Dolphinately,

December 31, 2016 § Leave a comment

 

Sorry (to myself) that I still have not yet harness the adequate self-discipline to pen down my doings, because I always felt that they were nothing compared to what others were up to, and I constantly put myself down thinking that I’m not doing enough. But in the end, it only matters to me that I’ve done enough, so enough with the self pity and let’s get on with it!

There has been a series of fortunate and not so fortunate events, ever since I came back home to Singapore on 6th Nov. I spent the first week recuperating at home, taking in the sights and sounds of the once familiar, and mostly gawking at the extra blubber of my 4-legged holothurian (sea cucumber) Ewok has gained over 4 months. It was a good week I would say. Then I decided that I did not want to let this holiday to go to waste.

Thanks to Yee Keat,  I manage to secure a volunteer position with Marecet, assisting a PhD student Sandra, as she embarks on her 5-year research project to study the social structure of Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis), which includes behaviour observation in relation to human activities.  This is by far the most last minute and spontaneous decision I’ve made in awhile. All it took was: dolphins, sea, and sun, and perhaps a chance to go diving on the given off day. SOLD. I vividly recalled being at the Underwater World Sentosa (which now cease to exist, and thank God for Yue Chin who suggested to visit it for the last time before I left for Tassie!) 11 years ago at age 10, I saw my very first dolphin! An entirely pink-bodied dolphin—like fairy floss pink—swimming in the greyish-brown waters of its outdoor, alongside a dolphin trainer. That was probably my first time seeing a cetacean and I remember it’s eyes, sparkling under the sun, just like the water. At then I remember thinking that all dolphins had to be pink.

map-langkawi-july-2014

A typical tourist map of Langkawi which we referred to throughout the trip, credit.

 

Comprising of 104 islands, Pulau Langkawi is known as the Jewel of Kedah (although it is geographically adjacent to Kuala Perlis on the mainland side), and also a highly adored tourist destination where the sun is always shining, and lots of westerners come here to seek their tropical desires as well as to escape the winter chill. We spent 8 days surveying along the East coast—departing every morning from the Northeast mangrove forest of Kilim jetty on Edie’s trusty outboard boat. “KILIM GEOFOREST PARK”, one would see this very words plastered onto a limestone karst formation, just like the “HOLYWOOD” hill sign in LA, as the estuary opens up to Andaman Sea. Located on the northwest of Peninsula Malaysia, it’s sheltered from the year end Northeast Monsoon (aka the wet season) where north easterly winds brings rainfall and thunderstorms to SEA (Southeast Asia) due to low pressure systems. Thanks to Amit and his video featured in Wiki, I finally understood why the bone-chilling winds in Tassie were so persistent and why clouds meant rain.

With good weather and sea state on our side most of the time (except for the last day where the true weather of Langkawi prevailed, and my butt will never forget), everyday was a great day to see dolphins! I still recall the first day and first sighting: it was 8 am, and as our boat sliced through the glassy calm waters and made its way out to Kilim Geopark, within 20 minutes or so we were greeted by a pod of Indo-Pacific finless porpoises (Neophocaena phocaenoides). According to Vivian, they were displaying more surface activity than the usual shy evasive behaviour. The group of 5-7 individuals stuck around for quite a bit before diving and not seen again. That was my first time seeing porpoises, probably the perfect appetizer before the main course.

PS: I declare no feasting on mammals was done, it’s just that everyone can relate to goodness of good food, and the goodness of marine mammal sighting was just as good, or even better. The kind of internal happiness tingling in the soul, you know what I mean!

Usually, our boat skipper aka Eagle Eye Edie, as the name emphatically suggests, would initiate the sighting as he points out to the horizon saying: “Depan depan” — meaning “in front” in Bahasa Melayu, and he would automatically speed towards the target. There is much to learn from the ways of EEE and his God-given talent..

Whenever there’s a confirmed sighting of the dolphins, everyone got to work. The photographers would be in position at the bow with their “machine gun”, firing endless shutters to get clear shots of the dorsal fins for ID, while volunteers (just the 2 of us, Bono and I) are assigned to keep a lookout for staggering individuals  (if it’s a big group) and record the sighting sheet. Being the only person on board with no first-hand experience, I took awhile to register the task I was given, while literally being surrounded by fins. DOLPHINS.  The struggle to keep myself on the boat was real, for Science and Sandra, I had to.

This reminded me of my time in Maldives, spotting spinners on the dolphin cruise. Sure the waters were much clearer, the spinners were stunningly acrobatic, and I could see their skin glistened under the limelight of the sun as they twirled in mid-air. They are literally the ballerinas of the blue. The excitement and adrenaline was there, but it felt slightly different, maybe because I was doing it for a different purpose this time.

A handy identification chart of marine mammals of SEA, last updated in 2011. Done by National University of Singapore

The next half of the survey was carried out along the man-made coast of Kuala Perlis and Kuala Kedah. Every morning we set out from the Lembaga Kemajuan Ikan Malaysia (LKIM) Negeri Perlis aka the Fisheries Development Authority of Malaysia, and one day we just decided to check out the fish landing site, which revealed only a mere glimpse of the magnitude of our destructive extraction from the ocean. It’s a completely different sight compared to choosing your fillet from the seafood vendor at your local wet market. Endless barrels of catch, filled to the brim and soaked in slush ice, were constantly being unloaded and rigged up from below the deck  like Mary Poppins emptying her magical purse. And there were all kinds of catch hauled by the mid-water trawler: fish to shellfish to crustaceans to molluscs, and even sharks and rays.

I mean, that is what one would expect to see, but when you actually see it for yourself, the immensity is quite overwhelming. And the other fishing boats have yet to unload, and other fleets are still out there somewhere, emptying the oceans net by net. But then when you see the other side of the story—the lives that depend on the catch for their livelihood, the suppliers to the demand—who’s truly at fault here? Or is over-fishing just another inevitable result arising from the fault of the Anthropocene. Do we really want to go down in history, denoting ourselves as the cause of the sixth mass extinction?  Gone were the days where we take only what we need and leave the land as it is. It makes me nervous as a student studying about fisheries management and as a lover of the sea and it’s inhabitants, about the future of our oceans..

Despite that slightly depressing morning, the survey made up for it as we encountered a huge ass pod of 60-70 Indo-Pacific humpbacks, and even spotted the Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris) that are the splitting image of snubfins down South, which I dreamt about a few nights before. We could have almost missed them if it weren’t for Sandra’s good call to clear the coast one last time. Dreams do come true!

 

To the people who ventured on this adventure (20th Nov – 10th Dec) with me, the moments we’ve bonded over, the memories we shared, will be forever etched in my sea of memories and they belong there forever, just like the wild beautiful lives of the ocean.

 

Lia

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