Did We Find the Hidden Sibu Island Mermaids?
He chose Sibu Island for the dugongs.
"Remind me to take you to a Malaysian island!" I had said, many weeks before my couchsurfer even arrived. 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' was going to keep the promise before he left to continue his odyssey. So I tapped into my new network of local marine conservationists, and put forward the options.
- 1 The Seagrass Fields of Johor
- 2 The Sibu Island Dugong Sighting Plan
- 3 The Opportunistic Dugong Sighting Not-Plan
- 4 The Back-to-the-Drawing-Board Plan
The Seagrass Fields of Johor
The second-largest state in peninsular Malaysia, the state of Johor has an extensive coastline spanning the east and west coasts due to its location at the end of the peninsula. The west coast of Johor is fringed by intertidal mangroves that are common to all the states lining the Straits of Malacca. But Johor also had an expanse of seagrass 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 did that study on the seagrass of North Wales.
I've walked to thick carpets of seagrass close to a Bali shore. And I've seen it near an island in the Maldives. There is also a patchy field in the Perhentians, which is really nowhere close to the fields I had seen elsewhere.
But I've never seen the Johor seagrass fields of old. I heard 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 the 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.
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, even as they face habitat pressures.
But the good news is that marine park authorities are beginning to recognise the seagrass habitat as a key component of parks, alongside traditional focus habitats such as the coral reef. A sanctuary specifically for dugong 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 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.
Improbable odds are for improbable people
We knew 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 that is the difference between a tour, and an adventure. It lies in the spirit.
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.
It was the year when I finally became comfortable with my longstanding curiosity for the improbable. The space beyond and before the domain of statistical prediction.
So I was delighted to discover that I finally got a travel partner who was up for a long shot adventure too.
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. See if we get lucky.
In this way we would have a boat at our disposal, which was going to sea anyway. It would fit within his scope on the island. And if we weren't lucky, we had another day in which to try.
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.
It was a decent plan, viable and responsible.
And then the coral bleaching event happened. Right before the trip.
The plan became un-planned
"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.
So Yun's message came in after we had already arrived on Sibu island.
It didn't help that mobile reception was patchy on the island sometimes. But eventually I 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. On top of that, he did not have answers to the expected question, since he wouldn't have done the survey yet.
But one thing was sure - we couldn't now spend extra time around the seagrass beds to wait for dugong.
The independence gamble
It was actually an easy dilemma, for the workplace culture that I am used to. The survey now seemed perfectly timed, and since the boatman was already hired, it should proceed. Hence, one location would be done in the morning, giving an initial indication for Sibu Island, in time for the arrival of the authorities, following which further survey decisions can be made.
But my workplace has a culture of team independence. There are usually no instructions to be followed in this paradigm, only shared outcomes that everyone understands. The result is a team that can make their own decisions, adapting to changing situations without waiting for updated orders.
So I told my friend what I would do, but cautioned him that it would require a stakeholder who likewise prioritises the big picture outcome. I knew this isn't common in deeply hierarchical Asia.
He is young, and somehow managed to retain his initiative in spite of school. He resolved to bite the bullet and do the survey.
The Opportunistic Dugong Sighting Not-Plan
Jason and I met up with my friend 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.
It 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.
We had the option of transporting the kayak overland to the south part of the island where it's closer to the 'cafeteria', or to the nearest shore and kayak around. I looked at Jason; we couldn't decide which was better to do tomorrow.
Well, at least we had a Plan C. Today, we had a snorkel survey to do.
Heading around to the 'cafeteria'
Sibu Island tends to have more days of low visibility than other islands further north. This is the downside for underwater recreational activities here.
That morning, 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.
The corals of Pulau Kukus
My friend 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 what the two looked like, and also knew to look close 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. The coral reef was already entirely bleached, even though the high sea temperatures had only just begun. 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 recovered this year.
But going a bit deeper, the bleaching effect was more mixed. And the staghorn field seemed to be intact.
The Back-to-the-Drawing-Board Plan
Upon return to Sibu Island, we left Yun to his work, and hoped the Marine Park was happy with the intel. 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 would be able to do it.
The Master Build ability
Herein lies one of my most useful strengths, and one of the reasons I am a high value employee.
If I buy into an idea because it is worth doing and I judged it feasible, usually the project will have a high chance of success, because while it is in my hands, 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. So I have the invaluable ability to continually re-set the team's bearings every time the project is blown off course.
Every setback and destruction is simply a window to create new and better plans, linking to new opportunities, from the pieces on the ground.
If I were a Lego Movie character, I'd be one of the ones with Master Build ability.
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.
I used to be stressed over this, because you never can say for sure if this time you could do it. But there was one project in particular that had so many batshit crazy things happen to it, where we continually snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, and defeat from the jaws of victory, and it made me much more comfortable with this ability. Almost take it for granted. Even, enjoy the adrenaline rush of creation under pressure.
But every strength has its shadow side.
While playing this role, you do get a bit blinkered. You would only think about aborting the mission, when you can no longer generate a feasible reincarnation of the plan. Otherwise, you keep going. Second-guessing impairs the creation focus.
So I was taken aback when Jason floated the idea of not going out kayaking for dugong at all, in answer to my question.
Especially since the dugong was the reason he chose Sibu Island in the first place.
But letting go the plan meant we would not have to have yet another super early day. It meant we could enjoy a late night. We could take an excursion to the outlying islands. 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.
This way, with the rest of our time, we could have... a holiday.
My reflex feeling was exasperation. But, he was right.
The value of your opposite
I recalled this pivot much later in India, when I embarked on the 'Quest For The Indian SIM Card'.
It was ironically also him who finally checked my quixotic quest - without even being there. The rest of my network of friends merely shared my amusement over the mishaps shared over hostel WiFi on Facebook, or tried to help me in the mission. But killing the quest led me to focus more on enjoying my remaining time in Varanasi.
And it was so 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 from them, that 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.
I knew this key too, although it is a less natural one for me. But it is difficult for one person to do both well, and at the same time.
But hey, that's what teams are for.
Instead of Plan C, how about Plan α?
So 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 alone - 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!
Epilogue: A different sort of mermaid, revealed.
It was there 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 outputs of this nature rarely pass his Instagram 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.
Mermaid, he said, once.
Aside from an admittedly awesome photo of me swimming down to a whale shark taken by Clara not long before this trip, 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 not graceful like Alex or Iru or Clara, with their tight form and sinuous strokes. Even if I feel right when I'm snorkelling.
After all, even on land I trip over my own shoe sometimes.
Since the water was fairly turbid, I didn't really look at the raw photos in the camera 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.
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.
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.
Friendly eyes at the back of your head.
The side of you that lies in the shadow cast by yourself, is hidden to you. We don't like to look back there, usually 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 they convinced me. And 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.