Diving among reefs and wrecks

By Miriam Chacko
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PRETTY: A Nudibranch, which is often mistaken for a sea slug.

PRETTY: A Nudibranch, among the diverse marine life living in Sarawak’s coral reefs.

THE SOUTH CHINA Sea brims over the coast of Sarawak, blanketing coral reefs and sheltering diverse marine life. With 4,006 sq. km of coral reef and over 550 species (Coral Reef Monitoring Report, 2008), Malaysia offers some of the most attractive and vibrant underwater reefs in the world. In addition to its aesthetic qualities, the coral reef ecosystem provides economic benefits to the state via fisheries and tourism, and protects Sarawak from storms and waves.

I have always enjoyed being in the water and so when I found out there was a dive club nearby offering Ocean Diver training, I did not hesitate to sign up. It’s not just the sights underwater that create the experience, but also the sensation of feeling light in the water.

Buoyancy while diving removes a general stiffness from the body and creates an environment where you can be nimble and flexible. Headstands come easy and especially so to a diver eager to catch a glimpse of a little something (or a big something) lurking in the shadows or in the deeper corners of a reef.

However, with great lightness comes great responsibility.

For a diver, it is important to practice neutral buoyancy and to be aware of your surroundings in the water. Neutral buoyancy allows divers to hover over the reef and close to the reef without crashing into it. Once divers learn how to control their breathing and are comfortable in the water with all their gear, diving becomes a lazy yet rewarding sport. Diving with more experienced divers helped me appreciate the sport more, as they pointed out unusual things in the water and told me interesting stories of their previous dives (while we were on the surface, of course!).

Most coral reefs resemble a futuristic city, with traffic swerving and schooling above boulders that scrape the higher waters. However, not all keep to the fast and current pace of reef life.

BOTTOM-DWELLING: Generally small, the lizardfish have slender bodies and heads like lizards.

BOTTOM-DWELLING: Generally small, the lizardfish have slender bodies and heads like lizards.

Some, like lizard fish and groupers (ironically, the name of a fish mostly found in solitude) are often found parked on sandy patches or underneath table top reefs. A metropolitan reef teems with a vibrant population of fish, streaming through within their own schools, fully aware of the dog-eat-dog world they live in. Psychedelic hues of blue, pink, yellow and orange mark the fish, distinguishing which tribe they belong to. It is a different world underwater, one in which we do not belong but which is a thrill to visit.

When diving, visibility can vary drastically. On some dives, you can clearly see as far as 15 meters in front of you and on other dives, only 2 meters. On days when the visibility is good, Orang Utan Crabs, big Barracudas, Bumphead Parrotfish, silvery Trevallies and Ghost Pipefish have been spotted in Santak Reef and Seafan Garden. On my dives with good viz (diver slang for visibility), I have seen Stonefish, Nudi branches (sea slugs), snakes, several Clown fish (Nemo) in their Anemone homes, Spanish dancers (colourful sea slugs that move through the water like a Flamingo dancer), Sea Cucumbers, Cuttlefish, Moray Eels and prickly Sea Urchins.

Life underwater can find a home in sandy sea beds, rocks and coral reefs, and artificial beds such as sunken rigs, anchors and shipwrecks. Wrecks, exposed to the elements of the sea, slowly but surely metamorphose into marine habitats.

TEEMING WITH LIFE: Interestingly, the density of fish seems higher and concentrated around artificial reefs rather than in coral reefs, which tend to be more spread out.

TEEMING WITH LIFE: Interestingly, the density of fish seems higher and concentrated around artificial reefs rather than in coral reefs, which tend to be more spread out.

Baram 8 (a sunken rig) is now an artificial reef and on my first dive there, I saw a Stonefish, perched and well-camouflaged on one of the metal beams of the rig. Stonefish are venomous, its mere touch can be fatal to humans, so needless to say, if you spot one, keep a safe distance and do not touch it!

VENOMOUS: Well-camouflaged, the stonefish is fatal to humans.

VENOMOUS: Well-camouflaged, the stonefish is fatal to humans.

Interestingly, the density of fish seems higher and concentrated around artificial reefs rather than in coral reefs, which tend to be more spread out.

Another artificial reef I have been to is a shipwreck sitting in shallow waters, off the coast of Miri, which over time has become a reef teeming with marine life. Sponge, coral and algae have made itself at home over the wood and metal, leaving only the general shape of the ship. The one time I went diving there, the visibility worsened as we moved along the wreck, making it a haunting yet exciting experience. However, for a truly visual treat nothing compares with the colors of a coral reef and the freer movement they afford a diver.

Unfortunately, from 1998-1999 coral reefs in Sarawak were noticeably bleached. Bleaching is a phenomenon where corals lose their spectacular luster and start turning white. Bleaching occurs due to the increasing levels of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere which lead to an increase in atmospheric temperature (global warming) which, in turn, increases the temperature of the water.

The persisting and increasing warmth in the water causes the coral polyps to expel the algae that they feed on, thereby ruining their symbiotic-photosynthetic relationship. Without its main source of nutrition and colour pigment, the coral turns calcium white. The effects of bleaching have worn off since 1999, but that does not change the fact that these reefs still need to be protected.

Soft coral.

Soft coral.

One step towards protecting reefs from local stressors such as overfishing, sand mining and pollution is to cordon off a geographical space and gazette it as a Marine National Park (MNP). This would mean regulating human activities and the use of resources within the MNP, through legal or other effective means. This will help in maintaining the long-term health of reefs and biodiversity of marine life.

In Sarawak, MNPs are managed by the Sarawak Forestry Department and currently cover an area of 2063.44 sq. km. Miri-Sibuti Coral Reef National Park (1800 sq. km), gazetted in 2007, is the biggest MNP in Sarawak. The other MNP is Talang-Satang, near Kuching and from recent news, we know that the Lawas coastline (northern tip of Sarawak) could be the third MNP.

Although Sarawakian reefs are largely clear of bomb fishing which causes irreparable damage to the corals, there are other local threats that need to be checked. For example, once, we decided to take out a fishing net that had been dropped carelessly into the water and had cast itself over a fair amount of coral.

We went diving in threes and, with knives, were able to cut the net and release its grip from the edge of the coral. But we could see that the coral under the net had already been damaged and discoloured. There are other things that have been carelessly thrown in or that have fallen into the water, all of which need to be cleared.

In addition to MNPs, regular reef clean-ups and reef check surveys are other ways of keeping the local threats at bay and monitoring the reefs. Most divers volunteer to carry out clean-ups and reefchecks, which provide additional opportunities to explore the reefs and see a variety of interesting marine life.

More than reading to understand the importance of protecting the reefs, diving allows you to see the reality of life underwater and how dependent it is on the health of the reef. So my advice is, if you have an interest in the goings on of the underwater world, give diving a try. Only, don’t take a camera down with you until you are comfortable in the water, or you might find you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.

Miriam Chacko is essentially an environmentalist. After completing her postgraduate degree in Environment and International Development from the University of East Anglia, she got involved in projects promoting environmental awareness. Drawing on her experience, she has written articles on climate change and conservation. 

A keen traveller, she has visited many countries in and around Asia and her love of the outdoors and interest in different cultures comes through in her writing.

Miriam has been writing for The Borneo Post SEEDS since 2013. 

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