At a time when the smoke from Indonesia’s forest fires is being blown into Singapore’s air space, filling my lungs with the particles that are destroying our wonderful Earth, I find myself in hazy Kuala Lumpur, boarding a plane to the coast. In the Malaysian capital the air is so polluted that I cannot see the end of the bridge, barely distinguishing the red Air Asia logo.
I am not escaping the pollution, I am taking a holiday on a long weekend but, appropriately, I am heading to a place that, unknowingly, will show me yet another side of the same story: lack of environmental awareness or care for the state in which we will leave this Earth when we die.
I am flying to Kota Bahru, the gateway to the wonderful Perhentian Islands, one of the few uncrowded islands of popular and touristy Malaysia, or so I thought.
Malaysia has more sea area than land territory. It borders four bodies of water: the Strait of Malacca, the South China Sea, the Sulu Sea and the Sulawesi Sea and has 4,600 kilometers of coast. Pulau Perhentian was declared a National Park in 1994 and the area under protection covers almost 4km from shore. As a protected area, several activities, including speedboat racing, jet skiing and stepping on corals, are prohibited. At least on paper.
I was picked up by my resort at the airport. The one hour drive to the pier took me through Malaysia’ rural communities. Cows, goats and dogs roaming the fields, grazing in the dried out pastures, ready for the rainy season. We drove through rivers, bridges and ponds and we passed villages that were very far from Kuala Lumpur’s madness and noise.
The roads were in perfect state, as is most of Malaysia’s infrastructure, starting with the national carrier, Air Asia, not Malaysia Airlines, and airport, KLIA2 not KLIA. At the pier, I was directed to a small office to wait for the boat to be ready. I had almost an hour so I stroke up a conversation with the only other passengers there, Cristina, an Uruguayan lady in her 60s traveling alone through Borneo. She was a candid and fun soul and an unexpected companion for the rest of the trip. When the boat was ready, we embarked on a resort’s branded water taxi.
The boat stopped at a few other resorts on the way until we reached Long Beach, a half moon white sand beach filled with plastic chairs and basic huts with plenty of backpackers and locals. So far so good, I thought. I did not come for the party and the resort was at one end of the beach, far from the crowds and the music.
I spent the first day relaxing and reading on a sun bed. My jetlag from the 23h journey back from New York was still showing so I was looking forward to sun, sand, sea and peace.
On my second day I was booked on a snorkeling trip. My all-inclusive package included a trip to the three most popular snorkeling spots in the islands: Turtle Point, Shark Point and Fish Point. I had low expectations and would have been happy with just drifting along nice corals with some colorful fish for distraction. But what I found made me shed tears. The Perhentian Islands broke my heart, for the wrong reasons.
The boat had nineteen passengers, all of them resort guests. Turtle point was about five minutes away, on the opposite side of the channel, on the Big Island. Before setting off, the guide explained that turtles are found on this spot because they come to feed on the grass at the bottom. Turtles need to come up to breath every fifteen to twenty minutes and, when they do, we know where they are and are supposed to all jump in the water and stay on the surface to watch them go down and eat.
A priori I already did not like the idea of bothering poor marine life by trying to chase them around but I thought, if done properly, we could stay on the surface and simply watch them in the distance, just like the guide said. In case we saw them coming up to breath, we were to stay away from their path. I had faith on everyone’s responsibility. After all, we had not been given flippers under the premise that we could harm the corals while swimming.
We arrived at Turtle Point to realize it was a shallow and crowded beach, not a spot in the open sea. The sand was full of people and resorts. Aside from our boat, there were over twenty other boats, as big as ours, anchored on the buoys that cordoned the beach off. At the same capacity as ours, that meant that, in that small bay, there were almost 400 people looking for turtles. I was appalled and terrified. Were they all going to jump in the water at the same time?
Around 70 turtles, have been identified in the entire Perhentian Islands. There is an environmental volunteer group, The Perhentian Turtle Project, who has launched recently to monitor and care for the sea turtles in the area. I can imagine the turtles were as frightened by the sound of the speed boat engines as by the amount of people waiting to jump in.
I was heartbroken. Having spent time at Gaya Island Resort with the Scott, the Marine Biologist, earlier in the month, I knew that Malaysia had only two Marine Rescue centers, the one at Gaya and one that Scuba Junky had opened in Sipadan, only this year. Despite Perhentian Islands were designated a national park, nothing stopped the local fishermen from dragging unlimited amounts of tourists to harass these endangered species. Hordes of people were descending on the beach to watch them and, far from respectfully, based on what I saw in the following two stops, they were probably being chased and bothered. I couldn’t think 400 people splashing around and blocking the sun and the way up was a reasonable and responsible way to observe nature.
Of course, no turtle showed up. “It’s the weekend, if you came at any point during the week there would be nobody”, insisted our guide. I did believe her, but two days a week like this was enough to stress and damage such fragile eco-system. “We found a turtle with a broken shell, she had been hit by a speed boat”, she continued when, appalled and terrified, I asked how it could be that they were allowing so many people to invade this gentle animal’s eco-system. The area was run down by tourists. I wanted to leave. I could foresee the rest of the stops of the day were going to be more of the same, after all, that was the usual and most popular excursion anybody took on Perhentian. Needless to say, the same boats that were anchored next to ours also moved on when, after twenty minutes, impatient guess wondered where the turtles were. “We will go to check out another spot where there are, usually, some turtles,” encouraged the guide. I confided on Cristina, “This is my worst nightmare, all these people screaming and jumping in the water, donning snorkel and mask, and chasing wildlife”. I wish I could have yelled at everyone, shaken them up, asked what they thought they were doing. But I didn’t. Instead I covered my face, I pretended not to see and I held my tears. I looked the other way, and I regretted it, up until today. But who was I to criticize a nation for destroying their treasure? The fishermen were surely living off the fees they charged tourists for the trip. The usual chicken and egg conservation dilemma and one that only the Malaysian Government could resolve and enforce.
There were no turtles at the next spot either so we moved on to Fish Point.
Otherwise known as a coral garden, Fish Point was another cordoned off area with buoys where boats could attach themselves. The area would have beautiful corals and lots of fish, had it not been for the large amounts of irresponsible people with limited knowledge in conservation and responsible tourism descending on it every day. The same set of 400 people jumped in the water, wearing life vests, snorkels, masks and GoPros to take photos, swim and feed the fish. The guide had warned us that we could not wear fins, the resort did not give them out because they damaged the corals. It did not stop anybody else from using them, nor did it stop people from wearing neopren shoes and standing on the corals.
Sadness and sorrow filled my lungs as I struggled to believe what my eyes were seeing. Groups of girl friends were swimming, fully clothed, with their headscarves and masks, and feeding bread to the fish so they would come in a frenzy and they could record it on their GoPro. Dozens of black and yellow stripped fished hurried to pick at the feast in front of their eyes while the girls laughed, filmed and unknowingly kicked the corals with their feet, their clothes getting stuck on the spiky ends. Locals of all ages and genders stood on the corals, to take a rest, fix their masks or simply have a chat. I could not believe it. If the situation at Turtle Point was heartbreaking, this was a nature lover’s worst nightmare.
The most terrifying part was not the lack of understanding and education on the visitor side but the lack of interest of the guides and fishermen, all of which lived in the area. At no point did anybody reach out to tell these people that what they were doing was killing the corals. Everybody acted like nothing was wrong, enjoying the moment as if they were in an amusement park, not in a live eco-system. In the meantime, I saw plenty of broken corals and, what could have been a beautiful spot was instead a run down, abused and dying sanctuary. Second example of human destruction of the day.
Beaten down and feeling like this was the week for losing any faith in Humanity, we moved to the third spot, Shark Point. It was only marginally better, and I am sure Jaws and other horror movies were to thank for the shark’s luck. The area was much the same as the previous two: a cordoned off area where boats could stop off for visitors to jump in the water and spot baby sharks who were living in the shallower waters as they were growing up.
There were decidedly less visitors there, with maybe two or three other boats. We all got in and started looking for the elusive and scared animals. The waters were very shallow so you had to be an extremely good and very aware swimmer not to be hurt by the corals, and not to destroy the very fragile eco-system. I spotted five sharks, each of them swimming away in fear when they saw me. The waters were calmer and I could finally enjoy an unexploited slice of marine awe without crowds and, most importantly, without destruction. Yet, was this another unacceptable tourism practice? I can’t think the shark would enjoy or benefit from this.
By the end of the morning, as we sailed back into the resort’s pier, I was devastated and disappointed. What had the world come to when the second most visited country in Asia and an eminently coastal and marine one, did nothing to protect its natural heritage and to educate its people to preserve and love it?
For once, I didn’t have tourists to blame. Most foreigners were careful, trying not to touch the corals or the fish, observing from the distance and being enchanted by the beauty of the place. They understood that nature and wildlife were treasures to be enjoyed and respected, not abused and drained to extinction. They had probably been to other similar places and had been educated on the right tourism practices. Or maybe it was just luck.
I spent the rest of the weekend trying to find the more isolated parts of the islands, where fewer tourist went and where corals and fish were intact, almost precious. And I found them. It seemed that mass tourism and destruction was very concentrated on these few spots and other very accessible ones but had yet to extend to the entire Perhentian archipelago. Money and distance had protected some of the farther away islands, 20min from the main tourist spots.
On my last morning, thanks to the last signs of jetlag, I woke up at sunrise and went for a walk along Long Beach. The shore was covered with large rubbish bags, piled on the beach, dragged by the local servicemen. It wasn’t just the locals who had filled the dozens of bags on the small beach strip with beer cans and plastic wraps, it was the tourists as well. As I walked along the shore, my feet caressed by the warm lapping waves, I almost stepped on an empty beer can. The only one I saw, I must admit, but it served as a stark reminder that nobody is fully aware of the consequences of their acts. It is not enough to swim over corals with care; it is not enough to observe nature from a safe distance that does not intrude; every action we take has an impact on the environment we have the privilege to enjoy and we need to take control and understand that the Earth we live in does not have unlimited, ever-healing resources.
Thankfully, as I returned home and researched on the situation, I found The Perhentian Turtle Project. A group of marine lovers and committed people who have just started, in 2015, a turtle conservation program on the islands. Fortunately, their effort focuses on tagging and researching the marine life, helping new hatchlings and, most important of all, on educating the locals. It is not just a matter of getting the Government to impose measures, locals living in the area, specially the boatmen, are the only ones in control of the future of turtles and other animals on Perhentian Islands. Only if they truly believe marine life should be preserved and protected and if they find an alternative source of income, will the trend reverse. The Perhentian Turtle Project has trained about 30 boatmen/snorkel guides to follow eco-snorkel practices. As it is a collaborative effort with Marine Park and Reef Check, the boatmen will get a flag to put up on their boats so that tourists can scout for eco-friendly snorkel guides. Tourists can also give their review or feedback through a proper channel about these snorkel guides/boatmen.
If you want to contribute, you can join The Perhentian Turtle Project through internships or volunteer programs. In the meantime, one can only hope that common sense will soon prevail.