A deeper understanding

Blue Ventures Malaysia project co-ordinator Katie Yewdall emerges from completing a survey of Tioman's Renggis Island reef. Photo by Catherine Pattison.
Blue Ventures Malaysia project co-ordinator Katie Yewdall emerges from completing a survey of Tioman's Renggis Island reef. Photo by Catherine Pattison.
Tioman Island, off Malaysia's east coast, offers keen divers and budding marine biologists an opportunity to take a six-week responsible holiday.

Marine conservation organisation Blue Ventures provides a six-week volunteer programme for those who think they can stomach living in chalets by the white-sand-fronted sea which rarely dips below 27degC.

Oh, and you get to don a scuba tank, mask and flippers six days a week.

Tioman is one of the country's most popular dive destinations because of its clear water, variety of marine life and easy-to-access sites (about 20) around the 20km by 11km island.

Yorkshire lass Katie Yewdall (29) is the project co-ordinator for the Malaysian Blue Ventures arm - similar expeditions are offered in Madagascar and Belize.

After visiting the island in 2008, she took over the Tioman Dive Centre not long after, in January 2009, and began running Blue Ventures from there.

It's easy to see why Yewdall settled on Tioman.

Situated inside the Coral Triangle, it has a west coast studded with secluded beaches and accessed by six ferry stops.

Despite constant tourist traffic, the island remains relatively unspoilt and offers the more intrepid traveller a chance to explore the lush tropical jungle and stay in rustic chalets in private bays.

Tekek, where she is based, is the island's largest village and sports the only airstrip.

This tiny patch of runway, allowing small, 48-seater plane access only, has recently been the cause of a major battle of wills, as developers faced off against environmentalists.

A proposal was launched to build a larger airport at Paya village to the south of Tekek, with a 45m by 2000m runway to accommodate Boeing 737s - allowing international flights to land on the island.

The plans indicate the runway would be built out into the sea, according to Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) senior conservation officer Fairul Izmal Jamal Hisne.

Yewdall summed up the views of anyone with any ecological nous who has encountered Tioman.

"They wanted international jumbo jets to come in and land here.

Crazy, absolutely crazy."

MNS campaigned hard against the airport project when it surfaced in about 2003 and continued to lobby against it until the plans were shelved in 2008.

Tioman annually receives a whopping 190,000 visitors, who descend on the handful of coastal kampung (villages).

Mostly, they take a 40-minute flight from Kuala Lumpur or jump on a ferry from small seaside town Mersing, on the mainland, for weekend visits.

Part of a nine-island marine park, Tioman has a sanctioned area two nautical miles around the coast where it is an offence to damage the coral reefs and marine ecosystems.

That didn't stop a controversial marina going ahead in Tekek, leaving still visible underwater scars - where equipment dragged on the sea bed - seen when I accompanied the Blue Ventures volunteers during their survey of the nearby Pirate Reef.

The group of five includes a middle-aged mother, a British girl on her gap year and a young Australian couple travelling the world.

Volunteer applications are welcomed from all ages, backgrounds and nationalities.

Those selected spend the first two to three weeks getting up to speed on their diving if they need to, learning the fish species and performing coral identification.

Then, in the final weeks, they head off on a jungle trek and conduct environmental education at the village schools.

In these latter stages, volunteers also dive twice-daily, carrying out reef surveys that monitor the effects of tourism, environmental conditions and storm damage.

Last year, a piece of research based on the volunteers' findings identified 53 new fish species.

"What that basically means is it increases the biodiversity of the island, which increases its ecological impact and basically just makes it more important to protect," Yewdall explains.

Back at my bamboo and wood seaview chalet, I sit on the deck gazing out across the sandy beach and clear turquoise water, understanding why Yewdall feels it is worth tending to Tioman's eco-systems.

Not permitted are the annoying parasail boats and jet skis that whine up and down another of Malaysia's popular beach spots I visited, Batu Ferringhi.

Also pleasantly absent is the flotsam of water bottles and other rubbish that blight that beach area in the northern state of Penang.

A lazy snorkel 50m out from my abode in the balmy 30degC water reveals colourfulcushion-shaped corals teeming with marine life and schools of fish flashing through the sunlight in front of my mask.

The only difference from the commercial trip I took out to a popular dive spot, Renggis Island's reef, was I didn't spot a large turtle flapping on by, or have to back-paddle at the sight of a passing small, harmless but nonetheless scary shark.

• Catherine Pattison travelled to Malaysia courtesy of an Asia New Zealand Foundation media travel grant.

If you go:

Blue Ventures Malaysia volunteer programme detailsExpedition period: six weeks

Prices vary according to your diving qualification.

Go to the website www.blueventures.org to find out what is included.

PADI advanced open water (or equivalent) $NZ4239 PADI open water (or equivalent) $4415.

No diving certification $4592.

Under-18s (non-diving) $2119.

Costs:

Swiss Cottage (seaview chalet) accommodation for two nights: 240 Malaysian ringgit ($NZ104)

One-way flight from Kuala Lumpur to Tioman with Berjaya Airline: 228 ringgit ($NZ99)

Two one-hour snorkelling trips with Tioman Dive Centre: 60 ringgit ($26)