Sunday, 23 December 2007

Operation Seahorse

Sat – Sun, 22nd - 23rd December 2007: A Seahorse Monitoring Adventure

Despite the dire warnings from all the weeping prophets who had predicted monsoon storms and floods of frightful proportions when we had expressed our intention to drive south to Johor to participate in the seahorse monitoring project under the Save Our Seahorses programme, the weather was pleasant and cooperative throughout the weekend of 22nd and 23rd December.

And so 5 of us from MNS Selangor , including our Marine SIG Coordinator Hui-Min, and 10 others from MNS Penang gathered at the lobby of Euro Hotel, touted to be the first ‘designer’ hotel (meaning: pretty wallpaper, fancy Art Deco beds, poor ventilation and angular furniture that can put your eyes out if you are not careful) in Johor Bahru, by 2.15 p.m. on a scorcher of a Saturday afternoon to drive in a convoy to Kukup Island National Park. Following a briefing at the Visitor’s Information Centre, a 5-minute boat ride took us to the island, which was gazetted as a national park in 1997 due to its research and eco-tourism potential.

While still on the jetty, we spotted a lesser adjutant stork and a whimbrel on the mudflats, and later identified at least 4 types of bakau (mangrove) plants, tree ferns, giant mudskippers, blue-spotted mudskippers, mangrove crabs, fiddler crabs and molluscs such as noble volutes, ‘lokan’, ‘kupang’ and ‘siput sedut’ on either side of the boardwalk. A climb up a watchtower brought to view the forest canopy, a brahminy kite and a white-bellied sea eagle.

It started to drizzle but that did not deter us from ascending another tower to the suspension bridge across Sungai Ular (English translation: Snake River). The bridge was sturdily made but we were rather disappointed that we did not encounter any mangrove pit vipers or dog-faced water snakes to spice up our visit and make the climb more challenging.

The boatman then took us to a floating fish farm not far from the shore, where the proprietor’s hospitable offspring showed us archer fish, giant starfish, jellyfish, oysters and other marine life kept in enclosures, which they assured us were not for human consumption.

It was while on the said floating fish farm that we spotted another lesser adjutant stork on the beach. While we were still fumbling with our cameras and binoculars, a wild boar made a sudden appearance, but the stork was unfazed. The boar foraged for a bit and then ambled back into the thick foliage, leaving the unflappable stork alone again on the mudflats.

Wild Boar meets Lesser Adjutant Stork.

On the boat ride back to the mainland, we spotted more storks, whimbrels and white-bellied sea eagles, one of which made a spectacular dive, which we applauded heartily, never mind the fact that the eagle did not do it for our benefit. We ended Saturday on a high note with a sumptuous seafood dinner in Kukup town, and I retired to my hotel room to imbibe copious amounts of Stolichnaya vodka with lemonade and check my tome of Birds of South-East Asia.

The weather still held up on Sunday morning as we made our way to Sekolah Kebangsaan Tg. Kupang, as we had made arrangements for the Green Living SIG Coordinator (i.e. Yours Truly) to conduct outreach activities and games with the schoolchildren. A very dedicated schoolteacher, Cikgu Bakhtiar, who had worked with marine biologist Choo Chee Kuang of Save Our Seahorses (SOS) Malaysia on numerous occasions, had managed to corral 16 children to participate in the environmental education session despite it being the school holidays.

The first game they participated in was ‘Sharks vs. Dolphins’, which combined environmental and natural history knowledge with athletic speed. The next game was a less raucous Green Living Quiz Session and the children earned copies of the Malaysian Naturalist for each correct answer. The final game was Turtle Protectors, which required them to transport turtle cut-outs beyond the hungry mouths of waiting birds of prey. The children were rather shy, but demonstrated sensitivity to nature and were very sweet and respectful. One came up to me later and asked for my autograph. So much for all my stubborn declarations that I will never be a parent or a teacher! I seem to be spending a good deal of my spare time devising nature-related games and projects and doing environmental education work with the younger generation.

SOS Malaysia had kindly supplied refreshments for the schoolchildren and Cikgu Bakhtiar made a speech in appreciation of our efforts to involve the village children in conservation work. We then adjourned to lunch at a seaside restaurant where we could spot shorebirds, white-bellied sea eagles, white-throated kingfishers and flutefish all around us.

Explaining Climate Change to the local kids.

‘Sharks vs. Dolphins’.

We assembled at the SOS Research Centre after lunch to be briefed on our duties. We then left for the Pendas jetty, armed with our data collection tools. The film crew and host of 8TV’s ‘Step Forward’ joined us on the boats to document the amazing marine life at the seagrass beds.

Our first stop was Pulau Merambong, an uninhabited island said to be haunted and home to the burial grounds of someone of royal descent long ago. We could see the tomb from the beach and therefore kept reminding each other ‘not to talk trash or pee on the beach’. Soft corals, sea cucumbers of prodigious size, mudskippers, fiddler crabs, and other marine and coastal life forms populated the island.

Soon it was low tide and our boatmen took us to the seagrass bed in Pulai, a RAMSAR site, where we were to commence work. We (TV host and crew excluded) were divided into 4 teams and requested to spread out and start searching the seagrass for seahorses and pipefish. There were many distractions in the form of thorny sea slugs, enormous sea cucumbers, tube anemone, carpet anemone, molluscs, marine snails, giant starfish, sea squirts, sea pens and other creatures that looked like plants or seed pods but which squirted water in our faces and scuttled away when we picked them up. I wandered too far out and was completely immersed in brackish mud.

Altogether, the team caught, tagged and released 3 seahorses (Hippocampus Kuda) and 3 alligator pipefish on Sunday, 23rd December. The tagging was done via subcutaneous injection of elastomer. 2 baby seahorses were removed for genetic studies from a pregnant male seahorse’s pouch using a pipette. This will help verify the genetic diversity of the seahorse population in the area.

A seahorse! (Hippocampus Kuda)

Volunteers play a crucial role in the data collection process due to the labour-intensive and time-consuming nature of the task of combing the entire seagrass bed for specimens. Our assistance in the work of SOS Malaysia would help determine the environmental health of the area in the vicinity of the Port of Tanjung Pelepas and would go a long way in conserving the natural heritage of Malaysia.

Our boatmen came back for us at sundown and some of us were so hungry we ate the fruit of the seagrass plants, known as ‘buah setul’. The fruit tasted of water chestnuts and had a slightly salty tang. We returned to the Research Centre to clean our dive boots and equipment and to wash up. Before parting, we had group photos taken and received t-shirts from SOS Malaysia as mementoes of our weekend stint with them.

Our volunteering stint in Johor had enriched and educated us immeasurably and had heightened our appreciation of our vulnerable marine ecosystem.

For more information, please visit and sign the petition to save the Pulai River Estuary from unsustainable industrial activity and port development.