Back from the islands

Greetings blog followers,

The last week has been, to say it lightly, epic.

Flying from Kuala Lumpur to Sandakan in the Sabah region of Borneo, we took an informative minibus ride through the massive palm oil plantation corridor. Due to deforestation and the massive plantations, much of Borneo’s primary rainforests have been cut and the evidence was all too clear during our four-hour ride. Upon arrival in Semporna, we quickly signed our lives away to the scuba dive gods and jumped on a boat for the island of Mabul.

Home to numerous dive shops and resorts, Mabul is also home to two communities of “sea gypsies”, asylum-seekers from the Philippines who have no national citizenship in either the Philippines or Malaysia. Because of their lack of status, the children cannot receive an education at the state school on the island, the adults are not allowed to legally work and the community has no sanitation or waste disposal services. The contradiction between resort and regular life on the island became evident very quickly to our group.

On our first morning, we began our time in Mabul by snorkeling around the island. The richness of coral, diversity of fish and plant life was amazing and truly a sight to see (especially for those that had never swam in the ocean before). By the afternoon, however, we decided that we weren’t your average tourists and began a garbage clean-up. Unlike all other tourists who clean the resort beach once a week or so, we decided to pick up garbage on the local side of the jetty. Once we crossed over the resort’s bridge, we were shocked. Just a few feet away was a beautiful nicely kept beach with tourists lazing in the sun; on the local side, however, were bags upon bags of human feces, enough plastic to stretch around the island many times over and a general mass of waste most of our participants had never seen on a such a beautiful beach. So we began the difficult task of picking it all up. What happened within a few minutes? We had a little army of helpers who were all to eager to contribute to the cause. A couple of hours and over a dozen garbage bags later, we were proud yet realized that we had only made a small dent on the island’s garbage problem.

The next three days were spent becoming PADI certified as Open Water scuba divers. Everyone had a great time, learned about the beauty of the ocean from a first-hand perspective and got hooked on the feeling of weightlessness.

After completing our PADI courses, the group participated in a coral reef cleanup dive. While we picked up numerous bags of garbage that was choking the coral, we still realized that the most important place to pick up garbage was on Mabul island itself. The next day we ran a program at the local school where we played some games and had the kids design posters relating to keeping garbage out of the ocean. The competition was a big success and all the kids really enjoyed themselves and hopefully learned something.

Knowing that Mabul Marine Week would begin on our last day on the island, the group decided to take things into our own hands and kick off the festivities a little early. Beginning in the morning, we walked through the dirtiest areas of the island where tons of kids were just sitting around idly. When we learned that “Weina Sampah” means “No Garbage” in Bahasa Malay, we had our war cry. All of a sudden, dozens of kids joined in and by the end of the morning, we had too many garbage bags to deal with and so many kids it hurt our ears with all the cheering. It was a beautiful sight to see the future of Mabul caring about the state of their island.

We attended the opening ceremonies of Mabul Marine Week this morning and to be honest, it was rather disappointing. While the week is organized by all the dive operators on the island in coordination with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Malaysian government, everyone seemed more interested in getting their photo ops and logos on the banners rather than cleaning up the actual island. A common issue in development, we all learned that sometimes it is simply better to act rather than talk. We engaged with the community, educated the children about keeping the island and ocean clean, but most importantly, we made a difference no matter how small. We can only hope that our energy and enthusiasm towards keeping Mabul clean will translate into changed attitudes. We are also talking with numerous contacts we recently made as to how we can support a permanent garbage disposal system.

All in all, our time in Mabul was incredibly enjoyable, surprisingly challenging and most importantly, definitely educational. We’ve created this photo gallery to let you understand a little bit about how Mabul island has shaped our experience on this trip in a major way.

The group is heading to the jungles of the Lower Kinabatangan tomorrow morning for a homestay, school build and jungle camp trek. Fortunately, the wonders of the Internet haven’t overtaken every inch of the planet so we’ll be technology-free for a week. If you’re worried about us, don’t be; the orangutans and monkeys will keep us company.

Until next time,

The OG Southeast Asia Eco Team