Tidying up Tioman

A group of avid divers plunge into the dulling waters of Tioman to revive it.

WHEN I visited Pulau Tioman 21 years ago, it boasted stretches of white, sandy beaches and clear, pristine waters.

There was little human activity on the islets at the time, as evidenced by the spartan wooden chalets and canteens. This added to its “virgin” appeal. Colourful fish would nibble at our feet as we stood ankle-deep in the ocean, circling us gracefully as we waded out.

It was enchanting, and a mere preview of the rich marine life of the deeper waters.

However, when I visited the island recently to cover a clean-up effort by a group of citizens, I found Tioman to be quite different from how it used to be.

“Being an avid diver, I had the idea of tasking a group of Malaysians with cleaning up a local island,” explained Azhari Harun, 36, a local bank loan officer who headed the three-day/two-night excursion.

“We chose Tioman because it’s supposedly one of the more polluted islands in Peninsular Malaysia,”

Through word-of-mouth, Azhari gathered 40 diving enthusiasts for the clean-up. The group’s excursion was endorsed by BN Youthlab and funded by Dana Belia 1Malaysia, a government fund for creative projects that promote unity by local youths.

Several hours after arriving at a simple chalet residence in Kampung Paya (an isle west of Tioman), we set off in two boats for Pulau Renggis, 12km west of our base. The sun beat down hard and the winds gave speed to the waves. The northeast monsoon was just around the corner.

There was a good energy in the air as the divers mingled easily, eager for the underwater assignment.

As we approached the site nearly an hour later, the divers worked together, helping each other strap on heavy scuba tanks. They went down in pairs, tagged to teams of between six and eight. Unfortunately, a prolonged bout of seasickness kept me aboard that day.

Surprisingly, the site turned out to be cleaner than expected, reported one of the participants, 39-year-old Asmazi Omar, when they surfaced 45 minutes later. That preliminary dive yielded little result, but as the organisers explained, the relatively shallow dive at 12m was meant to ease the participants into the two-day task.

At any rate, it made for a good icebreaker as the divers enthusiastically swapped underwater experiences during lunch on the two boats. The camaraderie continued into the evening over a game of tug-of-war, followed by a sumptuous buffet. We turned in early.

At mid-morning the next day, we headed towards two locations, Gado Bay and Soyak Island.

At Gado Bay, as the divers descended, a few of us lingered at the rear of the two adjacent boats, watching in delight as schools of fish surfaced to nip at the bread we tossed. Quickly strapping on my mask, I plunged into the chilly ocean with more bread in my fists. Colourful fish surrounded me unabashedly, eager for their noon meal.

It brought back memories of my last visit to Tioman, two decades ago, when the ocean was full of life.

When the divers surfaced, we headed for Soyak Island, a rocky site known for its array of soft coral and sightings of migrating schools of fish and turtle. This time, I prepared to explore the seabed at 15m.

Visibility was quite good, and I had a good view of my surroundings.

It was cooler below, and the marine life kept a safe distance from my diving buddy and I. I thought of what one of the participants, banking officer Samantha Ong, had said the night before: “Remember the Little Mermaid cartoon? That’s how the ocean is supposed to look like.”

In reality, the ocean wasn’t so vibrant. Although beautiful, the coral seemed rather forlorn, and I had to cover quite a distance underwater before sighting an anemone. Two clown fish peeked out nervously. Further down, a palm-sized sea urchin lay beneath a huge coral formation and a plump red fish with puckered lips gazed around dully.

We took our time snapping photos before rising to the surface 45 minutes later.

Azhari pointed me to the fact that the team had hauled up nearly a dozen garbage bags, excluding large debris such as rope and an entangled fishing net. One of the more experienced divers explained that underwater litter was just one of the many ocean hazards.

“There’s also chemical pollution and global warming, which causes inadaptibility problems for marine life,” he said.

Later that evening, the group bonded over a friendly game of beach volleyball before dinner.

“This programme is also meant to be a platform for Malaysian youths (below 40) to bond over sporting activities,” Azhari said. “Diving for the environment is a good opportunity for young Malaysian to get together for a common cause.”

On hindsight, I think Tioman is still beautiful and worth visiting – if a little subdued.

It was a sobering reality for the few of us who lingered around the dining area, discussing our observations.

“It saddens me to imagine the future of the underwater environment,” said Samantha Ong, a banking officer, who was thrilled to participate in the dive cleanup. “Hopefully, our efforts will make a difference.”

A second visit to Tioman is already in the works.

“I’m very grateful that the fund has made this possible for us. It’s our ocean, and we’re heartened to do our bit for it,” she said.

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