Project Week in Malaysia: Diving with sharks and rays

“Those who live by the sea can hardly form a single thought of which the sea would not be part. To to dip a limb beneath its surface is like touching eternity”

― Hermann Broch

Project Week 2014 done! Campus is full of stories of places and activities, as well as friendships forged and reaffirmed during the week. After an absolutely unforgettable Project Week in Malaysia (hence the lack of blogposts in the past week) I am now back in Hong Kong. Like China Week (read my post about it here) Project Week is also part of the Li Po Chun EOTC (Education Outside the Classroom) which focuses on experiential learning – learning by doing in a context outside the traditional classroom, serving others and enhancing student leadership skills for a holistic development of the individual. Project Week was conducted to different regions of South-East Asia: The Mindful Farms Project, for example, took students to the heart of Chiang Mai mountains in Thailand where they learned how to farm organically in line with the King’s “Self sufficient economy theory”, based on Buddhist philosophy and aiming to achieve sustainability. Students against Slavery went to AFESIP rehabilitation centers in Cambodia for rescued victims of human trafficking, where the students lived with the girls, taught them various things and gained a deeper insight into human day trafficking and forced labour and prostitution, while the United World Schools project helped creating educational opportunities for children living in the world’s poorest regions, building sustainable small scale community schools where none previously existed. Some Project Week groups stayed in Hong Kong, such as the Verbatim Theatre Project, which retold the touching stories of refugees who came here in hope of a better life. And there is many more project weeks, each of them being meaningful and having an impact in its own way. Hopefully – if I have enough time – I will be able to write a blog post giving an overview of all Project Weeks.

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As a Coral Monitor I participated in the Coral Monitoring Project, which took us to a small dive-town named Semporna, on the island of Borneo in Malaysia. I had previously been very interested in Malaysia, especially Borneo, due to an Orang-Utan project that my German had launched, yet after visiting this place, I can confidently say I fell in love with it! Located in the Indo-Pacific Basin, Malaysia is a truly blessed country with the planet’s richest biodiversity above and under the water. As mentioned in my previous post about Coral Monitoring as a community service, our aims are to collect and share data with established local and international environmental organisations (AFCD, WWF, Reefcheck, Coralwatch), raise/increase interest in and awareness of marine ecosystems and organisms, their values, and threats and enhance long-term enthusiasm for marine and environmental conservation and action amongst Coral Monitors.

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Hence, in order to achieve these aims and safely and effectively Monitor Hoi Hai Wan Marine Park for WWF, we had set our objectives for this project week:

  • To become better divers
  • To Improve our buoyancy, buddying and teamwork
  • To become more aware of marine ecosystems and the life within them
  • To build marine ID knowledge
  • To learn how to perform Reefcheck and Coralwatch protocols-transect/survey techniques

Besides our lovely supervisors Linda, Selwyn and Jon, who never failed to make us laugh or get us to think, we were accompanied by Darren, Rob and Stacey from SPLASH Hong Kong, who bought their own tickets just to be with us on our journey from becoming Planulas to Polyps during this project week.

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Our project week started with a three hour flight to Kota Kinabalu, a one hour plane ride from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau, a small Malaysian town renowned for its cocoa farms and then a one hour car ride through what at first seemed tropical rainforest and turned out to be the devastating result of modern day agricultural industry: Palm oil plantations and the destruction of biodiversity through monocrops. Thousands of orangutans have been killed or displaced due the rainforest being cut and burned down for palm oil plantations, causing habitat loss. Driving by this landscape, I had a flashback to a rainforest-project I had done with BOS, the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, focusing on orangutan rescue, rehabilitation, reintroduction and long-term conservation, to collect money for buying rainforest land and prevent it from being turned into oil palm plantations. On that note, you can donate here and make a difference to the future of orangutans, because every penny you donate makes a huge difference to saving orangutan’s lives.

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Semporna is a lovely small town, relatively untouched and because of its small size, easily explored on foot. Besides a few souvenir shops, a local open air market with vendors selling fruits and fish, there are many little restaurants serving delicious noodles and big mugs of fresh fruit juices (mango, honeydew, lychee and others) for very little money. On our first evening we dropped off our previously sorted dive gear (it was absolutely wonderful having my “own” gear for a week – a huge thank you to SPLASH Hong Kong!) and had a meeting on the balcony of our hostel. We were split into three different groups (and boats) that we would remain in during the dives and each group received t-shirts of different colors. After very yummy dinner in a local restaurant all of us went to bed with excitement for the next day: our first dive in Malaysia!

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Sipadan SCUBA, the agency we dived with during this week, has a big dive center by the waterfront, with a beautiful reception, classrooms decorated with ocean pictures, gear rooms and many dive boats. And the view from the dive center was absolutely beautiful.

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Our first dive day started with an introduction by our dive masters – my groups dive masters Wojtek and Hana being from Poland and Korea. We loaded our gear on the boats and the 40 minutes journey to our first dive spot started. It was great to be on a boat again – breathing salty air and having water splashing in our faces. We passed by Bajau ethnic houses on stilts and the blue mosque visible from the busy pier became slower and slower until we had left the water traffic” with hundreds of little motor boats jetting around and were just surround by the blue sea.

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Our first dive was breathtaking – In none of the places I went diving before, have I seen so many beautiful corals. Used to the rocky reefs of Turkey, the colors of the fish and corals below me were unbelievable. The water was crystal clear and blue as if I had dived into a picture of National Geographic.

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Wojtek went over the basic hand signs with us to ensure that there were no misunderstandings underwater and after gearing up on the boat we back flipped into the turquoise water. Since most of us had just recently received their Open Water Dive Certification and none of us had dived in the past 4 months, this dive was a wonderful opportunity to work on our buoyancy. Understanding buoyancy and knowing to properly control it is key to safe and easy scuba diving, especially for us Coral Monitors as we will be collecting Data for Coral Watch, Reef Check and WWF in the very shallow reefs of Hoi Ha Wan Marine Park Hong Kong. A diver’s buoyancy is determined by a host of factors. So here is a little bit of technical information regarding some of the factors affecting a diver’s buoyancy, as the buoyancy of each piece of gear contributes to diver’s overall buoyancy:

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1. Buoyancy Control Device (BCD): Divers control their buoyancy underwater by inflating and deflating their BCD. While the rest of the gear maintains a constant weight and volume (displacing a constant amount of water) a BCD can be inflated or deflated to change the amount of water the diver displaces. Inflating a BCD causes the diver to displace additional water, increasing a diver’s buoyancy, and deflating a BCD causes the diver to displace less water, decreasing a diver’s buoyancy.

2. Weights: In general, a diver and his gear (even with no air in his BCD) are positively buoyant or become positively buoyant during a dive. For this reason, divers use lead weights to overcome their positive buoyancy.

3. Exposure Protection: Any exposure protection, for example a wetsuit is positively buoyant (one of the reasons why most divers love jumping in the water again, after taking of their BCD.

4. Tank Pressure and Air in the Lungs

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Our dive days were incredible. Each day, we went to different dive sites of the tiny little islands in the area. It was a surreal experience for me: coconut palms swaying in balmy, tropical breezes, all set against a backdrop of lush, green rainforest and white sandy beaches bordering turquoise and crystal clear water. The islands were so small that you could walk around them within a few minutes! Visiting some of them and diving there requires a permit issued by Sabah Parks, a Sabah Government agency. There are a limited number of 120 permits available each day. This is a good move by the Malaysian Government in order to minimize the stress on the reefs and marine life in Sipadan. Unfortunately, this also means that not everyone will get to visit Sipadan Island every day. It was very interesting to be greeted by soldiers equipped with heavy arms while wearing a wetsuit and standing in white sand. One of them even joined us for a ride back!

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After two dives we went back to our “island of the day” and had lunch – big yummy sandwiches – sitting in the warm and calm water or the top of our dive boat. A very special moment for me was when our divemasters climbed up coconut trees, threw down a few coconuts, used rocks to open them and then passed them to us. Never would I have imagined that I would be drinking a coconut on an island like that!

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Writing this blog post, I am once again frustrated about the fact that there are some things which cannot be put into words, as language seems to oversimplify emotions and experiences. But I will try my best to share my experiences in Malaysia with you. Diving in the reefs of Siamil and Mantabuan island was an experience none of us will forget. They were peculiar, minute, spectacular and exotic. A colorful world I had previously only seen in magazines and documentaries, home to the weird and wonderful cuttlefish, invisible frogfish and an incredible number of rare and strikingly colorful creatures that reside on the sandy bottom. Other sightings included scorpionfish, ghost pipefish, stonefish, frogfish, crocodile fish, mantis shrimp, moray eels, huge titan triggerfish and vivid nudibranchs.

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And so many more. In the evenings we had classroom sessions in the dive center, where we filled out our dive logs and identified the marine life that we had seen during our dives using the “sacred library”, as Linda calls it: a collection of books depicting marine animals and coral species. The objective of our classroom sessions was to enhance our knowledge about the underwater world and improve our marine ID skills, hence we covered many topics, including symbiotic relationships on the reef, marine vertebrates and invertebrates, cnidarians (e.g. jellyfish), major fish families and larger pelagic fish species. Rob, who is a biologist, gave us an overview about the importance of fin shape rather than fish coloration for marine ID and on two evenings we covered everything about corals including coral types, growth forms and structure. After delicious Malaysian dinner on the seaside and quite a lot of avocado shakes, all of us hopped into bed to get a little bit of sleep for the next wonderful dive day.

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On two of our dives we heard and even felt underwater bombs and one of our dives, we passed a reef that had been victim to dynamite fishing. Also called blast fishing, it is the practice of using explosives to stun or kill schools of fish for easy collection, as most of them float up to the surface after the explosion. This often illegal practice is extremely destructive to the surrounding ecosystem, as the explosion often destroys the underlying habitat (such as coral reefs) that supports the fish. Seeing huge clown triggerfish, clownfish and Moorish idols laying dead on the seafloor was devastating and if I would not have been underwater, I would have held my breath. Seeing colorful fish dead and not swimming around us felt strange, wrong… it was as someone had posted stickers of fish on the dead corals… It was like swimming through an underwater cemetery or a place destroyed by war. The blown up coral reefs were no more than rubble field with bits and pieces of knocked over and bursted corals everywhere.. Explosives used in blast fishing not only kill fish but also destroy coral skeletons, creating unbalanced coral rubble. Single blasts cause reefs to recover over 5–10 years, while widespread blasting, as often practiced, transforms these bio diverse ecosystems and it takes man years for the reefs to recover, if they are able to do so. It was a dive that caused all of us to reflect upon the damage mankind causes to nature. Seeing this destruction firsthand, after swimming in a perfectly healthy and intact reef, made all of us realize even more, how important it is to protect these precious and rich ecosystems.

My personal highlight of the week was diving at Sipadan Island, located at the heart of the Indo-Pacific basin, the center of one of the richest marine habitats in the world. More than 3,000 species of fish and hundreds of coral species have been classified in this ecosystem. The island was formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct volcanic cone that took thousands of years to develop. The pristine waters surrounding the island allow for a visibility of at least 25 meters year round. However, visibility can reach up to 50 meters during the dry season! It was like diving in paradise and we could barely keep up with our Marine ID as there were too many colors floating around us. There are few places on Earth where a diver can see schools of whirling barracuda, a dozen sea turtles of varying species, a handful of sharks, and a teeming reef of angelfish, triggerfish, morays and gobies all on one dive – and Sipadan is one of those places.

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The tiny little island has twelve dive sites in all, each with its own distinctive features. Sites include the Coral Gardens, White-Tip Avenue, Turtle Patch, Staghorn Crest, Lobster Lair, Hanging Gardens, West Ridge and North Point.

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I cannot put into words the beauty that I have seen while diving there. During this Project Week I made three dreams come true: visiting one of the world Top 10 dive spots, diving with sharks and diving with rays. Sharks are absolutely wonderful animals, and my first encounter with them was when I least expected it. We were diving on a reef on Sibuan island, watching a green turtle gracefully swim by us, when Wojtek, our divemaster, tapped his tank with a metal stick – a sign for us to look to him. He pointed below us and there they were: two whitetip reefsharks. And just as their names suggests, it was impossible to not see their white tipped dorsal and caudal fins. We spotted many more white tips on our dives (about 30 – Darren even took a photograph of a pregnant white tip) and it was amazing to see them swim so close to us. I had the overwhelming desire of hugging them, but of course that is not possible. White tip reef sharks are relatively small (usually not exceeding 1.6 meters), however, they were not the only sharks we saw: one of our dives I was lucky enough to spot a group of grey reef sharks of varying sizes, the biggest one being about 3 meters long. They were swimming away from the reef and just when I had managed to get my dive buddies attention, their black reared tail fins disappeared in the blue.

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I fell in love with sharks even more and connected to that with wall dives. When you are referred to as being off the wall, it doesn’t necessarily carry positive connotations. But to scuba divers who have descended over the sheer vertical facades that surround the tiny islands we visited being off the wall is a sensation like no other. My first off-the-wall experience was one I’ll hold dear forever. When we descended over the drop-off, my heart skipped a beat. My eyes strained to adjust to the shafts of sunlight streaming from above and melting into the shadowy depths below. To the sides in either direction was a vertical facade — nearly straight up and straight down — adorned with brilliantly colored sponges of all shapes and sizes. Coral towered above us like a fortress, separating the sand bottom that extends from shore and the open ocean that beckoned beyond. What layed below was even more mesmerizing — hundreds of feet of vertical wall, blanketed with coral and sponges. It was like leaning out the window of a skyscraper and peering at the side of the building stretching downward to an invisible street below. Beyond the wall was an endless expanse of shimmering blue. It was unforgettable. Wojtek constantly checked his dive computer to ensure that none of us would go beyond the limits of our dive certification.

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My first encounter with rays was just as mesmerizing, if not even more, than the wall dive. As during our previous dives, we followed Wojtek. The reef behind us diasappeared slowly until we were floating in the endless blue. Nothing below under or beside us. It was like floating in space. We stayed in the exact same spot for a few minutes, not moving (and very happy about our buoyancy), and then, when we least expected it, Wojtek tapped his tank and pointed at a school of big devil rays below us. We were all in awe, some of us making huge bubbles from breathing so fast, some of us holding hands, while watching these large beings glide and summersault through the sea. The rays were so graceful, I would not even dare to compare them to any other animal.

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On our very last evening we modeled the coral lifecycle with colored clay and then had an initiation ceremony in which the first year Planulas officially became Polyps, with the second year Polyps bearing witness. Each of us was called and then had to go one one knee, with Linda laying the side of a fin onto our right shoulder, then raising it gently just up over the our head and placing it on the left shoulder. It was like being dubbed a knight. We had to pick our favorite marine creature, as which we would remain throughout our time as Coral Monitors. Inspired by free-dive video, I picked the oceanic white tip shark, hence Linda’s words to me were: “Planula Arzucan Askin, I hereby announce you as Polyp Arzucan ‘Oceanic Whitetip’ Askin”

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After all of us had passed the initiation ceremony and received our awards, we went out for a lovely dinner with Linda, Selwyn, Jon, Rob and Darren. The chef of the restaurant we went to greeted us with a warm smile and presented to us the buffet with variations of grilled seafood, fresh tuna, spring rolls and vegetarian options such as rice, potatoes, crispy omelettes. It was a nice way to end our project week, and as happy as we were in that moment, there was also an overwhelming sadness about having to leave this beautiful place.

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This project week gave us insights into the hidden treasure of the oceans, helped us achieve our aims and objectives and created a bond between us and the underwater world that will (hopefully) last forever.

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A big thank you to Linda, Jon and Selwyn for guiding us on our journey to become Coral Monitors, Darren, Rob and Stacy for always being on our team’s side and enriching our trips and meetings with their presence, knowledge and laughter and a thank you to all Polyps for making this trip so special. I am very thankful and we are all ready to rock Hoi Ha Wan Marine Park!

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Underwater photo credits: Darren Gilkison (SPLASH Hong Kong). You can see more of his photos here.

Please like and share the Li Po Chun UWC Coral Monitoring Page as well as the SPLASH Hong Kong facebook page!