Sunday and Monday followed with three survey dives on each. Some of the team swapped jobs, but a lot of us preferred to stay in what we felt were our areas of expertise. A lot of data were gathered and entered into the Reef Check spreadsheets, and we even had time for a night dive and one lazy dive at the end, which stretched our navigation skills with some pretty low visibility. We arrived back at Singapore and waited off-shore for the customs boat to come and check us back in to our final destination. We enjoyed the final crusie into harbour during breakfast, with Indonesia on one side and Malaysia on the other. Farewells were said as this year’s expedition came to an end. Thanks to all the team for all of their hard work and a lot of fun – hope to see you all again!
Sorry that the pictures did not come through. Here’s an album now to make up. And also the draft of a press release to summarise the expedition, which could not happen without your time and money, so thank you again!
Strong Recovery for Malaysian Coral
The El Niño effect this year has devastated coral reefs around the world, but the reefs of one island in Malaysia are fighting back.
A team from Biosphere Expeditions have teamed up with Reef Check Malaysia to survey the coral reefs around the island of Tioman, off the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. The group was assessing the health of the reefs following the devastating rise in the sea temperatures that happened in May this year. A temporary rise of 2 or 3 degrees Celcius, caused by this year’s El Niño event, has been causing corals all around the tropics to do something called ‘bleaching’, which can lead to the death of corals and then entire reefs. A coral bleaches when it expels the symbiotic algae that usually live within it. These algae give the coral its colour, without these algae the transparent coral appears white (or bleached) as we see through the animal to its white calcium carbonate structure. Without the algae the animal also loses around 80% of its energy which is usually supplied by the algae photosynthesising sugars. This eventually leads to the death of the coral through starvation.
But the reefs around Tioman island have been taking algae back, and in the months since the reefs were 30 to 40% bleached, they have largely recovered, as the Biosphere Expeditions team has found. The team, comprising citizen scientists from all over the world, also found reefs that were almost back to pre-bleaching states and which were generally healthy. So for these reefs the danger of bleaching has passed for now, but the threats of overfishing and pollution are still there. Very few larger predator fish were found during the surveys, indicating that fishing is still happening, despite Tioman being a Marine Protected Area. The amounts of nutrient indicator algae growing on some of the reefs led the team’s scientist, Alvin Chelliah of Reef Check Malaysia, to speculate on the amount of sewage that may be ending up on the reefs from some of the island resorts. It is through working with the communities on the island, as Reef Check Malaysia does, that the threats to these reefs will be tackled sustainability can be secured.
NOTE that this is a text-only diary for now as we are struggling to get pictures through whilst at sea. As soon as we manage to send some pictures, we will add them to the WordPress, Facebook, etc. versions of the diary too.
Thursday (18 Aug)
I’m pleased to say that to everyone’s relief all passed enough tests so that we can start our Reef Check survey dives tomorrow. After a long day we go to bed happy and looking forward to doing some surveys in the morning.
Friday (19 August)
We have started running two surveys at the same time, at two different depths, so everyone needs to be slick getting their gear on and getting into the water. We ran through how each member of the team will operate in the water and in what order and at what speed everyone needs to move. There’s quite a lot to remember, which is why the first survey is a practice survey, with everyone getting used to how the theory operates underwater. We had quite a lot of fun and a lot of people come with an ‘oh, I didn’t think…… would be like that’ comment – but all went well. After a debrief and lunch we headed to a new dive site to undertake our first full survey. which goes well. The evening is full of good food (again), reef life books and stories, with a thunderstorm flashing and rumbling in distant clouds.
Saturday (20 August)
We managed to do three different sites with two Reef Check surveys at all of them. The sites had lots of coral and almost no bleaching, despite the El Nino event that came through in May and bleached about 30% of the corals at the time. The reefs that we are seeing are almost fully recovered, with only a small amount of bleaching in the shallower (5 m) survey sites. All the sites have a great variety of hard corals and some lovely fish and other marine life such as nudibrancs and cuttlefish. Two of the sites have a lot of large mounds and gulleys, which make the survey dives both interesting and challenging. The last survey is done at a site with lots of current wiping us along down our transect, so just when we were getting comfortable, we had a little bit extra to think about. Good to have a challenge at the end of the day! The day ends with drinks as the sun goes down – and some retesting for those who want it, after all, it’s not a holiday😉
NOTE that this is a text-only diary for now as we are struggling to get pictures through whilst at sea. As soon as we manage to send some pictures, we will add them to the WordPress, Facebook, etc. versions of the diary too.
Tuesday (16 Aug)
We left our dock in Singapore at 17:00 with all dive gear checked and stored and everyone moved into their cabins. Wan (our dive leader on board the boat) gave us an introduction to life on board and then we ran through the risk assessment for the trip, talking through any risks associated with life on board and our survey diving regime. Dehydration is the main worry day to day while diving in a hot country, so we have plenty of cold water and juices available, plus isotonic sachets, to top up with on a regular basis.
The immigration boat came to us and stamped our passports as we left Singaporean waters, and then we headed off on our overnight 14 hour journey to Tioman Island. Pom and Deng, our two cooks, produced a really good meal as we got underway and we ended the evening introducing ourselves and getting know each other. The seas turned a bit choppy as the evening wore on and we got further out to sea, and everyone settled down for their night at sea.
Wednesday (17 Aug)
As dawn broke we arrived at Tioman Island, an hour ahead of schedule to pick up our expedition scientist for the week, Alvin. We were able to go through an introduction to Reef Check, the methodology that we are using for our survey dives, while the immigration checks were being undertaken. After this we headed out for our first dive, a check dive to get comfortable in the water and practice a few diving skills that would be useful to us during the surveys. Renggis, a dive site used regularly as a good training spot by many dive boats, proved to be a little tricky! As we whisked along sideways in low visibility during our descent, it soon became apparent that the site was not its usual benign self. Alvin tucked us around a corner on a patch of sand that he knows and we were out of the worst of the current, magically able to go through the skills that we planned. All was well and the team returned to the boat with tales of turtles, cuttlefish and coral, as much as current, weight and air consumption. We were greeted back on board with an inspiring ginger tea and settled down to learn more about Reef Check.
The rest of the day was spent learning about the fish and invertebrates that we need to know for our surveys, and we went on a second dive around the corner with Alvin and I pointing out the species that we all need to know. The second dive was in better conditions, although visibility was still poor. More classroom work followed and after the dinner the team went to bed with their heads buzzing with different fish to learn.
Thursday (18 Aug)
The first dive today was at 07:00 to have another look underwater at the fish and invertebrate species that we have learnt. Revisiting Renggis made for a great dive with lots of fish to look at and the team came out of the water feeling more confident than before. Breakfast and last minute revision, then came the first two tests…
I’ve been checking through our research gear and shopping for a few additional bits of kit that we will need for our research dives. Alvin, our scientist, and I have talked through the plans for the week and we’re both really looking forward to everyone getting here now. So, final instructions: When you arrive at the marina just head for Pier 1 and there will be someone to get you through the gate and on to the boat.
If you have any problems, please call me on the UK number provided. It is really important that you arrive on time at 16:00 as we will be setting off for our 14 hour passage to Tioman Island shortly after everyone is on board. Please note that it can take around 30 to 40 minutes to get to the marina from central Singpore in a taxi, so please allow enough time to get here. I’d rather you arrived a little early (15.30 is the stated earliest, but a little bit before is fine), rather than a little late. And if you suffer from sea sickness, please ensure that you take any tablets at the correct time to allow them to work effectively (some of them need to be taken a while before you go on the sea) as it is this first passage that is most likely to cause you problems due to the exposed nature of the sea during the passage.
Hello everybody, I’m Phil, the expedition leader for slots 2 and 3. Sorry we can’t update this dairy more regularly but we can only do this when we come down out of the mountains and back to civilisation.
Well, at 8:00 am on Monday 1st August team 2 all met up at the Futuro hotel. The team consists of Hunter (USA), Gerald (USA), Roland (Germany), Neil (UK), Jake (USA), Fedor (Netherlands), John (UK), Ray (UK), Starr (USA), Bernd (Germany), Fiona (Austria), Ruth (Australia), and Rahat our placement from Kyrgyzstan, joining us for the second year in a row. Of the expedition crew only Bekbolot and myself met-up at the hotel; Volodya, Shailoo, Ismail and Emma stayed at the base camp after we’d spent the last two days setting it all up in preparation for the team to arrive.
The six-hour convoy drive to base-camp was easy-going and pretty uneventful, but for the fact that we saw two wolves in broad daylight in the lower part of the valley. They were running flat-out in a straight line one behind the other in the typical way that wolves travel. They ran over the rolling foothills at the lower reaches of the valley and we watched them run off into the distance up towards the higher mountains. Seeing this made Gerry ecstatic as he loves everything about wolves.
Amadeus, the butterfly expert and placement from the first team visited us at base camp to explain how to use the butterfly app, he went on his way the following day. A quick message to team 3 – please if you haven’t yet done so, download the ‘Butterflies of Kyrgyzstan’ app., from www.discovernature.org.kg (Android version only) before you arrive. You won’t be able to download it after you’re in the mountains.
The training sessions began right after dinner on Monday with our risk assessment talk. The whole of Tuesday was spent with training sessions as well, starting with the scientist’s talk about the background of research, study animals and their prey, 2015 results, recommendations and aims for 2016. Everyone learned how to use the research equipment.
The weather has been great! We had a little rain on both Thursdays but it’s generally been sunny every day.
On the first survey day on Wednesday (3 August) the whole group went to the Tuyuk-Choloktor valley for practicing their newly-learnt skills. Unfortunately there was very little to record. The group then split into two with half climbing up one side valley with Volodya, and the rest headed up the next valley with Shailoo. During lunchtime Volodya’s group emerged over the distant ridge and waved manically at the second group, who were at the time preoccupied with the two pairs of huge Ibex horns that Gerry and Ismail had found. Gerry then insisted that he carry the really heavy horns back to base to show everyone. I think after only a little walking he wished that he hadn’t, still he persevered and managed to carry them all the way down the mountain.
On Thursday (4 August) the team split into two groups. One group consisting of Shailoo, Phil, Ray, Ruth, John, Neil, Jake and Rahat walked up Sary-kol and conducted a fascinating interview with a sheep herder. He said that on 6 August last year he witnessed two snow leopards eating two of his lambs, he described them as blood-suckers based on the way they had hold of the lambs by the throat. He also said that over the 40 years he’s been coming to this part of the valley he’s seen about 15 snow leopards. The other group consisting of everybody else hiked up Issyk-Ata to retrieve the two camera traps the first team had set at the foot of the moraine near the footprints in the snow where we thought the snow leopard might cross the river, and the other trap that we set observing the wider field. Neither trap produced snow leopard, but the one set on the moraine showed a badger crossing, and both traps had several hundred pictures of horses until the horses knocked both traps over. Four ibex were spotted by the Issyk-Ata group who hiked right up to the top of the pass, as well as two large falcons, which we now think to be Saker falcons.
We heard rumour that the next day (Friday, 3 August) there was to be a game of Kok-boru a little further down the valley where we’d had our base camp during previous years. Kok-boru is the horseback game played by the herders in the valley where they carry the headless goat and drop it in the goal. This was the real game where the upper valley competes against the lower valley, a serious event where 30 players give it all they’ve got to win. The name “Kok-boru” means blue wolf and in ancient times they played with a headless wolf.
So on Friday (3 August) we took a day off and travelled down to watch the game. There was a little practice going on prior to the main event and Roland, Hunter, Fedor and Gerry didn’t hesitate to saddle-up and give it a try. The goat normally weighs about 20 kg, but on this occasion the upper-valley herders, who get to eat the goat if they win chose the largest goat available, and this one weighed over 30 kg. Our boys could hardly lift it one-handed, and it made for a very tiring yet thoroughly entertaining game. The team of Roland and Hunter won to great celebration and cheers.
The main event involved all the herders (not including our boys) and the goals were way up and way down the valley. Prior to this they all lined-up on horseback before us displaying their courage and bravery and paid a touching display of honour and respect to us all, a rare true mark of respect. Volodya was really very touched by this.
Within minutes all the riders had disappeared over the horizon up the valley, after a long wait we decided to drive up to see what was going on. We found them right beside our base camp still fighting hard. The game was eventually won by the upper valley.
On Saturday (6 August) we split into two teams, Volodya and Phil leading (9 people) in Kara-Tor, the first valley over the pass. And Shailoo leading a smaller group in Chon-Chikan, who of course saw the many petroglyphs that are in that valley, but none of the study species other than marmot. They had hopes of retrieving the two camera traps that the first team had set there, but they forgot to take the coordinates, John made a rather funny report saying “Anybody could have had them, nobody thought to ask if anybody had them, everybody thought somebody would have them, but in-fact nobody had them”. It didn’t really matter as they have plenty of battery power left to be collected by team three. They did see a fox though. I should also mention that John was not impressed by Volodya’s description of Chon-Chikan being a flat walk all the way up, John said “It started off with a steep bit, followed by a steep bit in the middle, and the end was steep”. The Kara-Tor group had more success, seeing many marmot, 15 ibex, an eagle and lammergeier. In fact we have seen lammergeier every day so far.
Sunday (7 August) was our day off and we were the guests of our neighbour “Talant”. In his yurt, where we sampled the excellent food prepared by Guelcan, his wife. After dinner several people – Jake, Hunter, Ruth, Star, Roland, Gerry and Fedor borrowed horses and spent the afternoon riding around.
Monday (8 August) we split into three groups. There was a group (Fedor, Gerry, Roland, Bernd, Hunter, Bekbalot and Rahat) who were keen to explore a high ridge, so they set off on foot and climbed to well over 4100 m, where they found snowcock and wolf scats. Another group went with Volodya back to set another camera trap. The third group walked into Dungurama, which translates as “noisy valley” aptly named as there are falling rocks every few minutes. This group found an old argali sheep scull with horns. It appears argali were once found throughout our study site, but these days they are largely absent, probably hunted to near local extinction.
Most of the team were keen to do an overnighter and they wanted it to be as challenging as possible, Volodya made mention of a valley within the study area that was so remote that it had not yet been explored. I think Volodya wished he hadn’t suggested it after finding out how difficult it would be on Tuesday (9 August). We obviously had to carry everything in with us, some carrying tents and stoves. A 15 km hike in to 3600 m under a hot punishing sun. We made camp by a small lake by the glacier. We saw no signs of snow leopard or ibex, but we saw some snowcock. The next morning after a surprisingly good sleep in our bivi-bags some of the lads – Fedor, Gerry and Bekbolot climbed up to the saddle in the ridge but could not see Bishkek despite being much closer to there than we were to base camp. The hike back down to the cars turned out to be a race to stay ahead of the rain, all of us getting a little wet. Getting back to the cars was nowhere near the end of this story – the cars were 1 hour from base camp and the gear leaver on one of the cars (the one blocking the other) had seized up and we couldn’t move it. After a tricky manoeuvre on the hillside to bypass the stricken car with the other, we placed the transfer box leaver to neutral to tow the stricken car backwards back down to the main valley road where we left it. We then needed two trips to get everyone back to base. Three hours later and in the dark we managed to get a bite to eat provided by a very concerned Emma. Meanwhile, we learned that Ray, who had been suffering from a bad knee, and who was one of the few who had stayed at base camp had decided to call it a day and had headed off back to Bishkek, apologising to all that he had to and wishing us all the best success with the rest of the expedition. Thanks for all your hard work Ray! Sorry I wasn’t there to say goodbye.
As Ray and Shailoo drove over the pass on the way out on Wednesday (10 August) they were lucky enough to see two argali sheep run across the track in front of the car. This, together with the scull we found the other day is the only evidence we’ve had for three years that argali are here in the valley.
On Thursday (11 August) Gerry, Roland, Bernd, and Fedor with much excitement discovered what appears to be the very first snow leopard scat ever found in the valley!
Friday (12 August) was our last field work day. We set off back along Issyk-Ata in a large group of 15 people. The objective being to try and study the Alamedin pass area, which is usually bypassed. Only Gerry, Brend and Fedor managed to find the route over there, everyone else stayed on the usual track.
Snow leopard tracks found again, and the very first scrape and scat ever found. Three separate sightings of ibex compared to the many sightings made by the first team. This follows the normal observed pattern of them moving to the higher reaches of the mountains as more herders move up the valleys. All findings fitting nicely to the distribution model built over the previous two years. We have 12 camera traps set out in the field, all to be collected by the third team. The previous slot covered more cells (22) compared to this (16), but these were generally higher and more difficult to cover. Also a difficult overnighter to study an area Volodya has been longing to investigate and finally ten new bird species added to the primary list of 42 compiled by the first team, including sightings of snowcock by the team working at higher altitudes.
Thanks for all your hard work! You really have been quite a remarkable team and a huge pleasure for us to work with. Safe travel home, and I hope to meet you all again someday. Ready to go team 3?
The 2016 expedition is wrapping up and we have just arrived back in Pekanbaru after 12 nights in the field. The second group enjoyed brilliant blue skies and endless sunshine throughout their stay in Rimbang Baling reserve. This was great for afternoon swims in the river and everyone’s skin has turned golden. However, the lack of torrential downpours that the first group experienced means the river level has been very low. Going upriver has been slow and a lot of hard work, we often had to get out of the boats and push them across shallow rocks or walk along the shore while the boat driver worked hard to get the boat up the shallow rapids. What a couple of weeks ago took an hour to travel took us over two hours. It meant long days and everyone worked hard to get back the camera traps and survey the rainforest.
A second overnight group went to Aur Kuning to retrieve camera traps. They surveyed two areas the first day climbing to over 350 meters to retrieve the first camera and then another 260 meters for the second. “My favourite thing about the trip was sitting down on the second hill having a rest,” laughed Horry when they returned. “I really enjoyed spotting a tawny fish owl. It was unafraid and right next to us,” Peter said.
We also visited the school in Muara Bio village. This school only has eight pupils, but they were very attentive during Febri’s presentation about conservation and enjoyed the many games the group members played with them afterwards. The NASA pins Bob had brought from the US and the soft toy kangaroos Penny and John brought from Australia were particularly appreciated.
During the 2016 expedition we have surveyed sixteen cells, covering some 64 square kilometers. Most areas were surveyed twice, and seventeen camera traps were deployed. All areas surveyed showed presence of wild pigs, suggesting prey for tigers is common. Signs of illegal logging was also common within the reserve. Interviews with fifteen villagers along the Subayang river revealed that almost everyone is wary of tigers although most interviewees recognised that they are important and would help reduce the wild pig numbers as well as attracting tourists to the area. Despite the survey times being short and the high presence of humans in the study area, a large number of species including tiger prey were repeatedly recorded, pointing towards relatively good and intact habitat conditions in the areas of RB that were surveyed by the 2016 expedition.
I am now in Pekanbaru wrapping up and storing equipment with WWF until next year. Thank you to all our partners and participants for making this expedition a success. This project could not happen without your efforts and committment. Tigers are few and far between, as two years of our expedition work here have shown, and they need all they help they can get. If they are to survive, it will be in areas such as Rimbang Baling, where they can retreat into the farther reaches of a large reserve, away from humans and their logging, poaching and plantations. But with the support of the local people, it seems they could even return closer to the villages, where our research suggests there is a good prey base. Our work here is, amongst other things, to sway local attitudes in favour of tigers. And this kind of work is a generational game, so we are here to stay and look forward to many more years of working with WWF in tiger conservation in this beautiful corner of Sumatra. Thank you everyone for making this possible.
The new group 2 arrivals have settled into the daily routine of Subayang field station, waking up to the call of gibbons and the daily scientific survey work. We have also been collecting the camera traps that the previous group deployed two weeks ago. So far they have captured; mouse deer, barking deer, pig-tailed macaques, wild pigs, poachers and bird catchers.
On Wednesday half of the group went to the village of Aur Kuning, three hours upriver from the station, to survey two areas we had not yet visited. One which was far into the jungle and they sure had some stories to tell upon their return. “There was no path, we had to cut our way through the jungle. It was very steep, and very very slippery,” says Brodie.
Ulva, one of the local placement participants, laughs as she tells us, “Everyone fell over many times on the slippery rocks and steep hills.”
The group spent the night in the village of Aur Kuning, and by the sound of things they were very well looked after. “It was all very good. The food was good and the house we slept in was good too,” reports a tired but happy John.
The other half of the team stayed behind and surveyed areas closer to the station recording long-tailed macaques, wild pigs, sun bears, water buffalo and siamangs. We also saw signs of illegal logging and traps set by poachers to catch song birds. Song bird competitions are common in the towns and therefore so is the demand for wild song birds. Birds are judged on the length and beauty of their song and the owner takes home a price.
Today we are having a well-deserved day off. It is tough work surveying the densely forested and hilly terrain within the Rimbang Bailig Reserve. But a day’s rest and a refreshing swim in the waterfall should see us fit to get back into the rainforest again tomorrow….
Hello – I am Kathy Gill and I will be your expedition leader for Malaysia this year. It’s just over a week until I head out to Singapore and start preparations on board the boat that will be our home for this year’s coral reef surveys around the island of Tioman.
Having recently returned from the Maldives coral reef expedition, I am keen to find out how Malaysia’s corals have been doing in comparison, given the major bleaching event that has been occurring around the world following this year’s El Niño. Our scientist Alvin Alvin Chelliah tells me that “we have started to see recovery from bleaching, very few sites are still bleached” and further that “the purpose of the expedition is to continue our long-term reef health monitoring. The data are used by Reef Check Malaysia and the Department of Marine Parks Malaysia to monitor the health and change to reefs around Tioman. The sites selected are sites we have been monitoring since the first expedition in 2013. The information collected will also feed into the long-term five year programme we are currently running on Tioman.”
Dive sites and survey plan:
Setting out my dive gear reminds me to mention getting your gear serviced before you come and also don’t forget to bring a torch if you have one, as we hope to do a night dive during the week.
And of course, don’t forget to swot up on your Reef Check methodology (look in your dossier for hints on how to). Trust me, the more swotting you can do now, the easier you will find it once you are on the boat.
The weather over there looks to be a steady 33 degrees centigrade and the sea temperatures are in the high twenties to low thirties, so a 3 mm wetsuit should be good, but don’t discount 5 mm if you’d like the added warmth. Our dives tend to be a maximum of 18 m with a dive time of no more than 90 minutes, but we dive slow during a lot of our survey work, so you don’t necessarily generate your own warmth. Having said that, it’s an aweful lot warmer than the sea here in the UK at the moment!
I am really looking forward to meeting everyone. I’ll get a SIM card when I arrive in Singapore and will let me know my local number after that so that you can contact me in case of emergencies, such as being late for assembly.
Phil, Bekbolot, Shailoo, Ismail, Emma and Volodya are on their way to Karakol valley, two cars packed with food and other supplies. They will be setting up base camp for slot 2 and return on Sunday to Bishkek. Writing this, I am at the Futuro hotel waiting for two more expedition vehicles to be delivered and preparing to leave on Sunday morning.
After a lovely last night dinner on Saturday (21 July) with slot 1 at Supara restaurant located a few kilometres outside of Bishkek Bekbolot, Volodya, Phil & I went to Ala Archa National Park for a day visit on Tuesday (26 July). What was supposed to be a short, easy walk turned out to be a 9 km hike up to a waterfall with spectacular views on the way. The entrance to the National Park is only about 25 km from the city center of Bishkek and is worth a visit if you have some spare time.
On Wednesday Phil and I, accompanied by Ismail, went to Ananyevo at Issyk Kol lake for a visit of the NABU rehabilitation centre. Three snow leopards, a lynx, three golden eagles and a black kite are currently hosted there. The centre is located in a remote place in the mountains. Buildings include a wooden hut – the ranger’s home – a few stables, enclosures and a tiny stone house for staff and guests sleeping over (which does not happen often as the centre is not open to the public). For some of the animals it is a temporary home to recover from injuries (such as the Pallas’ cat that was released back into the wild two weeks ago). For others, such as the snow leopard Alsu who has lost a paw from being trapped in a foot snare, it has become a permanent residence.
We went along with the ranger feeding the animals early in the morning on Thursday (28 July), had ‘chay’ (tea) at his hut and arrived back in Bishkek after a five hour drive in the early afternoon.
Friday (29 July) was our shopping day. Emma, Volodya, Phil and I very efficiently tasked shared at Frunze supermarket: Filling two baskets at a time (Emma & I) paying & loading the car (Phil & Volodya) while the next baskets were being filled. We were done in under four hours!😉
So, now it is time form me to say goodbye. Thank you again to everyone who has contributed and helped to make this expedition happen. It has been a great pleasure to be out in the field with team 1 and also to continue working on the ground together with the NABU staff. Thanks for your hospitality, support and good humour!
Dawai teams 2 & 3 – I hope you’ll enjoy your time in the Tien Shan as much as I have. May the sun shine for you for the next four weeks!