WHAT’S IT LIKE……volunteering to build coral reefs in Borneo?
It is an amazing opportunity to help take care of our oceans and learn about reef systems, feel the ups and downs of remote, paradise island life and gain tons of scuba diving experience! Sadie from Eclectic Trekker graciously wrote a guest blog this week to tell all of us about her six-week adventure helping to build reefs off Pom Pom Island along the coast of the Malaysian island of Borneo!
Did you know that we CAN rebuild the coral reefs?
I had no idea until I spent 6 weeks volunteering at the Tropical Research and Conservation Center (TRACC) on Pom Pom Island near mainland Borneo. I was under the impression that once the coral is dead, it’s gone, but now I know that simply isn’t true.
Pom Pom Island is a tiny piece of land located in what is called the Coral Triangle. This area of the world is home to almost a thousand different species of coral. Along with the diverse community of coral, 7 species of sea turtles and over 2000 different kinds of fish call this area home.
Fishing is huge in the area. Boats ranging from large fishery vessels to small row boats fill the waters.
Most of them choose to fish the legal way with nets or lines, but there are still people who choose to take a risk and continue catching fish illegally by throwing a bomb in the water. This way they can kill multiple fish in a matter of a minutes, however they also completely obliterate the coral underneath them at the same time.
Bomb fishing has been a huge culprit in the destruction of coral reefs in this area as well as throughout SE Asia.
I don’t know what the coral reef around Pom Pom Island looked like before it was torn apart by bomb fishing but, seeing the miles and miles of rubble can only make me guess.
TRACC has been working hard to restore the coral reef on Pom Pom for the last 3 years, and they have made some really great progress. People who have been with the program since the beginning told me horror stories of how poor the state of the reef was before they got there.
They said there were no more big fish to be seen and the only inhabitants left in the area were small fish and tiny microorganisms. The last shark that was seen in the area was well over 10 years ago, which is very disturbing.
Since TRACC has been working on the reef, huge changes have started to occur. More and more fish are starting to move back into the area, and the reef is becoming healthier and more beautiful everyday.
Volunteers play a huge part in TRACC’s success. I was with the program for 6 weeks and saw vast improvements. I was diving anywhere from 2 to 5 times a day 6 days a week. We were given 1 dry day each week, but could go out on fun dives of we felt like it.
Our projects varied depending on the currents and weather. If the current was manageable, we would lay nets and transplant soft coral creating a sturdy ground cover or drop and place artificial reefs for hard coral growth. Strong currents meant that we would be doing more observational work. TRACC wanted to keep a good eye on the different species of fish in the area. Did we see a balanced age range? How many? What are they eating? For the reef to survive, there must be a balance amongst the marine animals too.
Green and hawksbill turtles nest in the area as well, but poachers have drastically reduced the number of turtles that actually hatch. Apparently turtle eggs bring in a hefty price at fancier restaurants in areas of Asia. The locals also just see the eggs as food, so they will snatch them up for dinner. Volunteers at TRACC are also in charge of patrolling the beach at night during nesting season to help ward off poachers.
THE POSITIVES: I think the knowledge I gained while working with TRACC is my biggest take away. I knew very little about coral beforehand. Even now I have only scratched the surface, but at least I understand it a little bit more and am able to tell others about the importance of our reefs and what we can do to save them.
Another huge positive is that you can dive as much as you want with gear provided by TRACC. I didn’t have to travel with loads of dive gear. All I had to do was bring the basics; mask, snorkel, fins, etc. TRACC provides an unlimited supply of air and tanks and all the bulkier equipment like your BCD. They also have extra dive computers for anyone looking to keep a good log of their dives.
You can take dive courses at no extra cost. I was also able to up my dive certification from advanced to rescue diver. When I arrived to TRACC, I only had 23 dives under my belt, but I left Borneo with 112! Now I am so comfortable in the water.
When you aren’t diving, you are welcome to enjoy other activities as well. TRACC has a couple of kayaks and a paddleboard. You can also go for a snorkel in the shallower waters all around the island.
You’re living in paradise. The living conditions are minimal, but the area you are living is an absolute paradise. The island is very small. There are no cars or any mode of land transportation, so you don’t have to worry about it being overcrowded. The only other people on the island are the staff and guests of 2 dive resorts. Every evening all of the volunteers would gather out on the jetty for a cold beer and a game of Uno while watching the sunset across the water. You couldn’t ask for a better setting!
THE NEGATIVES: I mentioned before that the living conditions are minimal. Not too much can be built up when you have to transport materials from the mainland. TRACC doesn’t have the money that the richer resorts have, so they make due with what they have. Volunteers each get their own private tent with a tarp covering them. The rain comes down hard on the little island and the tarp is nice to have. I still had a little bit of water get into my tent, but it wasn’t bad. Other volunteers were not so lucky and there were a few instances where flooding was involved. You should also be comfortable using an outdoor toilet and shower. They are blocked off by tarps, but there are no roofs.
There is minimal electricity on the island. Everything is run off of generators, so volunteers have to switch out charging their electronics at night when the power is on. I brought a solar charger for my smaller items and was so happy I did. Saved me numerous times.
Giant centipedes also call Pom Pom Island home, and they tend to enjoy crawling into small dark spaces, i.e dive booties (I know from experience). They would also let themselves into open tents if given the opportunity. I was lucky enough to avoid being bitten, but I have heard it hurts like hell. Huge huntsman spiders were all around too. If you are squeamish around creepy crawlies, I don’t recommend staying on Pom Pom Island.
HOUSING AND FOOD: As said before, you will be living in your own private tent with a cot to sleep on. Water and food are provided along with all the gear needed to dive minus the basic kit. They do have extra masks and fins in case you absolutely don’t want to bring your own, but I recommend having a mask and fins fitted to your needs. I also highly recommend bringing a pair of booties or crocs. The dead coral rubble is sharp, and it is everywhere. Many of the dives are shore dives, so you have to walk over the rubble.
HOW CAN YOU BUILD REEFS IN BORNEO: I found TRACC through Google, but you can sign up on their website. I made the mistake of signing up through a booking company that claimed they ran the program and charged me 25% more. I know it is as shady as it sounds but live and learn. When you sign up directly through TRACC’s website, you know your money is going right back into the program.
I am so happy to have had this experience! TRACC opened my eyes to a whole new world, and now I am trying to spread the word on saving our oceans. I can’t wait to come back to TRACC in a few years and see how much has changed.
SADIE’S BIO: Sadie has been traveling the world off and on for the last 8 years. She is continually looking for volunteer opportunities focused on animals and environmental conservation. Sadie has worked on a boat with great white sharks, slept amongst hyenas, and much more. You can follow Sadie’s adventures on her blog Eclectic Trekker or find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
A HUGE THANK YOU to Sadie for sharing her fantastic experience of how she got to build reefs in Borneo! It is great to hear about a different way to give back, especially when you can have so much fun doing it! For more ways to clean up the oceans and help have healthy reefs, read about underwater reef clean ups right here!
Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are Sadie Redinger’s and do not express the opinions of others or the staff of Fins to Spurs. Also, this is an article about Sadie’s experience working with one company and will probably vary for others during different times, with different people and with different companies. Use your head.