Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Relocating TRACC

It hit the international news headlines when a Chinese fish farm manger was kidnapped from a neighbouring island to Pom Pom. The third such event in 6 months spurred TRACC (Tropical Research and Coral Conservation) to announce a sudden camp move, to NE Sabah, some 13 hours drive away. The fifteen or so staff, interns and volunteers had two days to pack up the camp on Pom Pom island. The dive store, classroom, tents, kitchen, laundry & dining area and personal belongings where all packaged up. It was a huge team effort from everyone. The logistics for the actual move where sketchy. TRACC seemed to not have a clear plan of where we would be moving to and how. Nevertheless we were a strong team and all did out part in moving essentials to Kota Kinabalu and then on to a place near Kudat, close to the North Tip of Borneo. After a supposedly ten hour coach ride (which turned into eight hours as the driver had a death wish!) we arrived in Kota Kinabalu. Some went to set up the new camp straight away, others stayed a night in town before moving onwards.

The new temporary camp was in a field at the mouth of the Longom river near the village of Longom. This is about three hours drive from Kota Kinabula and a few bays south of the Tip of Borneo. A Christian group had kindly allowed us to camp on land neighbouring their church - although I think officially the land belonged to the government. So there we were; refugees due to fear of kidnapping now turned illegal squatters.

The new camp we were told was temporary, and had access to an electricity point and a water connection. We made canvas showers, put up tents, wired up lighting, made a kitchen area and got a fire going. Our first meal was cooked on the fire, and very tasty too. We then got a double-ring gas hob for cooking and more importantly some beer and a block of ice to keep them cool. The group settled in well. Freddie and Jonny made absolutely delicious gnocchi one evening! Another night Chris and I cooked buffalo (not a whole one) underground in a fire pit - it literally fell apart on the plate, delicious and a much needed protein boost.

As soon as essential diving kit, including compressor, arrived a couple of days later we explored the local marine environment, both by diving and snorkeling. The coral in the bay in front of our camp was abundant and diverse, although we saw worrying signs of algae smoothing the coral - indicating eutrophication. The fish biodiversity was poor, and the Groupers present were all small in size - suggesting over fishing. It was a very different environment to the heavily bomb-blasted, but fish-rich, Pom Pom we had left behind

Fletcher and Sunny, the most experienced marine biologists in the group created a plan to assess the surrounding marine ecosystem. The idea was to measure the abundance of key species, which represent a particular environmental niche, to create a baseline of the current situation. This "before" picture would then be used to guide and inform specific conservation plans. In time TRACC could then measure the same parameters to assess if the conservation plans had made a positive impact - the "after" picture.

We all started conducting the different surveys, e.g. fish abundance, clam abundance and fish anenomy surveys.

Commensurately as the scientific research was getting underway we also had to find a new site to call home. There seemed to be only rough plans about where we would set up our new camp until our saviour, a chap called Bob turned up and started making enquiries. It turned out TRACC, in a previous incarnation, had been in the area, and Bob, a friend of the Director, had assisted them at that time and could speak Malay. Over the next few days Bob, with support from the TRACC staff and Chris (in his new role as Base Camp Consultant) negotiated a site and ordered essential hardware to set up a new home.

Our new temporary camp at the mouth of the Longom river

Our new location was on the west side of the peninsular across from Kudat - a long way from Semporna in the south of Sabah

A far wetter location than the calm south of Semporna. Rain clouds gathered most afternoons and we had downpours every few days. Trenches had to be dug around the tents to keep the flood waters at bay

Our improvised temporary dive store under the eaves of one of the church's buildings

Our campfire and tents in the moonlight on the banks of the Longom river. The fire kept the mosquitos at bay and provided a great place for social gatherings after dinner

To keep ourselves busy we headed out on crocodile spotting missions looking for estuarine crocodiles, the locals said there weren't any and we happily swam in the river during the day, but we still went out at night to look for their eyes reflecting in the torch light!

There was a jetty at our temporary camp used by the local villagers to bring in their catch. A few other fisherman landed their fish here too, unfortunately it all too often contained shark and other endangered species. A useful location though for TRACC to survey what was being caught in the area.

Bamboo shark, baby Leopard shark and Blue Spotted ray were unfortunate this time

A Horseshoe crab we found lurking in the shallows of the river, the locals eat them but we let this beauty go

Bob doing the rounds at the village employing locals to help search for a new home for TRACC

It was important to keep the momentum of the move going and ensure volunteers and interns alike could focus again on the science. So good to dive straight from the beach and explore the unknown waters.

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