THE sign for “no service” flashes on the top left hand side of the display screen. Panning my handphone to the left, right and up, I frantically try to locate at least one bar to denote the presence of some sort of connection, but to no avail. After trying for a few minutes, I give up and switch my phone to airplane mode. Suffice to say, I’m now totally disconnected from the outside world. But I’m not panicking.
And why should I? I’m in Pulau Tinggi, located 30km off the east coast of Mersing in Johor, a secluded tropical island perfect for a weekend escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. And with its warm and clear waters, it’s a haven for divers and snorkellers to explore the underwater world. I’m here today with a group of media and eco-volunteers from BIMB Holding Berhad, Petronas and Mydin to participate in the financial institution’s environmental awareness and conservation programme.
Together with the Johor Marine Park Department, we’re here to build and deploy artificial reefs to raise the population of marine life in the designated areas. It’s hoped that this will consequently have a positive impact on the island’s eco-tourism.
It has certainly been an adventure just to get here. We started out late, the bus leaving our bustling capital in the wee hours of the morning. An accident on the road en route meant that we were stuck in a crawl in the dead of night. But no matter. We eventually arrive safely at the Tanjung Leman jetty in Mersing where a speed boat is already waiting to take us across to the island.
Our skipper, a young man clad in a long sleeved green T-shirt, seems to be in good spirits despite the early start. A lively dangdut (a genre of Indonesian music) version of the hugely catchy Despacito is blaring from the speakers and appears to be set on repeat mode. I close my eyes tightly in my attempt to hear only the soothing rhythmic swish, swish of the waves as the boat glides across the waters.
After about 20 minutes, we’re greeted by the spellbinding sight of clear emerald waters and a pristine white sandy beach. Such is the beauty of the scene before us that some of us can’t help reaching for our phones to capture the magic. The rest continue the walk towards the Marine Park Centre in Kampung Pasir Panjang not far from the jetty where we’ll be staying for the next couple of nights.
“This island has its own attraction,” begins Norsallehuddin Md Ali, head of the Education and Information Interpretation Division for the state’s Marine Park Department when we meet at the Marine Park Centre’s compound. “It has clown fish, dolphins, turtles, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to see dugongs as well.”
According to Norsallehuddin, who’s been working with the state’s Marine Park for 10 years, there are only about 100 dugongs left in Malaysia and more than half can be found here in Johor’s waters, known for the abundance of seagrass meadows which the sea cows feed on.
Sadly, the population of these marine mammals is declining due to sea pollution and illegal fishing. Just recently, the carcass of a dugong weighing about 100kg was found beached at Pulau Sibu, about a 15-minute boat ride from Pulau Tinggi. The male dugong was discovered by villagers on the beach of Kampung Lingka, Pulau Sibu. Bruises on the dugong’s body and mouth indicate that it may have been entangled in a fishing net before its death.
The carcass was subsequently sent to Pulau Tinggi where it was later buried. “The dugong was just a baby. We buried it out front,” says Norsallehuddin, his voice sad as he points to a grave marked with two sticks under a shady tree in front of the centre.
Fortunately, measures to protect these shy and non-active marine mammals are being taken; a recent one being the setting up of a dugong sanctuary in Pulau Sibu by the state government which will provide a safe haven for the dugong and protect its seagrass habitat.
In addition to the dugong, efforts to protect the reefs are also being actively taken as these corals are homes for many marine lives. To help with the growth of coral reefs and the fish population, artificial reefs are placed in a generally featureless sea bed. Squatting next to a complete structure, Norsallehuddin explains: “Divers will place this structure underwater, pluck some corals from the live one and tie them up with the zip ties. The corals will grow in a few months’ time and after a few years they’ll become healthy coral reefs. OK, so you guys can start making lah!”
While the volunteers nod enthusiastically and the non-divers swiftly reach out for the materials provided to begin building another structure, the divers gear up for their mission. Carefully, they carry the structure towards the jetty where a boat is waiting. As for me and the other non-divers, we take the opportunity to explore what this island has to offer.
SOAKING UP THE SUN
Legend has it that during the Malay Sultanate in the 12th century, this island was used by sailors sailing around Johor’s waters as shelter from monsoon winds and for supplies of clean water and food. It’s also believed that Admiral Hang Tuah made a stop here on his way from Pahang to seek Tun Teja’s hands in marriage for Sultan Mahmud Shah, who ruled the Sultanate of Malacca from 1488 to 1511.
The inhabitants here claim that there’s a well on the island which was used by Hang Tuah to obtain clean water during his voyage. So here I am in this history-rich island on a late Friday afternoon, enjoying my stroll along the extremely clean Pasir Panjang beach (there isn’t any rubbish in sight) after my failed attempts to find a network signal. My phone now serves as a camera as I look for Instagram-worthy spots whilst enjoying the serenity of my surrounds.
Hammocks and swings sway softly in the breeze and the sound of crashing waves is like music to my ears, luring me into the clear waters. Such is the clarity that there’s no need for goggles. You can spot fish swimming around just by standing waist-deep in the water.
One possible reason why this island seems “untouched” is probably due to the fact that Pulau Tinggi has been gazetted as a Marine Park since 1994. Both the locals and Marine Park Department work together tirelessly to care for this island.
Before Pulau Tinggi was gazetted, locals earned their living through fishing. To date, waters surrounding 42 islands in Malaysia have been gazetted as marine parks under the Fisheries Act 1985, to protect and conserve various aquatic habitats and marine life.
Locals could no longer go back to being fishermen so most of them retired and moved to the mainland while those who stayed behind make ends meet by establishing, or working at resorts and chalets. One of these is Mak Su, who has been running her business, Mak Su Chalet, for almost 20 years now.
The swim saps much of my energy and even before sunset, my tummy is already growling. Mak Su extends her warm hospitality and invites us to her cosy restaurant. The menu offers plenty of local favourites, cooked by one of her daughters. As the clock ticks, the need to recuperate and recharge after a long journey intensifies so we call it a night by 10pm.
The next day proves to be another wonderful one as our media group gets to enjoy a more leisurely afternoon in Pulau Tinggi. Meanwhile, the volunteers decide to get better acquainted with the locals in Pulau Sibu. As my media friends opt for some snorkelling near the jetty, I choose to bask in the sun with a fresh coconut drink in my hand which I had earlier bought from the small stall under a tree run by another daughter of Mak Su’s.
It’s early Sunday morning when we bid farewell to Pulau Tinggi and head to Pulau Sibu where we are to join the volunteers before making our way back to the mainland. As the ferry chugs its way slowly towards Tanjung Leman jetty, silence permeates, each person lost in his or her own thoughts.
It’s been an amazing three days and I’m positive that we’re leaving not just with memories but with a different perspective about eco-tourism and the importance of preserving our marine environment, especially in a beautiful island like Pulau Tinggi, while we still can.