Protecting the reefs of Pulau Perhentian


Working together to help the reefs of Perhentian.

PULAU Perhentian, Terengganu, is famed for its myriad marine life and clear waters, an ideal combination for great diving and snorkelling. It is made up of a cluster of islands – Pulau Perhentian Kecil, Pulau Perhentian Besar and a few smaller islands to the north. Great snorkel and dive sites can be found at reefs with names like Coral Garden, Sugar Wreck, Tiger Rock and Tanjung Besi.

Over the last five years, the amount of living corals has stayed largely consistent. Surveys by conservation group Reef Check Malaysia from 2007 to 2010 showed that live corals make up between 35% and 48% of the reef – this coverage can be considered “fair”.

The brilliance of the coral depends on when and where you go as the monsoon season has a large impact on the reef. Monsoon winds can stir up powerful waves which hit the reefs continuously from November to February, causing not just physical damage to corals but also raising water turbidity.

Coral colonies actually contain millions of tiny animals called polyps, not too dissimilar from tiny translucent jellyfish. Each polyp contains tiny algae plants called zooxanthellae, which produce over 90% of the energy for the coral polyps. This means that corals can only thrive when the water is clear and the zooxanthellae receive enough sunlight to photosynthesise. When monsoonal waves hit and sediment is stirred up, the zooxanthellae cannot collect enough sunlight, resulting in lower amounts of energy given to the corals. Because of this, corals are not as healthy or as colourful and vibrant in March and April as in the month of September.

Coral diversity

The monsoon also influences the predominant type of coral on the reef. In the shallow waters of Coral Garden, you will see mainly large boulder corals. The bay here is sheltered from monsoonal waves and winds, thus the calmer waters allow slow-growing boulder corals (they grow only 3cm to 5cm per year) to establish themselves. At the more exposed shallow parts of the snorkel site named Shark Point, staghorn corals dominate the reef. These grow much faster, about 15cm per year, and broken fragments can reattach themselves to the reef and continue to grow. This is why staghorn corals are more common in shallow areas with high wave action.

My favourite dive sites in Perhentian have to be Sugar Wreck, Tiger Rock and Tanjung Besi. Sugar Wreck is an old cargo ship that sank in 2000. Divers are always keen to venture into its cargo hold where you can see a pocket of trapped air. Wrecks are always great places to dive and to spot interesting marine life. Sometimes at Sugar Wreck, you can see 2m- to 3m-wide lagoon rays.

Terumbu Tiga or Tiger Rock, which lies east of Pulau Perhentian Besar, is the place to be if you like not only small things but also the biggest ones. The site is a collection of large rocks with crevices for lots of exciting swim-throughs. Avid divers often seek out the numerous colourful nudibranchs (or sea slugs) found here.

In September and October when plankton numbers increase, this becomes a popular site for spotting the largest fish in the sea – the whale shark. In 2009, I spotted my first whale shark in Perhentian. My group was making our decompression stop at 5m of water when I spotted this huge mouth coming towards us. It was about 7m long. It seemed to drift past us but when we tried to keep up with it, we realised how swiftly it was moving – it disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. We felt humbled by the sheer size and grace of the shark – it was, after all, only a baby shark (adults can grow up to 16m).

Tanjung Besi is my favourite dive site for corals as it is shallow and has beautiful coral formations and lots of reef fish. It is also a great example of a phenomenon called coral bleaching. In 2010, the temperature in the South China Sea rose by 2°C to 3°C, causing coral polyps to release their zooxanthellae. The algae not only give the corals energy but also their colour. Without the zooxanthellae, all that is left are translucent coral polyps in a white calcium carbonate structure. The ghostly-white corals give an impression of bleached corals.

When I dived this site in July 2010, the staghorn corals were completely white. It was, strangely, really beautiful, and reef fish continued with their daily habits just like how people do after a snowfall. The corals do not die straight away from coral bleaching and can withstand bleaching for up to four weeks before they start to die off. Reef Check Malaysia estimated the mortality rate to be only 10% to 15% of the affected reef, which is relatively low. However, with climate change, coral bleaching is expected to become more common.

Coral renewal

But there is always life after death and corals have been around for millions of years and can continue to live if we can help them adapt to a world with more humans. Ecoteer, together with Reef Check Malaysia, the Association of Operators of Pulau Perhentian, dive operators and several independent divemasters and dive instructors are working together to help the reefs of Perhentian. The most important thing is education and awareness. In 2009, Reef Check Malaysia introduced posters of “Do’s and Don’ts” for snorkellers and divers.

Good dive instructors and divemasters make it a point to brief their students on not touching corals or getting too close to sea turtles. Responsible divers or snorkellers should speak up if their instructor fails to brief their students on ethical diving and snorkelling practices. This is important as responsible practices should be the foundation for every individual wishing to enjoy the beautiful underwater environment. If you were to hold an anemone clownfish (Nemo in that popular animation Finding Nemo), the protective mucus which surrounds the clownfish will be rubbed off and it will be stung when it returns to its anemone home, causing it to die.

Individuals can help protect the reef by removing fishing nets and rubbish which they see underwater. In 2009, a large, discarded trawler net wrapped itself around the corals at Tokong Laut or Temple of the Sea, killing several marine animals. With the combined effort of several resort operators and divers, much of the net was removed. Underwater clean-ups should be continuously practised by everyone on the island, a message that is repeated during dive and snorkel briefings, as well as during talks on marine issues.

Among the local village children, Ecoteer is instilling a love for the marine environment through the school Environmental Club that meets every Friday. The children are introduced to various species of marine life and how to protect these creatures. This month, Ecoteer will start the Eco-Snorkelling Club to teach local guides about eco-friendly and safe snorkelling practices, such as not standing on corals, identification of species and the ills of fish feeding.

Similar briefings and guidance are given to Ecoteer volunteers and programme participants, who are also taught to collect data on coral cover when snorkelling. The information is submitted to coralwatch.org, a website run by Queensland University in Australia, which is assessing coral bleaching events. In addition to that, Ecoteer hopes to train a few snorkel guides in reef surveys using the Reef Check method. The guides can then collect data on corals at the same time that they take visitors out to snorkel.

Pulau Perhentian is receiving support and effort by various organisations keen on protecting its marine environment. One guide has even suggested that snorkel sites be rotated on an annual basis to give the reef a chance to recover from damage inflicted by tourists. The education must continue as it is of utmost importance that the locals love and care for the environment and this has to start from the ground up – educating the younger generations who live in this beautiful marine playground.


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