Coral Reef Restoration in Malaysian Borneo

Harlequin Sweet Lips, (Plectorhinchus chaetodonoides) taking refuge in artificial reef
Harlequin Sweet Lips, (Plectorhinchus chaetodonoides) taking refuge in artificial reef as divers adds to reef structure. Photo David McGuire

Coconut Cove, North Tip of Borneo, Malaysia—It is good to be back in Malaysia among my finny friends. I am in a more familiar setting after weeks among leeches, razor sharp rattan and rotten fish on the second trip of the National Geographic Explorer funded Expedition Laos. In Kota Kinabalu, the capitol of East Malaysia, I meet with Dr. Steve Oakley, the founder and director of the Tropical Research and Conservation Centre (TRACC). TRACC is a non profit coral reef conservation organization in Sabah, Malaysia (Borneo) which runs marine conservation expeditions (snorkel or SCUBA) engaging volunteers and visitors to rebuild coral reefs. Steve is a marine biologist and British expat who settled in Borneo 18 years ago, and is active in marine conservation including the newly formed Sabah Shark Protection Association.

Together we are planning a national Malaysian Shark Week promoting support for the shark conservation initiative. But first we will go back into the field. I join Steve on a bus ride from Kota Kinabalu to the research camp at Coconut Cove on the North tip of Borneo.

The front yard of the TRACC Research Camp. Kudat Borneo. Photo David McGuire
The front yard of the TRACC Research Camp. Near Kudat Borneo. Photo David McGuire

The buildings of KK fade into fields and forest broken by the ever-present plantations of Palm Oil lining the two lane highway. Twelve Ringgit ($4 US) and five hours later Steve and I arrive in the town of Kudat. We are met by a field assistant Jason, a lean tattooed Canadian who first came to increase his dive certification and then stayed to assist with the coral restoration efforts. Loaded with provisions for the sudents and crew, the TRACC van takes us into the remnants of the jungle towards the sea. A dirt road takes us to a remote camp carved from the coastal scrub at ocean’s edge. Around fifteen sunburned youth in beach-wear—also wearing the post dive zen glow—meet us to unload. The camp has bamboo-framed rain showers, a crude but effective outdoor kitchen, a well equipped dive shed and two rows of tents beneath a large blue tarp.

Tropical Research Conservation Centre Borneo
Work table at Tropical Research Conservation Centre Borneo. Photo David McGuire

Perched at sand’s edge, the heart of the camp is a concrete floored open structure with a tin roof that sporadically resonates to the rain squalls like a timpani drum. This is the classroom, social area, dining room and study.

TRACC teaches PADI SCUBA courses and field courses in marine biology. The students are mostly college or recent college-aged from several countries, many taking diving for the first time. Besides the coral restoration, the group conducts marine research projects like a fish market survey in which I will participate, collecting data on shark and ray catch.

Dr. Steve Oakley of TRACC builds artificial reef materials with volunteers.
Dr. Steve Oakley of TRACC builds artificial reef materials with volunteers. Photo David McGuire

After a month in the jungle it is time to go diving. We suit up and cross a band of talcum white sand through mild surf to the Flying Fish, a 22-foot fiberglass runabout. A short buzz across the bay takes us to the dive site near the lighthouse, located on a small island north of the tip of Borneo. The late hour, an oncoming squall and murky water make the dive too dark for photography without strobes stronger than mine.  Small fish flit among coral rubble that has a ragged broken appearance like it had been scraped by a storm or perhaps the aftermath of dynamite fishing aka fish bombing. This is an illegal, dangerous and highly destructive practice not uncommon in this part of the world. 

Lighthouse near reef site, North Tip Borneo. Photo David McGuire
Light house near reef site, North Tip Borneo. Photo David McGuire

Steve guides me to an underwater structure he calls the “Igloo.” A PVC frame is anchored in concrete with fragments of living coral attached. Algae, colorful crinoids (aka “feather stars”—a relative to the sea star) and soft corals encrust the structure which is anchored with concrete to the bottom. Inside the Igloo, yellow spotted pufferfish, damsels and juvenile coral trout take refuge.

TRACC volunteers load the boat to build artificial reef. Photo David McGuire
TRACC volunteers load the boat to build an artificial reef. Photo David McGuire

The following day I help construct more igloos and “bottle reefs” fabricated from bottles set in concrete, providing substrate for new coral polyp settlement and refuge for larval fish among the field of coral rubble. The team fits these around the igloos, providing more structure and settlement area along the damaged reef. Building artificial reefs like this, and restoring reef habitat are a major part of TRACC’s mission, and everyone pitches in.

Pitching in- unloading reef materials for underwater construction. Photo David McGuire

                                                                                                                                                                      Click for building the reef video.

The World Resources Institute reported in 2012 that over 85 percent of the coral reefs in the Coral Triangle (which includes Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines) are threatened by both natural phenomena and human activity. This is considerably higher than the global average of approximately two-thirds of coral reef systems under serious threat.  Here in the center of the center of marine biodiversity, ocean life is imperiled.

With threats from fish bombing, sedimentation and habitat loss, efforts like this are critical for recovering lost reefs, protecting fish and saving sharks. Soon we will visit another restoration site on Pom Pom Islands in the Semporna islands where we will be documenting sharks as part of the SSPA, and striving to create marine protected areas in the region. Next dive trip we will begin camera trapping and collecting observations on sharks and rays at TRACC’s Pom Pom Island lab in Semporna, site of one of our slated marine protected areas.

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Meet the Author
A marine biologist and adventurer, David McGuire writes, photographs and explores the natural world, documenting wildlife and works to protect threatened sharks and critical marine ecosystems though the non profit Shark Stewards.