Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme: Giants Beneath the Waves

The Article That Created Teja

Not long ago I went to the Maldives to volunteer for the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme.

It was an incredible two weeks, learning about the great work that they do, with the nicest people both in the program, and on the island. We saw a whale shark up close on our very first day!

Near the end, the wonderful people at MWSRP asked some of us to contribute an article each to their blog. 

I had not written for recreation for a long time. It was not easy to write recreationally, with a full time job in the sciences and in a corporation. The two require two very different modes of thinking that are difficult to switch between, and there was just too little spare time for me to do that. After a while I simply never thought of it again. Not even when I became lucky enough to eventually have that spare time, many years later. 

I simply didn't think I could, anymore. I felt reluctant. Surely, any one of us could write something decent. What would I write about? What was my writing voice now? So I didn't put my hand up. 

But representation matters.

"What about your language, Nuraini?" Alex had asked then. "We don't have an article on the site in Malay so far. You can write it in both languages." 

That made me stop short, and re-think. I thought about Neil and Sabi, and how difficult it was to call more than a handful of my people's youth from the rural mainstream into conservation work. Even though, conservation needed them to be the primary custodians, far more than the urbanites far away.

And I knew why. I knew it was because such work was seen to be 'stuff that white people do', or 'stuff that city slickers care about'. I was the first local Malaysian who volunteered with Ecoteer in the Perhentian Islands. 

It's unlikely that my article on the MWSRP website would be read by many Malaysians who habitually think and converse in Malay. But suppose there was one odd, intrepid soul? What would it mean to her/him to see that someone had gone before, to see the evidence clear as day - an article beautifully written in Malay, as only a native speaker could write? 

If I had not written for years, it was even longer than that since I wrote creatively in Malay. But I had to do it. 

So I said yes. 

Do more of what you love.

It was writing this article for MWSRP that reminded me how much fun it is to write. Hopefully it is also fun to read! 

And, Teja on the Horizon was eventually the result.

Feature image credit: Clara Perez

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9 Responses

  1. Sandy N Vyjay says:

    Researching the whale-sharks sounds so fascinating. It must be a very enlightening experience to study about the underwater life of these creatures. Of course I understand that this is not all fun, lots and lots of hard work would go into it.

  2. you.theworld.wandering says:

    This is so great. I actually live in the Maldives part time – my partner is Maldivian and I’ve taught English there too. Swimming with Whale sharks is still the number 1 thing I really want to do here – I still haven’t done it! Your time volunteering sounds so incredible. What a special location to do something like that in. Maybe it also opened your eyes to some of the environmental problems in the Maldives right now too?! Nice to connect.
    Kristie (you.theworld.wandering)

    • Teja says:

      You do?? I’m going again end of this month! One of the volunteers from last year applied to be a field co-ordinator this year and got the job. I’m visiting her :) Yes I can see a bit of the tourism pressure – still not nearly as bad as in Malaysian marine parks. And I spoke to some people on Dhiffushi, they said the govt is in talks with India for an agreement to process plastics waste. On Dhiffushi I asked the guesthouse ppl to give me rainwater, same as what they would drink themselves, rather than bottled. I tried in Dhigurah but the resort wouldn’t do it.

  3. ashley says:

    It is always nice to be inspired to write. I find I struggle from time to time with motivation. I do think that big experiences can really help but sometimes it is being asked/required to do it that really jumpstarts my writing. I’m jealous you were a part of this research, and in such a stunning place!

    • Teja says:

      :) A girl who was on the same batch just got a job to be the field co-ordinator for this year’s season, and I’ll probably visit again – as a guest this time :)

  4. Jessica says:

    That sounds like a really cool experience! I have never volunteered for a trip yet but I think volunteering with animals would be the way to go for me. There are so many places that are sketchy when it comes to volunteering with children etc. I think I would be scared of the whale sharks, though! lol

    • Teja says:

      Oh they’re very gentle. When they surface, they swim fairly slowly. And they eat plankton, so it’s very safe. They sort of open their mouth and filter feed plankton at the surface. At first I was also worried I wasn’t a strong enough swimmer to keep up but I needn’t have worried. But this particular program is probably not suitable for younger children. Definitely teenager and above.

  5. Monica says:

    Whale sharks are really incredible, it’s amazing you got to participate in researching them! I didn’t realize how little we really know about them, and how many questions are still open. Thank you for sharing!