Left… right… left… right… one wrong step could send you hurtling into the water below. The wind blows sharp on your face, the droplets prickling the skin like little needles.
After Mike Horn’s much awaited arrival, we left Sandakan, our ‘favourite’ town, for clearer waters. We had no idea where, but we were ready for a change from the dull buildings and brown waters of the harbour. And we got it.
Our mentors set about preparing for the journey ahead as we watched in awe, absorbing the new knowledge and experience. A line of ominous grey clouds brooded at us from the horizon as we set sail, and soon we were riding the waves not unlike a rodeo. It was not for the faint of stomach, and unfortunately a few of us had to promptly go to sleep to forget their queasiness, especially since Pangaea was pitched at such a sheer angle at times that we sometimes had to hold on to the deck for dear life to avoid sliding off the deck.
However, the stiff wind in our sails and the incessant drizzle was refreshing, and soon, the rain ceased and twinkling stars burst through the gloomy skies. We oohed and aahed but the night was still young – we still had our watch ahead! After taking a short nap while trying to not fall off the bunks, we peered out into the inky darkness, peered at the instruments and peered around at each other, making sure that the boat would not collide into anything. Two hours passed very quickly and with the stars gone, replaced by the ‘city of boats’ in Mike’s words, we dozed off again.
A new day came with a rare glimpse of the sun waking up through the grey blanket overhead. We had arrived at Pulau Bankawan (Bankawan Island), a pristine tropical paradise… or what used to be one. We were itching to explore what lay beneath the surface, so when it was announced that we would have our maiden dive, we prepared our diving equipment immediately and entered the water in a series of splashes. However, the sight that met us was not a pleasant one, for the slope was overrun with swathes of algae topped by coral-killing crown-of-thorns starfish.
We soon had the opportunity to Act, though! A large variety of habitats are present on the little island of Bankawan – the mangroves, the colourful reefs, and the rainforest. It is all very picturesque, but yet lurking under the spiny plants we found over 400 plastic bottles, countless pieces of Styrofoam, three tires as well as enough clothes and shoes to have a fashion show! Unfortunately, we had no time to do much more because of the intruding tide, but rubbish was still visible beneath the trees.
Following the beach clean up, we decided to take a hands on approach at saving the reef this time by collecting the crown-of-thorns starfish (COTs). We combed the area, searching for the spiny starfish which were so well camouflaged amongst the equally as rough surrounding corals. Improvising with spear guns and kitchen tongs, thirty of the highly venomous and deadly animals were collected and disposed of accordingly with no injuries. In the words of Markus Ruf, the marine biologist who is accompanying us on the trip, for every one COT that you see during the day there are thousand hiding away somewhere, so there is still much to be done, but at least we have taken the first steps.
As night fell, we snacked on pineapple tarts, peanut candies, dried mangoes, and the much ‘celebrated’ and ‘fragrant’ durian cake and dodol (it is Chinese New Year after all!). Then, we had another delicious meal of lasagne cooked by Christian. Markus then gave us an informative talk about coral reefs, followed by a photo competition judging session to end the day. Now, ‘Like a G6’ is blaring on the speakers, but the party must end somewhere with another big day coming up tomorrow, so it is, sadly, time for bed. To everybody out there, we wish you a prosperous Chinese New Year ahead!