Snorkel right to save reefs

Proper snorkelling eti­quette is cru­cial to pre­vent reef dam­age.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ECOWATCH - By S. L. WONg star2­green@ thes­tar. com. my

DECKED out in bright or­ange lifevests, the cou­ple put on their snorkels and masks and wade into the ocean. Then they start swim­ming, ea­ger to ex­plore the co­ral reefs and colour­ful fish dart­ing about in the wa­ter.

But the mask of the woman is too loose and wa­ter starts en­ter­ing her eyes. She pan­ics and stands up. Luck­ily, there is a “boul­der” un­der­neath. The man, con­cerned about her, stands up too. But he al­most slips and scrab­bles hard at the boul­der, cut­ting his feet in the process.

Un­known to them, the boul­der is co­ral, which took hun­dreds of years to grow – but which they de­stroyed in min­utes. The like­li­hood is that even if the cou­ple did know it was co­ral, they would not have cared as they were fo­cused only on not drown­ing.

The shal­low reefs of Malaysia are vis­ited by thou­sands of snorkellers a year. They do un­told harm to both co­rals and them­selves by hav­ing no snorkelling skills. This is com­pounded by there be­ing lit­tle or no over­sight of snorkellers by guides and boat­men.

This year, the co­rals can­not af­ford more dam­age be­cause of the threat of high wa­ter tem­per­a­tures due to the warm­ing ef­fect of the su­per El Nino phe­nom­e­non.

This is why snorkeller train­ing and marine aware­ness are key pro­grammes of the Malaysian Na­ture So­ci­ety Se­lan­gor branch’s marine spe­cial in­ter­est group.

“There are many threats to Malaysia’s shal­low reefs, in­clud­ing the lack of guide­lines for in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment as well as tourism op­er­a­tions and ac­tiv­i­ties,” said group co- or­di­na­tor Wong Wee Liem. “Mon­i­tor­ing and en­force­ment are also weak.”

But it was recog­nis­ing the im­pact by snorkellers that led the group to ad­dress this among their fel­low mem­bers. In 2003, four vol­un­teers drew up a pro­gramme that com­bined snorkelling skills train­ing as well as marine ecosys­tem knowl­edge and aware­ness in a fun and in­ter­ac­tive way.

The snorkelling skills train­ing in­cludes cor­rect use of equip­ment, proper finning tech­niques, as well as com­fort and safety in the sea. Snorkellers com­bine this with knowl­edge gained from the pro­gramme’s ecosys­tem com­po­nent, in­clud­ing iden­ti­fy­ing fish and cor- als and ob­serv­ing their be­hav­iour and re­la­tion­ships.

“This way, they can ac­tu­ally re­ally en­joy them­selves in the sea,” said Wong.

The pro­gramme has since been held on dif­fer­ent is­lands each June in con­junc­tion with World Oceans Day. It some­times in­clude un­der­wa­ter and beach clean- ups. Data col­lected from the lat­ter is fed to the Mar­itime In­sti­tute of Malaysia for its coastal health mon­i­tor­ing re­search.

This year’s pro­gramme will be held at Pu­lau Teng­gol, Tereng­ganu, from June 3 to 6 ( learn more at www. face­book. com/ events/ 1056146921111020). The event will have an ad­di­tional com­po­nent, a shark ap­pre­ci­a­tion course, where snorkellers can learn more about sharks and what to do should they see one. This is in con­junc­tion with the My Fin My Life ( www. myfin­mylife. com) cam­paign or­gan­ised by var­i­ous NGOs, aimed at re­vers­ing the de­clin­ing shark pop­u­la­tion by get­ting busi­nesses, gov­ern­ments and Malaysians to pledge against con­sum­ing shark’s fin soup.

Div­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tion agency Scuba Schools In­ter­na­tional ( SSI) has been roped in to con­duct the snorkelling and shark ap­pre­ci­a­tion cour­ses.

“Snorkelling is usu­ally the very first ac­tiv­ity that peo­ple will ven­ture into when en­joy­ing the marine world,” said Nick Khoo, SSI ser­vice cen­tre man­ager. “If we can start them off cor­rectly, they will be able to en­joy it safely and re­spon­si­bly. The fo­cus on sharks and reefs is sim­ple ... sharks are top level preda­tors which keep marine pop­u­la­tions healthy. This helps sta­bilise the over­all equa­tion.”

Ob­vi­ously, the long- term goal of this skills- and- knowl­edge pro­gramme is to have it be con­ducted by is­land guides, said Wong. “They are based on the is­land and they deal with snorkellers ev­ery day. This is a way for them to earn more in­come and be the guardians of their own reefs. We ex­tended this train­ing to a num­ber of guides in Tioman for a cou­ple of years and it was very suc­cess­ful.”

Build­ing on this are non- prof­its Reef Check Malaysia and EcoKnights. They are run­ning Cin­tai Tioman ( Love Tioman), a five- year pro­gramme to re­duce the im­pacts of tourism and de­velop the is­lan­ders’ ca­pac­ity to man­age their marine re­sources.

“From the sur­face, the oceans seem to be healthy. But as divers, we re­alise that is not the sit­u­a­tion below the sur­face,” said Khoo. “We un­der­stand, per­haps more than any­one, that time is run­ning out. If we want to save our oceans both for our­selves and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, we have to take the ini­tia­tive now.”

Wong agreed. “As Malaysians, we are so lucky to have th­ese amaz­ing reefs and marine life at our doorstep. We can just put on a mask and snorkel and swim out to them. But let’s do it re­spon­si­bly, with the right skills, con­scious­ness and ap­pre­ci­a­tion.”

Good snorkelling skills will pre­vent snorkellers from stomp­ing on frag­ile co­rals. — ssI

Green­house gas emis­sions from ponds have been over­looked in es­ti­mates of car­bon flows and stocks. — reuters

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