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April 24, 2014, Malaysia

Lessons on marine life

Dave Fox befriends a rescued sea turtle and learns about the sex lives of fishes on Gaya Island in Sabah

Dave Fox

BOBBY the sea turtle was looking happy, swimming laps in its tank, poking its head up now and then to check out life above the water surface.

“I said I wouldn’t name him until he’s doing better,” Mr Scott Mayback, a marine biologist at Gaya Island Resort, told me when I visited last month. “But the staff have named him Bobby.”

Bobby was lucky to be alive. Three months earlier, a yacht captain had spotted the turtle floating listlessly off the coast of Sapi Island near Borneo.

The 37kg sea creature was unable to dive for food, and the skin around its flippers was falling off, a sign of severe malnutrition.

So, researchers plucked it from the water, and what they did next might sound odd. They took it to a luxury resort — a place where humans go to unwind, sip beachside cocktails, and get massages.

A short boat ride from Kota Kinabalu, Gaya and Sapi Islands are two of five islands that make up Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, Malaysia’s first national marine park.

Resort with a difference

At Gaya Island Resort, one of three resorts on Gaya, I discovered more than just the usual leisure activities one might expect.

On its private beach, it has just opened a new marine centre, which includes a sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation programme organised by Dr Nick Pilcher of the Marine Research Foundation. Turtles are cared for in a specially designed tank that pumps in water directly from the South China Sea.

My wife and I headed to the beach one afternoon for a barbecue and a splash in the sea. That was where we met Bobby.

On another morning, we joined a snorkelling excursion led by Mr Eric Yu, another marine expert at the resort. For 45 minutes, our group of around 10 people floated above otherworldly corals and colourful schools of tropical fish.

Mr Yu surfaced periodically to entertain us with hilarious mini-lessons on topics such as the sex lives of fishes. But on another issue, he was very serious.

He explained that the so-called “fish bombing” is one of several illegal practices that is destroying local ecology.

Explosive devices — often fashioned from bottles filled with kerosene and fertiliser – are dropped into the sea and detonated. Shock waves from the blasts kill or stun nearby fishes. Some fishes sink to the sea floor. Others float to the surface where they are collected to be sold.

In another practice known as cyanide fishing, divers spray sodium cyanide into the water. Again, some fishes are killed, but others are merely stunned and are then sold for display in aquariums.

Both of these activities decimate local fish populations, Mr Yu said, and they cause grave collateral damage. Coral reefs are destroyed, turning once vibrant sea colonies into underwater wastelands.

Saving turtles and corals

At Gaya Island Resort’s marine centre, Mr Mayback has started a project he hopes will reverse some of this damage.

Along with the turtle tank, the centre houses a small aquarium that includes not only fish, but also a rich tapestry of coral samples collected from local waters.

While the coral is beautiful to look at, Mr Mayback’s goal is not to keep it in the aquarium permanently.

“The concept,” he said, “is that if we can get it to breed and propagate, I want to put it back.”

Over time, he plans to transplant swatches of coral in areas where reefs have been damaged. His hope is that the coral will grow, filling in areas where reefs have been destroyed.

In the meantime, the aquarium offers visitors a glimpse into the diverse seascape that exists around Gaya Island.

Originally, researchers thought litter might have been the cause of Bobby’s woes. Sea turtles sometimes mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, a common part of their diet. Mr Mayback said he now believes, however, Bobby had a simple gastrointestinal infection.

Now that it was at the resort, Bobby was doing better and even enjoying some decadence usually reserved for human guests.

While mojitos weren’t on its recovery plan, it was being fed fish oil cocktails. And yoga instructors and massage therapists were massaging Bobby’s flippers to aid in its rehabilitation.

“He really likes the attention,” Mr Mayback said. “All signs are pointing to recovery. We’re pretty stoked. I don’t want to count my turtles before they’re hatched, but I’m pretty confident.”

Three weeks later, I called to check up on my turtle friend and the news was good. After several months in its special tank, Bobby was deemed healthy. Later, it was released back into its natural habitat.


There are direct flights daily from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu. From there, boats depart from Jesselton Point in Kota Kinabalu for day trips to all five islands in the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. Gaya Island’s three resorts offer private boat service for their overnight guests.


■ Gaya Island is known for its marine life but it also has 20km of hiking trails through tropical forests. Frequently spotted wildlife includes bearded pigs, monkeys and monitor lizards.

■ Among the other four islands in Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, the Kota Kinabalu tourist office recommends Manukan Island for its historic sights, and Sapi for the best snorkelling.

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