TRACC Borneo Volunteers

Sighting, stories, reviews, and experiences from the diving and snorkeling volunteers with TRACC.


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5 Easy Ways to Help Save Our Oceans

As marine conservationists and avid scuba divers, we here at TRACC are passionate about saving our oceans. The ocean is the earths lifeline, as our largest ecosystem it is also our largest life support system. For all of us to survive, it's essential to keep our seas as happy and healthy as possible. The task of saving our oceans can be pretty overwhelming, with so many different aspects having a direct impact on our oceans health. But fear not! Here are five small things you, and everyone, can do to help keep our oceans happy. 


A snapshot in the lives of the Bajau Laut.

Bajau children at Timba Timba jetty
Before travelling to Sabah, Borneo I didn’t know anything about the Bajau Laut, their fascinating way of life and the strong connection with the ocean. Their life is vibrant, passionate and extremely tough. They are some of the last true nomads of the sea.  

The Bajau Laut are stateless sea nomads who live off the coast of Sabah, Borneo. Traditionally, these boat dwelling nomads are from the many islands of the Sulu Archipelago in the Philippines but many have migrated to Sabah, due to conflict. They have no citizenship and therefore no rights to public amenities, medical care or school. They live on their Lepa Lepa wooden houseboats or in stilt huts built atop coral reefs near Semporna’s islands.  
Bajau children on their lepa.

Stilt huts on Pulau Mantabuan.
They live a simple life on the water and rely on the sea for trade and for food sources. They are amazing free divers and have developed superb eyesight under water and are able to dive up to 20 meters without breathing apparatus allowing them to hunt and fish. Depleting fish in the ocean have posed a big challenge to the Bajau Laut as well as being a stateless community. The fate of these communities is very uncertain. Many are driven to the land by a decreasing supply of food in the sea and live in poverty. I feel saddened by the plight of the Bajau Laut and especially the future of the children.
Tracc has a strong relationship with the Bajau village on the neighbouring island of Kalapuan, a 15 minute boat ride away. TRACC  engages in community projects, educating and involving the village in conservation projects, working together in restoring the reef around the island and teaching the community about the importance of taking care of the environment.

Last week some of the Tracc volunteers visited Semporna for the Regatta Lepa Semporna. It is an annual state event that pay homage to the lepa: a traditional single-mast sailing boat of the Bajau of Semporna. A flotilla of colourful boats dot the Celebes Sea as they compete for the title of 'Most Beautiful Lepa'.

The most beautiful lepa of 2017.

Traditional lepa.

“To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.”  Nelson Mandela

We Need A Wave Of Change

Recently I watched the movie “A plastic ocean” described by Sir David Attenborough as “one of the most important films of our time”. It features devastating and far reaching consequences of our addiction to plastic and the steps that must be taken to save our oceans, our planet and ourselves. The film’s message raises the awareness of plastic pollution and the existing solutions.


Returning to Pom Pom island, the place of magical sunsets.


Last December my daughter and I spent 2 weeks volunteering at TRACC. We had an amazing time and loved every minute of our stay. We snorkelled every day and observed a big array of marine creatures. We both don’t have a marine science background and learned so much.  Everyday marine science officers Jo and Allia made sure there was a project we could help with/work on even as non -divers. We collected coral and made coral biscuits, cleaned bottles for the making of artificial reefs, we did turtle surveys, underwater reef cleans and the list goes on. 

Coral biscuits

Snorkelling the house reef

When in January TRACC was looking for a volunteer social media intern, my husband opted we should apply and share the role. (Unfortunately due to responsibilities at home we were unable to come to Pom Pom together)  So now I am picking up the baton from Andrew and returning to TRACC and beautiful Pom Pom Island.

I am looking forward to the challenge and I am very excited to learn to dive. The great thing about volunteering at TRACC is that you are not only enjoying the beautiful underwater world but also able to help in conserving and protecting it.

Coral reefs are spectacular natural areas and they are vital for people and nature. Coral reefs cover less than 0.1% of the ocean’s floor, yet 25% of all fish species are dependent on them. Coral reefs are the nurseries of the ocean. Unfortunately coral reefs are threatened worldwide. The most important causes for coral reef degradation are climate change, destructive fishing methods, unsustainable and excessive forms of tourism and pollution. The coral reefs around Pom Pom island have been seriously damaged by blast or bomb fishing. TRACC’s conservation work includes coral planting and reef regeneration, a kind of underwater gardening. A healthy reef improves biodiversity and supports the healthy ecosystems on which humanity depends.
Coral reef at Pulau Timba Timba

“Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson


Sunday - Fun Day

There is a tradition at TRACC to down tools on Sundays and just find fun things to do. It's always a bit of a surprise waiting to see what the crew will think up to entertain us with on Sundays. This week was a double treat as the dive masters chose two seperate islands to explore from the water.

The crew know the surrounding areas really well so it doesn't take them long to find us some great places to dive.

We started our morning with a quick trip in the boat known as the "Green Turtle".
After a quick stop by at the police to let them know we were diving near by we headed to a dive wall of the coast of Kalapuan.  The tides a creating a bit of cloud at the moment but it adds to the mystique of the walls which disappear into the darkness below, leaving us to ponder what lays beneath looking up at our silhouettes as we pass by.

Cameron and Sonny exploring the wall at Kalapuan

After our first dive we have morning tea to freshen up and allow our nitrogen to balance out prior to the next dive.

Having morning tea on the Green Turtle between dives
Just to give ourselves a little longer out of the dive gear we headed over to Timba Timba to do some jetty jumping. 

The crew lining up on the Timba Timba jetty for some quick dives. 

Our next dive was off the coast of Timba Timba where dive masters Sonny, Alessio and Adam managed to find us another wall to explore. 

Sonny, Cameron and Nathan exploring the reef at Timba Timba
Cameron after seeing a large groper swim by. 

Once back on Pom Pom Island there was still enough daylight for one final dive to my favourite dive site, a small wreck walking distance from the TRACC campsite. 

Although the current was very strong which stirred up a lot of sediment and made the dive difficult it was still great to see the fish hiding from the current in the wreck. 

Sweetlips and midnight snapper sheltering in the wreck. 

While Norma holds a rope against the current Katie uses her slate to ask if she is OK with the strong current

A turtle passes us by while we were on the wreck dive


Visit from Ross School - New York

It is not uncommon for new people to arrive at the TRACC campsite when the boat returns from Semporna with fresh supplies. New people are quickly assimilated into the TRACC community. However this week it wasn’t one or two new people arriving but 30 new people arriving as the Ross School stopped by Pom Pom island as part of their Borneo field trip. 

*A video record of the Ross School visit is also on youtube. Ross School Visit to TRACC

Boats arriving with students from Ross School

Students enjoying sunset on their first evening at Pom Pom Island
Alessio talking about palm oil. 

It was a vast change in dynamics because now the TRACC team were outnumbered almost 2 to 1 with people new to camp life. Luckily the students and teachers were eager to jump in and learn about life on a tropical island. Traveling is always exhausting so we were impressed that at the end of a long day the students managed to stay attentive through the induction and some opening presentations. 

The Ross school was with us for a total of 3 days and we managed to fit a lot into a short period with many presentations covering things such as dangers to watch out for in the marine environment, the importance of mangroves, the impact of palm oil on the environment, issues caused by shark finning and many more. 

Cameron giving presentation on mangroves
Sitting around campfire at night

On the morning of their departure we managed to catch up with some of the teachers and students and it was great to hear that they took a lot out of their short stay with us. Everyone had a slightly different highlight although a common theme was that everyone really enjoyed their time at island of Kalapuan. We traveled in 3 boats from Pom Pom island to Kalapuan island and docked at the house of one of the locals there. The temperature seemed much hotter at Kalapuan than at Pom Pom island as we were sheltered from any wind. Despite the tropical heat the students and teachers jumped in with a number of activities including making cement to be used to build artificial reefs, a beach clean where the local kids helped out and a walk around the island. The highlight for many of the TRACC team was watching the students dance with the local children. Despite being very young or perhaps because of it the locals were amazingly fast learners and could instantly mirror the dance moves the Ross students where doing. 

Dancing with the children at Kalapuan Island

Giving some treats to the kids who helped with beach clean

Building bottle reefs to help restore the coral

Ross school students helping out with beach clean

Fast learners local children dance with students

TRACC team with Ross School team.


Week of extreme training

Finding a way to carry a person out of the water

This week the TRACC camp has been dominated by advanced training with 3 courses taking place throughout the week. These were the EFR (Emergency First Response) the rescue and the dive master courses. The TRACC Tech diver Iena has been kept extremely busy but so have most of the other members of the TRACC team who have been acting as either people needing rescue or people being hysterical because they know someone needs rescue. Of course it was all acting and nobody actually was in distress but the acting was very authentic and anyone walking past would have been forgiven for being a little confused about the all the action. 

Working as a team

It was very interesting to see what some of these courses entailed and I have nothing but respect for the people who managed to complete them. 

The final scenario 
During the week people have been working through a number of rescue and EFR scenarios. As the week progressed the scenarios got increasingly more manic, as the scenarios got more creative and the actors improved their improvisation until the scenarios became all but real. The final scenario can only be described as pandemonium. I had to marvel at how dive master Alessio held it together while trying to resuscitate a dummy while surrounded by people yelling at him that he was doing it wrong, pushing him and generally trying to distract him. I’m sure it must represent what first response people must sometimes have to go through being first on the scene with distraught friends and family surrounding a victim.

Helen and Alessio realising they are now dive masters

Last night was a bit of a celebration for the outstanding performance of those people completing courses throughout the week and in particular a celebration of Helen and Alessio who became dive masters. Alessio will stay on at TRACC for a few months now as one of the resident dive masters and will help support Katie the TRACC diving instructor. 


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. 


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.


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.

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