Sunday, 15 November 2009

A great diving spot in Brunei

Recently, diving is becoming a popular sport activity in Brunei (or it's just me hearing more people talk about diving). On 18th October, I tagged along with my sister for her diving routine. I thought I could swim in the sea, or do some snorkeling. Just the thought of a day out in the sun at the sea seemed so exciting especially when I've been extremely busy this period. My gym membership has been a total waste as I've not made a single visit for more than a month, perhaps now approaching two months now.

That day turned out to be a perfect day for diving. Our diving spot was some kilometers beyond Pelong Rocks (Pulau Pilong Pilongan). I snorkeled while the others went down under water. Some guys brought special grippers to catch some lobsters though they eventually couldn't get any. The spot where we anchored was beautiful. Visibility was awesome that day and I was surprised at this time of the year we had such great visibility in the water, really. Not that I'm an expert. I always thought the sea would be rough by the last quarter of the year.

I had, for a while, wished to have renewed my diving license which expired four years ago! (But nah, need to save more money to travel around the world with my 48-day annual leave!) And, I'd also wished to have invested in a waterproof casing for my camera. I was swimming in 11m of water and I could see an expanse of flat coral reefs covering the sea bed, it was so amazing! I could see beautiful corals and many sorts of fishes (I don't know much about fishes!!). Well, I spotted one or two clown fishes! I tried skin diving but didn't manage to get very far because I couldn't hold my breath very long.

It was an ethereal world I was in. I swam with a shoal of fishes and was also chasing after this one particular angelfish-looking fish. I saw some tiny jelly fishes the size of the tip of my finger and also a larger one, as big as my arm, right next to me! When I saw the later, I swam as fast as I could away from it. Pretty stuff but scary.

Swimming above the divers where the air bubbles from them floated to the surface added more magic to the delightful snorkeling experience. At other times, I allowed myself to be swept by the gentle sea currents while keeping my eyes opened at the gorgeous sea bed. The buoyancy of the water made all that was around surreal. The sky was a perfect blue like the ocean and the fishes all looked happy swimming around.

I found this and this websites on diving in Brunei pretty helpful. Lee's website, on diving in Brunei, has some really lovely pictures of sea creatures with bubbly commentaries.

Loading oxygen tanks into the boat

Our picnic basket

I always love the bumpy boat rides out to sea. The higher the boat flies, the more thrilling it is. The awesome sea breeze made the soul feel so big!

An oil rig and a ship

Pelong Rocks

Gripper thingies

Scuba gear under the seats

Fishing boat

Article extracted from The Brunei Times

Unveiling Brunei's underwater wonder
Simon Enderby
Sunday, November 1, 2009

BRUNEI Darussalam is perhaps best known for its oil rich resources but over recent years the authorities of this state and players from its tourism industry have turned their attention towards a greener resource.

This new resource is readily available and is well on its way to put Brunei on the global map that includes the flora and fauna of the Bornean rainforest and, the biologically rich waters of the ocean that fronts Brunei.

Realising the importance of preserving the natural landscape, a ban on unlicensed commercial logging has ensured the survival of Brunei's rainforest, which in turn has enabled the earth to remain green while allowing the flora and fauna to flourish.

Amazing eco-friendly tourism opportunities too have sprung up, proving that you can still enjoy the earth without wiping out the natural beauty in the name of tourism. Similarly and even more recently, Brunei has come to realise that another treasure trove of natural wonders is just waiting to be explored, albeit judiciously, to benefit the country's long term tourism blueprint.

The coastal waters and oceans of Brunei Darussalam is teeming with amazing marine life and, the biological richness of its coral reef and marine environment is on par with some of the more renowned waters around the world. While others may have been visited once too often, Brunei's waters remain relatively unknown and untouched, hence making it a richer playground for the citizens of the deep.

The country has known that there was an abundance of marine life just offshore through its developing fishing industry. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg and reflects just a minute section of the rich biodiversity that can be found in its seas, coral reefs, mangroves and near-shore waters.

The sheer diversity and abundance of marine life found here has only recently been fully realised after some of the world's biggest names in marine science were brought together by the Brunei Fisheries Department to undertake a detailed study.

Dr Mark Erdmann headed the survey team along with renowned tropical reef fish expert Dr Gerry Allen, coral experts Dr Lyndon Devantier and Emre Turek, malacologist (sea shell expert) Markus Ruf and, underwater film and photography company Scubazoo Images.

Over the course of two survey periods totalling seven weeks, the team, supported and guided by research staff from the Brunei Fisheries Department, identified 34 research sites for investigation, with terrain ranging from inshore mangroves to shallow patch reefs to offshore drilling platforms. After a total of 500 man hours spent underwater, the final results clearly showed that Brunei's marine environment rivals that of Australia's Great Barrier Reef and Indonesia's Bunaken Marine Park, with nearly 400 species of hard corals, over 667 species of tropical fish and over 475 species of molluscs identified so far.

It's quite possible these numbers will rise even further once detailed studies of some of the samples are completed. Two new books have also been published as a result of the survey — The Tropical Reef Fishes of Brunei by Dr Gerry Allen and The Coral Reefs of Brunei Darussalam by Dr Lyndon Devantier and Emre Turek.

Many of the offshore reef sites were found to have an extremely high bio-diverse coral cover with an intense mix of hard and soft corals, whilst others were rich in macro critters and a wide range of nudibranchs, several that they haven't seen before including one Bornella species, which has yet to be described. This joined a growing list of new or undescribed species of corals and fish as the team widened their search.

Along with the rich biodiversity and great underwater visibility, the team was surprised to find a rich mix of hard and soft corals, somewhat reminiscent of the coral reefs of the Caribbean. Under normal circumstances this abundant mixing would not occur, as the hard corals would out-compete the soft corals and eventually drive them out of the shallows and into the deeper waters, where sunlight levels are lower and hard corals find it more difficult to grow.

Unfortunately, as with all of the world's marine environments, Brunei's coral reefs haven't escaped the hand of man, as the research team identified several dive locations with evidence of fishing encroachment.

However, interestingly the numbers of fish were still high and on the whole, the reefs were in very good condition. There is a silver lining to this dark cloud of human interference. As a result, from the comprehensive survey and acknowledgement of the findings, the Brunei Fisheries Department is now in the process of formulating a network of Marine Protected Areas to safeguard its rich coral reefs.

This highly responsible approach will in turn guarantee the long term safety of Brunei's underwater treasures, as well as allow those areas that have been affected by man's activities in the past to rehabilitate and rebound.

With the guaranteed safety of this incredibly bio-diverse resource and, with the growing interest in marine tourism, especially that of scuba diving and snorkeling, Brunei's tourism industry shall now be able to package both its Reefs and Rainforests to both national and international visitors.

Courtesy of Muhibah

Mini Zoo in Temburong

I've slept so well at the centre for the past few days. The generator switches off at 11 at night when everything becomes completely dark and silent. The night is cool and quiet. I marveled at how wonderful this basic facility has accommodated us. I marveled at the serenity of a jungle so wild and savage. This is yet another experience added onto what I build my life on.

Alas, it was time for us to leave. We made a brief stop at the mini zoo. After watching a few of the animals, I feel sad for the animals. Not so much that they are cage as most animals are caged in zoos but rather, they have no audience to love them. The zoo looked poorly maintained and uninteresting though many animals of interest are kept there. They're probably better off left in the wild.

This is supposedly a sun bear lazing around

A few cages, sparsely separated from one another

A big herd of deers

A friendly deer left its big herd and came running all the way to us, probably for food.

A small yet ferocious weasel. It kept hissing at us when we went near. Perhaps, it can't see during the day, being a nocturnal animal and was threatened by our presence?

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Temburong: Sungai Esu Waterfall, Belalong

Lunch was excellent, as usual at the Kuala Belalong Field Studies Centre (KBFSC). We took the temuai to get to the Sungai Esu Waterfall. One of our native guides have told us that we could float down the main river from the entrance that leads to the waterfall. So, I was getting more excited about that activity rather than the visit, although waterfall visit turned out to be rather exhilarating.

The river was low in the afternoon. The temuai had difficulty pushing itself up the rapids as it got stuck by the stones at the rapids. Our skillful native boatman and the boat steerer have to make sure they work together to get the timings right. The boatman accelerated with the loud, roaring engine, and as soon as the boat hit the stones, the boat steerer quickly pried the boat out of the rocks to prevent it from hitting the river bank. We eventually got stuck and the boat steerer came out of the boat into the low river to push the boat up into deeper waters.

The boat dropped us at the entrance of Sungai Esu, where we walked along a small stream that leads to the waterfall. The stream is made of a series of tiny cascading falls and is littered with big, moldy boulders and fallen trees. The water is clear and cool. It was a great experience walking along the stream. Most of the time, I walked in the stream, avoiding the slippery river banks. At times, I had to climb on boulders or over fallen trees. Sometimes, I had to go under the trees, or into the small pools with freezing cold water or stepping up on the tiny falls or rapids. It was quite an adventure we had just getting to the falls in addition to the little boat trouble earlier. I walked alone, taking in the beautiful surrounding accompanied by nature's music of the flowing stream.

I was getting closer to the roar of the waterfall. Finally, it came in view though partially blocked by an extremely large and treacherously slippery boulder. The pool in front of the boulder was bigger and colder than the ones before. After fighting the cold, I got out of the pool and grabbed onto the readied rope. One wrong step and it could all get extremely ugly. The rocks are extremely sharp at the edges and I had suffered a few minor cuts.

We all had an amazingly fun time at the waterfall. Each of us went under the fast falling water to enjoy a good massage. To do so, one has to enter the pool that is as cold as North Pole! I was taking small steps into the pool to slowly adjust parts of my body to the cold until someone splashed water at me! At first, I shivered to the cold while my body numbed. But, after some kicking about in the water, the experience became extremely siuk (fun)!

Our experience floating down the river was fun but a little scary. The river was flowing pretty fast especially at the rapids. On one occasion, I almost hit a big boulder as I was being swept away by the fast current. I swam with all my might to avoid it and had to be careful of not kicking into the rocks at the riverbed.

Brunei continues to amaze me every now and then. My stay in Belalong had been exciting, interesting, educational and beautiful. I've never been into a jungle as thick as the rainforest of Temburong and getting to learn and experience so much. "The Kingdom of Unexpected Treasures", I see now where this is coming from and I am proud.

Lady boat steerer got out of the temuai to push it when it got stuck

Here is our boat steerer pushing the boat out of the stones and away from the river bank

Walking in the stream that leads to the waterfall

Walking in freezing cold water and against the small rapids

Pretty easy walking at this spot

A big interesting stone just before climbing up the big boulder to the waterfall

A colleague hanging onto the rope while getting ready to climb the big slippery boulder

Icy cold pool in which the waterfall flows. See what I mean about the splashing.

Enjoying the friendly forces of nature

The river was getting shallow as we were floating down this point. So, we got up and walked to the other side where the fun part is.

Last rapids we floated past before reaching KBFSC

One of our boatmen demonstrated a somersault before plunging into the water

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Temburong: Belalong's Ashton Trail - Fruits, Flowers & Pods

Indeed, there are many things that can be eaten in the jungle. The very sentence had me thinking of a jungle party of berries, barbecued shoots and wild yams, wild bananas and mangosteens. For some reason, roasted wild deers, boars, bears and birds were not in that picture which I am quite happy after recalling what happened to Chris McCandless' (main character of "Into the Wild") bear game when he was trying to cook it. I loved that movie and can completely relate to it. Beautifully powerful, moving and profound are the words to describe it.

Anyway, back to the jungle of Brunei, we saw some pods and flowers in our hike though I think more of these could probably be found at the higher sections of the trees like the wild ixoras that blend with the green jungle canopy.

These berries are interesting because they grow out of the tree trunk rather than the branches alongside with the leaves. They are the same berries with blue flesh, described in one of my previous posts.

The skin taste bitter while the flesh has got a bit of a sourish sweet taste.

Lots of palm fruits from its wild tree

Sentul is the local name for wild mangosteen. I didn't see any but saw this yellow label strapped on one of its tree branches.

Some wild flower

Pink wild flowers

A fallen branch of two flat pods

Pods growing from a type of vine. This vine has strapped itself around another climber, which in turn is coiled around a host tree. Everyone is living off someone or something, just like humans! Cool beans!

Temburong: Belalong's Ashton Trail - Creepers, climbers, lianas or vines?

Tree climbers are one of the most intelligent or, might you call it vicious, survivors in the thick jungles of Borneo. Quite amazingly, Brunei has many interesting looking ones! Those that have leaves clung on to host trees for support and grow rapidly with the tree to get sunlight for photosynthesis. Some have rooting suckers which are tiny roots growing out of their shoots to cling onto the host trees. Chlorophyll-lacking climbers rely not only support but nutrition from their host plants. Eventually, the host plant dies from the parasitic nature of the climbers. Besides their survival tactics, the climbers vary in colour, size and shape. Some are flat and look like ribbons spiraling around the trees, others look like giant wooden wires twisted around the tree and some tapers across trees and look like giant tapeworms hanging from one tree to the other! Some climbers retain drinkable water, others become home to insects and some produces soap-like substances! I love what Vemuri said about the jungle; "There are many things to eat and drink in a forest .... " Interestingly, climbers serve as passage way for ants as documented by this article.

I mistook this for a red cloth wrapped around the tree until I saw tiny roots on its shoot

This is what I mean by a giant tapeworm-looking rainforest liana

Braiding or tangling climbers

Coiling climbers

If I remember, this liana stores water

Knobs found in the climber, these knobs could be homes to insects.

Leafy vines along a tree

This liana looked like it is really strangling the tree!

Temburong: Belalong's Ashton Trail - Brunei Fungi & Mushrooms

Along the way, we also saw many different types of bracket fungus and mushrooms. How bracket fungus are different from mushrooms is that they are woody and grow in groups on trees although they may look like mushrooms. They usually have plate-like bodies and do not have stems. Some mushrooms are woody or may grow in groups but they have stems.

What's amazing is that some jelly-like growth found on fallen rocks are actually mushrooms. Brunei has these jelly mushrooms in the rainforest and they are edible! Brunei cultivates mushroom as documented here and here by the Biotechnology Unit under the Brunei Agricultural Research Centre. This research centre falls under the Department of Agriculture of the Ministry of Industry and Primary Resources.

I found some very interesting looking mushrooms here, some of which looked like corals and are called coral mushrooms!

bracket fungus

cup mushroom with needle-like bristles

bracket fungus

black woody mushroom

group of tiny mushrooms

edible white jelly mushroom

Temburong: Belalong's Ashton Trail - Insects

All throughout the hike, I stared vigilantly at the ground from time to time. The guide has warned us of leeches and no amount of insect repellent could assure me of a "leech-biteless" hike. I finally saw one among some dried leaves, reaching out to me with its finger-like body. Like a radar, honed in to my body heat, its body arched according to the direction of my movement as I walked over it.

The fear of leeches came from many years back, 14 years exactly, when a friend got a leech bite at the KK National Park in Sabah. Unexpectedly, he started hopping and crying out in pain. He was this six-foot tall guy, so seeing him crying in pain in such a manner was almost impossible. Panic-stricken and still hopping, he took off his shoe followed by the sock of painful foot. There, a black string of a leech had attached itself to him. How it got into his shoe remains a mystery, a terrifying one to me! I saw the leech being pulled out from him. In the next few minutes, I saw two other friends having the same predicament and pulling leeches out too! Gah, leeches are just scary to me! *cringe*

One interesting thing I've learned about leeches is that they do not bite immediately when they attached themselves on you. Instead, they would search for your veins to draw blood from. Watching a leech crawled along the guide's finger, I thought it almost look adorable. It sent us all laughing when the guide took the leech from his finger with his other hand, rolled it into a ball and hurled it into the jungle.

Indeed the Brunei Temburong jungle is rich with wildlife. We could hear the call of a hornbill flying across and at another time, a great argus pheasant.

Below are some pictures of the friends of the forest we met along the way.

Bee hive

Dead ant nest or bee hive. I thought it was fungus but I was told otherwise.

Giant millipede

Leech on the guide's finger searching for blood veins

Giant servant ant

Two giant soldier ants (characterised by their big heads) and a blurry servant ant

A grub that builds an embodied nest by sticking leaves around its bodies

A blocked highway (thanks to the mischief of a colleague) with termites trying to cross