By Natalie Heng

Volunteers teach tourists ways to enjoy the marine realm without destroying it. There is nothing more mesmerising than swimming amongst coral reefs, underwater metropolises of curiously shaped and brightly coloured creatures. Living towers of wildly shaped structures resembling wrinkled brains, cabbages, table tops and wire strands form underwater cities for the myriad of fascinating marine organisms snorkellers love to watch.

Unfortunately, many snorkellers have no idea how long it takes for coral reefs to grow, or the fact that these delicate habitats which have formed over thousands of years are slowly dying as our oceans acidify due to climate change. Pollution, coastal development and over-fishing pose constant threats to reef ecosystems all over the world.

It was reported last year that at least 19% of the world’s coral reefs are already gone. So, the last thing this ecosystem needs is snorkellers trampling all over. 

That’s what inspired four marine enthusiasts from the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) to start the Marine Friendly Snorkelling Programme in 2003.

“We wanted to teach members how to appreciate what they see underwater,” says Leong Hon Yuen, a volunteer and committee member of the MNS Selangor branch marine group.

The idea is that if snorkellers understand the underwater environment better, not just how fragile it is but also the closely connected and fascinating features and dynamics of its inhabitants, they will be motivated to take better care of it.

The course which is entirely run by volunteers, occurs several times a year on islands such as Tioman in Pahang as well as Perhentian and Redang in Terengganu.

Though the snorkelling course itself is free, participants pay for the cost of the trips, which range from RM300 to RM600 depending on the location and number of nights stayed, to cover accommodation, jungle trekking and other such activities.

“It’s also open to non-MNS members, we just add in the membership price which is RM70 a year so they get automatic membership,” says another volunteer, Kanagalingam Kulasingam.

The snorkelling programme itself covers basic responsible snorkelling etiquette such as how to use a snorkel, how to communicate with your snorkelling buddies by hand signals and how to avoid damaging corals.

More importantly, it teaches snorkellers how to appreciate what they’re seeing underwater.

“For many first-time snorkellers there’s just so much to see, but after a while one fish looks like any other fish, and your interest may start to wane,” says Leong. “We teach people things to look out for. There are all kinds of special relationships going on underwater.”

An example of one such relationship is that shared between the goby fish and prawns. Snorkelling becomes 10 times more fascinating when you know that the little goby hovering above the seabed is actually standing guard for the prawn tucked inside its sand burrow. When the goby flicks its tail, this a sign to its prawn partner, which has poor eyesight, that the coast is clear.

“Unlike a lot of tourists who just swim around and don’t really see anything because they don’t know what they are looking at or can look out for, if you hover in one spot, you might see 10 or 20 fascinating things,” says Leong.

The snorkelling programme integrates informative stuff about the reef habitat such as how corals are formed and the essential role they play in marine ecosystems, as well as the 10 most common marine life snorkellers are likely to see.

“After three days (trips often last for three to four days) we do an underwater treasure hunt which actually tests their underwater snorkelling and marine life identification skills … its a whole lot of fun.

We also do a beach clean-up to show them what ends up under the sea and how it affects marine life. Turtles for example, suffocate and die when they mistake plastic bags for jellyfish which they eat. The amount of trash that comes out of the sea is amazing, it comes from rivers, the beach, the sea and tourists.”

One component of the course deals with awareness issues, focusing on the impact that tourism activities might have on reefs.

Kanagalingam points to direct and indirect impacts: “A direct impact would be when people get tired of swimming, they stand on corals. Unfortunately, corals are very fragile and it might take one whole year just to grow 10 inches (25cm). So if you break off a 10 inch-piece, that’s one year’s worth of growth gone just like that. A six feet (2m) wide table coral would have taken over 10 years to get to that size.”

Indirect impacts include fish feeding – fried chicken, prawn crackers and stale bread are popularly thrown into the water so that swarms of colourful fish congregate around the snorkellers.

“Fish feed on very specific diets, for example algae found on corals, sponges and other fish. It’s all part of an intricately balanced ecosystem. With regular fish feeding, fish behaviour starts to change. They tend to swarm around people and nibble at you because they have learned to associate humans with food. People think the fish are really friendly when they are not, and are actually more aggressive,” says Kanagalingam.

Andrew Sebastian, MNS head of communications points out that providing fish with this alien diet draws them away from the essential roles they play in the ecosystem. For example, many fish feed on algae which grow on corals. If they are eating bits of bread instead, algae populations can get out of hand and smother corals.

“We subscribe to the principles of eco-tourism, which is observing something in its natural space without tampering with it,” says Sebastian.

Over the years some progress has been made. For example, Sebastian says the Department of Marine Park Malaysia introduced a policy disallowing the use of fins in marine parks a few years ago. This was meant to help protect the corals from being damaged – corals can be quite sharp, so without fins, people are less inclined to step on them.

Sebastian believes all tourists have an important role to play because they create demand. Aside from educating ourselves about marine life, getting to know responsible snorkelling etiquette and refraining from throwing rubbish in the sea, tourists and holiday makers can do more – “Give business to resorts who are aware and want to make a difference,” says Sebastian.

Far-sighted resorts and tour operators will recognise that the coral reefs at their doorstep are assets central to the attractiveness of their establishment; who wants to stay at a resort with a skeletal mass of broken corals?

When choosing green resorts, Sebastian recommends asking some basic questions, such as: Do they treat their effluent before it goes out to sea? Do they dispose of rubbish responsibly? Do they educate their guests and staff on how to protect the reefs?

Meanwhile, the MNS marine group is working with the British Sub Aqua Club to develop a professional certification scheme for local snorkelling guides aimed at enabling them to teach responsible snorkelling etiquette and marine knowledge to tourists.

“Very often the guides are locals and don’t get formal training. If a programme trains them on what to show and talk about when they take people snorkelling, they will be able to make the experience richer for tourists,” says Kanagalingam.

MNS has held only one snorkelling guide training session to date, in 2006 in Tioman, as sponsors are hard to come by. So, getting a certification scheme up and running will provide resorts and tour operators an incentive to sponsor their own guides for the course, something which they can then market to eco-aware tourists.

For upcoming Marine Friendly Snorkelling Programme trips, go to

Published Lifestyle, The Star 7 June 2011.