Thursday, April 24, 2008

Reef Check!

Day Zero, Wednesday night

With latent excitement, my buddy Colin and I made our way down to Mersing late in the night on Wednesday last week. Our goal was the Embassy Hotel.

Earlier that evening, I had arrived late at Colin's abode in Puchong to pick him up for the southward journey. Apologies to the ever-punctual Colin. I had a quick dinner before we launched off in my Silverado, hitting the North-South Highway with a vengeance. We made a quick pitstop at Ayer Keroh rest area to refuel the car and offload some wastewater from our system. Before we knew it, we had crossed the border into Johor.

A hop and a skip, and we reached the exit to Kluang. Beep beep went the Touch N' Go box at the toll plaza. It was raining, but rainwater stoppeth no man from his tireless journey, more so when his car is shod with Goodyear tyres. My wipers were a bit streaky, said Colin. Yeah, it's time to change them. We made a wrong turn in Kluang town, but soon regained our bearings and returned to the right path. The town seemed eerily quiet, but it was midnight after all.

I like driving at night. It's the cool wind of night, mixed with the mystery of the dark, that beckons me onward along the road to our destination. The road from Kluang to Mersing cuts through rural plantations and scattered villages. At midnight, it's pitch black where no street lights illuminate. The heavy rain clouds cut off all moonlight. I flick on the high beams and fog lights, and tear down Federal Route 50, heading due east to Mersing.

I overtook about five cars and one wild boar on the 100km journey from Kluang to Mersing. Otherwise, it was just me, Colin and the swooshing of the wind. Our nocturnal flight glided on the twisty country road through oil palm plantations and lowland rainforest as each bend and turn of the tarmac unfolded in the swath of light ahead of me. There was absolutely no traffic on the road, so I took the liberty to drive on the opposite lane of the road because my side was overly bumpy due to some bad resurfacing job. Anticipating the corners as they emerged from the darkness, the yellow-and-black chevron signs helpfully pointed in the direction I should travel. I went a bit too fast around some bends, but the Silverado's road-handling and the Goodyear rubber did not disappoint. Did I say I like to drive on lonely country roads at night?

We arrived at Mersing at 1.30AM. After a quick "tour" of the town, we find our rest stop for the night -- the Embassy Hotel. We quickly "check-in" with the guy at the door and find our way to our room. Not bad, for 55 bucks a room a night. We're soon in dreamland, a quick recharge for the wake-up call at 6AM. And I don't even wake up this early on a working day...


Day One, Thursday

I'm not a morning person, so Colin is up first. The buzz of his shaver reminds me that I need to shave too... whatever little I have to shave in the first place. I shower, to wake me up. Then we're off! Where to, you ask? Where else but to the jetty to catch our ferry! We made a wrong turn but soon realized that the jetty was on the other side of the river mouth. Guys have such a great sense of direction. :P The parking lot is right beside the jetty. We unload and look for the ticket counter where our prebooked ticket awaits us. Then we wait. Breakfast takes the form of orange cupcakes that my mom lovingly baked the day before. Thank God for moms. Otherwise, there was absolutely no one serving breakfast near the jetty.

I bump into Daniel, who works with Reef Check. Oh wait, did I mention where we were going? Pardon the long-windedness. We were in Mersing to catch the first ferry to Pulau Tioman! And why were we going to Tioman? To participate in a Reef Check survey.

The gates open to usher us passengers on board the ferry Bluewater 8. She's a nice boat. Capacity 122 passengers. We were greeted by the super chilled air in the cabin. The air-conditioning was blowing a full blast, and misting up all the windows. I couldn't take the cold, and promptly clambered back on the docks to take some photos of the morning sun on the sleepy riverine scene.

The captain soon gunned the ferry's twin engines and we were off skimming across the blue. By then the sun had risen a fair bit, and we climbed up to the upper deck to soak in the view and the soothing morning sun rays. The Jalur Gemilang fluttered regally on the mast as the big boat took on a pretty quick pace. Click click click went the camera. I still have some problems getting the horizon level in my pictures, but I was more engrossed by the saturated blues that the pictures were promising.

The jagged peaks of Tioman loomed larger and larger against the bright, rising ball of celestial fire in the eastern sky. I soaked in the UV radiation, while admiring the rock-solid mass rising from the South China Sea. Tioman attracts rock climbers too, and offers many challenging climbing routes for adventurous souls who dare defy gravity. Me? I was there to go the opposite direction. Underwater.

After dropping off passengers at Kampung Genting and Paya, we soon arrived at Kampung Tekek, our base for the following three days. The smell of sea spray invigorated my mildly phlegmy sinuses, which were recovering from a flu attack. Nothing like seawater to kill the germs! The last time I was at Tioman was in April 2006, so it was good to be back on familiar ground, although I must say the face of Kampung Tekek has changed since the beach nourishment and river works were recently completed. It looks pretty good. Time will tell whether the sand stays where it is supposed to stay. But I didn't have time to linger around as the van was waiting to take us to the Swiss Cottage chalets.

Our cottage sounds exotic but it's actually just like your average seaside wooden chalet. No frills but comfortable. Anyway, I wasn't there to pamper myself. I was there to dive and dive. And dive we did! We dumped our stuff in the rooms, changed into trunks and boardshorts and by 10AM we were reporting at the dive centre with all our gear.

Barb, our Australian instructor, briefed us on the procedures at the Tioman Dive Centre. Where to put stuff, where to get stuff, where to get new tanks, where to put used tanks, etc. There's a system, and life is easier when everyone follows it. OK.

We're soon gearing up for the checkout dive, which will also be our buoyancy skills training dive. Oh boy, was I looking forward to it. You see, I hadn't dived in the whole of 2007. In fact, my most recent dive was in September 2006. Colin said that was too long ago. I was kinda wondering if I still had the touch. It was good to know that I geared up the tank without any problem. No regulator on the wrong side. Didn't forget to connect the BC inflator. It was all coming back to me...

Then, the walk down to the beach and into the water. Ah, the feeling of comfort as the seawater slowly seeped through my boots. A few steps forward into the knee-deep water, and I sit down to slip on my fins that had been lying dry for more than one and a half years. As I lean back the water engulfs me and I realize I'm floating. I start the long surface swim out to the point of descent in about 5m of water. My other buddies Colin, Azahar, Richard and Thiagu are ahead of me. We regroup at the descent line and Barb gives us some last instructions before the OK and descent. And down we go, with the hiss of the air as it escapes from our BCs.

Underwater, we swim towards a sandy patch where we will do our exercises. Along the way we spot a juvenile Napoleon wrasse. Wow! I hope it grows up big and strong, and not end up on someone's dinner plate. Buoyancy is a critical skill for the Reef Check survey, as we need to stay off the coral reefs to avoid damaging it, while needing to go in close when necessary for a closer look. I was worried that I would not be able to perform the horizontal hover, coz in the past my legs tended to sink whenever I tried to hover horizontally. Well, I managed to do it this time. Yay. Maybe it was the practice, or maybe it was the weight distribution. We also had to practice swimming through a hula hoop without touching it. Whaddaya know, I managed to get every part of me and my gear through, except for my fins, which were arching too far upwards and caught the top of the hoop as I glided through. I thought my fins were always sinking, but now they were too high?! I think I was overextending them upwards. But the most interesting skill we learned was the head-down hover, where we hovered in an upside down position, head down and fins pointing up. It was weird at first, but I got the hang of it. We gotta really exhale to get our torso down and legs up. But it's cool. We were told we need to do head-down hover once a while during the survey in order to examine something deep in a crevice on the seabed, without touching anything around us. Barb made us simulate the maneuver by making us go head-down to copy onto our slates some text from a little card she placed on the sand.

Lunch was scrumptious, but I was careful to restrain myself from eating too much, lest it all came out during the dive later... a la my previous puke dive experience. So, anyway, after lunch, we proceed to have some lecture on reef fish and invertebrates. Our mission is to do a survey, so we need to first be trained to identify the various indicator species. There are nine fish groups and eight invertebrates we must be able to identify. So we were flashed pictures of groupers, snappers, parrotfish, humphead parrotfish, Napoleon wrasses, moray eels, barramundi cod, sweetlips and butterflyfish. I kept mixing up the wrasses and parrotfish, and sweetlips and snappers. We also had to know which species were not included in our survey.

After the theory, we embarked for the real thing. We went out for our fish and invertebrate identification training dive. Our dive site was Pulau Renggis, which is a tiny rocky outcrop just about 200m off the shore of Tioman. We hopped back on to our dive boat, geared up and back-rolled into the warm, inviting waters. Oooh, the training dives were fantastic! Barb would point to a particular fish and we had to indicate to her what category it belonged to. We indicated by hand signals or pointing to a picture of that fish on a laminated picture card that we brought along. Besides identifying the nine categories of fish that were in the Reef Check survey list, we also saw other interesting creatures. There were two reef cuttlefish hanging around the corals, a mean-looking giant grouper (1m long), pufferfish, schools of sleek barracudas and trevallies, and some really friendly and curious batfish. We saw some nudibranchs too. Renggis is a really nice dive site. Very nearby but in good condition, with lots of live corals and teeming with fish.

We came back for a debriefing and to flip through the fish ID books, and to de-nitrogenate our blood before our third and final dive of the day, which was the fish and invertebrate identification test. This was pretty cool. Barb went out ahead of us to place laminated picture cards of various fish and invertebrates along a tape laid on the shallow seabed at the house reef right in front of the dive centre. Each card was numbered and had a picture of a fish or invert. After she had placed the cards, we went down to sit for our test. We were required to swim along the tape and write down on our slate the corresponding number of each picture that matched the name printed on our slate. It was my first ever underwater written test. :) I must say it's easier doing in seated in a classroom, but it's much more fun underwater. The idea was to simulate the actual survey, when we would have to identify fish and inverts while following the transect line and maintaining neutral buoyancy in shallow water (<8m).


Day Two, Friday

As dawn broke, we were soon up and about. Of course, Colin was out of bed before me. Breakfast consisted of toast and jam. Ultra basic stuff. I quickly gobbled it down with some orange juice.

No time to linger over breakfast. The dive centre beckoned, and we had work to do! I could hear the clanging of metal as the staff rolled out freshly filled tanks of life-giving air. And the telltale hiss of air as divers tested their regulators and BC inflators after gearing up the tanks. It's music to the ears. Hahaha.

Today Colin and I were going to learn about substrates, i.e. the stuff on the seabed. Reef Check has classified substrates into ten categories, namely hard coral (HC), soft coral (SC), rock (RC), recently killed coral (RKC), sand (SD), silt (SI), rubble (RB), nutrient indicator algae (NIA), sponge (SP) and others (OT). We had to remember what belonged to which category, and how to recognize each substrate. First we had a lecture and powerpoint show with pictures of each substrate. But the thing about looking at slides is that we can't see movement. Testing the movement of each substrate is the most helpful method of identifying it. Hard coral doesn't move when we waft the water, but we can observe the coral polyps retracting into their hard skeleton. So that helps to identify hard corals which look like soft corals or anemones when the polyps are extended. Soft corals and sponges both move when we swish the water with our hands, but sponges have the distinctive holes and patterns while soft corals have polyps. And then we had to differentiate between soft corals and anemones (classified as "Others"). Usually anemones will have anemonefish residing in them, while soft coral don't.

Well, enough of classroom theory. The best learning happens out there in the field, or sea, in this case. We were off to Pirate Reef for our substrates identification training dive. Like we did with the fish and inverts, Barb would point out to various substrates and tell us what they were. And we would go, "Oooh, Aahhhh, I seeee" in our underwater sign language. It was really helpful to see for ourselves what the pictures had been trying to tell us. I learned that sponges were much more prevalent than I had previously realized. Many of the sponges I used to mistake for soft corals. I also learned that some soft corals look like hard corals but they are actually soft, e.g. zoonanthids. And I also learned to differentiate different types of algae. Wow. It was information overload. But I'll never look at a reef the same way again.

I noticed that Pirate Reef had a large patch of coral rubble. Pirate Reef sits atop an underwater mound that rises up more than 20m from the seabed, and the top of the mound is only a few metres deep. I later found out that a few years ago, a barge had run aground on the top of the reef, probably during low tide, and shaved off one whole patch of corals. A bit like what happened at Sipadan two years ago.

We had the privilege of riding on a yacht to our dive site! The yacht Chinook 1 is a marketing tool of the Crocs company. Crocs is supposedly in talks with Reef Check to sponsor or collaborate on some reef conservation work, so they were there to do some brand promo. The Crocs representative, Grant, from Singapore flew in to join us on the yacht. Grant is American but he's been living in Singapore for the past four years. Anyway, the yacht is a beauty. Sleek in white, and generously equipped with all the basics and luxuries of a seagoing vessel. She had GPS, digital nautical charts, auto-navigator, windspeed gauge, depth gauge, and motorized winches for the main sail. In the below-deck cabin there was a fully equipped kitchen with oven and microwave, bunks for about six people, radio, computer workstation and a nice little toilet and bathroom. But we spent all our time on the deck, except for occasional forays to the toilet. OK, enough about the boat.

We went back for lunch, and then prepared for the substrate identification test, which was like the fish identification test. Barb would point to a substrate and we would have to identify it by pointing to the correct picture on our card. Again we went to Renggis, also aboard the Chinook 1. Crocs was really spoiling us.

The substrate ID test was great. Barb gave us 40 "questions". I learned the hard way that one should not waft a seemingly soft coral too closely. You see, Barb pointed to a patch of polyps swaying in the water. From far, it looked like soft coral or even anemone, but upon closer inspection it looked suspiciously like the polyps of a hard coral. The definitive test is to swish or waft the water with my hand and see the reaction of the polyps. So I wafted the water... and the polyps retracted a bit... so I wafted a bit closer and closer... I could see some coral skeleton underneath... so I wafted just a little closer... ZAP!!! I felt a sharp pain shoot through my hand. Stupid! I had just scraped my middle and fourth fingers on the sharp coral. Ouwwwccchhhhh!!! It left six clean cuts across my fingertips, like the last time I accidentally cut my fingers on my razor blade. Slowly the blood oozed out into thin wisps in the water. Underwater, blood is brownish in colour as the red spectrum of visible light is filtered out by the water. Oh man, my fingers were stinging like mad for the next 20 minutes. I had to continue the test in pain. But it slowly subsided, and by the end of the dive it was pretty much OK. Lessons learned: (1) If it cuts, it's definitely hard coral. Stupid. (2) Do not waft a hard coral too closely or you'll get a nice cut on your finger. The next day during the survey dive I inspected another similar hard coral and I discovered that the coral skeleton took the form of sharp-edged ridges, like a multiple razors. No wonder it went straight through the skin, leaving multiple parallel cuts. Oh yea, we also saw a stonefish along the way, although it wasn't the focus of our attention.

Back on terra firma, later that afternoon, we sat for the final exam, which consisted of 50 fish questions, 50 invertebrates and 100 substrates. The passing mark was 80%, failing which we would not be certified to conduct the Reef Check survey. I was apprehensive about the fish test, because I was still getting snappers and wrasses and groupers and sweetlips mixed up. But thanks to some last minute revision on fish ID, and mentally running through the previous training slides ("past year questions") I managed to pass with 46/50! Hallelujah. And I even impressed myself with the invertebrates test by scoring full marks. Haha. OK, I admit, it's much easier to identify sea cucumbers and sea urchins. But it was the substrates test that really drained me in the end... we had to identify 100 pictures of soft corals and hard corals and rocks and sand and sponges and other deceptive stuff. We were allowed to ask questions like "Will it move if I waft it?" or "Does is wobble?" or "Does it retract or contract?". Instructor Barb did not make life easier for us. She only answered specific questions, but as we went along, we got the hang of what questions to ask. At some points we even got down to counting the number of tentacles on the coral polyps, because soft corals have 8 tentacles, while hard corals have 6 or multiples of 6. Our test ended at close to 8PM. Well, I passed with 86/100 correct. What a major confidence booster! I'm now a certified Eco Diver.

Dinner that night was delicious. But the restaurant served us a juvenile grouper, just like the ones we saw during our dives. The menu was pre-ordered by our resort management. We just showed up at mealtimes. But I felt a bit bad eating the grouper, though it was very delicious. But it was just a kid, with a whole life ahead of it. If we keep on harvesting juvenile groupers there will be no more next generation to reproduce. As it is, there are hardly any more adult groupers on the reefs, which explains why we didn't see any big groupers (>30cm long) on our dives, except for the solitary giant grouper at Renggis. Reef Check's criteria is to count only groupers >30cm because this indicates whether there has been overfishing of a reef. If all the big groupers are gone, then the population cannot reproduce itself. And the fishermen will start going after the smaller groupers until there are none left. So I have decided not to order grouper anymore. Farmed tilapia and siakap is OK, but not grouper caught from the wild. And definitely not Napoleon wrasse @ humphead wrasse, which is severely endangered due to to overfishing to supply swank seafood restaurants in places like Hong Kong where it fetches 300 Ringgit per kg. I'm just gonna order catfish next time.


Day Three, Saturday

The eventful day dawned. On this day, I would get seasick, conduct my Reef Check surveys and dive the 100th dive of my life. As usual, Crocs hosted us on board their yacht. We walked over from the dive centre to the new Tioman marina. It costs RM80 per day to park your boat here. Clearly, it's for yacht owners with extra cash.

The wind was gusting that morning, and kicking up the waves. It was great for sailing, and our captain Francis soon hoisted the sail to begin our journey to Pulau Tulai, about 11km northwest of the marina. The spinnaker (large triangular sail at the bow of the boat) was also unfurled for extra speed. We picked up speed and were soon riding the waves, with the yacht leaning hard against the wind. Needless to say, the pitching and rolling soon induced a certain amount of uneasiness. I had weathered similar rough conditions at sea before, and I thought I would be OK. Oh boy, was I wrong. By the time we got to Pulau Tulai an hour later, I was feeling seasick. Not terribly sick, but still a bit wonky. And I still thought I had it under control. Colin was smart. Before we left he downed a Novomin motion sickness pill. Remind me next time. Anyway, we transferred from the yacht to our dive boat where our gear was. And there on board the rocky dive boat I finally could take it no more. I excused myself to the stern of the boat and let out whatever remnants of breakfast that would be kind enough to volunteer as fish food. There wasn't much to vomit, since I had only two slices of toast that had probably already left the stomach and entered the intestines. But I felt so much better after wrenching out the oily, gooey, gastric juices. I think the oil was from the butter on the toast. Yea, avoid oily and greasy food when diving.

I felt good enough to dive! Yay. My mission was to conduct the substrate survey with Barb at this dive site called Batu Malang. Basically what happens is this: One diver would drop a plumb line (a sinker or lead weight tied to a string) every 0.5m along the 100m transect line and the other diver would record on a slate the type of substrate that the sinker lands on. Of course we drop it gently so as not to damage whatever it lands on. Buoyancy skills are crucial here as we have to hover in a horizontal position closely over the reef throughout the survey, without even our fins touching anything. Barb and I took turns to drop the plumb line and record the substrate. We switched roles every 20m along the transect. I started off doing the identification and recording, as Barb wanted to show me how to drop the plumb line in a consistent way. It was not too difficult to identify the substrates, as the plumb line fell mostly on hard coral (HC), which is a good sign. There was not much dead coral. However, Colin, who was doing the fish survey, recorded very few fish, which is not a good sign. This was a case of a reef in good condition, but with very few noteworthy fish. Why?

Oh yea, this was also my 100th dive! Woohoo! I wasn't in much of a celebratory mood though, with my head still woozy from the seasickness. After the dive, we moved straight to the next dive site at Kador. We decided to proceed to do the survey and have lunch after that. Good idea, coz I was in no shape to eat anything.

This time I did the fish survey with Richard, while Colin did the substrate survey with Barb, and Thiagu and Azahar did the invertebrates. Barb went down first to lay the 100m transect tape. After she released the buoy to indicate "OK", I was first in the water, since the fish surveyor goes first. This is to avoid the other divers scaring away the fish. Immediately after jumping in my stomach started to wrench again. Arrgghhh. There was nothing left to puke but gastric juices and mucus. Eewwww. I must have vomited about six times while I was doing the surface swim to the descent line. But I felt much better after letting it out. Gargle with seawater, insert regulator into mouth and down we went for the final dive.

It was a shallow dive, not more than 8m. Average depth was about 6m. The fish count was dismal like at Batu Malang. I spotted zero groupers larger than 30cm. The most numerous fish in the survey list that I spotted was the butterflyfish. There was a bit of a surge halfway through the survey, which pulled the transect tape left and right. That would make the substrate survey more challenging as the plumb line and transect tape would be swaying around. But for fish, I just had to remain a quiet as possible and go slow. Still, there were very few fish. Maybe it's the wrong season? After completing the fish survey I hung around while waiting for the rest to finish. I went back to check out the nasty crown of thorns (COT) starfish that I had earlier seen "walking" right under the transect tape. It's the meanest creature on the coral reef. It eats corals, and its thorny spines deliver excruciating pain to any soul who has the misfortune of getting poked by it. It even looks mean. I keep a respectful distance from the COT.

Back on board the yacht, we chilled out for the return journey. The others took out their packed lunches and started to chow down. I was still in no mood to eat, so I went around snapping pictures. We "sailed" back with engine power, as the wind had died down by then. About 15 minutes from the marina, I finally determined that I was sound enough to eat lunch. A sudden wave of hunger engulfed me, as I inhaled the aroma of the fried rice, fried chicken and fried egg. Notice a pattern here? But it's irrelevant anyway. I ate up every last grain of rice and stripped the bones bare. Good food, good scenery. A good way to end the trip.

Back at the marina, we disembarked for the last time and said our thank you's. We took a photo for the record, and then walked back to Tioman Dive Centre. There we had the joy of washing and rinsing our gear. Oh joy. Better get rid of the salt before the salt wrecks our equipment. We also wanted to hang up everything to dry so that it would be easier to pack for the return trip. It's no fun lugging wet and heavy and stinky equipment. Then we sat down to update our dive logs and upload the survey data into the databases. Nowadays with laptop computers and Internet access, we can crunch the numbers right at the beach. The results showed that the reef had not changed significantly since the last survey last September. But the fish counts were highly variable, depending on the season and even the time of day.

Richard, Azahar and Thiagu (and wife) had to hurry to catch the 4PM ferry. Colin and I stayed another night. Later that evening after dinner (no grouper served, though there were unidentified fried fish fillets), we strolled over to the cargo jetty at the marina to chill out with a drink in hand. There were some folks fishing. But isn't this a marine park?!? They had caught some cuttlefish which were laid pitifully on the concrete pavement of the jetty. How graceful and beautiful they swim underwater... how forlorn and deathly they look on the dry pavement... how delicious they taste on the dinner plate. It's a matter of perspective, no? :) Well, there's definitely enough in this world for every man's need, but not every man's greed.

The stars twinkled, the breeze gently whispered, softly the moon glowed, bright shone the lights from houses across the bay... and I forgot to bring the camera... oh well.


Day Four, Sunday

Same breakfast, again. We packed up, said our farewells, and were soon on our way home. At the jetty, I shot some final frames before the 10AM ferry arrives. The morning sun was rising to its zenith, and the sky was deep blue.

As you can see, I am getting worn out telling this story. Our return journey was pleasant, retracing the same route we took on the outbound journey. Colin and I had a good chat about stuff. You know, stuff. Yea, like, stuff. :)

The return journey took slightly longer as there was more traffic in the daytime. More lorries. But we got home safe and sound. It was good spending a few days doing what God first told Adam and Eve to do, i.e. take care of His creation. We counted the fish and creepy crawlies and corals. And had a pretty good time at it.

More pictures here:
Day 1 & 2 ; Day 3 & 4

4 comments:

lina said...

Wow... hmmm... wow...

I didn't know Tioman is down south... stupid remark... anyway, am not that good in my geo...

Congrats on your passing of the reef check course. Sigh... I don't think I will ever get to this stage =[

Congrats again =))

CHARIS said...

Congratulations, sweetie!!! Didn't know that you could be so verbose ;) So we both have the same sleeping pattern...it's interesting/spookie to discover more of the things we have in common :O

ailsa said...

This post is longer than my latest draft of the literature review section of my dissertation. That's very disturbing! For me, not for you :)

HL said...

Lina: It took me 7 years to get to this stage. Verrryyyy slow. So don't worry.

Charis: I am amazed by my own bombastic verbosity, which keeps me awake some nights. I get carried away.

Ailsa: Maybe you're a concise writer? Or maybe I should do a dissertation on reef ecology or something.