Friday, 25 April 2014

Cleaning Things Up A Little

We have been going Reef Clean crazy these past few weeks at Scuba junkie.  Living the dive life isn’t always as glamorous as some may think! We have had beach cleans and reef cleans organised nearly 3 times a week. Our weeks of hard work culminated in Earth Day, where staff, interns and guests got involved in beach and reef cleans at 3 different islands. It may not be the most enjoyable of jobs, but it is extremely satisfying. 

Beach Clean at Si Amil
Whilst diving around Mabul, you will rarely encounter a severe amount of rubbish. We send off our team of staff and interns to clean the reef a few times a week to help reduce marine debris which is potentially harmful to coral reef and marine species. There are many reasons to get rubbish out of the ocean, but simply making things look prettier is not the primary concern. One of the main sources of food for a Green Turtle is jellyfish…and what looks extremely similar to a jelly fish? A plastic bag. It is extremely concerning how many turtles are dying all over the world because their insides are filled with plastic. It is not just turtles that are threatened by this problem. Recent pictures of Manta Rays surrounded by plastic bottles and food wrappers have horrified divers around the world – fishing is not the only danger facing these animals that we love so much. Rubbish in the water poses a serious threat to the health of many underwater creatures, which is why it is so important for us to organise regular reef cleans. 

Everyone has been getting involved!
It may seem like a reef clean is easy work; float around under water and collect a few pieces of rubbish. This is not quite the case. There are many things that need to be taken into consideration whilst reef cleaning and extra care must be taken. Unfortunately, not all rubbish can be collected – if a little critter has made a bottle its home, we can’t remove it. If an object has sat on a reef for a long time, then coral will start to grow around it, so removal of this item will damage the coral. Some items have sat on the reef for so long, we simply cannot remove it. Coral itself can sting, and great care must be taken when removing items from the reefs – gloves are an essential piece of equipment. Sometimes we find large and obscure objects; last year we recovered a washing machine from the corner of the island. Our team of staff and interns had to be extremely cautious whilst recovering such a heavy item. Once the rubbish has been collected we then record what it is we have – this information is then sent to them team at Project Aware and their ‘Dive against Debris’ programme (read more about this at This information is used to help build an idea of what underwater rubbish affects marine life.  It’s not all hard work though – it would be difficult to go to any dive site not to check out what under water creatures are hanging out there!


Of course, it is not just under water that waste needs to be dealt with. Every day that we organise a reef clean, you can bet there is a beach clean happening as well. This may be the least appealing side of the environmental work that we do, but it is certainly just as important as anything else. Over the last few years Scuba Junkie has worked with the local community with regard to waste management. Rubbish collection points have been set up around the island and removal of this waste is organised several times a week. We have also started working with the kids on the island, teaching them that plastic is damaging and encouraging them to use the bins placed around the villages.  However, there are some areas of the island that still benefit hugely from a weekly beach clean. It’s not the most glamorous of conservation jobs, like photo IDing mantas or releasing baby turtles, but when you see the amount of rubbish you have prevented from washing into the ocean, you can’t help but feel a sense of satisfaction and realise just how important this kind of conservation work is. We welcome any customer to come and help us out with our beach cleans; all you need is a bag, some plastic gloves and a willingness to get a little bit dirty. Every little helps! 

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Hammerheads, Manta Rays and Turtles - March 2014

There is no doubt that it has been an exceptional few weeks here at Scuba Junkie. Sipadan has continued to prove itself as an extraordinary place to dive. Our divers have been extremely lucky, and seen things that many people can only dream of. Not only have thing been incredible under water, but on land as well, with Turtles coming up to our beach laying eggs.

White Tip Reef Shark at Sipadan
Just a few weeks ago our Sipadan boat returned to the jetty with some incredible news. The divers had been lucky enough to see something that is unfortunately, increasingly rare around the world, Schooling Hammerheads. There are still a few places in the world where such a thing can be seen, and we are lucky enough to have one just a 25minute boat ride away from the Mabul Beach Resort. It was the last dive of the day and the two groups had headed off the wall in the hope of catching just a glimpse of this shy and graceful shark. The two dive groups were close together, hanging out in the blue, and this is where everyone saw them. The advanced group were a little bit deeper, and Khai, one of our experienced divemasters, said there were too many Hammerheads to count. It was not just the advanced group who were lucky, the open water group saw an incredible amount as well, and the school followed them back to the wall! To see a school of Scalloped Hammerheads is the dream of many divers, especially those who are based in this area and hear about encounters such as this. Scalloped Hammerheads are incredibly shy, and extremely endangered. It is thought that a ‘normal’ encounter with a Scalloped Hammerhead in this area is to see a ‘scout’: a single adult male that comes up from the school to investigate. It seems that although Hammerheads are shy, they are curious, once they establish that we are not food or a threat, they swim away.

Manta Ray - photo taken by Scott Meyer
The amazing diving we’ve had doesn’t stop there. Just a few days later the same guides – Cat and Khai, had another extremely exciting encounter. As they came towards the end of Barracuda Point – one of the most famous dive sites around Sipadan, a Manta Ray (Manta Alfredi) swam up the wall and stayed with them for several minutes. Videos show the elegant Manta Ray gliding along the reef, seemingly at ease with the divers following it. While there are a few islands around the world that have resident Manta Ray populations, here we see them as they cruise by on their journeys around the world. Sipadan sits where the continental shelf drops off, and is surrounded by extremely deep water. We see a lot of interesting behaviour and activity at this special island, and it is likely that the Manta Ray was stopping off for a few days to be cleaned and to feed. Very little is known about Manta Rays, it was only a few years ago that it was discovered that there are in fact two species of Manta Ray – the Manta Birostris (the giant or Oceanic Manta) and the Manta Alfredi (the reef Manta). Whilst research is being conducted on resident Manta Rays, those who are more pelagic remain elusive. The underside of a Manta Ray acts as a fingerprint, and photos of this are used to ID the Manta Rays. One of our guests sent her ID photo of the Manta Ray to the Manta Trust, who confirmed the Manta Ray had not been spotted before and so she could name it. It is the first Manta Ray to have been ID-ed in Malaysian waters through this scientific database, although many have been seen, an exciting contribution to Manta Ray research. (To find out more visit Also, the lucky bunch saw it twice in one day, as well as on the same dive an encounter with a Scalloped Hammerhead…some people get all the luck!

As with many of the underwater creatures we love, these gentle giants are globally under serious threat from over fishing and by-catch and are in high demand for the Chinese medicine trade where their gill rakers are thought to have healing qualities. Sadly, their populations are in decline world-wide, so this is why we encourage responsible behaviour around them, as well as getting people to upload their sightings for scientific purposes. It is also why we have been working with the Manta Trust for the last few years, specifically on what appear to be our resident Devil Ray populations and we are in the process of setting up the ‘Malaysian Mobulid Project’ - more on that to come!

Turtle Eggs
It was not just underwater where we had exciting things happening over the last few weeks. In the past fortnight, we’ve had not one, not two, but three turtles come up and lay nests on Mabul island. People from the local village alert Scuba Junkie so that the eggs can be safely relocated to our Mabul Turtle Hatchery by our trained staff. Here they can be monitored and the nests remain safe from predators or the actions of humans. The first of our 3 laying turtles was a Hawksbill. The Mabul Turtle hatchery was set up in 2012, and along with it an incredible incentive scheme so that nests around the whole island could be protected. Scuba Junkie works closely with the local community and if we are informed of a turtle coming up to lay eggs - under very strict guidelines and for the increased protection of the nest - we will relocate those eggs. If the nest can be left in Situ, then this is the best policy but many times these nests are too close to the tide line or are within the village area itself, making the chances of hatchling survival almost non-existent. Once the area in which the female has come to lay is secured they are allowed to nest naturally and return to the sea, only then are the eggs relocated. If this is done to our strict guidelines we then donate RM10 to the local community for every egg that is relocated safely to our hatchery. In an area where there are poor communities and turtle eggs is sold for 2RM as food, it is an amazing initiative and we have created an island of ‘rangers’ and give the nests more worth then eating or selling them. 

Relocating a nest
Many of our staff are fully trained in relocating the eggs so that no harm is done to them and a high rate of hatching is ensured. Relocating a turtle nest is a complicated process. A female turtle will use her hind flippers to dig a deep hole for laying her eggs into and then will spend a lot of time camouflaging the area. We must wait for her to return to the ocean, and then they can start to find the eggs. Once the nest is found they must record how deep it is, so they can recreate the original setting as much as possible. The eggs are extremely carefully placed into a large bucket that has been filled with sand. This is a highly delicate process, the eggs must not be turned or moved too quickly and the greatest care is taken when relocating them. The buckets are then carefully taken to our turtle hatchery and a new nest is dug for them, at the same depth as their original home. They are cautiously placed back into the sand and the nest filled up. Once the nest is relocated to our protected area, they are given the best chance of survival, and after 6-8 weeks they hatch. Once they hatch we take the tiny baby turtles to a few meters off the shore line and watch them sprint into the ocean. The nest from this particular Hawksbill Turtle had 131 eggs, which is an extremely high number…or so we thought. 

Just a week or so later we receive a call at about 10pm that a Green Turtle was getting ready to lay a nest on our beach. The nesting process is not a short one. A female will take her time picking a spot to lay, and once she does so will spend often over an hour, disguising where the nest is - so patience is key. Hours after the call had been received; we relocated 150 eggs to our hatchery! A record breaking amount. Just as they had finished relocating the eggs, another call was received informing us that another Green Turtle had been seen on the other side of the island. This time the nest had 151 eggs! We now have over 400 eggs in the Mabul Turtle Hatchery. They will be hatching in about 2months, so maybe that’s something to consider if you’re thinking of visiting us soon! We collect and correlate this data for future projects with external NGOs and this project has proven to be very successful over the last few years.

Manta Alfredi - photo by Leanne Briscoe

Facts about Manta Alfredi:
  • ·         Manta Rays have the largest brains of all fish
  • ·         Although they are large in size (up to 5.5m) they feed on the smallest organisms in the ocean
  • ·         They are sometimes seen breaching out of the water, this could be for many reasons: clearing parasites off their body, a form of communication, to escape predators or just for fun
  • ·         They can regenerate tissue after being attacked by predators
  • ·         Eggs develop in a female manta ray for nearly a year, and just one pup is born at a time
  • ·         The lifespan of a Manta Alfredi is unknown, but thought to be 40 years or more. 
  • ·         Threats include being caught a bycatch, becoming tangled in fishing lines or nets, or being caught to have their gill rakers sold in the Chinese medicine market.
  • ·         Ingestion of plastic is also a big problem for Manta Rays
  • ·         They are listed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the ICUN Red List