Long before Disney popularised them in Finding Nemo, I’d fallen hard for clownfish. Maybe it’s the way they look at me as they flit in and out of their anemone homes, their empathic black eyes emanating a mixture of intrigue and bravado. Or it could be how they actually engage in eye contact, peering straight at you unlike other fish I’ve encountered. I reignited my affection for the Amphiprion percula during a recent snorkelling trip to the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park (TARP), where the orange-and-white-striped fish can often be found dancing among colonies of billowing anemone.
Located just off the coast of Kota Kinabalu (KK), the capital of Sabah state in northern Borneo, TARP is an underrated attraction in a city better known as the gateway to Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia’s tallest peak. Created in 1974 and administered by Sabah Parks, the 50km2 park includes reefs, open seas and the islands of Gaya, Sapi, Mamutik, Manukan and Sulug.
“The reefs within the park offer great diving and snorkelling, and are easily accessible,” notes Kay Mackenzie, the British-born manager of local dive outfit Scuba Junkie. “Multiple types of sharks and rays can be found here, including blacktip reef sharks, whale sharks, eagle rays and devil rays. Plus, the park is only 15 minutes by boat from the city.”
Over the course of four days, I made numerous underwater forays, each producing deliriously exciting wildlife sightings. One morning, I embarked on a dive with Scott Mayback, an American with a shaved head, a dry sense of humour and an inspiring sense of comfort in the water – the latter perhaps stemming from his role as the resident marine biologist at Gaya Island Resort. Within minutes, I was floating beside a school of slender silver needlefish. Moments later, I spotted the delicate purple-and-white crown of the Sabellidae (or feather duster), a sea worm that’s quick to retreat into its coral home at the slightest hint of danger.
Below me, troupes of sergeant major damselfish, with their black-and-white vertical stripes and bright yellow horizontal slashes, swayed back and forth with the current. Yellowtail fusiliers and luminous, multicoloured moon wrasse and parrotfish darted around the coral: thriving colonies of boulder, table, acropora and sponge in hues of green, purple and blue. Elsewhere, I glided past moody-looking triggerfish, angular batfish and the occasional hefty seabass. At one point, a solitary barracuda swam nonchalantly by.
In addition to its teeming underwater life, the marine park’s other obvious asset is its proximity to Kota Kinabalu. Visitors can spend a day enjoying the park’s clear waters and colourful sea life, before returning to the city at night. The town’s waterfront promenade sets the stage for memorable sunset views over Pulau Gaya (pulau is the Malay word for island), while the local handicraft market, Pasar Kraftangan, offers everything from jewellery to batik clothing.
The downside is that the park suffers the consequences of residing right by this city of over 600,000 people. Every day, throngs of sun-seekers board boats at Jesselton Point ferry terminal and head to the TARP beaches, where their sunscreen coats the water with an oily film. The illegal practice of fishing in the park also continues, and some nets end up caught on reefs, snaring sharks and turtles.
Kota Kinabalu is also experiencing a building boom: numerous malls, hotels and condominiums have mushroomed on or near the city’s waterfront, with even more developments still under construction. Debris from these projects and discarded refuse from city residents invariably end up in the water. Industrial effluent and run-off from the Likas and Tuaran rivers seep into the bay, too. The profusion of detritus is especially pronounced in the waters around the stilted villages on Pulau Gaya, which are situated on a part of the island just outside of the park’s boundary. Here, floating shoes, plastic bottles and food wrappers are a common sight, often drifting unceremoniously into the park’s waters.
Thankfully, a great deal has been done in recent months to protect the park, restore habitats and educate the population. Last November, Sabah Parks sunk the 31-metre KM Kukaram, a former Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency vessel, to serve as a new wreck-diving site and ecosystem for coral. The administrative body also undertakes other hands-on measures, including annual coral reef monitoring, rubbish collection, reef restoration, daily boat patrols and marine education programmes with local schools that include beach clean-ups.
In fact, the commitment to TARP goes right up to state level. Just this May, the state government launched a new initiative to dissuade the practice of blast fishing by offering fishermen alternative economic incentives. Last year, it also launched a campaign in collaboration with the Sabah Shark Protection Association (SSPA) in KK’s Suria Sabah shopping mall to reduce shark’s fin consumption and increase public consciousness of sustainable seafood (Malaysia is the third-largest importer of shark products by volume in the world).
But it’s not just government bodies and NGOs leading the conservation charge. Resorts and dive operators have also been instrumental in unofficially policing the park in tandem with Sabah Parks’ official efforts. At his marine centre at Gaya Island Resort, my diving companion Mayback has pioneered coral propagation and turtle rescue programmes, sinking cement blocks in the water by the resort to create a breeding ground for new coral. He also teaches guests about the dangers of plastic in the water, which chokes marine animals mistaking it for food. Scuba Junkie, a founding member of the SSPA, also regularly holds activities to promote public awareness. One programme with 15 schools in Sabah gives students a chance to visit the marine park, try snorkelling and diving, and participate in beach clean-ups.
Even without human intervention, the reef – the living ecosystem that is the focus of much of these efforts – is showing impressive resilience in the face of unprecedented adversity. “I thought El Niño in 2015 and 2016 [responsible for arguably the worst coral bleaching in history] would wipe out the reef,” Mayback told me in the water. “But it’s coming back.”
Happily, the concerted efforts, coupled with the reef’s own endurance, are having palpable positive impacts in more ways than one. “Over the past two years, we have seen higher numbers of visitors, which shows that this little marine park is moving in the right direction,” observes Luke Cox, the general manager of Kota Kinabalu dive operator Borneo Dream. “In recent months, we’ve also witnessed an increased number of larger marine species such as sharks and rays, which had never been seen previously.”
One morning, while snorkelling around the resurgent reef, I found myself falling in love with a whole new critter, the palm-sized damselfish. Large schools of them repeatedly bunched around me, their colours changing depending on the light: one minute an unremarkable grey, the next a vibrant emerald. The mystery of the sea, a realm where the scenery constantly reinvents itself, is hypnotic and fascinating, and the waters of TARP are no different. Let’s hope the current conservation efforts help it stay that way.
This article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine.