Tuesday, 5 August 2008

5th August 2008: Second Seahorse Data Collection Trip, 2nd – 3rd August 2008

Kar Mern and I checking on a pregnant seahorse. Note the rubbish Kar Mern picked up along the way.

Small island, lots of rubbish.
From left to right, front row, squatting/sitting: Rushan, Syazwani, Jashirinda and Ruzbih.
With back to camera: Andy Paul
Back row, standing, left to right: Kar Mern, Malini, Rushdy, Hui Min, Jashirita, me, Chee Kuang, Nik Waheeda, Bee Ni, Joyce, Jamie, Wai Tuck and Anne.

To visit my Seahorse Data Collection Trip photo album, please click HERE

August hasn’t exactly been a month of rest for me. Not that it’s news to anyone by now. Hardly a week after my return from Bangkok, I accompanied a group of 12 individuals, mostly members of the Kuala Lumpur Bar, to Johor for a Seahorse Data Collection Trip to volunteer with Save Our Seahorses (SOS) Malaysia.

I had been looking forward to meeting my friends from SOS and the Malaysian Nature Society again, and I hoped that the trip to the seagrass bed would bring me relief from my constant melancholy. When disheartened and dispirited, I believe in pouring my energies into service to the community and the Planet. Organising the trip did not take much work, as Hui Min took charge of the booking and financial aspects and I merely had to take care of the registered participants.

The preparation for the trip was not without its issues. 2 weeks after our event announcement first appeared in the state Bar e-groups and forums, we received an e-mail from the port officials (I cannot go into details here or it may jeopardize the work of SOS) informing us that they have the authority to deny us access to seagrass beds. Upon conducting our due diligence with the relevant government departments, SOS project leader Chee Kuang and I learned that the aforementioned corporation has no jurisdiction over the area at all. 3 considered replies later, my guests and I were on our way to Johor for our volunteering and nature appreciation trip. I was adamant that the trip must go on, and that my guests were not harassed. I wanted at all costs for the trip to be a successful one, and would go to any lengths to ensure the safety, comfort and wellbeing of my guests.

Providence must have smiled down on us that weekend, because it turned out to be a wonderful volunteering experience for all. Except for one tardy participant who held up the entire group, the lawyers and pupils-in-chambers turned out to be a very obliging, accommodating, helpful and enthusiastic group. Friendships were formed with uncharacteristic speed and everyone looked out for one another.

Upon checking in at the Euro Hotel, we adjourned to lunch at a nearby banana leaf rice restaurant. We then proceeded in a convoy of 4 cars to the Kukup Island National Park, where we did the suspension bridge and canopy walk and then walked along the boardwalk to the mudlobster nests. We spotted Lesser Adjutant Storks, White Bellied Sea Eagles, Brahminy Kites, monitor lizards, fiddler crabs, giant mudskippers, blue-spotted mudskippers, blue crabs, volutes and all sorts of mollusks and arthropods.

We took the last boat out of Kukup Island National Park and proceeded to visit one of the floating fish farms, situated just off the coast of the National Park and in themselves hotbeds of biodiversity. The fish farmers keep marine fauna in temporary captivity in conditions almost identical to that of the fauna's natural environment to display to visitors. We saw cat sharks, bamboo sharks, prehistoric-looking oysters, sea stars, horseshoe crabs, a blue-spotted stingray, large crabs that curled up into balls and played dead when handled and volutes of all sizes and colours.
The trip participants were thrilled with the variety of flora and fauna they saw on the first day of the trip itself and were quite reluctant to return to the boats. However, dusk was falling and the participants had to admit that they were hungry and tired out by the long drive, so we returned to the Kukup Jetty by boat, retrieved our cars from the premises of the Marine Park office, and adjourned to dinner at Haji Yussuf's restaurant down the road. The food arrived on our tables fast, but being halal, was nowhere as good as the seafood from the Chinese establishments such as High King. Still, we were ravenous and demolished everything, soup, pudding and all.

The drive back to Euro Hotel was less than peaceful, because Chee Kuang, our marine biologist, kept calling every 5 minutes to see if we were anywhere near the hotel yet. Chee Kuang, his assistant Ooi, and our friends from the MNS: Serina, Mohala, Andy Paul and Serina's younger brothers Dy and Shan had been waiting for us for over 1½ hours.

Chee Kuang conducted the standard briefing on seahorse habitats and population density and on the duties of volunteers. I followed up with a quick briefing on the correspondence that had taken place between the port officials and me, and the fact that the port has no jurisdiction over the conservation site and no right to demand that we disclose our particulars to their security personnel.

I obtained everyone's verbal undertaking that they would not do anything that would give the port officials cause for complaint or a reason to detain us, and after that Hui Min distributed breakfast doggie bags to each of us, comprising fruit, buns, biscuits, a breakfast beverage carton and a Johor-style savoury hardboiled egg, as it would be too early for us to go out for breakfast the following morning.

After the participants had retired to their rooms, I went over to Old Town cafe with Chee Kuang to meet up with the others. Apparently, one of the port officials was there at the cafe earlier, as they know which hotel we normally reside in and where we normally hang out. He was probably there to eavesdrop on our conversation to see if there were any plans to commence legal action against the port for any alleged environmental offences, but that is not part of our plan for the trip. The trip participants from the State Bar are bona fide visitors on a nature appreciation and volunteering trip.

I retired to the room I shared with tenderfoot Kar Mern around midnight and was soon asleep.

I woke up at 0500 hours on Sunday morning and proceeded to make wake-up calls to the others on my cell phone. Thankfully, one or two of them were already up and using the washrooms. Kar Mern made me coffee as neither of us could survive without our first cup of joe in the morning.

We were soon our way to Pendas Jetty after an exasperating wait for the participants to get ready. I would have thought that my wake-up calls would eliminate that problem. The trouble with lawyers is that they are not often punctual. They just have more convincing excuses, often corroborated with non sequitors, to justify their tardiness.

I hurried everyone to the jetty and Serina and I made sure everyone had their lifejackets and dive boots. Our boat roared across the waters, went past the Second Link and pulled up close to the seagrass bed. Chee Kuang and I jumped into the shallow, muddy waters to pull our boat to shore. Two of my guests were nervous about jumping into what they felt was the open sea, but I demonstrated that it was quite safe to take one’s lifejacket off.

We divided the volunteers into teams and designated the areas they were supposed to comb. I saw many thorny sea cucumbers and sea snails, as I did last year, but fewer sea pens and anemone. I hope the team had taken water samples for testing for heavy metals. One of my male guests kept reporting aloud to me every 30 seconds.

"Guys," he would announce. "There is a fish here. It has blue stripes." A meaningful pause. "It's alive".
"Very good," I would approve, eyes trained on any movement among the seagrass blades.
"Guys", came announcement No. 2. "There is an anemone. It is white." Another pause. "It's alive".
This went on for at least 15 minutes. I had to exercise self-restraint not to ask him: "What, you expect to find them all dead, lacquered and price-tagged here or what?"

Overhead, the port helicopter hovered to monitor our activities. A surveillance boat from the port remained about 100 metres away but did not approach us. I asked my guests to ignore their presence and to let me do the talking if we were accosted. I will not have anyone harassing my guests and ruining an otherwise amazing trip. Thankfully, the port security people restricted their intrusion to mere surveillance and monitoring from a distance.

The team had spotted and tagged 4 seahorses and 3 alligator pipefish so far, and my guests were thrilled. They recounted to me how they spotted the seahorses and pointed out the spots where the seahorses were spotted and later, released, while I listened with a twinge of envy because I hadn't spotted one yet. They watched as the marine biologist, Ooi, tagged the seahorses with subcutaneous elastomer injections, and lamented the fact that we haven't found a pregnant specimen yet.

5 metres away, a young couple stood taking photographs of a seahorse they had found. They were not from our group, but had come on one of the fishing boats. I was surprised that other boats would have permission to bring visitors to the conservation site. I gently put the seahorse in my collection bag with a good deal of water and waited for Ooi to come over. The tide was rising fast and the water level had reached my knees. It will soon be time for us to get back to the boats before we drown. I asked the young couple to stay to have their names recorded for posterity in the data collection records and we then watched Ooi extract a baby seahorse from the male seahorse's pouch using a pipette. The purpose of this sacrifice is for genetic studies, in order that we may learn ways to help the seahorse population multiply and thrive.

The sea level was rising by the minute and the seagrass bed would soon be inundated and invisible again. We staggered our way to the boats and had to be helped back on board. The port security boat pretended to move away but in fact shadowed us to our next destination, Pulau Merambong, a Ramsar site. Pulau Merambong is a beautiful uninhabited island housing a few mysterious tombs and graves, and a great many secrets. The coast was full of rubbish brought in by the tides. I produced two packets of biodegradable garbage bags and encouraged everyone to help clean up the coast to the best of our ability.

It was sad to be reminded afresh of what a litterbug nation we are, but the participants kept their sense of humour about it and would call out to each other: "What brand of shampoo bottle did you find? I got a Rejoice and a Dove!" and "I found a bike tyre! Anyone missing a bike tyre?"

The boatmen told us that we were already running on full capacity and could not haul the rubbish back with us, but Chee Kuang assured me that he would be back tomorrow with a smaller team of volunteers to bring the rubbish back to the mainland.

We reached the jetty, clambered out of the boats and lurched our way back to our cars. Our final stop would be the SOS Research Centre. My guests were dumbfounded to find that our 'Research Centre' was a mere wooden village house with one PC, a printer, walls full of educational display materials, and 2 bedrooms with straw mats and sleeping bags for the marine biologists and volunteers. They had probably expected to see a well-staffed and well-equipped air-conditioned building. Welcome to the world of environmental activism, guys.

We took turns to shower while Chee Kuang printed out the certificates of appreciation. We had a little ceremony to hand out souvenir t-shirts and certificates of appreciation to the participants who had volunteered their Sunday in aid of the cause of marine and seahorse conservation. Chee Kuang gave me a baseball cap to add to my collection.

We returned to Euro Hotel to clean up and check out, and repaired to Old Town cafe for lunch. Waking up so early had given us appetites of enormous proportions, and some of us had seconds. I gulped down my bowl of noodles and Kar Mern's, as she was unable to finish hers. It just didn't make sense to waste food. When I die, I want to be reincarnated as a dump truck.

The drive back to Kuala Lumpur was long and tiring, although I'm afraid I was of little help to Hui Min as I fell asleep shortly after obtaining her confirmation that she did not need me to take over the driving. Arrived at the Bachelor Officers' Quarters around 1845h, greeted the cats, did the laundry and was soon on my way back to the parental home. It has been a rewarding weekend for all, and I am satisfied that we at the MNS and KL Bar Environmental Law Comm. were able to open up the eyes of at least a few members of the Bar to the wonders of nature that surround us.

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