Practical Placement Perhentian Islands, Malaysia
This is an intensive 4 week practical placement where volunteers get hands-on marine biology work experience by working in a marine research station that involves the local village boatmen in conducting daily surveys to better understand the problem and empower them to protect their own islands.
The corals in Malaysia are suffering largely from tourism due to increased pollution and physical damage from tourists.
During 2019, the project focused on creating a health map of the corals and seagrass in the Perhentian Islands. The map produced some interesting results, showing some key areas which need to be protected and others which are damaged. With the help of the map, conservation actions will be directed along with our involvement in the Perhentian Islands Management Action plan. In 2020 the focus will be on seagrass research and then focus on coral rehabilitation in damaged but suitable areas for growth and also conduct photo ID research into sea turtles, sharks and experimentally on other keystone species.
Seagrass mapping and Surveys:
The seagrass surveys are repeated twice a year. Once at the start of the season and again at the end of the season. The research station will focus 100% on these surveys during these periods and not offer the Conservation in Action programme. The training programme is 4 weeks for qualified divers - or if unqualified, students can conduct a PADI course in the week before making the experience a 5 week programme. In the first week the students will learn the history, methodology and practical training of Seagrass Watch. Seagrass Watch is the globally recognised standardised survey for seagrass and will produce comparable data to other seagrass beds around the world and year on year. These surveys are very important as they enable scientists to assess the health of the seagrass beds and then compare the year on year results so that decisions can be made about further conservation action.
Week 1 - Training for seagrass watch – a combination of presentations, videos, worksheets and practical surveys.
Week 2-4 – Official Seagrass Watch surveys – 8 dives per week. During the surveys some divers will be assessing the seagrass beds using quadrats while others will be mapping the outer boundary of the seagrass beds. Additionally any sharks, turtles and juvenile sea horses will be photographed and recorded for Photo ID purposes.
Conservation in Action
The main bulk of the diving season will be focused on conservation actions including coral rehabilitation programmes in conjunction with the marine parks and various dive centres around the islands. The method has been tested by the Marine parks staff and consists of attaching broken fragments of coral to a PVC frame.
The coral fragments grow and together with new coral recruitments, these will make small new coral reefs. The growth rate of broken pieces of corals is 400 times faster than the established coral colonies. The purpose of the coral frames is to provide additional fish habitat as well as to allow otherwise broken coral fragments with a second chance. Students may be involved in setting up new frames, helping to clean and maintain established frames or collecting monitoring data.
During other dives, students assist with contributing to the sea turtle photo ID database and establishing a new shark and seahorse photo ID database for the marine parks. Photo ID studies are an inexpensive and effective way to identify individual animals as many have unique patterns to the individual - similar to human thumb prints. An example of the outcome of this research is how the turtle photo ID programme has shown that the nesting turtles are not seen during the day in the marine parks but go somewhere else outside of the marine park. Therefore the next step to protect those nesting turtles is to gain funding to satellite track those nesting mothers to see where they go in between nesting (they nest between 6-10 times per year before migrating to other seagrass areas). Additionally the sea turtles that are seen eating seagrass in the islands are migratory turtles who nest in locations in Vietnam, Philippines and other Malaysian Islands. Therefore collaborations between these countries and us are starting up as a result of the photo ID research obtained by this project.
Artificial Reef Assessments
The Marine parks recently sunk several structures on the boundaries of the marine park to act as new fishing grounds where the villagers can fish, in order to reduce the pressures on the natural reefs - where the villagers currently fish. These structures need to be assessed for fish quantities and health before they are opened for fishing. Students help to conduct fish counts and video transect surveys to help researchers to assess the FADs (Fish Aggregating Devices).
Other Marine Biology Work Experience in Assessments
Students may also get involved with collecting information on several other aspects such as collecting data loggers for sea temperature, water quality, turbidity, wave height, salinity etc. These factors are very important and help scientists to better understand the abiotic factors impacting on the reefs and seagrass.