Category Archives: South East Asia ’09

The life aquatic

It’s not easy being a turtle egg.
Mum’s journey up the beach to lay you has its own dangers, but that’s only the start of it. You and 100 or so potential brothers and sisters then lie buried a metre down in the sand, hoping to survive without being discovered by inquisitive predators. Presuming you manage to get out of your shell and up to the surface, you still have to cover 100 yards back to the sea, avoiding the spider crabs and their holes in a Lara Croft-style obstacle course. Then you’re in the sea and at the mercy of the waves and various seaborne hazards.

By the time you reach the age of majority, it’s easy to understand why you might pat yourself on the shell – you’ve survived against odds of roughly 1000 to 1 to get this far.

The conservationists got involved in Turtle-world when it became clear that human intervention – often to steal the valuable shells and the reputedly aphrodisiac eggs – was starting to challenge even these odds. Then, back in the 50s and 60s, something rather unfortunate happened. The conservationists didn’t know that the temperature of the sand in which the egg is buried has a bearing on the sex of the hatched animal. The devastating impact, particularly on the Leatherback turtle population, was only felt 40 years later (a couple of decades ago) when thousands of female turtles were left stranded without mates.
It’s *really* not easy being a turtle egg.
Nevertheless, turtles are a focus area for conservationists like WWF now, particularly in Malaysia. I had happened across the Ma’Daerah Green Turtle protection programme on the internet, and arranged to spend two weeks helping them out on the beach they patrol in Northern Malaysia.
I was welcomed a couple of weeks ago by Sharifah the biologist, two rangers and a hatchery worker. The basic nocturnal work took a little getting used to. Two night patrols – one at 9pm, one at 2am. with one of the rangers, I would walk the 2km of remote paradise beach by moonlight, lie down on the sand for a couple of hours, stare at the stars with the ranger’s radio gently wafting over the sand, often drifting off to sleep before waking and stumbling to the sanctuary. By the final day, I loved the patrols, particularly those with the middle-aged ranger Pak Mat. Not only did he seem to enjoy babbling to me in Malay (seemingly oblivious to my complete incomprehension), but he also had a caring wife – I must have tasted every kind of weird tropical fruit carefully bagged for beach consumption.

For me, there was high excitement in finding turtle-tracks on the beach, following them up to a nest, and hearing the sound of strong flippers scraping sand over eggs. The job of collecting hatched turtles from the hatchery and releasing them in their 100s into the sea was even more rewarding. Pak Mat just laughed gently at my child-like enthusiasm – for him, it was just another day of his ten years here, supporting his seven children.

With the end of the season approaching (now-ish), we had another job to complete. WWF had acquired four expensive satellite transmitters to fix onto the backs of mothers after they had laid their eggs. This was no easy task – weighing in at 100kg and about a metre long, these turtles were (understandably) not that keen on being boxed for 3 hours in the early hours of the morning while a hot epoxy resin was applied to their shell. But this is a necessary part of the conservation effort – even now, very little is known about the lifetime movements of turtles out at sea.

In my last few days at the sanctuary, Sharifah the biologist started a final small project. Around a headland north of the beach, the lights of a huge Petronas oil refinery cast an eerie red light into the sky. Hatchlings are attracted by light, and Sharifah and her boss had a hunch that the “Petronas effect” was pulling hatchlings North like a magnet once they reached the sea. To test the theory, small lightsticks on polystyrene floats were attached with sellotape and fishing line to the back of 4 hatchlings, which were followed for a couple of hours with kayaks. Results – as yet – inconclusive; though I know where I’d lay my bets.

I left the sanctuary 4 days ago and moved on out to the beautiful Perhentian Islands, renowned for their fantastic diving. Given the increasingly aquatic theme of this section of my travels, it seemed churlish not to learn to scuba-dive, so I’m now a PADI Open Water scuba-diver. Another day, another aquatic qualification.

I’m heading into silent Vipassana Meditation now for 10 days, before heading to Singapore and then Bali, where I plan to surf and do some more free-diving.



1 Comment

Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, South East Asia '09

Swim like a mammal, waddle like a reptile

{29.08.2009 – Picture now added]

It was the fifth day of my free-diving course, and my final dive. I knew I was about 20 metres down, unthinkable only a few days earlier. I tried manfully not to panic. As I tried to push a metre or two deeper, the upside-down goggled face of my effortlessly cool instructor Eusebio eased into view…

He looked at me with penetratingly confidence-boosting eyes and a broad grin, and made the thumbs-up (or down, depending on your point of view) sign. “Further… I know you can go further…” he wordlessly communicated to me. But I’d had enough – I glided as slowly as I could up the rope to the surface sand emerged gasping for breath.

“How-did-I-do?” I blurted out breathlessly.

“22 metres, my freeend. Excellent dive…” Eusebio told me in his wonderful Spanish accent.

“I could have gone further… I could have gone further…”

Tales of Oxygen and the Brain

It’s a well known fact that free-divers nearly always think they could have gone further after they’ve set a new Personal Best. It is one of many slightly weird things about this emerging sport.

Some brief explanation for the uninitiated – free-diving has a number of different variations, but in essence they all come down to one thing – diving as deep under water as you can on a single breath of air. There’s something very attractive about the simplicity of it all. But like other extreme sports, the sport comes into its own when you comprehend that limits are as much mental (and in some ways imaginary) as physical. For that reason, instructors have to tread a fine line between inspiring courage in their students and scaring them witless. You can indeed go further than you think you can. In fact, much further.

There is certainly danger – in the 1950s when Jacques Mayol (made famous by the film “The Big Blue”) started diving, the theory was that the body would collapse below 30 metres. Mayol smashed that theory, and nowadays the top divers frequently get down below 100 metres. Medical research has uncovered that something called the Mammalian Dive Reflex exists in humans, and free-divers themselves are discovering new ways of breathing and relaxing to help them go longer and deeper underwater.

But on Day One of the training at the small Apnea Total school, all this was yet to be discovered. So when John, our Basque instructor, told us that we had to think of blackouts as our friends, I was a little freaked out to say the least.

John explained the principle further. “Ees a natural reaction by your body – the system shut down for a while when things get a leetle bit difficult, heh?” He sensed a little edginess in the five of us sitting in the beach-side classroom. “Ees OK, I never know someone blackout on beginners course…” Well, it’s one way of looking at it, I told myself in a wobbly internal voice.

Two hours later I found myself clasping a buoy off the back of a boat, with a weighted rope hanging 20 metres down into the Gulf of Thailand. I’ve never really felt comfortable in the sea, and as my instructor Rodrigo looked at me with his deep eyes, it occurred to me that this was therefore perhaps one of the stupider things I’ve decided to do.

The waves lapped over me; Rodrigo purred in my ear. “You are beerry relaxed Andy, beerry relaxed. You look beeeerry relaxed. Ees beerry beautiful, excellent breathing, Andy…” I felt anything but relaxed – but there’s a game of positive thinking to be played here, and the instructors were experts at playing it. At times it was almost hypnotic.

A final deep breath, and I was under, pulling myself down on the weighted rope into the beautifully clear water. On the first couple of days, I don’t mind admitting that unexpurgated panic set in at an early stage; I struggled to get down below 5 metres, while my compadres on the course reached depths approaching the bottom of the rope. It was all deeply depressing.

So by the second afternoon I was frustrated beyond belief. Rodrigo fixed me with his penetrating stare. “What’s een your mind, Andy? This game is all in your mind…”

And something clicked. It really was in my mind. Suddenly I was at 14 metres and feeling, well, at least OK. And more than that, I was conquering my mental demons – and developing my breathing. It all felt so connected – to the yoga, the tai chi, the kung fu – and so far away from my days struggling to breathe at my desk in London.

I knew that I had to move on to the three-day Advanced course.

Advanced Apnea for dummies

Apnea, meaning suspension of external breathing, is at the heart of free-diving – the diving is really just the culmination of what’s called the “breathe-up” which can easily take five to ten times as long at the dive itself. So the advanced teaching focuses far more on breathing.

Without getting too technical, you have to learn to live with diaphragmatic contractions in order to stay at depth. Initially frightening, the best free-divers see these as “internal breathing” – and to be welcomed.

Despite the rather frightening sight of one of the course attendees blacking out during a training breathe-up (low blood pressure), things progressed remarkably quickly. By the end of the first day I was holding my breath face down in the water (called “static Apnea”) for what felt like an age – 2 minutes 50 seconds. (By the way, usual warning – don’t try this at home, kids – needs supervision…)

Over the next two days we practised new forms of “breathe-ups”, learnt to kick the Mammalian dive Reflex quickly into action, studied all kinds of exercises to increase lung capacity, and tried new ways to equalise at depth.

But above all, we kept on diving. We did NPSA dives, Exhale dives, free immersion dives, you name it. As with any sport, it’s the only way to progress. And that final dive, to 22 metres, made it all worthwhile – mostly thanks to stunning instruction from Rodrigo, John and Eusebio.

From here, the only way is up. Or down. Depending on how you look at it. Highly, highly recommended.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

A thirty hour train journey through the troubled wilds of Southern Thailand, and I reached my current location – the little-known Ma’Daerah Turtle Sanctuary on the East coast of peninsular Malaysia.

I’m the only volunteer here, which is a treat. I released my first hatchling on the beach last night. It’s a great experience to watch this tiny reptile – no longer than the size of my pinkie – make its way down to the sea for the first time. In 30 years, it will grow to be a metre or more long. And if it’s a male (you can’t tell until they’re older), it won’t ever come back to land. Tonight I hope to watch a female actually lay its eggs.

I’ll be a nocturnal beast for the next fortnight – the work is all in the hours of darkness. Which is rather apt, given that it is Ramadan, and finding food during the day is a little tricky.


[Unfortunately pictures aren’t working on blogger today. They will follow].

Leave a comment

Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, South East Asia '09