We spent the night and today sailing for Sandakan on the north-eastern tip of Borneo, with two dive stops on different reefs to practise the survey technique, which involves counting and noting the fish and invertebrates – sea cucumbers, sea urchins and so on – on a marked area on the sea bed. In particular they’re looking for ‘indicator species’ that suggest the health of the reef as a whole.
And that’s no mean feat when many of them are only just getting comfortable with being 10 or more metres under water and breathing through a mouthpiece. The first reef had a high diversity of living coral, but sadly the second dive, just an hour or two’s sail away, presented a very different picture. “The second reef had no live coral, very few fish, and little biodiversity,” said Eugénie Guillaume, 18, of France. “There was no colour down there, it was deserted; very sad.” “It was a coral graveyard,” said Daniel Kotze, 20, of South Africa. “It’s only after seeing sites like this that I’ve realised how prime and well protected Sipadan is. That was like diving in a BBC documentary.”
Among the reasons for the decimation of the reef could be sedimentation, too many nutrients from the land, or even fishing with dynamite. “People don’t think about what happens after the dynamite,” added Dongkyun Seo, 20, of South Korea. “You can’t blame them – it’s their life. We need to raise awareness and educate.” But even if there was not much to see, the exercise was good training for group organisation on the survey. “We have to take it seriously as the data is going to be published and used, and there are plans to come back in a few years to measure the differences,” said Rodrigo Steinman, 16, of Brazil.
“We’re always hearing things like ‘30% of the fish are dead’ but we don’t know where these numbers come from. Now we can say for sure what is happening – we’re doing it ourselves.”