Tag Archives: conservation

Summer Holiday at Pulau Redang

In 1999,a Hong Kong blockbuster movie was filmed at a secluded lagoon on the east coast of Pulau Redang.  The plot, briefly summarized:A high-powered Hong Kong stockbroker is jilted and double-crossed by her boyfriend, causing her to lose her job.  She escapes to a remote Malaysian island, where she and her cousin have inherited a pristine beach.  A real estate mogul offers her millions of dollars to sell it, but she’s startled to find that her gambling-addicted cousin sold his share to a hunky beach bum who has no interest in selling his half of paradise.  Wacky rom-com hijacks ensue until the business woman and the beach bum finally fall in love and decide to preserve the beach for themselves and the locals.

Summer Holiday.
The message was lost on somebody on the set though, because shortly after the movie was filmed on site, they actually really did build a 212-room, all-inclusive, faux-Thai themed luxury resort on the very same beach.  And that’s where my family stayed for the next couple nights.  True story.

Laguna Redang Island Resort
Oh, and how do I know the plot?  Because one of the six channels on the hotel TV is dedicated to showing Summer Holiday on repeat, 24-hours a day, a la It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas.  We never sat down to watch the whole thing, but would catch 15 minutes here or there, and Joel and I would share tidbits to piece it together, as if we were reading Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse 5 or The Sound and the Fury.  We’re talking high-caliber literature here, people.  “Who is that?”  “Oh, that’s George. The ex-boyfriend who double-crossed Summer.” “No, no, that’s the out-of-work actor who was hired to pretend he is George.” The irony of a massive resort complex showing a film set on its very location in which the resort tycoon is cast as the villain may have been lost on the hotel management, but it was not lost on us.

The More More Tea Inn was built as the set of Summer Holiday and has now been turned into a souvenir shop.
Gosh, but it’s pretty though.

The Gustavus students, for their part, were camping on the west side of the island, at a beach called Mak Kepit.  It’s not readily accessible by the public, has no running water or electricity, and was deemed by everyone to not be suitable accommodations for a baby and a toddler.  Too bad, because that’s much more my style and I think we would have had way more fun there.  They swam til they were exhausted, ate five meals a day, and slept under the stars at night.

There’s not much to do at a place like Laguna Redang Resort but sit beachside (or poolside) and enjoy the scenery, so we embraced it.  Simon loved playing in the sand and jumping waves in the South China Sea.

This is how we lounge.
Beach baby.
Not impressed right now.

Local Malay guys wanted to take Simon’s picture. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Shortly after this picture was taken, a stray ball from the nearby beach volleyball court bounced off Joel’s chest. That could have been really bad. He relocated to another lounger down the beach.

What’s a beach vacation without tropical fruity drinks by candlelight?
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The resort offers two chartered snorkeling trips each day. Joel and I each went on one while the other stayed back with the kiddos.  It’s been a couple of years since I’ve snorkeled, so first I have to say: it was awesome to be back in crystal blue water. Words can’t thoroughly express how deeply I miss it, and how natural it felt to don my mask and fins and dive down again. Having said that, I was also completely stunned by the degraded state of the coral reef. This is the first time I’ve really witnessed coral bleaching and it was devastating. The staghorn coral at my site was dead and broken, the arms littering the sea floor like a boneyard. Green algae was slowly encroaching and covering everything that was still alive. I was delighted by each new fish species I saw, but the diversity was far less than what you should see at a tropical reef in the South China Sea. The rest of the tourists seemed less interested in the reef and more interested in taking pictures. They bobbed at the surface and splashed around, feeding bread to the fish. I was the only one who took off my vest and dove underwater. Deeper down, I was rewarded with so much more diversity: tiny little electric blue gobies hanging out in the crevices of brain corals; big snappers hiding under coral ledges. You can’t see that stuff at the surface, but I’m not sure most of the tourists knew or cared. A wasted opportunity.

Schools of sergeant majors hung out to beg for bread crumbs from the other swimmers.
Towards the end of my dive, these little cleaner wrasses came over and started nibbling my legs. It was like the fish spa all over again.

Our blue-footed booby.
On our second evening at the resort, a local conservation team released a nest of sea turtle eggs.  Unlike our experience on the mainland, this was done in bright daylight, 6:30pm.  They cordoned off a section of beach and tourists gathered to watch.  The most alarming part was when I discovered that they were selling off the rights to release a turtle.  For Rm 20 (about US $5), you could personally hold a sea turtle and let it go.  People lined up in batches of 20 behind the “starting line” and the emcee counted down, 3-2-1!  Turtles were released and made their way towards the water, with people yelling, cheering, snapping photos, and breaking through the barricade to get a better luck.

The organizers–I think they were affiliated with the local university–were earnest in their attempt to educate the mass of tourists, but most of the people were in vacation mode and not really paying attention.  In every possible way, it was the opposite of the experience two nights earlier.  I was dismayed and rather indignant, snapping photos to share with our students while we shook our heads and laughed about the circus.  Then one of the coordinators approached us.  “We have a few turtles left over.  Would your son like to release one for free?”

My indignation fell to my feet as my little boy’s eyes lit up at the prospect of holding a live baby sea turtle.  And so we found ourselves lined up for the third round of the turtle release race, waiting to meet Turtle #46.  Simon is so young that I worried about him dropping the turtle or, worse, squeezing it.  But he did his absolute best, and managed to delicately hold the tiny little creature as it flapped its flippers in the air, searching for sand or water.  Mercifullly, the countdown was quickly made and the baby turtle raced towards the sea, while Simon watched and cheered, grinning from ear to ear.  m.

The classice tale of a boy and his endangered marine creature.
Also not really impressed with all this.
Cheering for his turtle.
Our class has had discussions on the balance of education vs. entertainment when it comes to wildlife, zoos, parks. I’m not sure that we were on the right side of the line this time, but I hope not too much damage was done. I’ve decided the turtle was female. And I’ve also decided that she will be the one out of hundreds who will beat the odds. Twenty years from now, when Simon is graduating from college, that turtle will swim back to her beach on Pulau Redang and her flippers will touch land for just the second time in her whole life, and the cycle will begin again as she lays her eggs on that same beach as her ancestors. We can hope, anyhow–if the resorts don’t grow too big and the ocean currents don’t become too warm. That’s the story I’m telling Simon, who in the past few days has often asked me to tell him what his turtle is doing now.


Bananas and Baby Sea Turtles

As part of their Tropical Ecology class, the Gustavus Living Diversity program traveled to Malaysia’s Terengganu State and Pulau Redang this past week. Pulau Redang is an island off the northwest coast of peninsular Malaysia, and it’s well known as a beach paradise and snorkel/dive hotspot.

We all met at the USM campus late on Tuesday night.  Our charter bus departed at about 10pm and the plan was for us to sleep on the bus and wake up at our destination the next morning.  The good news is that both kids slept quite readily.  As Penelope had cried through the past two nights, I’d been a bit stressed that she would  keep everyone awake.  She didn’t.  In fact, she slept soundly and barely made a peep all night.  I had a harder time falling asleep.  Our bus continued to climb up mountainous slopes and careen down the other sides, the driver frequently straddling the middle line, only to slow suddenly when oncoming headlights appeared.  I think most of us adults were awake.  Sometime after midnight, I finally fell asleep.  Penelope was on my chest, in a baby carrier, and we both had a good sleep like that until morning.

In the morning, we ate breakfast near the mangroves and the students went on a boat tour.  Joel and Simon accompanied them, but the professors warned that it would be too hot for a baby.  Penelope and I checked into our hotel, the Pandan Laut Beach Resort and waited for their return.  The hotel was a simple place with rustic free-standing cabins.  I think our group were the only guests, as we nearly filled all their rooms.

Penelope and I met up with the gang at lunch time.  Some local ladies appeared and taught us the fundamentals of their style of weaving and (of course) offered the products (placemats & baskets) for purchase.

Next stop was the Pink House, a womens’ conservation cooperative.  It was started about a decade ago with assistance from Worldwide Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Nestle.

Nestlé funded a survey of the socioeconomic needs and existing conditions of communities in key villages in Setiu. The survey identified the local communities’ capacity building needs. Emphasis was put on the women because, as mothers and co-income earners, they had an important role to play in the area’s long-term development in a sustainable manner. The project entailed equipping local women with the skills needed to develop cottage industries, including training on basic entrepreneurial skills, adopting clean “green” practices in food processing, marketing and branding as well as environmental awareness.


The organiational chart looks a little different in a woman-owned conservation cooperative.
Simon plays mancala on the steps of the Pink House.
Local paper crafts.

By all the measures, the venture was successful.  The original funding for the program has expired and the women now work to make the Pink House financially self-sufficient.  The women there showcased some other handicrafts and taught us how to make the regional style of banana chips.

You start with very green bananas…
…peel them with a sharp knife…
…slice them thinly…
…and fry in oil until they are crispy, golden brown.

I’ll admit.  I was a bit worried about everyone walking away with their fingers intact.  Using a mandolin slicer without your fingers–no grip–is a bit scary.  But we were OK.   And the banana chips were addictive! The ingredients were: very green, hard bananas, oil, and sugar. So simple; so tasty. Almost everybody walked out of the shop with a few bags to go.

I needed my hands free to chop bananas. Fortunately, there were plenty of women available to help me with that.

Our last stop of the afternoon was at the turtle hatchery. Around the world, sea turtles are at risk because their eggs are harvested and consumed by local people, who often view them as a delicacy or believe they hold special medicinal properties. Because of this, it has become a routine practice for conservationists to patrol beaches at night, identify sea turtle nests, and relocate the eggs to a safe spot until they hatch. Joel and I saw a nearly identical set up when we visited Petatlan, Mexico, in 2012. The biologists explained that while other species used to nest in this part of Malaysia, they’ve all been extirpated except for green sea turtles. Much to our surprise and enjoyment, one of the nests erupted and baby turtles started crawling out of the sand as we watched. Even better yet, we were told that we could witness the turtles being released that evening at the beach by our hotel.

Each red stake represents a relocated nest of turtle eggs, which has 60 to 100+ eggs. The location is guarded around the clock and the fence is sunk into the sand several feet to keep predators out.
Nets prevent the hatchlings from wandering too far before the biologists can take them directly to their home beach, where their mother laid the eggs.
Petatlan, Mexico, March 2012. A nearly identical set-up.
These turtles actually emerged from their nest while we were watching.

Hanging out at the beach at Pandan Laut, where we would release the baby sea turtles a few hours later.

At about 10:00 that night, we all gathered on the beach. We were instructed to turn off all lights and stand completely still and quiet. One of the sea turtle biologists uncovered a box full of baby turtles and tipped it over. The little turtles skittered towards the sea. It was so dark we could barely see them, but they crawled along, occasionally bumping a foot or crawling right over. (Yes, it tickles!) No photographs, because the flash would be terribly disorienting to their sensitive eyes. But everyone agreed that it was a highlight of our trip to Malaysia so far.

Simon Among the Simians

 The Gustavus students took a Saturday field trip to the mainland, coordinated by one of the Tropical Ecology lecturers, Nadine Ruppert, a primatologist.  Joel, Simon, and I were very excited to come along, too.  Dr. Ruppert also was accompanied by two of her graduate students and her three little boys.

We visited two zoos in one day: first was Bukit Merah’s Orang Utan Island.  (I love the name; it sounds like something from a Scooby Doo mystery.) This is actually a breeding facility for orangutans, which are native to Borneo but not peninsular Malaysia.  We were a very lucky group–we had the opportunity to see quite a few orangutans up close, which is probably not always the case.

Watching the big male of the island eat his breakfast.


The young’uns get to play all day.
This baby’s name is Cha Cha. In the wild, he’d stay with his mother for 8+ years.

Just three feet–and a highly elecctrified fence–between us and the apes.
Simon and simian.


Simon and Emma, having fun.


So apparently Bukit Merah is a popular fishing destination.
Impromptu class discussion with lots of little boys.

While we waited for the bus, Dr. Ruppert led a discussion full of really great, thought-provoking questions. Some of the things the class pondered: What is the best way to protect an endangered species that has many simultaneous threats (habitat loss, illegal poaching, etc.)?  What if we become very successful at breeding orangutans, but don’t have enough stable habitat to release them to? Can animals that have been bred/raised in captivity be successfully released into the wild?  How do we balance the value of public education with the rights of animals in zoos?  How do you accommodate the spatial and physical needs of a wide-ranging species in captivity? There are no easy answers.  (Conservation can be tough.)

We left Bukit Merah resort and stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant.  From there, it was about a 30 minute drive to Zoo Taiping, our second destination of the day.  In a rare occurrence, Simon fell asleep on the bus ride.

Dr. Ruppert told us that she thought Taiping is possibly the best zoo in Malaysia, and it certainly was nice.  Several of the enclosures were under renovation, as they attempt to make “open concept” enclosures that more closely mimic natural habitat for the animals within.

While it doesn’t quite look like a real rain forest, this habitat gives the orangutans plenty of structure and exercise.
Gibbons are the smallest of the apes. This little baby wanted to follow its mother across the bridge. He put out his arms to balance and looked just like a human toddler learning to walk.


With help from a zookeeper, Simon feeds a slice of white bread to a giraffe.
Taller than a giraffe.
Just like horses, giraffes have exceptionally soft muzzles.
Please don’t feed the animals…unless the zookeeper hands you some Wonder Bread and says it’s OK.

The last stop was the hippopotamus enclosure, where the zookeeper fed them an assortment of veggies.  Hippos are known to be very dangerous, and I’ve never actually seen them up close, out of the water before.  Watching them eat was incredible.  He tossed an entire pumpkin or hard squash into the hippo’s mouth, and it puréed it as fast as a banana in a blender.  …With the lid off, I might add.  

So these are pretty much the most terrifying animals ever.
Yeah, you’re gonna want to back up, unless you want to be sprayed with orange squash goo.
The end of a long, hot, slightly rainy day. We were all pretty tired.
It was a 13-hr day and Simon was really well behaved. After he helped some strangers and made some great choices, he was allowed to pick out a souvenir…a rather scary Transformers mask.