It was not until November 2019 that the paper was accepted. In between, there were lots of comments to address and corrections to do. It felt like the paper would never see the light of being published. I am glad that it is done as I have read the draft so many times that I could not work on it anymore.

Final Thoughts

These are a few of the more significant events that happened this year. Another important aspect of my life is finishing my thesis. Finally I am able to put my thoughts down in words and sent my supervisor a draft. As expected, I need to rewrite and restructure. To me writing a thesis is hard. I can’t wait to get it done and begin a new chapter in life! I look forward to 2020. When I was in primary school, our Prime Minister talked about Vision 2020. At that time, 2020 seemed like a far far distance away and I could barely imagine what I would be doing or where I would be in 2020. Time flies indeed. There is so much I want to do, I just have to get this done once and for all.

Together we can protect the (turtle) eggs

5th June 2017, World Environment Day

I was chatting with a friend over dinner while waiting for the heavy downpour to subside so that we both could get to our car and leave. We quickly ran towards our car when the rain began to ease off. Just as I started the car engine, a phone call came in and I saw “B” on the caller ID. B is from Lang Tengah Turtle Watch and his call caught me by surprise as I didn’t think he would call me, at least not at this hour. Then he broke the news of a turtle landing at Long Beach but he could not reach the Perhentian Turtle Project’s manager. Instead he rang me up. I always think it is a small circle of people working in conservation. It is just a matter of time that one will eventually know everyone in this field. Anyway, the next thing to do was to call someone from the project so that they could inform the rangers to collect the eggs.

Since the manager was out of reach, luckily I had R’s number saved on my phone so I rang her. “Hi R, how are you?”, and she replied “Hi Seh Ling, are you okay?” I burst into laughter. Thing is R and I don’t talk on the phone. We don’t call each other. We rarely even send Whatsapp messages. Still, her response cracked me up. But yes, the turtle! No time for catching up. I relayed the message to R after realising that the manager was not available as she was praying in the mosque. R said they would do something about it.

All this while, it has been rather difficult to save any nests at Long Beach. Most of the time, we received reports of turtle landing and often not in time to get there before the eggs were taken by someone else. Turtle eggs are sought after delicacy, as well as a source of income to some. Other than protected beaches, turtle eggs on other beaches really depends on who gets there first. The eggs are protected if the rangers get there first. However, that is not always the case.

Meanwhile, B continued texting, providing updates of the situation at Long Beach.

“From how L described it she is body pitting. She is under Oh La La Bar.”

“L is still with the turtle, so is there someone I should put her in contact with?”

“She is laying now.”

I just kept forwarding his messages to R. I was relieved when R managed to get in touch with one of the rangers, and they both were going to go over to Long Beach. Then I informed B that R was going and gave him her number. It was funny that B and I were not at Long Beach but the texting continued as we couldn’t reach R after she texted me that they were going to Long Beach.

“I have told L to expect R and apparently there is a group protecting the nest.”

“How far away is R?”

“Looks like R is there now though.”

Meanwhile, I managed to get hold of the manager, who had also received the news from Turtle Bay Diver. It wasn’t until more than an hour or more later that R replied saying that they managed to get the eggs. There was even a second turtle that came ashore when R was there but it did not nest.

We really appreciate and are always thankful to the staff and tourists from resorts and dive centers calling us to inform on turtle landing, as well as “sheltering” the turtle from the crowd. It is through such collective efforts that we can protect the species. Despite not working at Perhentian anymore, it was really good to be able still help to save the turtle eggs yesterday.

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.