Shark Awareness Programme (Part 1 of 2)
By Mun Yee San, Sin Chew Daily, 22 June 2016
Translated by Tan Whei Li for MNS Marine


Do you still consume shark’s fin soup? Do you know sharks are the top predators in the ocean, and without them, there would be no beautiful marine ecology? Do you know we have up to 63 species of shark in our ocean, and without them, there would be no stunning underwater world to attract tourists from all over the world to come to snorkel and scuba dive in our ocean?

When thousands of tourist flock to an island on a holiday, how many of them really know how to snorkel and minimise the harm to the marine ecosystem while admiring the beautiful marine life?

A Sin Chew reporter was invited by the Selangor Branch Marine Special Interest Group of the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) to join 24 members on a “Shark Awareness Programme” at Tenggol Island in early June this year. A Specialty Shark Diving Course and a Snorkelling Course were conducted by Scuba Schools International (SSI), allowing us to learn about sharks and snorkelling techniques, and be responsible tourists in the marine environment.

Tenggol Island is a rocky island about 50 hectares in size. Thirty percent of it is covered by corals. The seawater here is so clear that one would be able to see all the hard and soft corals and all kinds of marine life, with a snorkelling mask on. There are also sightings of whale sharks and blacktip reef sharks in this area. It is not necessary to scuba dive – snorkelling is enough to see them clearly.

Nick Khoo: Protect ourselves and the marine life – snorkelers should undergo training

Many people know training is required to become an open water diver, but very few people know about “Snorkelling Courses”. Sponsored by Scuba Schools International (SSI), all the participants of the “Shark Awareness Programme” underwent a snorkelling course, with the guidance of the instructors from Siputscuba.

SSI Service Manager Nick Khoo pointed out that to be a responsible snorkeler, one should take up a snorkelling course that enables one to use snorkelling gear correctly. This allows them to, not only safeguard themselves, but also prevent them from harming the marine ecosystem and marine life during snorkelling.

From his observations, the common mistake made by many untrained snorkelers is to stand on corals.

Treading water can easily damage corals

“Secondly, snorkelers don’t know the correct way of using snorkelling fins. Many don’t realise they could accidentally damaged the corals while moving their large snorkelling fins too near to the corals.”

He pointed out that even a good swimmer may not necessarily know the right techniques of snorkelling because they are used to treading water, and often accidentally kick the corals in shallow water. The correct way of snorkelling is to always keep our body floating horizontally on the surface of water at all times, regardless of whether we are moving or resting.

According to him, snorkelling courses are not popular in Malaysia, but many scuba diving schools are providing the course in other countries.

“The reason for this is that snorkelers have the misconception that snorkelling is swimming with a life-jacket and a snorkel, but they aren’t prepared for muscle cramp and are not equipped with the knowledge of clearing water from the mask and snorkel. And many are not informed that corals are not rocks and we are not supposed to stand on them.”

A certificate will be given once the course is completed

When asked why snorkelling fins are banned at some marine parks, Khoo replied that this measure was implemented because the authorities think snorkelers won’t step on the corals if they aren’t wearing fins, but no explanation is given to people as to why we shouldn’t stand on corals.

He added that snorkelling course fees are not expensive. Overseas, some scuba diving schools insist snorkelers must undergo snorkeling training. This also changes the mentality of local operators that educating snorkelers is important.

Similar to open water diving, an electronic certificate will be given to every participant once he/she has completed the snorkelling course.

Wong Wee Liem: Guidance is necessary

Wong Wee Liem and Wong Siew Lyn, members of MNS Selangor Branch Marine Special Interest Group, are two of the organising committee members of the Shark Awareness Programme. Wee Liem explained that the snorkelling experience of most participants is merely travelling to an island by boat.

“They have never learned how to react should a dangerous situation arises whilst in the ocean. Most of them don’t know they should snorkel in groups and should never be too close to speedboats to avoid injured by the propellers.”

One of the participants, Chan Beng Beng (50), said when she first heard about the snorkelling course, what came to mind was: “Is there certification for snorkelling? What is there to learn in snorkelling? Isn’t it just about putting on a life-jacket, wear a mask and a snorkel and jump into the water?”

She remembers that was how she learned snorkelling in Redang Island and Kapas Island 10 years ago. After the snorkelling training this time, she has become a responsible snorkeler.

Due to the lack of proper training, Wee Liem said, “Many snorkelers tend to stand on corals when they are tired. As a result, their actions destroy the fragile corals unintentionally.”

He added that corals take a long time to grow. They grow at a rate of 9mm to 15 cm a year. When a snorkeler steps on a coral that take ages to grow, it will be instantly be crushed. “Once they are destroyed, the coral reefs will be infected easily and will eventually die.”

The Cost of Coral Damage is Large

Siew Lyn said that since islands are popular among travellers, many untrained snorkelers are getting into the ocean. Even the snorkelling guides and tour operators are untrained and don’t have a sense of responsibility to protect the marine ecosystem. This has led to coral destruction and the price to pay is enormous.

Both Wee Liem and Siew Lyn pointed out that such situations are happening on Langkawi and the Perhentian islands. There used to be corals not far from the beaches many years ago, but they have all suffered the same fate as many popular islands, as most of the corals near beaches are now dead.

The intention of the MNS Selangor Branch Marine Special Interest Group is to educate not only the snorkelers, but also the holiday resort operators, fishermen and snorkelling instructors in the long run because these are the people who deal with tourists day in day out. They are the key people to educate travellers on the correct techniques in snorkelling.

“We hope that everyone can equip themselves with the right snorkelling skills and knowledge before going out to the ocean. This does not require a lot of time to learn. Perhaps not more than 15 to 20 minutes.”

Snorkelling courses should be mandatory

Siew Lyn believes this recommendation should be supported by the government and it should be mandatory to teach every snorkeler the right techniques by the tour operators.

The MNS Selangor Branch Marine Special Interest Group has been carrying out a Marine Awareness Programme since 2003. They also provide proper snorkeling training to their members. “But how many people can we train? We feel that it is more important that the tour operators and any relevant parties are given the training. Hence, we conducted training to snorkelling instructors on Tioman Island in 2006 and 2007.”

The training was a success, she pointed out, but as part of an NGO, they are limited by their resources. “We need implementation and enforcement from the local authorities.”

While they try to push these ideas through, MNS Marine encourages avid snorkelers to take up snorkelling courses.

Wee Liem said that the problem lies in the lack of awareness. Tourists should have the initiative to enquire about snorkelling course from friends who have the knowhow, or take part in activities organised by NGOs, or read up about it even though they don’t sign up for a course.

Take part in formal training

After taking part in the snorkelling course, non-swimmer father and son, Anba (50) and Shan (16) became among the most avid snorkelers in the group.

According to Anba, he has learned the right way of snorkelling, the proper use of snorkelling gear and safety measures through the course.

“Twenty years ago, I was given only a life-jacket and no one taught me how to control my buoyancy when I went snorkelling with friends.”

Fascinated by the marine life, it was the first time Shan snorkelled. He said he already knew how to protect the corals, for example, one should not step on the corals, throw plastic bottles or any rubbish into the sea and pollute the ocean.

“The underwater world is amazing. Through attending the Specialty Shark Course, I learned about the beauty of sharks. I still have a lot of things to learn.”

High level of environmental awareness among the participants

All 24 participants have a high level of environmental awareness. They were very concerned how sewage and rubbish was treated when they arrived at the island. When they went for a night walk on the beach, they were very careful not to step on any coral. And they also did a beach clean-up a day before they left the island.

A retiree at 75 years old, Richard Gascoigne, is the oldest participant. He has snorkelled for many years, but this was the first time he learned about reef-safe sunblock.

“Before this, I didn’t know of the existence of reef-safe sunblock. It doesn’t contain chemicals that harm the corals, and is made of organic materials. I purposely brought this sunblock on this trip.”

Wong Siew Lyn encouraged everyone to be responsible travellers. Before making a reservation. they should find out how sewage and waste water are treated, whether they are dumped into the ocean, if solar energy is used and what energy saving measures are taken at a resort.

“We should put in the effort to ask more questions. When more tourists are asking these questions, pressure will be put on the holiday resorts to make improvements.”

– Do not touch the corals, take only photographs or videos.
– Maintain positive buoyancy to keep the body afloat.
– Remember the rules of snorkelling, i.e. snorkel with a buddy, look out for each other, breathe slowly and deeply, protect yourselves and avoid stepping on a coral.

Photo captions:
1. With the ocean and sky as backdrop, third from the right, Wong Wee Liem, Nick Khoo and Wong Siew Lyn, who led the organising committee, jump with joy. From left, Siputscuba dive instructor, Nickie Lee, MNS volunteers Jessica Ng and Adeline Loh, Siputscuba dive instructor Wong Si Peng, Siputscuba manager Tan Lea Meng. From right, manager dive instructor Kelvin Chu and International Diving Development Manager Low Ee Hsien. (Photo: Sin Chew)
2. Tenggol Island is a rocky island about 50 hectares in size. Thirty percent of it is covered by corals. It has clear water and an abundance of marine life. It is a heaven for snorkelling and diving. (photo: Sin Chew)
3. International Diving Development Manager Low Ee Hsien (first on the left) teaching participants the proper use of snorkelling gear. (photo: Sin Chew)
4. Participants walking on the beach carefully to avoid stepping on any coral during the night walk to look for marine animals. (photo: Sin Chew)
6. Richard led the group in singing a song called “Terima Kasih To You” at the end of the courses.
7. Participants obtain an electronic certificate issued by Scuba Schools International (SSI) once they complete the Snorkeling Course.
8. The non-swimmer father and son, Anba (on the right) and Shan became avid snorkelers after the Snorkeling Course.
9. Children participating in the beach clean-up, collecting all sort of rubbish on the beach.
10. The correct way of snorkelling is to maintain positive buoyant that allows our body to be afloat.

Photos: Wong Siew Lyn, Adeline Loh, Jessica Ng, Steven Wong, Ivy Loh, C. Anba and Tan Whei Li

Part 2: What are your preconceptions about sharks? Do sharks eat humans? Are they majestic yet gruesome creatures? In Part 2, the service manager of SSI, Nick Khoo, unravels the myths and mysteries of sharks, the top predator in the ocean. Click here for Part 2 of this report.