When I put out a call for volunteers for our reef and island centre project on Lonely Planet’s forum, Dada Bacudo, an environmental manager (recently back in SE Asia after a stint in Uganda) answered my call. A flurry of emails followed and 48 hours later, Dada was en route to join our expedition to hatch a plan on our little island…
I was in Bangkok recently, looking for information on diving sites on the internet when I encountered a call for volunteers to help out with a conservation project for a resort currently being built in Pulau Tengah, Malaysia. I am an environmental manager experienced in working with finances for national parks, and currently with time on my hands I decided to contact Cher Lassalvy, the owner of Batu Batu resort. Cher kindly extended an invitation for me to join a group of natural scientists from Wild Asia who were already familiar with the initial stages of the project. Without much knowledge of the location at first, I thought “Why is my plane ticket bound for Singapore? I thought we’re going to Malaysia?” Not knowing how exactly I could contribute, I set about with optimism and began my little adventure in Pulau Tengah.
A vision was planned
I learned later that Pulau Tengah is a tiny island located within the jurisdiction of Johor, a state in Southern Malaysia, which is next door to Singapore. Batu Batu occupies a good portion of the whole island, and to get there first entails a trip to Mersing, which is where the jetty to other more famous islands in Malaysia such as Pulau Tioman is located. From Mersing, it takes 40 minutes on a slow boat, and only 20 minutes on a speedboat.
As I caught my first glimpse of Pulau Tengah with its gleaming white sands, Reza Azmi, the ED of Wild Asia, pointed out a strip of long beach which he is proposing to be allocated for a research study centre. I agreed that it was a wonderful idea and suggested that we began focusing and talking about this project during the weekend. Reza and his team at Wild Asia have been on the island on several occasions to assess and suggest plans for the hotel’s environmental sustainability direction. I admire Cher and Dato Chua, her father’s commitment to build this place with environmental values in place.
On our first day, we were greeted with coconut juices and later sat down and put our heads together to articulate a commonly agreed vision for the resort. After a while, with more refreshments and lively discussions, Batu Batu Reef Island Study Centre (BRISC) was born. BRISC is envisioned to be a research centre that offers opportunities to study nature in a pristine environment in ways not possible in other areas. A big job ahead but extremely exciting!
We also discussed having volunteers to assist in reef and turtle population monitoring as these are the two concrete projects that need urgent attention. We also emphasized on BRISC’s biggest strength that is the commitment of landowners and resort owners to environmental protection, an issue some resort operators find challenging to grapple with.
Two days of nature trips
Among the Wild Asia team is an intrepid birder (aren’t they all?) named Dave Bakewell who went around the island to assess its biodiversity. Dave always came back with photos which are magical in their quality. As a non-biologist, all I can say is that where birds are abounding, other biological qualities thrive. Cher and I took to the waters by snorkeling, and I was quite happy to see a lot of marine life thriving underwater despite obvious challenges that the marine life in Southeast Asia face in recent years, such as the El Nino phenomenon.
What I marveled at the most in Pulau Tengah is the variety of beaches that the resort is bound to offer. There’s the long stretch of blindingly white beach, which will host BRISC, and where turtles abound and are oftentimes spotted. Cher’s family through the leadership of her dad hopes to start preserving the turtles by buying eggs off the poachers’ hands. The eggs could then be brought to a government hatchery project which has now run short of funds. Therefore, there exist opportunities for co-operation between the government and BRISC for continuous protection of the turtles. At the long beach, the family is committed to keeping it as pristine as possible.
The main activity hub will take place at another beach and where the freshwater pool will be built.
And the third beach where cottages are also constructed expands into shallow tide pools teeming with marine life. Dave who is an early riser reported back with beautiful photographs of sea cucumbers, starfish and crustaceans of all sorts.
Behind the beaches lies the jungle. Here, it is proposed to demarcate nature trails for guests to discover the wide range of unique flora and fauna and also to develop an organic farm where the resort’s restaurant can source its fresh vegetables and also an opportunity for tasting or cooking activities for guests.
Pulau Tengah and beyond
If it were up to me, I would just want to stay on as there are so many nooks and crannies waiting to be discovered. The island is also the location where the original version of Survivor was shot for many years and I fancied tracking some bygone celebrity trails! But there’s more to the island than just the beaches and forest. Cher’s family packed us up in a speedboat and brought us all over the cluster of islands surrounding Pulau Tengah where wonderful marine and terrestrial structures flourish. Reza noted the GPS points for various rich coral and fish systems, all just within fifteen minutes away from Pulau Tengah. I also noticed some caves and would have loved to explore them if we just had enough time!
Alas, we ran out of time for exploration, and it was time to leave the island. Exiting Mersing, I was shown where the resort hopes to build its own jetty, which would spare most visitors the trip to Mersing town.
It was one of those moments which I am truly grateful to be a part of, and I hope that my involvement continues. Despite my cynicism of most CSR projects that give token advert for so-called sustainable businesses, I felt the commitment of the owners of Batu Batu resort to be very genuine. They have incorporated environmental considerations right from the start, and have reached out to environmental experts when they feel like they were treading in unknown waters. Plus, they truly love having the turtles beaching on their sandy shores, and they have thought up exciting ways to protect them while working with local authorities and volunteers. I can’t wait for the resort and BRISC to officially open early next year and it’s a promise to be an outstanding responsible getaway!
And not to forget a big thanks to Dave Bakewell for his great photos used here. See his post about this same trip on his blog.