Sunday, 19 February 2017

Week 1 in paradise for a new media intern.

Well it’s been approximately one week since I arrived at the beautiful tropical Pom Pom island to help out as part of the Tracc program. So today I must ignore the lure of the water, the call of the marine world just a short walk across the sand.  Tracc is a very special destination for many reasons, the camaraderie, scenery, diving, snorkelling and the great food. However one thing above all sets TRACC (Tropical Research And Conservation Centre) above any other holiday destination I could think of. At best when we go to a reef resort all we can hope for is to have zero negative impact on the marine environment. This includes not touching the bottom, wearing marine friendly sun screen, and removing all rubbish. TRACC takes zero impact one step further by it’s visitors having a positive impact on the marine environment. It’s always great to see a turtle relaxing on the sea floor but it’s that extra bit special when you see the turtle sitting amongst a part of the reef which the team has restored.

I can’t talk first hand on what it’s like to take part in one of the work teams placing blocks on the sea floor as I don’t have my open water certification. I can see that working as a team of divers placing blocks would be pretty good fun and make the dive that extra bit interesting. Not to mention the satisfaction you would get in seeing the marine life revelling in a playground you helped create. 

 Left: Coming to collect some blocks to take out to the reef.

Right: Crew  collecting samples to be planted back on the sea floor. 

Above: Kit demonstrating how the blocks will sit on the sea floor

What I can talk about is what it’s like to learn to dive at TRACC as I’m currently working through my PADI open water course. Most of the current team here at TRACC are certified to dive at various levels. This might be a little awkward for pretty much the only none diver here but it’s quite the opposite. There is no aloofness from team only legitimate interest in how my course is progressing which under the experienced eye of my instructor Katie all the way out from California is progressing well. Katie doesn’t mention it but I know I’ve thrown the occasional curve ball in there when we are underwater but she is always right there in the blink of eye if something doesn’t go as planned. 

Dive Instructor Katie

In the meantime while I work through my open water there is always snorkelling. I love snorkelling over the sections of reef which the TRACC team have created as there is always so much more marine life there. There is a slight current running right to left as I look out to sea so I walk along the beach to the right and let the current drift me back to camp. It’s so bewitching drifting along the reef as the aquatic life pass by that quite often there is no other option than to walk back up the beach and do it again. In fact as there is so much diving going on at TRACC, the shallower reefs are a snorkelers dream as I quite often have the entire shallow reef to myself. 

A Snorkelers view of divers below. 

Thursday, 2 February 2017

An incredible intern experience

On Monday I finally had to bid TRACC farewell. It was about the hardest goodbyes I have ever had to do. My days at TRACC have been some of my happiest and I am so incredibly greatful for the opportunity to be the social media intern at TRACC this summer.

The diving was unreal, and I feel so privileged to have been able to develop my relationship with our underwater world. I went from 8 dives to 85, and became certified as an advanced diver. My diving skills improved so much over this time. Under the awesome instruction of Gov, I learnt a huge amount about my buoyancy, navigation, and recovery of objects in the ocean. I was then able to use those skills in my conservation work- collecting and planting corals and sea fans, dropping artificial reefs, and conducting surveys and mapping underwater, and then passing on my newfound knowledge onto others.

I learnt about the marine ecosystems around Pom Pom, and was able to identify species and learn about the part they play in the ocean. If I ever had a question about science, I was able to immediately pick the minds of our talented science officers or interns and learn. I also learnt about the social aspects of marine conservation, and the issues facing local people- particularly the Bajau people from Kulapuan.

The greatest part about my time at TRACC has been the people. TRACC is a melting pot of cultures, all so different, but with similar ideas about the important responsibility we have to preserve our beautiful environment. I have made lifelong friends with people from all over the world, who beautifully all ended up stranded together on the desert island of Pom Pom.

I will not forget: Tent life, sandfly bites, rashy tan lines, naked final dive, grilled cheese late at night, sweaty Semporna shopping trips, late night girl talks, Jo's dance moves, ABC party, Allia's hugs, early morning dives, Aisyah's talks, Nathan's sass, Christmas diarrhoea, playing hearts while diving, Bohey Dulang views, Lilly's Cackle,  dance partys on the Jetty, noodles and rice, Gino <3, finding pant legs with Cam, Hallelujah camp fires, Diniy and the trigger fish, Bujaaaaannngggg, the tooth brushing station, Australia Day, and so much more.

Thank you to each and every staff member, intern and volunteer at TRACC for your passion, willingness to share and learn, dedication to tracc and all it stands for, and most of all for your friendship. I hope our paths will cross in the very near future. Most of all thank you to Steve Oakley for creating something magical. I only managed to meet you for three short days, but be assured your legacy is shining bright on Pom Pom.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Local staff at TRACC

Day to day life at TRACC is only made possible by the dedication and help of our incredible local staff. They are behind the scenes cooking, cleaning, filling our tanks, building, and maintaining our camp. We are so greatful for all that they do for us, and are proud to employ local to ensure money is going into the local economy to support local families. I had a chat to a few of our staff about their jobs and why they like working at TRACC.

Pak cik has been was TRACC since March 2016 as our boatman. He always has a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. This is his first job as a boatman for an organisation, but he has been driving boats for years. He knows the oceans in the area very well and keeps us safe on the water.

Miti has been with TRACC since 2011 as a boatman. He likes TRACC because it is close to his home island. TRACC also allows him to spend time with his family on his day off, which is not possible working at a resort.

Welman has been with us since 2013. He is our general all round camp go-to guy. He is a landscaper, boatman, and fix it man. He likes TRACC for its good environment, good wage, and friendly volunteers.

Jomoh has been filling and working on our tanks for the past 8 months. He used to work in a resort but prefers TRACC for its more positive work environment.

Dino has been at TRACC from the beginning. He met Steve a long time ago when an aquarium was being built in KK, and has been an invaluable part of TRACC since then, overseeing local staff and getting things done. He likes TRACC because he believes in the conservation, the people and the island life environment.

Kyryl had been at TRACC for four years. He was our compressor guy for three years, and now is a general maintenance guy. He likes TRACC because he can learn English, and because he feels happy and laughs here everyday. Oh and for the ladies (😂)

Neng has been a cook here for seven months. Cooking has always been a hobby of hers, so she is happy doing it here. She likes TRACC for the happy people she would otherwise not have the opportunity to meet. Her favourite food is kek batik.

Rasma has cooked at TRACC for 4 years, and was based in Semporna before this. She likes to cook for volunteers and loves everything she cooks.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Farewell Diniy

Diniy (or Dinley or Dino or Gino or D Dawg) has been a science intern with us here at TRACC since September. This guy is radicool and has been absolutely bomb to work with here at TRACC along with all the other volunteers. He has a passionate, hardworking and reliable presence and will be sorely missed when he heads back home to Brunei. I had a chat with Diniy this week to get his reflections on his time here at TRACC.

Before I came to TRACC I was working at tshirt printing company in Brunei for a while but all the time knowing it was not what I really wanted to do. So I began to search for internship opportunities in Malaysia to do with marine conservation. TRACC was the first group that got back to me so I thought why not?

I had studied marine biology at Newcastle University (graduating in 2015) so have a background in marine science. At uni I had done a lot of theory work, but not many practicals, and zero practicals to do with marine conservation. TRACC offered me a way to put theory into practice. I also wanted to get more into diving. A lot of my friends are divers and were encouraging me to do more. I came to TRACC with only four dives but amped to get more experience.

TRACC has taught me a lot about barriers to conservation. I realise first off, that there is not a huge amount of support for conservation and it is really difficult to get funding unless an investment will be immediately profitable. I also learnt a lot about the bajau people. Sustainable fishing is a deep rooted problem for bajau. They have been forced into unsustainable fishing practices because of their lack of country status and ability to gain work anywhere. They resort to risking their lives and destroying corals through bomb fishing as it is the only way they can feed their families and make any sort of income to advance beyond subsistence lifestyles. Visiting the bajau people on Kulapuan, and translating between them and our volunteers has taught me a lot about the reasons behind the the conservation issues at TRACC.

At TRACC I have learnt a lot about construction too. Before I came here I had never touched a power tool and now I can use a cement mixer, drill, single grinder. I know the process of planning, creating and dropping reefs. I had a science project, undertaking soft coral measurements of replanted coral. Whilst the project was not much of a success, we did learn a lot about the sedimentation rates at the north end if the beach, which is really useful for future projects.

The thing I like most about TRACC has been the people. Im constantly Meeting like minded people who want to give back to planet. It's so interesting hearing about how people got here and what drives them to come to a place like TRACC. I have also gained amazing diving experience.

I feel good about future of marine conservation. People often forget the ocean is teeming with life ands it's importance in the world. But more and more, oceans are gaining recognition. I would love to be able to start a similar project to TRACC in Brunei.

I'd like to thank TRACC, the workers, instructors, volunteers, DMs, interns, and Steve Oakley - for starting this incredible project, for making my four months here an incredible experience. I have met so many incredible people with interesting backgrounds - teachers, contractors, carpenters, wildlife officers, stock traders, lawyers, editors, a professional clown, etc. I won't forget my experience and the people I met. Finally, I'd like to thank my good friends, joey and monsoon the dogs, shov the instructors, tom and Christine the previous science officer and DM, Adam and basil the boss DMs, and Joachim and Allia the current science officers and Maddy for making me write this last paragraph for this interview 😂

Friday, 27 January 2017

Sunday funday trip to Kulapuan

Last Sunday we went om our Sunday Funday trip, this week we chose to go to Kulapuan. The trip was a great opportunity to visit the local village on Kulapuan, as well as explore a new dive site. (See my post about the film crew visit to learn more about the Bajau people who live on Kulapuan). We have a lot of volunteers at the moment so it took quite a lot of coordination to get everyone from Pom Pom with food and dive gear- but we made it there and back, alive and in one piece!

The first boat left at 7.30 with seven volunteers who were undertaking a survey of the intertidal zone on the island, lead by our A Level teacher, Allia. They looked at the large reef flat at Kulapuan by walking along a 100m line perpendicular to the shore with a one metre by one metre quadrant. It was an excellent learning opportunity for the volunteers in marine science methodology. The group found low biodiversity in the tidal zone, but high mass of certain species such as perrywinkle snails and brittle stars.

Hanging out in the intertidal zone after the survey

The rest of the group arrived at about 10am. We split into two groups. The first group went walking around the island and to the local village. They were able to see the Bajau people, and buy things from the shop. TRACC has a strong relationship with the village and the people. One vary noticeable thing at the village is the huge amount of trash littering the ground and floating in the sea. Most of this trash gets washed up from the mainland daily. There is no ability to dispose of the trash on the island, as the people are unable to transport it to Semporna. It is a major issue, and we hope to have more clean up days throughout the year on Kulapuan.

Customer service at the village shop 

The other group went out for their first dive of the day. We went right down from the newly built jetty. It was a lovely dive site with a lot of hard corals. There was a current we swam into to begin with, then we let it carry us back along the reef. We saw turtles, a few nudibranchs, and a white moray swimming along the coral. We came up from the dive and took our gear off. The air was very calm. Then, within about five minutes there was a shift, and the wind started howling and rain started pouring down. We made the decision to go back to Pom Pom and the next hour was spent packing up the boat in the pouring rain, and trying our best to keep warm with body heat and milo!! It was a crazy weather shift from the morning, but with patience and a good sense of humour we got everything packed up and headed back to Pom Pom, arriving just as the rain stopped..!

It was a full on and exciting day, and everyone sleeping extreamly well that night. Huge thanks to our amazing boatman, volunteers,  and staff for the day.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

A busy week of conservation at TRACC

This past week has been a busy one for conservation. We have had a lot of volunteers coming through with a huge amount of passion for undertaking conservation diving each day. The energy has been incredible and I am feeling very sad that my time at TRACC is so near to ending. But enough of that. I thought I would give an overview of the conservation we have been undertaking recently and how it is helping our reefs at Pom Pom.

To begin, last week we spent some time out snorkelling along our house reef, surveying the number and state of all of our bottle reefs. We split house reef into four segments so that we can rotate our conservation dives through each section to keep better track of our work over time. This information was then collated onto our data base.

We have done a lot of bottle reef maintenance this week. This involves snorkelling and collecting baskets of broken, but living coral from the sea floor. This is coral that has broken off due to stormy waters, or by tourists that have knocked coral and broken it. After collection we get kitted up in our dive gear and go back into the ocean. We take the coral and attach them with wire to the bottles on the bottle reef.  Between six of us we attach about 60 pieces of coral in 30 minutes at a depth of about three metres. The idea behind the reef is that the bottles provide a stable base for the coral to grow from, rather than just dying on the sea floor. Having more coral helps the ecosystem in so many ways- providing new habitat for marine animals, and stability for the reef.
A time lapse photo showing the growth of branching coral on the bottle reef over three months

We also went twice to an area of the island called lobster wall to collect some soft coral. Here, there is an area where there is a lot of soft coral growing naturally. We collect pieces from this area that are loose and attached to rubble. We fill up the bottom of two crates with the coral. This only takes about 15 minutes and gives us the chance to go on a fun dive to see the beautiful wall (and our lobster friends!). We then take the soft coral to an area on our house reef where we have dropped some nets. We place the coral under the net. The coral will grow and create a new carpet of soft coral along the slope- an area that is otherwise made up of broken dead coral.

Our net of soft coral growing on the slope

We spent one morning at the wreck dive site collecting gorgonian sea fans. We cut off small branches of the fans, or broken pieces that are on the ground. The fans are beautiful and delicate, and when you see it above the water it has the most incredibly vibrant colours. We took them down to the igloo shaped reefs we have in house reef. We attach the pieces with zip ties to the structure. The fans grow well on this structure, and we even discovered one fan that had attached on its own.
Gorgonian sea fans growing on our igloo reef

Apart from these projects, we made and dropped about 24 bottle reefs, and did some mad jetty jumping! It was a really satisfying, busy week. I find it absolutely incredible how much I have learnt about different ways of creating reefs in the past two months and how much we have achieved. Planting corals has also been so awesome for my buoyancy in the water.

Dropping bottle reefs

Loading up the bottle reefs into the kayak

Friday, 20 January 2017

Semporna Shopping Trips

Twice a week TRACC goes to the mainland to Semporna to pick up weekly supplies and new volunteers. Pom Pom island is very isolated, with no local village or town, so all food, drinking water, gas, reef making supplies, general camp and building supplies, and individual personal things must be brought over from Semporna.

Semporna is a chaotic little seaside town, and anybody who has been their knows that if you can skip a stay in Semporna, it's probably for the best. Doing the shopping is an interesting experience to say the least. Different people take responsibility for the job each week. In my time here I have helped out four times. The last time decided to lead the shopping trip rather than just helping out. I remember lying down to go to sleep the night before, and thinking " oh god. what have I done?"

We leave Pom Pom at around 8.30 in the morning with our amazing boatman Pak Cik and any volunteers that are leaving TRACC. When we arrive at Semporna we sadly farewell our volunteers, before getting down to business. First up is remembering how to drive stick in a big white people mover van. After a few deep breaths we were off. I had been given a map marked out with places to go and my amazing sidekick Aisyah directed me on our way. We dropped off empty water bottles, filled us petrol canisters, found bags of cement and wheelbarrows, brought pillows and fans for new volunteers, found fresh local fruit and vegetables, bargained over fish and ice, dropped off the TRACC laundry, and flew through the supermarket with two trolleys buying our groceries. At about 1.30 we stopped for roti for lunch at Bismillah, before continuing on with the jobs. In the afternoon we met up with the new volunteers who all offered a hand at loading and unloading the van and generally being in awe at the madness of Semporna. Of particular help on the last trip was an Australian joker by the name of Owen Jones-Hawke.

By the time 4.30 swung around and we were back at the jetty with all volunteers safety found, I was well and truly ready to sit down. And with everything loaded onto the boat i relaxed into my seat and let the wind dry my face from the sweat of Semporna, as we drove back to our happy place.

The return the the island is definitely the best part of the day. We come into view of the jetty and see volunteers waving, and Monsoon howling at us to get onto dry land. The boat is unloaded and I relax into a chair with a cold beer.

Shopping day is chaotic, but the satisfaction of navigating a foreign town, and providing the camp with all we need for the week is secretly very satisfying. It is another necessary and important part of life at Pom Pom- fist pump to the volunteer who takes up the challenge next week.

Check out this clip I made of one of our tips on facebook-  Semporna Shopping Video

Thursday, 12 January 2017

8TV Film Crew Visit

This week TRACC hosted a film crew from 8TV, here to make a series of documentaries. The three episodes will focus on the bajau people who live on and around the nearby island of Kulapuan, spear fishing at Kulapuan, and TRACCs involvement with marine conservation. I was lucky enough to be able to join in with the different aspects of filming at Pom Pom, on Kulapuan, and in Semporna. The trip to Kulapuan was a huge highlight for me and is something that will stick with me for a long time to come.

We arrived in Kulapuan in the late morning and were greeted by the chief of the village, Chief Ibnu. He was our guide for the day and was a delight to meet. We began by checking out the resort that is In the process of being set up. The resort is being lead by one of the bajau people who returned to the island with the idea to give back to his community. The hotel will be staffed and built by local bajau and will have the potential to bring in much needed incomes to the people.

We were then taken to the burial ground in the centre of the island. This is a tomb where one of the first settlers of Kulapuan is buried. The bajau settled on the island and feel safe living there because they believe that this ancestor will protect them. The bajau are stateless people and are in a vulnerable position with no recognised country to belong to. They are usually seabourne people, so the Kulapuan settlement is unique.

We were then taken to the centre of the island to view the well that has served the whole island (without drying up) for the past 50 years. The water is clean to drink and locals (both land and seabourne) come by too fill up canisters and bathe.

We then went back to the village and we taken to Ibnu's house for an interview with a local spearfisher. His family were incredibly hospitable and showed me around their home. After this we headed out on the boat to get some footage of the spear fisherman. Jo and I were there to keep an eye on the crew while they were diving. The spearfisher was incredibly strong in the water and it was a
spectacle watching him dive amongst the coral.

Kulapuan was incredibly welcoming to both TRACC and the film crew. It was so valuable to be able to learn about the bajau way of life and to be able to share their stories to promote the need to be recognised in Malaysia.

The following day the crew filmed us conducting a reef survey, dropping a net to preserve our reef, and working with our shark holding cage. They were a lot of fun to have around and we are really looking forward to seeing the finished documentaries! Thank you 8TV!

Thursday, 5 January 2017


Allia is one of our superstar science officers. She is from Kuala Lumpur and has been at TRACC since September, bringing sunshine to Pom Pom everyday.  I sat down with her to ask her a few questions about her TRACC experiences and how she came to be here.

How did you end up at TRACC? What does your role involve?

I actually found TRACC through google. I had just finished my marine biology and ecology masters in Townsville, Australia and was looking for a  marine science experience that would give me hands on work. I found TRACC and learnt about the internship, and the opportunity to stay on as science officer beyond that, so I applied. My dream job is to work in marine conservation to improve marine parks in Malaysia.

What is your role at TRACC?

My Job is to lead the conservation dives, and scientific projects, and to work with the head dive master on planning conservation dives. I train new volunteers in scientific methodology, and explain why and how we do things at TRACC. Jo and I supervise science interns with their projects. We will also be helping teach some of the topics in the A level course beginning this month. Beyond this, I also help with general camp maintenance.

Allia doing the TRACC introduction

What are the science projects you are undertaking at TRACC?

I conduct Biodiversity surveys. So every week I focus on one or two marine families and go to different dive sites to ID every species I see from that specific family. My project is part of a larger long term project to create a database for TRACC that shows which species are here, and where they are located.
In the future we hope to compare diversity in species here with other islands in the area, particularly the islands within the nearby marine park. If we can show that we have similar numbers and species there is potential to push for Pom Pom to be protected as a marine park in future.

Allia and Jo 

What do you like most about TRACC? 

The People. There are so many different types of people from different backgrounds here. You wouldn't expect us to all get on, but we do. We learn from each other. Ultimately weare all here for same goal- to protect the marine environment and to help our environment. It's an amazing place to be.

What sort have experiences have you gained here that are unique to TRACC?

So many. Everything here is so hands on. I have learned how to use lift bags, how to lead Conservation and recreational dives. Before I came, I had learnt in theory why we do things but had never done things in practice. You learn how to problem solve here. We run on limited resources and in an isolated environment so you have to be resourceful and learn that there are many things you cannot control. You have to work around issues.

Spirit animal?
Nautilus - because I am an  introvertabrate 😂

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Sunday Funday!!

Once a week at TRACC we have a day dedicated to getting out and exploring other islands and reefs close to Pom Pom. Our funday usually falls on a Saturday or Sunday, after we have spent the week creating and maintaining reefs, and doing PADI coursework. In the four weeks I have been here I have to say my favourite was our Sunday funday trip to Bohey Dulang.

Bohey Dulang is an island that is part of the Tun Sakaran Marine Park and is a 20 minute boat trip from Pom Pom Island. It is well known for its beautiful panoramic views over the island and ocean. We organised permits and headed off on our trip early on Sunday morning. We wanted to be the first ones to hike up the hill so we made sure we arrived just as the park opened at 9am. We arrived on time and immediately started our 600m ascent. Bohey Dulang is home to monkeys, lots of bird life, and cicadas. Unfortunately we were only able to hear the animals- they liked to keep hidden away from the track! It was a steep climb- made even harder by the heat, but after about 30 minutes we had made it to the top. And boy was it worth the hike. The photos only partly capture how stunning the view was. Plus we had made it up first, so got to experience the view uninterrupted by throngs of tourists. What. A. hike.

We walked our way down, and were followed by some adorable stray puppies in the last leg. Drenched in sweat, I immediately jumped off the jetty into the water. We then took the boat to the nearby island of Mantabaun, where we set ourselves up with some music and lunch (cooked by Neng that morning- Thank you!!). We chilled out for a couple of hours on the beach, some of us walked around the island, and some of us played cards in the shallows. After we felt we had been cooked enough by the sun, we headed around the corner by boat to go diving. It was a nice dive, with very little evidence of bomb fishing. The highlight would have to be Diniy bringing the pack of cards with him, and managing to get a game of hearts in during our safety stop at the end.

It was an all round epic day - One that will stick with me for a very long time to come!