A participant swims back to the boat after collecting trash on Tulai Island

To mark the third International Year of the Reef, Zulkifly Ab Latif joins in one of three International Coastal Clean-Up Day events in the country

IT is a long walk from the chalet I’m staying to the dive centre. Slanting rays of morning sunlight pierce the clouds, illuminating the mist-capped mountains of the tropical island.

The lush green jungle looks as impenetrable as it was the day before, when I arrived.

The white sandy beach takes on the hue of the golden morning sun as I walk along it while the waves gently lap against the shore. Looking out at the calm ocean, I can almost picture my friend gathered across the country, getting ready, as I am, for a similar goal.


A quiet morning walk along Berjaya Tioman Resorts

I know that there are friends now gathered near Desaru in Johor, ready to clean up the beaches. I also know that there are friends from Johor Marine Park, ready to scour the reefs of Pulau Sibu, Johor for trash and other marine debris.

I know this because I’ve had to turn down the invitations to be here on Tioman Island in Pahang.

Even so, there is consolation knowing that despite not being there with them, we are all connected to the same goal, to celebrate the third International Year ofthe Reef.

Introduced in 1997 in response to the increasing threats on coral reefs and associated ecosystems such as mangroves and seagrasses around the world, the global partnership known as International Coral Reef Initiative designated 2018 the third International Year of the Reef.

Celebrated globally, various government agencies, NGOS, tourism establishments and communities in Malaysia have also embraced the effort resulting in a plethora of events and programme aimed at creating environmental change and awareness throughout the year.

BEACH CLEAN-UP

The year has seen various events held in support of International Year of the Reef 2018. One such event is International CoastalClean-Up Day, which is the reason I am visiting the beautiful island of Tioman.

Hosted by Berjaya Tioman Resort, International Coastal Clean-Up Day 2018 is a three-day event involving 200 participants eager to contribute to the effort to conserve the majestic underwater reefs of the island.

I am at the resort’s dive centre, which is managed by the dive operator UDive Malaysia. It is the first day of the event and the centre is abuzz with activity. Scuba tanks clang against each other as they are arranged after being filled with air, with divers intently checking their scuba diving equipment in preparation for the day’s dive. It is here that I meet Alvin Chelliah, a project manager for Reef Check Malaysia, a non-profit organisation concerned with protecting coral reefs.

The long-term programme called Cintai Tioman (Love Tioman) on the island, established by Alvin, aims to help reduce the impact of human activities on coral reefs around the island while also empowering the local communities in managing and conserving the island’s resources, Alvin now lives on the island, working along with local workers and volunteers.

Although fresh from another tiring clean-up programme mere days a go involving the island’s local community, Alvin is enthusiastic as he briefs me on the itinerary. Opting to sit out the first dive of the day, I join Alvin and other non-diver participants for a beach clean-up nearby in Tekek.

VILLAGE OF TEKEK

With the even mainly centred on Berjaya Tioman Resort, the beach clean-up is also a perfect chance to take in the sights near the village of Tekek. Although still referred as a kampung (village), Tekek is now more like a small town, the heartbeat of Tioman.

Here visitors will find the island’s only airport as well as a police station, other government offices, schools, a government clinic as well as duty-free shops. The only available road at Tioman is also in Tekek, that ends near Berjaya Tioman Beach Resort. Tekek is also the gateway to Kampung Juara, a small village on the opposite side of the island. Visitors normally hire waiting off-road vehicles in Tekek to ferry them to Juara, while the more adventurous can opt to trek there across the island’s jungle as well.

Walking along the beach with the other participants, we comb the area for non biodegradable items such as plastic bags and bottles. The clean-up may seem like a mere attempt to improve the beach’s aesthetic appeal but according to Alvin it is more than that. Reef Check Malaysia aims to collect as much data as possible on the amount and types of trash on the coastlines so that it can provide concrete evidence to lobby for change in the nation’s recycling and waste management practices.

Reef Check Malaysia hopes that all this effort will ultimately result in the prevention of trash entering the waterways and cease the need for further coastal cleanups.

Hearing Alvin’s explanations while picking up carelessly discarded beer cans lodged between the coastal rocks, I realise it is a monumental task, not because of the amount of trash but because of the dire need to change people’s habits and behaviours.

But through initiatives such as International Year of the Reef and International Coastal Clean-Up Day as well as programnes such as Cintai Tioman providing awareness and motivation, there is hope for environmental behavioural change.

BECOMING A SEA-WARDEN

With the day’s clean-up done,I visit Rumah Hijau in Tekek, a community and recycling centre that upcycles waste into new products such as keychains and souvenirs.

Run by local surfing enthusiast Hisham Uyub, the centre has a laid-back surfer vibe to it, complete with volunteers casually strumming on guitars as they take a break from their tasks. Along for the visit is Moe Faisal, a representative of Rip Curl Malaysia, which one of the sponsors for International Coastal Clean-Up Day 2018. An established brand in the surfing world, Rip Curl Malaysia is doing its part by producing limited-edition T-shirts in partnership with Reef Check Malaysia for the 2018 International Coastal Clean-up programme. Aptly named the Sea Warden T-shirt, RM15 will be contributed to Reef Check Malaysia for every one sold.


Alvin of Reef Check Malaysia supervising the beach clean-up

Seeing such an established brand commit time and resources to conservation efforts is commendable, and I wholeheartedly hope that more companies will follow in Rip Curl Malaysia’s steps.

LEAVE ONLY BUBBLES

With over 25 dive spots and pristine reefs protected under Marine Park status, Tioman Island is one of the nation’s often visited island for snorkelling and scuba diving activities. It’s no surprise then that I find myself on board a dive boat with other diver participants heading towards Tulai Island, a small uninhabited island located off the north-eastern coast of Tioman, for an underwater clean-up dive. It is on the boat that I meet Azura Zainal, a multitalented celebrity, radio and TV presenter.

Known as an adventurous spirit thanks to her stint on the local travel and adventure television programme Xplorasi, Azura is among a group of celebrities and public figures who stepped forward in support of the International Coastal Clean-up programme as well as the International Year of the Reef 2018 initiative.

The dive boat stops at Teluk Gador, a small and secluded cove that is one of the dive spots around Tulai Island. I buddy up with Azura as we ascend to the ocean’s depths with other divers of the group. Led by Akira of Udive, the group swims past and above coral covered rocks, looking for nonbiodegradable waste and other items that do not belong on the reef.

Underwater clean-ups are not merely about collecting every piece of trash one sees, it also involves ensuring the act of removing waste items does not cause further damage to the reefs and marine environment.Swimming at depths ranging from eight to 15 metres, the dive at Teluk Gador takes 25 minutes to complete. I feel almost disappointed when the dive leader hand signals forasafety stop, since the underwater visibility is quite exceptional, making it extremely easy to spot colourful nudibranchs, spotted stingrays and small crustaceans hidden between the reefs.

TRAVEL WITH PURPOSE

Travelling for festivals and cultural events is a common practice, since it is a wonderful excuse to explore and discover destinations.

The International Coastal Clean-up Day event is in a similar vein, as it also lets participants explore different facets of Tioman’s beauty.

Although environmental education and awareness will always take centre stage and be the main priority in any conservation programme, participants cannot help but take in the beauty thatthey are helping to protect. This observation is gleaned as he boat takes me back towards Berjaya Tioman Resort after the dive. Looking at the island from out at sea, Tioman is indeed an enchanting and spectacular place to visit.

Steeped in history dating back to the 11th century, with a rugged terrain dominated by majestic granite peaks and white sandy beaches washed by warm crystal clear waters, Tioman is an ecological and marine haven that is far too important to be left unprotected and unappreciated.

TRAVEL FILE

INTERNATIONAL YEAR OF THE REEF

PLASTIC is a major source of marine pollution. Throughout the three-day International Year of the Reef 2018, a staggering 1,807 plastic bottles, 1,315 plastic bottle caps and 206 straws and stirrers were collected at various places around Tioman Island.

International Year of the Reef 2018 and International Coastal Clean-Up Day were observed throughout the nation’s marine parks, islands and public beaches.

To get involved, visit www.iyor2018.org

Reef Check Malaysia is a non-profit organisation that engages with local communities to raise awareness of the importance of, and threats to, coral reefs.

To get involved or contribute to the cause, visit www.reefcheck.org.my

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