We had wanted to undertake more voluntary work since our Elephant experience so signed up with an organisation called TRACC – Tropical Research And Coral Conservation – for a 2 week stint at their field base on the island of Pom Pom 45 minutes north by boat from Semporna.
TRACC has been based on Pom Pom for 3 years undertaking species surveys, rebuilding and regenerating coal reefs damaged by dynamite fishing and protecting turtles. In addition large efforts are made to educate locals about sustainable fishing practices and lobbying Malaysian government agencies and law enforcement bodies to more actively tackle bad fishing practices and pollution in the area.
We arrived by small boat in the early evening found our tents and were warmly welcomed by the staff, interns and fellow volunteers at a very happy camp on the west cost of Pom Pom. Over the following days and weeks we became part of the family and began to get a better understanding of what TRACC does and what our role would be. Chores were all shared equally and were fitted in between making artificial reefs out of concrete and glass bottles, fixing these into position on the reef slope, collecting broken coral fragments for planting on the reef, undertaking fish and coral surveys, turtle walks, turtle egg collection and burial in the turtle hatchery, caring for a sick turtle and many more!
Each night, after a few beers over sunset and a hearty meal we crawled into our tent and slept soundly until 7am, exhausted. The island had a house reef that had been extensively damaged by dynamite fishing and a large amount of effort was put into trying to stabilise the rubble strewn reef slope using concrete structures, crates, wood and anything else that allowed corals to be planted on stable positions. The reef now teemed with fish, eels and turtles where 3 years ago there were none. We were spoilt rotten doing 2 dives a day and all for a good cause.
After nearly 2 weeks our time was nearly up and we were considering staying on for more when out of the blue it all changed! There had been a kidnapping on a neighbouring island, the third in 6 months and the second in as many months and TRACC had had enough!
The TRACC headquarters on Pom Pom's west beach, the building behind the sign is "Number 4" used as a dining room, bar, common room, hammock snooze and general hub of the place
Turning 180 degrees from the previous picture, the islands to the west of Pom Pom are a half sunken volcanic caldera
Green Turtles are abundant, some with their own shark suckers
Broken pieces of coral are harvested by the TRACC team and cemented into concrete "biscuits" which are then returned to the sea in nurseries to continue growing until they are large enough to be planted
After up to a year in the nursery you can see the coral has grown and spread out over the biscuit. These healthy biscuits are then planted into the larger concrete structures that have been placed on the reef slope to stabilise the rubble layer.
Sarah planting coral biscuits into the spaces in the cornet coral structures we'd built earlier. The rubble strewn slope can be seen in the background
Hey presto a concrete structure with live coral growing all over its surface. The terracing provides stability for the structure and hopefully to the slope also. The juvenile fish, eels, molluscs, crabs and shrimp love these structures.
A peacock mantis shrimp lurks under one of the reef structures
A humpback scorpionfish hides out in another artificial reef - can you see him? His mouth is in the top right of the picture and his tail at the bottom.
A giant moray eel takes refuge in a crate reef, made of old beer crates and designed to encourage juvenile fish and other marine life to the area
Its an awful commute to work! Off to the nurseries to check on the biscuits with Barna
A ghost pipefish hides amongst the feathered stars on the house reef
Beautiful sunsets with a beer after a hard day's conservation
And good lightning storms on the mainland most nights too