The event which took place deep in the waters of the Ribbon Reef located about an hour’s boat ride from Semporna gave me the impression that coral planting is only for divers.
That perception changed when I was assigned to another coral planting project, this time jointly organised by Junior Chamber of Commerce Luyang and the Borneo Reef World with support from Sabah Parks.
The mission which took place in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park off Kota Kinabalu was joined by 16 students from Hong Kong who came all the way to learn about our marine conservation efforts and also to enjoy the beauty and delicious food Sabah has to offer.
The project gave non-divers like me the opportunity to go underwater and be part of the activity, thanks to the sea walking facilities made available by Borneo Reef World under its Managing Director Theresa Tham.
As I stood on the sea walking platform my eagerness turned to anxiety but that feeling eventually faded as my sight became accustomed to being underwater.
It took me nearly 15 minutes to “plant” four coral fragments, it certainly wasn’t an easy task especially the part where I had to tie coral fragments to the iron frames while trying my best not to think about drowning.
All the frames with the corals attached to them were then placed in designated locations within the reef pontoon where its growth will be monitored by Sabah Parks and Borneo Reef World.
Sabah Parks Marine Research Officer Nasrulhakim Maidin said there are over 400 coral species in Sabah and more than 500 coral species in the region.
Out of the figure, a total of 131 coral species are found within Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park which is supposed to be a protected area after being gazetted as a marine park in 1974.
Unfortunately coral growth in the marine park has gradually dwindled no thanks to high sedimentation and high level of nutrients on the water surface.
The coral planting projects were somewhat meant to compensate what has been lost to years of fish bombing, cyanide fishing and land reclamation for development.
Branching coral species are recommended for coral planting projects due to its rapid growth compared to other coral species, but it would still take years, perhaps even decades, for these corals to develop into a colony.
Nasrulhakim said their experience and studies showed that coral growth in Semporna are three times higher compared to coral growth in Kota Kinabalu.
“In Tun Sakaran Marine Park for example, branching corals can grow up to 20cm a year, but corals of the same species only grow up to 6cm a year in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park.
“Almost 60 per cent of corals planted in Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park end up dying, while only 10 per cent die in Tun Sakaran Marine Park.
“Sabah Parks have gradually reduced fish bombing activities in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park which was once the hotbed of such activity.
“Many fishermen used to come this area to fish and it took time for people to finally recognise this place as a marine park,” he said. Among efforts to taken by Sabah Parks was to install bomb detectors around the marine park.
“About 64 explosions from fish bombing activities were detected between January and April this year, but all these explosions took place outside the marine park, it’s an indicator that fish bombing has gone down in this part of the ocean,” he said.
“Fish bombing used to be a major issue in Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, which is why Theresa and her team initiated the idea of coral planting to replace corals lost from all the fish bombing.
“We are now in the conservation phase, to rehabilitate areas which were destroyed by fish bombing, it is no longer an issue here, but is still a huge issue especially in Kudat and Semporna waters,” he said.
He also said that corals in Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park are faced with more stress compared to corals in Semporna, and among reasons for this is Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park’s close proximity to the city.
“Waters in Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park have high sedimentation and high level of nutrients on the water surface which will affect the growth and survival of our corals.
“Elevated nutrients on the water surface will be clouded by plankton reaching between one and five metres on the water surface, which in turn blocks sunlight from reaching the corals,” he said.
He said this would affect the corals because they depend on the algae that grow inside of them for oxygen, and since these algae needs sunlight to survive, corals also need sunlight to survive.
Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park has also lost between 15 and 20 per cent of its coral population no thanks to the land reclamation which started 10 years ago.
“Prior to 2000, we had a coverage of 40 to 50 per cent of the coral population, now we only see 20 to 25 per cent in Kota Kinabalu compared to the 60 to 70 per cent corals in Semporna.
“We see the very high difference, which is why we in Sabah Parks are doing our level best to understand and manage our corals but there are some issues which are beyond our control,” he said, citing rubbish which comes with rivers that flow from the city to the open sea.
“We need to engage the community, especially Kota Kinabalu residents, to know that rubbish they throw into the river will eventually end up in our islands.
“We will have to collect these rubbish washing up to shore and this would take up a huge allocation from our budget.
“We know this cannot be resolved within a day, which is why we encourage our young to be part of this effort and to realise the importance of marine conservation,” he said.
The number of rubbish collected in and around Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park could reach up to three tons a month.
These, he said, includes rubbish collected along the coastal area and trash thrown by tourists on the islands, despite advice for all tourists to bring as little rubbish as possible with them to the island.
Despite numerous gotong-royong programmes organised by City Hall and other agencies pollution caused by rubbish remains a common sight along our coastal area.
It got so bad that the Sessions Court in August here this year, decided to send a strong message on the importance of keeping clean by ordering 32 locals who polluted their area in Sembulan with rubbish to a month’s community service.
They were given the directive under the Compulsory Attendance Order under which they were ordered to clean their respective areas for four hours daily.
“We encourage and support those like the Borneo Reef World who initiate conservation programmes and we want people, especially those staying in Kota Kinabalu, to know that the city is the pulse to the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park,” said Nasrulhakim.
“This is also why we are trying to engage locals to help in the efforts, we may see many foreign tourists visiting the islands, but at the end of the day, it is support from locals that makes this a sustainable marine park.
“We need more locals to volunteer and support our conservation programmes, everyone is welcome to be part of our marine conservation volunteer team, you can be doctors, teachers, students, unemployed, it does not matter.
“Don’t think that Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park belongs to Sabah Parks or to the State, because the marine park actually belongs to everyone.
“Instead of spending your weekends at shopping malls, why not take your family out to the islands, enjoy the islands and do your part in keeping it clean because it belongs to all of us,” he said.
Meanwhile, Tham who has been actively involved in marine conservation projects for the past 15 years said her childhood passion for marine conservation was what motivated her to initiate coral planting activities for non-divers.
She attributed that passion to her mother who was also equally passionate about marine conservation.
Tham has even dedicated a reef pontoon at the Borneo Reef World to her mother who passed away in 2015.
Tham and her team are so highly committed to marine conservation efforts, that they organise at least six coral planting projects each year.
“We organise at least six coral projects annually, apart from doing conservation exercises to promote and create awareness on the importance of coral planting and the threats and issues faced by our marine ecosystem,” she said.
She said they started their coral planting project by placing corals on cement blocks which have since been shifted to iron frames coated with marine friendly chemicals.
“We studied how to create a marine block from a single small block, to a bigger block of 15 and 18 holes, we gradually learned from experience on which method is more effective.
“At that time, knowledge was very young, experience was very shallow, so it is through a lot of failure that brought us to where we are now, we also engaged marine teams from Universiti Malaysia Sabah to work with us.
“We are still learning, we share our experiences and that is why tying coral fragments to spiral iron frame by far is the best method, the shape of the frame makes it anti shock, its height also elevates coral growth because it allows enough sunshine to reach the corals.
“We have only recently started working with Sabah Parks on spreading awareness especially among youths, we think coral planting for non-divers would be the perfect platform to put words into action and create greater awareness.
“We hope to have a coral garden someday, and once the corals are matured, we will see a big colony of corals in this area,” she said.
My brief chat with Nasrulhakim and Tham has opened a new sense of awareness on how beautiful and also important coral reefs are to the ocean.
Coral planting may not be immediately accessible or available to everyone, but we can still do our part in marine conservation by disposing our rubbish into bins and not into the ocean.