Give or take a palm tree or two, Datai Bay, on the north coast of Malaysia’s Langkawi archipelago, is pretty much the living image of tropical serenity. It has white sands, baby-blue waters and a high natural grandstand on three sides, made up of sandstone hills smothered in dense, 10-million-year-old rainforest. Hornbills and monkeys live on the jungle shoreline and kingfishers flit along the beach. It’s a timeless scene.
Things aren’t quite so swoon inducing under the water, however, where the impact of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami continues to be felt. Langkawi itself was relatively unaffected on land, but the waves pummelled the fringing reef here with extraordinary violence, uprooting about 70% of its coral. For years, lumps of the stuff — some of it still alive — washed up on the sands of The Andaman resort, which sits at the head of the bay. Then, a group of marine biologists advised the property they could do something about it.
“Imagine yourself as a coral,” says Hidayah Husein, the resort’s now permanent marine and coral curator. We’re standing in her marine laboratory, surrounded by tanks of clownfish, crabs and countless types of coral. “They’re animals. They have soft tissue like us. They have bones like us. They even have different colour skin pigments. We decided we could make a difference by starting a coral nursery and trying to repopulate the reef.” So back in 2012, that’s exactly what they did.
We walk outside to the nursery — a man-made pond, 10 metres in length, fed by seawater. The concept is relatively simple. The resort’s team makes small cuttings from uprooted but still-living coral — similar to propagating a tree — then fixes these small samples to heavy bases, placing them in the nursery waters to begin regrowth. Those that show good signs of health are eventually transferred back to the reef. This is no quick fix; the dominant coral type in the bay, known as flower coral, grows at an average of one to two centimetres a year, so it’s going to be a while before the fruits of their labour begin to show.
“Now it’s your turn,” says Hidayah, squeezing four blobs of what’s essentially superglue onto a brick. I’m asked to select coral cuttings from a seawater-filled tray. They’re roughly the size and shape of stock cubes, with a soft bluish tissue on one side giving a clear indication they’re still alive. I choose four and place them onto the glue. Five minutes later, the brick is in the nursery waters.
The bricks themselves never make it to the sea, of course. The healthiest coral samples are transferred to larger, heavier, handmade domes — themselves made up of dead coral — which are then returned to the reef bed, regaining their place alongside the coral that survived the tsunami. The resort figured out long ago that their scheme was never going to be a money-making venture. Rather, they encourage guests to get involved as an educational experience.
I snorkel out into the bay the following day. Sure enough, among the boulder-sized balls of coral and the drifting schools of fish, I spot a handful of distinctive coral domes. I’d assumed they’d look odd and incongruous, but in fact they’re neatly assimilated into the reef environment, helped by the organic nature of the domes themselves. If I hadn’t known what I was looking for, I might have missed them altogether.
“Our target is to repopulate the reef with 4,000 pieces of baby coral every year.” Hidayah tells me. “And if another natural disaster uproots it all?” she wonders aloud. “Well — then we start again.”