Checking out a New Coral Reef Conservation Project in Borneo

Working for Kaya in their Philippines office has meant that I’ve been lucky enough to have a number of escapes throughout Asia during my 9 months here. My latest was a trip down to Borneo to check out a new Marine Conservation Project working to help protect the coral reefs which have been affected by decades’ worth of fish bombing. My journey starts here...

The long road to Borneo

Malaysia Borneo, Malaysia  |  Aug 08, 2011
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 My day started with 2 dives and a snorkel to assess the reefs close to the island. What I saw was not what I expected. Reefs that could be flourishing, but instead were rubble – dead coral just scattered along the sea bed. 

Working for Kaya in their Philippines office has meant that I’ve been lucky enough to have a number of escapes throughout Asia during my 9 months here. My latest was a trip down to Borneo to check out a new Marine Conservation Project working to help protect the coral reefs which have been affected by decades’ worth of fish bombing. My journey starts here...After a pedi cab ride, 2 jeepney journeys, a domestic flight, a taxi, a 2 hour bus ride, an airport taxi, an international flight, short taxi and overnight bus journey, I’m still not quite at my destination, but the prospect of a speed boat from Semporna to the beautiful island of Pom Pom does now sound very appealing indeed. My journey has officially begun, and I have landed in Sabah – Malaysian Borneo. Sabah is home to an incredible array of stunning white sand beaches, isolated desert islands, beautiful coral reefs and that’s just the water life! Inland, Borneo has some of the world greatest wildlife offerings with one of the oldest rainforests in the world. Alongside that, there is the Kinabatangan River, Sepilok Orang utan Sanctuary and much much more. Tempted by a trip yet? I’m sure you will be when I’ve finished!

My arrival to the town of Semporna, located on the south east coast of Sabah in Borneo signalled the real start of my journey, and at 5.30am, I was bright eyed and willing the speed boat to hurry up and take us away! My journey was courtesy of Professor Steve Oakley, who will be running our new Coral Reef Conservation Project on the island of Pom Pom – the main reason for my visit to Borneo. As the sun cracked into dawn on the horizon, Borneo laid itself bare. The inhabitants of the water villages which straddle the sides of the new tourist pier in Semporna (the gateway to Pom Pom Island) had come to life, and their day was in full swing. Having lived in the Philippines for over 9 months now, I am well versed to seeing stilt houses and a certain lack of poverty which is associated with these simple dwellings. What Borneo has however, is a spirit of resilience and defiance, and rather than looking worn and ready to crumble, these water villages looked prosperous, and inviting. While my eyes and skin were still adjusting to the Borneo heat, I was getting ready to find out more about Pom Pom – an uninhabited island, save for 2 new (1996 onwards) resorts which have opened up for tourists and divers alike. This island will be home to a coral reef and turtle nesting initiative which Kaya will be launching in 2011.

Turning my attention to Prof Steve, my thoughts switched to all things conservation as I leant about the devastating fish bombing which has destroyed the reefs around Pom Pom and indeed many other islands off the coast of Borneo. For decades, Pom Pom has been a desert island, making it the ideal target to dynamite fishing, killing off fish supplies and destroying the reefs. Over 45 years of bombing has left its toll on the island, but luckily, with the arrival of the first resort in 1996, this has all but stopped. Threats now include poachers, who are scouring the coastline at night from their fishing boats – on the prowl for nesting turtles between the months of May and September. Poachers, or ‘sea gypsies’ as they are also known, descend upon the beach between 8pm and midnight – prime time for turtles to be nesting. Eggs as stolen to be eaten or sold, the nests are in danger of being snatched in and new hatchings are taken to be traded or sold. Volunteers are needed to combat the effects of both dynamite fishing and turtle poachers to help turn Pom Pom into the dive and nature destination that it deserves to be known the world over for.

My day started with 2 dives and a snorkel to assess the reefs close to the island. What I saw was not what I expected. Reefs that could be flourishing, but instead were rubble – dead coral just scattered along the sea bed. The numbers of pelagic fish (small fish living near the surface of the water that swims constantly in shoals) were worryingly low and the nature of the sea bed and the steep slopes of the local reefs meant that the coral’s own re-plantation efforts had been in vain. What are needed here are a serious increase of coral and the recruitment of more fish to populate the area. Harvesting coral from other areas of the Sulu and Celebes Sea and creating coral planting devices will all help to increase the number of fish, improve the sea life and help bring health back to the underwater world. Volunteers will be an integral part of this process. Devices for replanting need to be researched, trialled and implemented in order for the reef to become more sustainable and to attract larger shoals of fish who instead of passing through – as they are now, are encouraged to stay.

Aside from my daily dives on Pom Pom, I was also treated to a night walk around the island to search for nesting turtles. From May to September, Green and Hawksbill turtles come to Pom Pom Island (along with many other) to lay their eggs. Around 60 days later, the eggs are ready to hatch, and ideally these hatchlings should climb straight out of their chamber where they have been laid, down the beach and out into the sea. The problem though, is the relatively expansive way in which they create their nests. Paddling up from the beach, these large turtles move until they are as far up the beach as they can possibly go. They start to dig a hole, throwing sand left, right and centre. Within this pit, they then dig out a chamber, which is a narrow shaft where they will start to lay their eggs. Once the last egg has been laid, the will turn and fill the whole with sand, creating a pit either side of where they have nested. Aside from the large tracks from the seafront to the nest, the huge mound of sand is an easy target for poachers and can easily be spotted from a distance. Volunteers can help as they can patrol the beaches at night during nesting season. The whole process takes between 2-4 hours, and the turtles will only land on the beach after sundown – from 7pm onwards. With the help of beach patrols between the hours of 8pm and midnight, volunteers can dissuade poachers with just their presence. If they find a turtle they can also help to ‘hide’ the nest afterward, and ensure that they return in the days running up to the hatchlings arriving so they too can protect those who make it to the surface.

In the hands of the incredibly knowledgeable and passionate Prof Steve Oakley I truly had my eyes opened to the support and help that is needed from volunteers in Pom Pom. An expert Marine Biologist, advocate for the protection of sharks in Sabah, and highly respected member of the conservation movement in Malaysian Borneo, Steve showed me firsthand the work that needs to be carried out. The work is out there, so are you willing to don your skins, tank and flippers and get underwater to help out?

Written by Nicci Hawkins – Placement Advisor with Kaya Responsible Travel

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  • The long road to Borneo

    August 08, 2011
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