A walk around Pulau Tengah with Ökologie Naturalist Simon Buckell

Simon Buckell, our resident Naturalist at Ökologie, takes you on a virtual guided tour around Tengah Island introducing some of the island’s wildlife as he goes and pointing out the best places to spot a turtle or five!

Back in June last year I was asked if I would like to join the (then BRISC, now Ökologie) team on Pulau Tengah at its early stages to carry out avian and marine wildlife surveys. This kind of opportunity does not come along often and so of course I jumped at the chance and arrived on the Island in September.

During my short but enjoyable time on the Island (7 weeks) we observed and recorded 105 different species of bird on and around the island. Some of the Interesting species included Brown Booby, Christmas Island and Lesser Frigatebirds, Bulwers Petrels, Sooty & Bridled Terns, Red Necked Phalaropes, Nicobar Pigeon, Grey Faced and Oriental Honey Buzzards, Japanese Sparrow-hawks, Black Bittern and a Hoopoe. Common sightings included the colourful Brown Throated Sunbirds, Pied Imperial and Pink Necked Green Pigeons, Black Naped Orioles, White Rumped Sharma’s, Brahminy kites and White Bellied Sea-Eagles that drift lazily in the pale blue skies above.

Several pelagic surveys provided early indications that marine life is rich in the surrounding waters with 3 species of Turtle seen which included Hawksbill, Olive Ridleys and the most numerous being Green Turtle. Dolphins are always a privilege to encounter and I had suspected that they could be in these waters but maybe difficult to locate so when a small pod of 7 Indo Pacific Bottle Nosed Dolphins with a young calf appeared during a routine pelagic trip this proved the importance to both the surrounding waters and our surveys.  Otters have been seen just offshore from the main resort beach as well Turtles, Dugong and a Frasers Dolphin that graced the presence of the lucky few present one afternoon. The list of wildlife is getting longer as the surveys continue but for the purpose of this blog post I thought I would take you for a “virtual” guided tour of the island.

Sunrise at dawn over the island

Small section of the trail

Starting off from the back of the resort area you walk up the small hill and then descend along and in to the forest trail. At first all appears to be quiet but by standing still, being quiet and listening, it is not long before you hear the calls of birds such us that of a White Rumped Sharma, Magpie Robins or even a Mangrove Whistler with a bit of luck. Then as the walk continues you will reach the first viewing area of the eastern side of the island. Here you can take in the scenic beauty that surrounds Batu Batu with the islands of Pulau Tioman, Pemanggil and Aur all clearly visible in the distance. As you continue your walk the forest becomes slighter darker with the dappled rays of sunlight shining through the open areas of the canopy above. Stopping en route and again by listening and looking, species of colourful birds such as Warblers, Sunbirds, Orioles and more can be seen. Not before long you reach the main observation point where again another scenic view awaits you at an elevation of 54 meters above sea level. This time you are at the north face of the island over looking the island of Pulau Rawa and the smaller surrounding islets. Here you can sit down and enjoy the view with some chilled fresh fruit and a refreshing drink and wait to see what aerial species of bird pass over head. Here the list can be impressive with species of migrating Raptor, (diurnal birds of prey) such as Hawks, Eagles and Buzzards with Swifts and Swiftlets, Beeaters, and colourful Black Naped Orioles all having been recorded throughout the survey period.

One of the many colourful Brown throated Sunbirds that are found on the island

As the trail continues you begin your descent where you arrive over-looking the fresh water marsh area to the south of the trail and then you will arrive at the far end of North Beach. Depending on the state of the tide you will now begin to encounter different species of resident bird such as the colouful Collared Kingfishers, Pacific Reef Egrets, Blue Heron, Common Sandpipers and other species of wading birds

North beach at low tide

A Dark Morph Pacific Reef Egret feeds at the exposed reef during low tide at North Beach

A quick look at the marsh area will reveal more resident species such as Dollar-Birds, Pied Imperial and Pink Necked Green Pigeons along with more Orioles present and maybe something more interesting like a Black or Yellow Bittern (again both species were recorded during the assessment surveys). Here there are also always many colourful dragonflies and butterflies resting up on the stems of grass on the water’s edge.

As you continue walking you are soon at the join of North & Long beach Beach where the waters are perfect for a paddle or swim.

Long Beach - perfect for a swim

The area just offshore is of open sea grass and so is an important area for turtles to feed. Grab your mask and fins and take a snorkel if you wish. Here the small, playful and colourful Clownfish may approach close to “investigate” you if you swim in their direction. Or just take it easy sitting under the shade of one the trees and take in the beautiful view but always remember to keep an eye out for those turtles! Depending on the time of year numbers will fluctuate depending the their nesting cycle and you may see one, two, three or more as they come up to the surface for an in-take of air before dropping beneath the surface to feed. We had five Green Turtles all visible at the surface one afternoon as we sat there taking in the view.

As you complete the final stage of your round-island walk you will reach the Ökologie centre and island Beach Bar where our team of researchers and divers will be on hand to answer any questions you have. There is also a small reference book library available for your use.

As you head back to the resort area take in a cold drink of your choice at the restaurant bar, sit in the shade over looking the bay just beyond the reef. It is here where you can see a varied selection of bird and marine life. This area is also good for turtle sightings and otters have been seen feeding and playing in the area as well a Frasers Dolphin and Dugong.

White Bellied Sea-Eagle

The sun setting as seen from the restaurant bar

Hope to see you on Pulau Tengah some time soon.

Simon

Simon left our island and Malaysia in November 2011 and followed the birds migrating south. Since then, he has been in New Zealand and most recently in North Western Australia on a Wader ringing expedition. He will be returning to Batu Batu and Pulau Tengah in two weeks time as our resident Naturalist. The guided nature walk will be one of the Ökologie activities available at Batu Batu. Read more about Simon’s travels on his blog

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A weekend on Pulau Tengah by Dada Bacudo

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.

Some recent highlights… hatha yoga, polished concrete and refugee camps

It’s been well over a week since I last posted – I don’t know where time goes… We’ve been busy talking to and meeting all sorts of people over the last couple of weeks. Here are some highlights:

We met with a polished concrete supplier from KL who might be able to do our terrazzo flooring and gorgeous concrete rendered walls for our villa showers. Like this… And we get to choose the colour of the render – now to decide what to go for to match our cream terrazzo floors, amazing stone bath tubs and wood exposed roof (not to mention the turquoise sea views from the huge glass windows) …

I had a great email yesterday from Lang in Sydney. I hadn’t mentioned this in the blog as yet – but Pulau Tengah was home to around 100,000 Vietnamese refugees or the “boat people” from 1975-1981 when it was a UN Refugee Camp. Many Vietnamese refugees who landed up in Malaysian territories were sent to Pulau Tengah where they lived until they were allocated a new home country (mostly Australia, US, Canada, France). I had always assumed that Pulau Tengah must carry terrible memories for the refugees who spent time there – a part of their lives which they would rather not remember. HOWEVER, I have been lucky enough to be in contact recently with a few people who spent time there and realise that some have very happy memories of the place. It’s well captured in this post by “Bao” on this blog.

“I first stepped on Pulau Tengah beach with my bare feet. But I always think this island as my second bithplace. Now looking back I think the time I was on this island was the happiest time of my life – what I did all day was eat, sleep, swim, chase after the fish, rock crabs,study English, miss home ,and dream about life in America in my little tent at the northernmost end of the island.”

Do take a look at the full post – it’s so interesting. In fact, I will write more about Pulau Tengah 1975-81 in a post of its own. And add some more photos. But for the moment, here is one that Lang Lang sent yesterday and said I could put on the blog. Thanks Lang!

I’ve also been thinking about turtles this week. Well – turtles deserve their own post too (!) but to be very brief – there are 3 species of turtle (all either endangered or critically endangered) who live in the waters around our island and land on our beaches to nest. However, turtle eggs are a local delicacy (“sangak sedap” – or “really delicious” – in the words of a local boatmen when I asked him about them a couple of weeks ago) – and so they get poached – and the turtle population continues to decline. We’re scheming with our friends at Wild Asia to devise a plan to stop the poaching both on Pulau Tengah and the surrounding islands (all of which incidentally lie within the protected Johor Marine Park!). I’ll keep you updated.

And today, I spent an agreeable afternoon with two very nice gentlemen talking about coral reefs and dolphins and whale sharks and clear waters and desert island picnics. Bryan and Sha set-up their sea sports / land adventure company (wind surfing, kite surfing, sailing, snorkelling and all – here’s their website) just up the coast from Mersing and chanced upon our island when they took some clients snorkelling a couple of weeks back. Trusty Chew (our man on site) gave them a tour of Batu Batu, and apparently they fell in love with our tropical island. So we met up today to pick each others brains and think about ways of spreading the word that this very lovely corner of Malaysia is deeply undiscovered and well worth visiting.

Oh yes, and I also spoke to my yoga teacher today about the best kind of yoga to teach on a tropical desert island… Probably hatha (on a wooden open air deck with views out to sea) – but if anyone has any better ideas – let me know! Until next time.