My First Expedition Dive
My heart beat unusually fast. The weight of the tank strapped over my shoulder felt heavier than I thought it should be. The octopus regulator was neatly tucked into the right pocket of my Buoyancy Control Device (BCD). The depth gauge was strapped tight against my stomach from the left. The regulator dangled at my right, waiting to be reached upon. My weight was settled uncomfortably on the edge of the speedboat. Slowly, I reached for my fins and tightened the straps. My mask covered my eyes and nose, allowing me to only breathe through my mouth. Adjusting my weight again, I could hear my heart beat drumming against my ear lobe.
“BCD inflated?” the boatman asked.
I reached for the short and black hose-like device on my left and pressed the grey button at the side a couple of times. The hissing sound of the air filling my BCD as it slowly tightened against my ribs with each press. My heart beat faster as I reached for the regulator on my right and my teeth closed neatly against the mouthpiece. My heart thumped against my chest.
“Okay, clear!” the man on the other side said, looking at me.
Taking two deep breaths with the regulator, my brain worked really hard to fight the nervousness and fear that was growing inside me.
Just throw yourself over the edge, you will float and then inflate your BCD. Breathe through your regulator and do not take it off, no matter what. I rehearsed the same sentence for the n-times within the past 10 minutes. I shifted my weight again.
“Take your time. It’s okay. Go when you are ready.” The boatman said again, smiling at me.
I drew another deep breath into my lungs and placed my palm against the regulator with two fingers in front of my mask.
SPLASH! The weight of the tank drew me into the water and slowly I surfaced. Frantically, I pressed the button to inflate my BCD as I emerged from the water. I saw the two men standing in the speedboat, looking for a sign from me. I checked all my devices again before raising my right hand over my head, making an ‘O’ signalling them “I am OK.”.
I did it! I am in the water and in control! I exclaimed within.
I felt a tap over my shoulder and I turn myself to the direction. Ali was there, showing the “OK” hand sign. I made the circle with my thumb and index finger, replying to his question. He then signalled me to swim over to the buoy floating about two meters away from where we were. I nodded and we swam towards it.
Flipping my fins, we swam towards the buoy. Once we reached the buoy, Ali signalled the thumb downwards. We inflated our BCD and slowly our weight dragged us into the water. The coral reefs slowly came into the picture and we were slowly floating above the reefs.
For one second I thought I forgot to breathe. It felt as if you crawled into one of those documentaries that feature the coral reefs under water. Oh wait. I am underwater!
Coral reefs in one of the dive sites in the Tun Mustapha Park. © UMS/Muhammad Ali Syed Hussein
The coral reefs that lay across the seabed stretched a wide area on my left and right. I saw my team members floating steadily above the reefs near the buoy line. Ali signalled me the ‘OK’ sign again to make sure I was managing. I replied before he swam forward looking for interesting marine creatures to photograph.
Something is missing in this picture though. I thought as I paddled little harder to catch up with Ali. I swam closely behind him as I looked from left to right, enjoying the underwater view. I was controlling my buoyancy underwater when the thought struck me.
There were no big reef fish here!
I saw cuttlefish, butterfly fish, Moorish idol, coral fish, parrot fish but no Humphead wrasse or adult grouper. Aren’t these fishes supposed to be abundant here? I thought.
Yet, no Humphead wrasse or grouper spotted. After spending about an hour underwater, Ali and I surfaced. I was relieved that I have successfully completed my first dive and not panicking halfway, gulping a huge amount of saltwater. The bugging thoughts of not spotting a variety of fish species underwater and the missing commercially importance reef fishes such as Humphead wrasse and grouper continued to linger in my head.
Live reef fishes such as Humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulates) as well as red, brown and giant groupers are top predators on reefs but are also the most desirable in the market. The trade of these live reef fishes (LRF) is driven by Hong Kong, mainland China and other affluent markets in Asia. In 2008 about 90,642 kg of groupers were landed in Malaysia, of which approximately 19.6% (including Humphead wrasse) were exported by air. Due to the profitability and vulnerability of the fish populations, many species are extremely overfished and becoming rare in the wild. This has eventually led to the use of destructive fishing practices such as cyanide fishing.
The urge to earn quick profit from these valuable fishes causes fishermen to compete against one another to catch as many of these fishes as possible. Overfishing and destructive fishing have led to the degradation of many reefs and reef ecosystem throughout Sabah and the sea around the proposed Tun Mustapha Park is not spared.
Out of the total 54 planned sites, the Tun Mustapha Expedition covers a total of 44 sites and preliminary result showed that many reefs have good coral cover but low number of fishes of high market value and commercially traded invertebrates such as sea cucumbers and giant clams. There is also a lack of functional and iconic species such as sharks and turtles, the presence of which indicate a stable and balanced ecosystem.
The fact is rather distressing for divers like me to find out. What if in years to come, we no longer see any of these fishes in our sea?
What if our children only learned these fishes from Wikipedia through their iPads?
You can do something. We all can. You can help spread awareness about the danger of these destructive fishing method by telling your friends as well as reporting to related authorities if you find any illegal trade of Humphead wrasse and giant groupers.
Find out more at wwf.org.my .
Liew Hui Ling is the Communications Officer, Marine Programme.