Malaysia is part of the Coral Triangle, an area recognised as having the world’s highest marine biodiversity. Coral reefs are an important ecological and economic resource, providing a range of valuable “ecosystem services” to millions of people around the world. In Malaysia, one estimate puts the value of coral reefs as high as RM 50 billion (US$13.4bn) per year. Yet, Malayisa’s reefs are still under threat, as are many reefs around the world. But Reef Check Malayisia, part of one of the world’s biggest coral reef monitoring organisations, are on hand to help turn this around.

Coral 101

  • Coral reefs are among the most diverse and productive communities on Earth. They are breeding and feeding grounds for one-third of all marine species and provide food and livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people around the world.
  • They cover less than one tenth of one percent of the worlds’ ocean floor.
  • Corals are animals. An individual “polyp” has a simple body with a stomach and tentacles that catch food from the water.
  • Coral reef structures are made of limestone secreted by millions of individual polyps living in colonies.
  • Corals are easily damaged.
  • Tiny photosynthetic algae, zooxanthellae, live inside the coral polyps and use sunlight to produce food for the coral – the coral gets up to 90 percent of its food from this source. Zooxanthellae also give the coral its colour.
  • When stressed (for example by pollution, sedimentation or warm water) coral expels the zooxanthellae, leaving behind the exposed skeleton and resulting in coral bleaching.

What’s going wrong?

Corals need high levels of sunlight, clear water, and survive in a relatively narrow range of temperatures. Reefs are highly sensitive to a variety of external threats:

  • Sedimentation from development on land reduces sunlight in the water, preventing zooxanthellae from producing food for the corals.
  • Pollution from a variety of chemicals released into the sea can kill corals and other organisms.
  • Overfishing and destructive fishing affects the balance of the marine ecosystem.
  • Global climate change and increases in water temperatures of only one or two degrees centigrade can cause corals to bleach.
  • Increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is changing the acidity of the oceans and making it difficult for corals to grow their reef-building skeletons.

Reef check facts

  • Mission: To raise awareness of the importance of, and threats to, coral reefs.
  • Founded in 1996.
  • Is the world’s largest international coral reef monitoring programme involving volunteer recreational divers and marine scientists.
  • Active in 82 countries and territories.
  • Reef Check Malaysia (RCM) was registered in 2007.

What does Reef Check Malaysia do?

  • Eco Action: Training divers to assist with surveys and conducting the annual Reef Check survey programme. Since 2007, RCM has trained over 600 Eco Divers and Trainers. In 2014, the RCM survey programme covered 190 sites around Malaysia.
  • Outreach: Educating and raising awareness about coral reefs and the need to conserve coral reefs for the future. Since 2008, RCM has conducted programmes in more than 50 schools around Malaysia.
  • Advocacy: Promoting coral reef conservation and sustainability concepts and needs to decision makers in government and other key groups. Since 2007, RCM has conducted reef conservation programmes with communities around Malaysia, including Pulau Tioman, Pulau Perhentian, Pulau Pangkor and Pulau Mantanani.
  • Management and Science: Developing a better understanding of coral reef processes and improving management. Since 2009, RCM has conducted reef resilience and reef rehabilitation studies in 12 locations around Malaysia. Studies are on-going in five locations to improve management of coral reefs by involving local communities in coral reef management and addressing local impacts to reefs.

2 Reef Check Training Mantanani

From the field

Cynthia Nesha has been working on the ground in Malaysia with Reef Check, getting firsthand experience of what it means to work to save our planet’s reefs.

“I first got involved with Reef Check Malaysia in July 2012. I was then a Marine Science undergraduate seeking an internship, and was accepted by RCM for about three months. This internship gave me the opportunity to get to grips with the full scope of the projects that RCM focuses on.

A friend and I were based on Tioman Island for 90 percent of the internship period. Prior to that, we spent a week on Perhentian Island, carrying out a marine awareness camp for the island kids. We also had the opportunity to help a government agency to conduct a survey with a majority of the resorts on solid waste disposal.

While in Tioman, we were actively involved in taking care of coral nursery frames in four sites, which were a big part of RCM’s reef rehabilitation project. We built frames, installed them and went in on a weekly basis to check and clean them. After a year of growth, we moved the coral nubbins from the frames to a damaged reef site. Seeing the reef teem with colourful fish within the first 15 minutes of moving the frames was definitely worth all the effort.

We also conducted a preliminary socio-economic survey with the local islanders, business operators as well as tourists on Tioman. Our aim was to gauge their understanding and views about the island as a protected area. Interacting with different groups of people was an exciting experience and it gave us the opportunity to truly dig deeper into the views of a diverse community, allowing us insights into different perspectives.

I was also trained to be a certified Reef Check Ecodiver during the internship period. This meant I was able to help out in some of RCM’s annual surveys. We learned how to identify and count indicator fish, invertebrate and substrate species, all of which contributes to Malaysia’s data on coral reef health. Our data is then submitted to the Department of Marine Parks Malaysia, which helps them plan and execute important management decisions. Diving while helping out for a greater cause? Check!

Having completed my internship period, I graduated and immediately started a full-time job at RCM. I was put in-charge of school education and awareness programmes. This has been a truly amazing learning experience. Not only did I get to interact with students who grew up on the islands, but I also interacted with students who live in KL, spreading awareness about environmental conservation, especially coral reef conservation. I’ve also had the opportunity to work with corporate companies, government departments and even several universities. Meeting new people, and exchanging knowledge and ideas, has meant I have learnt so much about different ways to approach the topic of conservation.

The past two-and-a-half years have been great, professionally, but also personally – working with a passionate, smart, friendly group of people has made the entire experience even better.”


What can you do?

You don’t need to be a marine biologist to make a difference!

  • Be a responsible diver: Treat the reef with respect – don’t touch anything underwater, don’t collect shells, practise good buoyancy skills, and participate in conservation programmes.
  • Support sustainable tourism initiatives: Use resorts and dive operators that are really doing something to reduce their impacts.
  • Change your habits: Reducing your personal consumption of energy, water and other natural resources is easy, and helps to reduce the stress on our general environment. If everyone does a bit, it adds up to a lot. And it saves you money!
  • Get educated: L
    earn more about the issues; that way you will be able to persuade others to do the same as you do.

This article featured in SD OCEAN PLANET (Issue4/2015)

By Julian Hyde and Cynthia Nesha