Researching the straits
A rocky pinnacle rising from the Straits of Malacca, Pulau Perak is Malaysia’s outermost island, where few have ventured, apart from fishermen seeking shelter from storms. The last botanical survey dates back some 50 years and declared it a barren rock. But scientists who visited the island were pleasantly surprised to find an array of species, both on land and in the sea.
MALAYSIA’s territorial waters encompass a sea area greater than the land masses it surrounds. And yet, this underwater world, its coastal habitats and island ecosystems are grossly understudied and, in some cases, forgotten.
The Universiti Malaya Maritime Research Centre (UMMReC) seeks to explore the nation’s seas through their Scientific Expedi-tion to the Seas of Malaysia (SESMA). The aim is to quantify and verify the health of marine and island environments.
The first SESMA destination is the northern reaches of the Straits of Malacca. Despite the proliferation of commercial sea traffic that plies along, and also pollutes, this narrow waterway, scientists believe it still hosts a rich array of biodiversity.
The first SESMA voyage set its sights on Pulau Jarak and Pulau Perak, far-flung islands in the middle of the straits. Unexplored territories are fertile ground for new findings, and the scientists were lured by the possibility of unrecorded flora and fauna.
The roll-call of research specialities onboard the Reef Challenger read like the ultimate naturalist’s checklist: fisheries and zooplankton, phytoplankton, seaweeds and seagrasses, corals, dragonflies, butterflies, beetles, birds, marine fungi, macrofungi, microbiology, water quality, geology, mapping and plants.
“We had high expectations for Pulau Jarak and Pulau Perak since they are both isolated and unexploited sites,” said odonatologist Dr Y. Norma-Rashid. “We expected something new, perhaps a new record or a new species.”
With 15 scientific groups ready to explore and experiment, as well as ship crew, journalists and filmmakers, the Reef Challenger was packed to the limit with people and gear. One room became a laboratory, its long tables laden with computers, microscopes, maps and specimen containers.
More familiar with jungle swelter instead of sea swells, many in the scientific teams fell ill with seasickness on the rough journey to Pulau Perak. One researcher even contemplated taking the next passing boat back to Port Klang. But the scientists stuck on, all discomforts overshadowed by the prospect of finding biological treasures.
The Reef Challenger arrived at Pulau Perak in the early morning darkness and anchored safely offshore. Researchers gathered on the bow in the early light to view the silhouettes of the island’s outline. The last scientific reports on Pulau Jarak and Pulau Perak were written in the 1950s. A British naturalist described Pulau Perak as devoid of vegetation, just a barren rock with a silver glint from decades of birds’ droppings.
As the sun rose that morning, the island exposed itself to an audience in awe: tufts of light green grass hugging hard rock like lichen on bark, leafy shrubs exploded from crevices and rock walls, and small trees standing like flags to mark the island’s newfound growth. Pulau Perak was no longer barren; it was a profusion of ecological exuberance.
But the terrestrial teams found gravity hard to deal with. The islands are fringed by boulder-strewn coastlines that rise sharply to form steep hill slopes. On Pulau Jarak, a densely forested knob with a few rocky crevices, natural footpaths were hard to find. On Pulau Perak, white cliffs surround the island like a walled fortress. Both islands would have been impossible to access, let alone ferry gear to and fro, if not for the manmade jetties.
Overall, the biological bounty collected was not particularly rich in numbers but was a major success in terms of scientific discoveries. Beetle scientist Dr Fauziah Abdullah caught over 40 species, but bemoaned losing the lone specimen netted on Pulau Perak.
Wet and dry conditions, along with forest cover and soil formations, produced mixed results for mushrooms as mycologist Dr Md Yusoff Musa collected 64 specimens. Other researchers netted butterflies (nine species), trapped rats, bats and crabs, and observed birds (14 species). Pulau Perak is particularly important for two birds – the brown noddy and brown booby – because it is their only known breeding site in the peninsula.
The marine life at Pulau Jarak and Pulau Perak was stunning. Marine biologist Badrul Huzaimi discovered an astounding coral coverage of up to 80%. “Water visibility was marvellous from our first dawn dive at six in the morning to our last at six in the evening.”
Even the most experienced researchers found new thrills. Before the trip, UMMReC head Dr Phang Siew Moi surmised that the deep waters and remoteness of Pulau Perak made it unlikely for seaweeds to gain hold. “But it was very surprising to find seaweeds there among the corals,” she said. “We now have quite a good collection to do comparative studies (with).”
Not everyone was as fortunate in their findings, however. Marine fungi are normally abundant, but Dr Siti Aisyah Alias’s efforts were thwarted by the rough and dangerous condition of coastline collecting. So she collected samples of fungi growing in woody materials, sand and sediment and other substrates to be brought back to the lab for analysis.
The outcome of the expedition will contribute immensely to the scarcity of information that exists on the Straits of Malacca, especially its outermost islands. As head of the Institute of Biological Sciences, Datin Dr Aishah Salleh already expects to propose to the government that Pulau Jarak and Pulau Perak be designated as marine parks. And more expeditions are in the works to further research and conservation aims. A phytoplankton scientist, Aishah searched for microscopic sea life and gathered 79 species of plant plankton, six of which were new records for Malaysian seas.
Team spirit among the scientists and the ship’s crew was high. Early morning dinghy launches and late night briefings sandwiched a daily platter of sampling, trekking and diving. The camaraderie and sense of adventure left its mark in the group. Seaweed researcher Jillian Ooi summed up the experience: “The expedition made me feel less of an armchair scientist and more of an adventurer, and made me think of Wallace and Darwin. It was exhilarating.”
Frontier lands dare you to be bold. Extreme, and often uncomfortable, conditions raise the elements of risk and danger. By surviving the initial test, SESMA represents a bold beginning for a new brand of intrepid researchers in pursuit of knowledge of Malaysia’s wild lands.
Rick Gregory is trained in forestry but also writes on nature and the environment.
Why study the Straits of Malacca?
- Coral reef ecosystems are just as important in the Straits of Malacca as in the East Coast. Yet the few remaining reefs found there are little studied. Threats from sedimentation, pollution and exploitation may damage the reefs beyond repair if conservation plans are not implemented.
- The seas are full of microscopic plant and animal organisms called plankton. They are primary producers in the food chain, consumed by invertebrates and young fish; they also indicate fisheries potential. Even though the straits harbours one of the richest fishing grounds of the region, not much is known about plankton in open waters.
- Migratory birds use offshore islands as stopovers and sometimes, breeding grounds. Peninsula Malaysia’s remote islands are poorly documented and require urgent assessment to identify species and specialised habitats.
- Terrestrial or marine flora in remote islands of the straits have been neglected. Plants on Pulau Jarak and Pulau Perak are unknown by the scientific community even though suitable habitats may exist for seaweeds, seagrasses, trees and shrubs.
- Insects are good biological indicators of healthy or fragile habitats, so finding what exists there helps clarify the environmental picture.
- Seeking out marine fungi and mushroom diversity is essential for exploring the properties of organisms with potential for industrial enzymes and bioactive compounds.
- Pollutants from ships, crude oil and land plaguing the straits are well documented but the expedition allows sampling in coastal and open waters, which can provide baseline data for better assessment.
- Mapping is a key activity to ascertain exact positions and extent of coral reefs and precisely locate remote islands. Combined with satellite imagery, the seas can be scanned to identify sediment plumes and algal areas.