Did We Find the Hidden Sibu Island Mermaids?

Jason chose Sibu Island for the dugongs. "Remind me to take you to a Malaysian island!" I had said, weeks before he even arrived to couchsurf at my place.

In retrospect, it was an unusual invitation to have come from me. Or any introvert, really.

Perhaps it was the Maldivian atmosphere, inducing a more open and relaxed mindset. Or perhaps 'travel me' finally began to speak out loud, in those opening months of 2017.

Whatever it was, 'home me' would keep the promise before he left to continue his odyssey around Southeast Asia. So I tapped into my new network of local marine conservationists, and put forward the options. Tioman? The Perhentians? Or Sibu Island?

What are the odds for a dugong sighting in Sibu Island?

As host, I didn't want to push any of the island options forward over the others. But I secretly hoped Jason would pick Sibu.

We considered Tioman for its coral reefs, which are still in pretty good condition. The Perhentians, for its backpacker draw.

But Jason was going to Lombok later, and maybe other islands in the region as well. Which one of my options had something the other places didn't have?

Well, Sibu Island has a resident dugong population. And that caught his attention.

We were aware that it was going to be a 50-50 chance to sight them, at best. Especially as we were only investing a few days on the island to try.

But therein lies the difference between a tour, and an adventure: it lies in your spirit.

It was the year when I finally became comfortable with my longstanding curiosity for the improbable. The space beyond the domain of statistical prediction. 

So I was delighted to finally get a travel partner who was up for adventure too. Jason took the long shot, and chose Sibu Island. 

The Seagrass Fields of Johor

Pulau Sibu island hopping | Sibu Island dugongs | dugong Pulau Sibu | seagrass and coral reef island in Malaysia | Johor island | nature tourism Malaysia | wildlife tourism | ecotourism | Johor tourism
The last seagrass fields of Johor

The second-largest state in peninsular Malaysia, the state of Johor has an extensive coastline spanning the peninsular's east and west coasts due to its location at the bottom.

The west coast of Johor is fringed by intertidal mangroves, which are common to all the Malaysian states lining the Straits of Malacca.

But Johor also had an expanse of seagrass stretching towards the South China Sea along its east coast. These form feeding grounds for megafauna such as green turtles and dugong. More unusually, they occur close to coral reefs, making this part of the country rather special.

I know a little something about seagrass, having done my dissertation on it for my Master's Degree. But I had done that study on the seagrasses of North Wales.

Within my own region, I've walked to thick carpets of seagrass close to a Bali shore. And I've seen seagrass beds near an island in the Maldives. There is also a patchy field in the Perhentians that the resident turtles make do with, though it is really nowhere close to the fields I have seen elsewhere.

But I've never seen the Johor seagrass fields of old. I heard that much of it has been lost following decades of coastal development and reclamation projects. Although anecdotally known, they were never fully surveyed, so the extent of damage and loss is unclear.

Today, much of the remaining seagrass fields of Johor lie within Sultan Iskandar Marine Park, around Sibu Island.

The last dugongs of Johor

This marine park is also where the last known populations of dugong remain in the Malaysian peninsula. Gentle marine herbivores also known as 'sea cows', dugongs and other sirenia are thought to be the inspiration of mermaid myths.

Sibu Island sunset clouds
Evening on Pulau Sibu

The dugong herds in the marine park are elusive and shy (which may be why they still survive). A protected species, hunting of dugong has fortunately declined, though they still face habitat pressure.

But the good news is that marine park authorities are beginning to recognise the seagrass habitat as a key component of parks, alongside the traditionally charismatic habitats such as the coral reef.

A sanctuary specifically for dugong conservation is intended within the Sultan Iskandar Marine Park, off of Sibu Island. My friend, a young scientist based there as a community liaison focal by Reef Check Malaysia to support the inception of the Marine Park's initiative, thought that it would likely be zoned around a particular seagrass field south of the island. Dugong are known to feed there.

However, not much else is known about this herd. It is one of the reasons why research is being carried out to understand the seagrass habitats better. Getting a little ahead of the tourism for a change, and evaluate whether Sibu Island could support dugong tourism without putting the herd at risk.

The Sibu Island Dugong Sighting Plan

We didn't really have a plan. My conservationist friend Yun intended to merge it with a survey he was already planning to do. We would simply come along for the ride, and when we passed through the seagrass zone, see if we get lucky.

In this way we would have a boat at our disposal. It would fit within his work scope on the island. He was hesitant about hiring a craft just to look for dugong, while the research was at such an early stage. It wouldn't do to accidentally spur a dugong tourism market on the island before the value of a dugong sanctuary gained traction with island stakeholders.

And if we weren't lucky, we had another day in which to try ourselves.

It was a decent plan, viable and responsible. But then the coral bleaching event happened, right before the trip.

Work gets in the way

Snorkelling around Sibu Island
"What can you do?"

"Uhm... I don't know how to tell you this, but..."

I've been a project manager for years, in the early part of my career. This type of opening always heralds a threat to your project plan. Always. And it will always happen after the project has reached an inconvenient stage, never before.

My personal belief is that this is the universe's way of making sure you experience character building stuff.

Yun's message came in after we had already arrived on Sibu island. Of course it would.

It didn't help that mobile reception was patchy on the island sometimes. But I eventually worked out what had happened.

Coral bleaching events were being reported along the east coast. Late the previous day, Marine Park authorities sent a request to meet him the next morning so he could brief them on the reef conditions.

It would be the very morning of his planned survey. Except that he did not know when they would arrive exactly, so he couldn't say if we could go to sea before or after. On top of that, he did not have answers to the expected questions, since he wouldn't have done the survey yet! It was a Catch-22.

But one thing was sure: we couldn't now spend extra time around the seagrass beds to wait for dugong.

Making your own decisions

Coral bleaching and algal smothering in Sibu Kukus Island
Coral reef smothered by algae

It was actually an easy dilemma, for my workplace culture.

The survey now seemed perfectly timed, and since the boatman was already hired, it should proceed. Where I work, managers would assume that they would wait for me to complete the priority work they wanted, and schedule the meeting when I would be ready. 

Hence, one survey location could be done in the morning, giving an initial indication for Sibu Island bleaching, in time for the arrival of the authorities. The data can then be reviewed, following which further survey decisions can be made together. The thought would never cross their minds that I should put off the work just to give them hierarchy priority.

But - and this is a big 'but' in Southeast Asia - my workplace has a culture of team independence. There are usually no instructions prescribed in this paradigm, only shared outcomes that everyone understands and works towards. The result is a team that can make their own decisions, adapting to changing situations without waiting for updated orders. 

Yun was still new to working life, and was at a loss over which of the conflicting priorities he should choose. So I told my young friend what I would do, but also cautioned him that the logical action would require a certain kind of stakeholder that isn't common in deeply hierarchical Asia. A hierarchical stakeholder would expect that he wait until they arrive to issue (probably) the same instruction. 

He is young, and somehow managed to retain his logic initiative in spite of Asian schooling. He resolved to risk getting into trouble, and to do the planned survey.

The Opportunistic Dugong Sighting Not-Plan

Jason and I met up with him early the next morning en route to the village, bringing snorkels and fins. While waiting for the time when the boatman was meant to come, Yun took us around to see the village and went over the revised plan with us.

Snorkelling in Pulau Sibu Kukus | sea life of Pulau Kukus | Johor island | Pulau Sibu Marine Park | Pulau Sibu snorkelling | Malaysia island hopping | Johor tourism | Malaysia coral bleaching 2017 | Sultan Iskandar Marine Park
Snorkelling in Pulau Sibu Kukus: barrel sponge and anemone among the corals.

Plan B was not that bad. We would have to go slowly while crossing the seagrass zone anyway, so perhaps we might get lucky. Neither of us had assisted a reef bleaching survey before, so we thought it was still a pretty good deal.

We walked all the way south, where the island looks out to the seagrass patch called the 'cafeteria'. Yun explained it was because dugong came from wherever it is they otherwise hang around, to feed there.

"There are kayaks you can borrow. I've asked," he said, explaining where we could take them from. It was an option for our second try, if we failed to spot dugong that day. But he couldn't be with us the next day for a second try, because he had to keep the day open in case the Marine Park officers needed him.

We had the option of transporting the kayak overland to the south part of the island where we could launch closer to the 'cafeteria', or to the nearest shore and kayak the distance instead. I looked at Jason; we couldn't decide which was better.

Well, at least we had a Plan C. Today, we had a snorkel survey to assist.

Looking for mermaids around Sibu Island's 'cafeteria'

Sibu Island tends to have more days of low visibility compared to other islands further north. This is the main risk for underwater recreational activities here.

Out at sea, we could see that the water was not clear that day. The day began with cloud, making the water seem even darker. (However, the day cleared later, enough to give Jason the worst sunburn I have ever seen, decidedly awarding me victory in our debate over whether it was smart or dumb to swim with a shirt on!)

We looked out for breaks in the water surface as we passed through the 'cafeteria'. The boatman claimed to see a dugong slightly breach the water in the distance, but we could not make it out.

So we sped onward to the coral reefs of Pulau Sibu Kukus for the survey.

Pulau Sibu seagrass habitat | dugong feeding ground | island in Malaysia | Johor island | nature tourism Malaysia | wildlife tourism | ecotourism | Johor tourism | Sultan Iskandar Marine Park
Not a clear water day

The Coral Bleaching Survey at Pulau Kukus

Yun asked us to swim over the corals and come back with a ballpark estimate of the ratio of bleached to healthy coral. I already knew the difference between the two. I also knew to look closer at algae-covered coral, since the algae could be masking the white.

But for the shallowest parts of the reef, I didn't need to. It was, sadly, all too easy.

The coral reef was already entirely bleached, even though the elevated sea temperatures had only just begun. The reef was a ghostly white sculpture on the sea floor, utterly naked. The few colourful reef fish swimming over them stood out brightly. I have not the heart to upload an image, and hope the reef has recovered.

Going a bit deeper, the bleaching effect was more mixed. And the staghorn field seemed to be intact.

Coral of Pulau Sibu Kukus | terumbu karang Pulau Kukus
Staghorn coral of Sibu Kukus Island

The Back-to-the-Drawing-Board Plan

Upon our return to Sibu Island, we left Yun to his work, and hoped the Marine Park was happy with the data. I promised him all the photos from my snorkelling camera.

That evening, I asked Jason whether he liked the overland option better than the sea route option. Both were demanding. But I reckoned, with sufficient determination, we could do it.

The Master Build ability

Herein lies one of my most useful strengths. IfI buy into an idea because it is worth doing, it is very hard to kill the project.

Not because my plans are perfect. But because my tactics evolve, without losing sight of its original point. I have a steady compass, no matter how confusing the situation gets. I have the invaluable ability to continually re-set the team's bearings every time a project is blown off course.

Snorkelling through swell in Sibu Island | boat riding a sea swell | island in Malaysia | Johor island | nature tourism Malaysia | wildlife tourism | ecotourism | Johor tourism | Sultan Iskandar Marine Park
Fixed on the target

Every setback and destruction is simply a window to create new and better plans, linking to new opportunities, from the pieces left on the ground. You see, the key to immortality is not to resist death, but to elude it by continual evolution. If you are flexible over the exact form it takes, then 'forever' becomes quite a bit more feasible. And a lot of the time, all it takes to succeed is to survive long enough. Like DNA.

To put it another way: if I were a Lego Movie character, I'd be one of the ones with Master Build ability.

Every strength has its shadow side.

But when you're in this perpetual reinvention mindset, you do get a bit blinkered. It would only ever occur to you to abort the mission, when you can no longer generate a different form of the plan. Otherwise, you keep going. Second-guessing impairs creation.

And I can keep going for a long time indeed. 

So I was taken aback when Jason floated the idea of not going out kayaking for dugong at all, in answer to my question. 

But letting go the plan meant that we would not have to have yet another super early day. And that meant we could enjoy a late night.

We could take an excursion to the outlying islands instead.

We would be spared the considerable physical exertion of either of the kayak options. 

Considering the poor visibility, and the possibility that the sea would continue to be choppy the next day, perhaps the dugong would stay hidden from us anyway.

This way, with the rest of our time, we could have... a holiday.

My instinctive reaction was exasperation. But... he was right.

Why Opposites Attract

I recalled this pivot much later in India, when I embarked on the 'Quest For The Indian SIM Card'. It was ironically also Jason who finally checked my quixotic quest, without even being there!

The rest of my network of friends merely shared my amusement over my mishaps shared over hostel WiFi on Facebook, or tried to help me in the doomed mission. But following his advice to simply kill the quest allowed me the ability to just enjoy my remaining time in Varanasi.

And he did it again, in Vigan.

You see, my close friends are so used to me knowing exactly what I need and when. It doesn't occur to them to challenge my missions. But even though it wasn't what I asked for, it was what I actually needed.

You see, there is another key to forever. Immortality not through evolution - but by death and resurrection. Like a phoenix.

It is difficult for one person to do both well, let alone at the same time. But hey, that's what opposites are for!

Instead of Plan C, how about Plan α?

In the end, we let the Sibu Island mermaids stay hidden from us a while longer. Maybe one day I would return, perhaps when the island is ready to host dugong tourism.

Instead we did something I would only rarely be motivated enough to do - socialise.

We went to the beautiful beach of Lima Besar island (where I also obtained more reef photos for Yun).

And we explored Rimba Resort's own house reef, which turned out to be the least affected by the bleaching!

Pulau Lima Besar beach
OK, no dugong here, but... Lima Besar beach has its charms.

Twist: Jason already saw a mermaid in Sibu Island.

It was in Sibu Island that I let someone else have my waterproof camera for the first time, even while I was still snorkelling myself.

I had taken quite enough photos and videos of the reef life, and also of Jason in the water. (Probably not very good ones; for six weeks and even beyond, my skills as an Instagram husband rarely pass his QC!).

So when he held out a hand for the camera, I yielded it. He should have his reef life photos too, I thought.

But I kept forgetting he is very much the opposite of myself. His favoured photography subjects, are human.

Snorkelling in Pulau Sibu | Rimba resort house reef | Johor island | Pulau Sibu Marine Park | Pulau Sibu snorkelling | Malaysia island hopping | Johor tourism | Malaysia coral bleaching 2017 | Sultan Iskandar Marine Park
Mermaid, he said, once.

Seeing myself for the first time

Since the water was fairly turbid, I didn't really look at the raw photos in the camera on the island, since I knew they would need some digital re-balancing to reveal the subjects. So it was only later, when I sat down to process the reef photos for Yun, that I saw myself as Jason captured me.

The photos of me trying to pose for the camera were just as awkward as me trying to pose on land... unsurprisingly! (I'm not kidding; there's one where I look like a marine zombie.)

But the ones of me in motion, revealed that I belonged in the water.

Like the ugly duckling gazing at his reflection for the first time in a long time, I was in disbelief.

Aside from a hands-down awesome photo of me swimming down to a whale shark taken by Clara in the Maldives, I had no clear photos of myself in the water.

Constantly worried about proper buoyancy and trim, I considered myself a fairly decent swimmer after volunteering in the Maldives, but surely I was not graceful like Alex or Iru or Clara, with their tight form and sinuous strokes.

Even if I feel right when I'm snorkelling, surely I wouldn't look quite so good. After all, even on land I trip over my own shoe sometimes. How could I be more graceful in the water?

It's funny how far off you could be about yourself. In my mind I was over-vigilant, worried I would embarrass myself swimming like a flailing cat, but in the Sibu Island photos was uncovered... an effortless mermaid.

A better self-image.

The side of you that lies in the shadow cast by yourself, is hidden to you. We don't like to look back there, because we assume it isn't a flattering sight. And indeed, people only really pay attention to the side you project forward anyway.

But once in a while, you find a friend who could show you how good you look even beneath clouded days. And if you're even luckier than that, another one who shows you what you look like from behind, in your element.

It doesn't matter if there are only two of such people, or three, or one. What mattered was that I believed them. And then it didn't matter that there was no sea in the mountains of Annapurna.

I now knew there was one element where I was physically competent.

I could see it.

It may seem like a nothing thing. But visualisation is often everything.

I shifted then, from imagining trekking in the Annapurnas, to seeing myself - a trekker in the Annapurnas.

I was ready for Nepal.

2018 Update: Dugong Tourism in Sibu Island


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3 Responses

  1. Morgan says:

    I agree! There’s not so many travel stories and and so much “tips and hacks”. It’s nice to read some other than my own! Also you’re braver than most for swimming happily with mysterious sea beasts lurking around. You deserve an award for swimming to that whale shark. I’ve snorkeled in Thailand and the entire time focused all my energy on growing more eyes to monitor all my surroundings. Thanks for the read :)

  2. It was so nice to read this because there seems to be less and less storytelling on travel blogs! I loved reading your adventure — not least because my time in Malaysia consists of two nights in Kuala Lumpur, and that’s it. Thank you for sharing.

    • Teja says:

      Awesome Kate! I love telling stories, and to read them too! And indeed, part of the reason I write these stories are for friends and others who can’t travel as I do, or would choose to travel a different way because they can’t do it all. It’s a way to take each other along on journeys.

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