The intrepid ocean warrior.

The trees are screaming. A piercing, eerie sound like a banshee in pain or scissors being pressed against a grinding wheel slices through the tranquillity of Datai bay. In the distance, the sky is slowly turning a dreamy shade of mauve as the sun prepares to sink into the horizon.

“Zingggggggggggggggg” “Zingggggggggggggg”. “What IS that?” I turn to my bespectacled companion in alarm. Unperturbed, marine biologist Jonathan Chandrasakaran chuckles heartily before assuaging me that it’s only the call of the cicada. “Don’t worry, that’s just the male cicada and his love song. He’s looking for a girlfriend! Just wait… exactly at sunset he’ll stop.”

Seated across from each other in one corner of the spacious lounge at The Datai Langkawi’s Nature Centre, surrounded by a littoral rainforest (a closed forest, the structure and composition of which is strongly influenced by its proximity to the ocean), we pause to soak in the longing ode to love from the insect world.

Not wanting to break the spell, the cheerful 28-year-old, who’s also the Nature Centre’s manager, whispers: “We have more than 150 species of cicada here in Malaysia. In Langkawi, we’ve recorded 22 (species) so far.”

But then… the song ends. My eyes dart immediately to my watch before travelling to the darkening vista outside, where threads of light continue to linger in the sky. The buggers are right on cue, I mutter in awe. And again, Jonathan chuckles. “They’re good right!”

But it’s not cicada or the insect world that I’ve come to see the resort’s resident marine biologist about. That’s not his forte. Rather, Jonathan’s inclinations are slightly more watery. Like the ocean, for example.

Before the love-lorn cicada had consumed all our attention, we’d been discussing plans for the following day’s activity, namely, a wade into the warm waters of the Andaman Sea in search of… wait for it, planktons!

“You know, when you think of the sea, you think of fish or sting rays etc. But have you ever thought about the other creatures that are floating around in the water, which you can’t see with your naked eye? Like planktons?” poses Jonathan, his eyes dancing under his dark-rimmed glasses.

Plank-who? I shoot back, bewildered. And again that chuckle. “In the sea, the plankton begins the marine food chain,” elaborates Jonathan, adding: “Microscopic phytoplankton (tiny plant-like cells) uses the sun’s energy to combine carbon dioxide and water to create sugar and oxygen. This process is known as photosynthesis.”

Continuing, he explains patiently: “Although they’re really tiny (each phytoplankton cell is smaller in diameter than a strand of human hair), there’s a lot of them; so much so that they account for about 50 per cent of all photosynthesis on Earth. Did you know approximately 50 per cent of the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere is being produced by phytoplankton. We need to say thanks to these microscopic marine algae!”


The informal educator in his element.

Woah… that’s just too much science for me to brain, I tell Jonathan, sheepishly. And he grins. As the informal nature educator here, Jonathan is no doubt familiar with this kind of response.

Good naturedly, he replies: “Don’t worry, tomorrow we’ll go into the water and collect some samples. Then we’ll take the samples back to the lab here and you can see the amazing ‘life-forms’ under the microscope. I’ll explain to you what they are, what their functions are in the ecology of things and we’ll identify the different types of planktons. You’ll realise soon enough that the waters of the Andaman is a veritable seafood soup!”

THE WANDERERS


Gathering plankton sample using a plankton net.

The sky is a mesmerising canvas of cobalt blue. The waters of the Andaman shimmer mysteriously under the sun’s searing rays. Already in the warm azure water, complete with floppy sunhat and what appears to be a net in his hand, is the intrepid young marine biologist leading a small group of enthralled resort guests as they wade further and further from the beach. They too are holding the net-like contraption in their hands, trailing it in the water as if taking an invisible dog for a walk.

Ploughing my feet through the water like a piston, eyes squinting desperately against the glare of the late morning sun, I eventually find myself next to Jonathan, who proceeds to hand me the ‘equipment’ that everyone else is holding.

It’s a plankton net, he explains, an equipment used for collecting samples of plankton in standing bodies of water. Comprising a towing line and bridles (the upper part), nylon-mesh net (middle part and used to filter the plankton in the water sample according to the size of the mesh) and a cod end (lower part, at the end of the funnel. Comes with collecting cylinder and a valve for opening and closing), plankton nets are considered one of the oldest, simplest and inexpensive methods of sampling plankton.

The net can be used for both vertical and horizontal sampling. “We can analyse plankton both quantitively (cell density, cell colony or biomass) as well as qualitatively in water samples from the environment,” explains Jonathan.

Taking slow, measured steps so as not to accidentally step on anything underwater (like a sting ray), the Klang-born biologist adds:”Just drag the net through the water as if you’re walking a dog. Although you can’t see anything, believe me, there’ll be lots of stuff in there for us to analyse later.”


Checking to see what's been collected in the plankton net.

Like children given a new toy, we happily trail our nets, following behind Jonathan like obedient school children. He continues to explain: “The word plankton comes from the Greek word “planktos”, which means wanderer or drifter. There are two main groups of plankton: Phytoplankton and Zooplankton. Phytoplankton is like the plant plankton, while the zoo plankton is the animal plankton.”

All the plankton are food for fish, which in turn are eaten by other sea creatures, like sharks and seals. The latter are then eaten by larger predators such as killer whales. The baleen whale, the largest mammal on Earth, also eats the plankton. Suffice to say, the plankton food web determines the amount of life in the sea. No plankton, no fish for us humans – or other creatures – to eat.

“Guys, you can take bring up your nets now. Let’s take the samples back to the lab ya?” hollers Jonathan, as he slowly demonstrates to us what to do. My arms already three shades darker by now, I gingerly hoist my net and happily trail behind the rest of the group, headed towards the sunkissed beach, in the direction of the Nature Centre.

THE DATAI CONNECTION


The Datai Langkawi - The Nature Centre (exterior).

Seated in the cool comfort of the Nature Centre’s lounge area, our water-stained bottoms testament to our little adventure in the sea earlier, I decide to get better acquainted with this energetic young man whose passion for the ocean is simply infectious. So what’s the story?

“I was originally the resort’s marine biologist,” begins Jonathan, who came to assume his present post as Nature Centre manager just under a year ago, after a brief hiatus to seek the bustle of city life. The call of the island was too hard to ignore and he eventually returned to Langkawi again.

Recalls Jonathan: “When I came back, I wasn’t expecting to be the manager because as far as I’m concerned, my talent lies in coming up with syllabus and connecting people to the environment. But when I was offered the post, I thought that it was too good an opportunity to ignore. So I met up with The Datai’s resident naturalist (and conservation legend), Irshad Mobarak, who told me that there was a role for me here.”


Studying the images of planktons.

As the Centre’s manager, in addition to overseeing its operations, Jonathan is also tasked with coming up with new syllabus and activities. He elaborates: “I also get involved with environmental initiatives championed by the resort, such as the Fish for the Future initiative, CSR projects, and of course, conduct engaging educational activities.”

The affable young man shares that he had always been involved in the areas of education and outreach, even during his undergrad days. “Of course, there’s plenty to learn when I started at The Datai but at the same time, it was like reliving my schooldays. You go out, explore and you fuse things. The only difference is that you’re telling a story to other people.”

PASSION FOR THE OCEAN


The lure of the ocean was too great for this city boy to resist.

Asked how his love affair with the ocean started, Jonathan smiles, before sharing: “I’m lucky to have really supportive parents. My dad worked for a bank for 40 years and my mum was a primary school teacher. They wanted to live their youth through me. They couldn’t do all the cool stuff that I’d been doing when they were younger. Like scuba diving. My dad knows how to swim but he’d always wanted to dive.”

In 2004, a dive shop opened in Klang, recalls Jonathan. His dad was the one most excited about this and persuaded his son to come and check it out with him. “He said to me, “John, you like to swim. Why don’t we check it out?”” Following that visit, his father signed him up for a junior open diving course.

“It was amazing,” enthuses Jonathan, recalling the time that he went to Pulau Redang to get his license. “I went with a bunch of people and we dived down at least five or seven metres into the water. I got to breathe underwater for the first time in my life. I didn’t see much during the first 20 minutes and then we started kicking and went closer to the reefs. I saw sharks in the wild for the first time in my life. It left a profound impression on me. I was 14; it was then that I fell in love with the ocean.”


Invisible ocean drifters.

Dreamily, he confides that the sense of mystique and mystery that the ocean possesses is what pulled him – and continues to pull him even to this day. Says Jonathan, who has an older brother working in investment banking in Hong Kong: “I just wanted to be a part of what was happening underwater. There are so many things living and thriving beneath. It’s like a bustling metropolis there!”

At school, the music-loving marine biologist had always excelled in Science. Chemistry was his favourite subject. “I’d always been intrigued by how everything works, and the connections between living and non-living entities,” recalls Jonathan, adding: “When it was time to further my tertiary studies, I told my parents that I wanted to pursue something related to the ocean.” After seeking the advice of a family friend, also a scientist, who had graduated from a university in Hawaii, Jonathan decided that he’d follow the same path.

“As soon as I heard Hawaii, I wanted to go to Hawaii!” exclaims Jonathan, who was there for four years. “I learnt a lot. To be honest, I wasn’t really into conservation back then. I was more interested in coral reef ecosystems and deep sea ecosystems. I loved chemical oceanography, learning about stuff like how clams manage to make their shells etc. Those things intrigued me.”

Upon graduation, he had several opportunities to remain in Hawaii and work. But the-then 22-year-old missed nasi lemak too much and decided to return home! But landing a job in Malaysia turned out to be challenging. Recalls Jonathan: “I’d always wanted to be a research assistant. I didn’t want to lead a research of my own. I knew I didn’t have that ability yet to come up with good questions and good ways to answer those questions.”

He subsequently wrote to several professors to see if he could land a gig as a research assistant. His quest was fruitful. Proudly, Jonathan shares: “I was part of the Tun Mustapha Marine Park (marine park located off the north coast of Sabah) scientific expedition for a coral triangle initiative, the first in Malaysia. I joined the Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) team in Sabah to deal with planktons! I did water quality work and collected a lot of plankton samples and identified them.”

He was there for two months and wanted to continue, but unfortunately, recalls Jonathan, he had to cut short his sojourn. “I was told by the professor that my Bahasa wasn’t good enough so there were no projects for me. I was sad to hear that but I moved on.”

When he returned to the big city, employment still evaded him. But he was presented with an opportunity to do education and outreach work on a part time basis in a dark cave conservation site in Batu Caves.

Shares Jonathan, a self-confessed sci-fi buff with a penchant for progressive rock music (he plays the drums in a band): “I did this for a year and a half. I do believe that this was the turning point for me; when I seriously began to contemplate being an informal educator.”


Aerial view of the island.

But where did the Langkawi connection come in, I pose, sensing that I’d need to call time on our interview soon, as I recall Jonathan’s next appointment with another bunch of guests.

“It was my friend, Kenneth. He’d gone to Langkawi for a holiday with some friends and had been part of the mangrove cruise with none other than Irshad,” begins Jonathan, eyes dancing. “He told me all about Irshad and I remember he said something like, “John, when you grow up, you’ll probably be like Irshad!” He gave me Irshad’s name card, I wrote to Irshad, who in turn pulled some strings for me. The rest, as you say, is history!”

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The Datai Langkawi, Jalan Teluk Datai, Langkawi, Kedah. Details at www.thedatai.com