Under the Surface

I’ve just spent eight days at Pulau Tioman (Tioman Island) in the South China Sea. Inhabited only for the last 150 years or so, and 2hrs by ferry from the less developed East Coast of Malaysia, it has retained most of its jungle. It is also surrounded by coral. (Pity about the litter that punctuates the coral beaches and, less often, the reefs)

English: Tioman Island, Malaysia, by Andrew Lih

The power of time spent in or just near the wilderness to rejuvenate and re-energise me is often surprising and always welcome. I arrived feeling run-down, overwhelmed by being on the road again, and the amount of work to do to prepare my PhD application. I had been attacked by bedbugs in a cheap hotel on the mainland, and gnawed by worries of everything that could go wrong with this trip. Now I feel as relaxed as the turtle I saw today, paddling languidly and munching on coral!

I haven’t just been lying on the beach, I’ve been taking advantage of the cool of the mornings and evenings to work on finishing a paper for publication, and resting after lunch. I had worried that this would be a hard place to work. That hasn’t been a problem. I’ve been using the coral reefs just a few hundred metres from my room as a reward and escape, usually around sunset, and only on my final day here treated myself to a full day trip out to the quite spectacular Tulai Is.

What has been a little more difficult has been the loneliness – because I’ve been working quite hard, it’s hard to relate or even have time to meet the other travellers here, and to the locals I’m just a transient. That said, I have made some connections with the restaurant owners and shop hands I see everyday. B the restauranteur talked to me today of spot face morays (look out for that dangerous, strong-jawed eel), land-purchasing tactics (when you apply to buy a patch of jungle, “rich people wonder what is there and put in a bid too”) and the upcoming election. Still, connections in such a touristic place feel a little lopsided or unfulfilling. When I arrived I felt like I could stay forever. Now I’m ready to go and be in a town where people do more than serve tourists. I’ve already got some contacts, through http://www.couchsurfing.org, in Kuala Lumpur.

But ah.. under the surface! I’m finding it hard to find words to describe the underwater flowering of coral and fish (I’ve always found it hard to describe nature). Many of you may have snorkelled in tropical water yourselves. In lieu of a description, I’ll just briefly say what I’m taking away with me.

1) The sound. Snorkelling can lead one to a silent world, but not here. The sound of fish grazing on coral is truly incredible – like the crackling of a campfire or heavy raindrops on stone.

Hawksbill Turtle: I saw one of these beauties!

Nomad Within (Pete DeMarco). Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

2) The variety. Colours, sizes, behaviour of fish. Colours and shapes of coral. It’s rekindled my interest in the Latitudinal Species Gradient–one of the few predictable patterns in ecology–the phenomena that biodiversity nearly always increases as you move from the poles to the tropics.
3) The abundance. to be in the midst of a school of hundreds of long and silvery yellowstripe barracuda or whatever they were, or watch a hundred butterfly fish grazing on the bottom just felt so good. I felt the importance of coral reefs for the health of the overall ecosystem, and want to learn more about the threats to them.

I’m only very slowly getting under the skin of Malaysian culture (if there is a unified culture). The culture on Tioman is very laidback. People seem very trusting and family ties are important. The muezzin not only calls people to prayer but also talks for a quarter hour or so at least twice a day, through a loudspeaker that reaches a good part of the village.  His voice is soft and I find it quite relaxing. There is an election in a few days, and it might be the first time the government has changed since independence in the 60’s.

Singapore_and_Malaysia1 038

One of the great things about nature is that it’s beauty can be immediately obvious, like a reef-ringed tropical island. It can often take longer to for me to really see the magnificence of people and societies, I know it’s there, just under the surface sometimes.


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