In an era where you can play Pokémon Go at Machu Picchu it’s increasingly difficult to feel like you’re blazing a trail. But while the golden age of discovery is behind us, there are still a few nuggets left for those who look for them. A few monsoons ago, I headed to Pulau Tioman to boldly go where no one had gone before. Probably.
The island itself is hardly unchartered territory — a steady stream of tourists trickle through its tiny airport every week — but beyond Tioman’s sandy shores and swaying palms lie some of the most exquisite coral gardens in the South China Sea. Some of these reefs have never been dived before, but, thanks to Biosphere Expeditions, a non-profit organisation specialising in conservation holidays, it’s now possible to “discover” these coral gardens.
Biosphere’s project was set up to enable people like me — those with some derring-do but no actual qualifications — to conduct research into the region’s reefs, which will be used to help preserve these ecosystems as they come under threat. I’d travelled all over Malaysia, but for me, Tioman was the country at its best, and this expedition gave me an opportunity to immerse myself, literally and metaphorically, in the tropical island.
Biosphere’s two-week programme began in the rustic Swiss Cottage beach resort, near the town of Tekek. In the first week, my group took a crash course in marine biology. We hit the books, listened to lectures and had practical lessons underwater at nearby reefs.
Marine biologist Kate Yewdall and Paul O’Dowd, an Aussie bushman and Biosphere expedition leader, taught us the ways of Tioman’s waters, explaining how to identify fish, coral and other marine life. By the end of the week we could even diagnose coral diseases.
Certificates in hand, we hopped aboard a yacht and set sail around Tioman and its neighbouring islands for one blissful week. Some days we sailed close to the shore, marvelling at the deserted beaches and steamy rainforest, which shrouds much of the island and echoes with birdsong. Other days we saw nothing of land.
The reefs were like miniature cities. Corals towered above the seabed like Gaudi-inspired skyscrapers, while fish darted around like tardy commuters. We saw turtles and tuna, and enormous lobster. Once I spotted a shark skulking in the shadows. And on one particularly memorable day, we emerged from a dive into an almighty storm; the thunder roared overhead as we tried to board the violently rocking boat.
There was scant contact with the outside world. There was no phone signal and we saw few vessels, although we came ashore once or twice to pick up supplies and sink a beer in a beach bar. On one such foray I spotted a flying squirrel gliding between the trees.
At night I slept beneath the stars on the deck of our vessel, rocked to sleep by waves, kissed goodnight by the breeze. Malaysia was slipping into monsoon season and several times I was woken by huge raindrops falling on my body.
When we weren’t observing reefs, we would tell stories, disappear into books, learn to freedive with Paul and take turns preparing dinner, which we’d eat on the deck beneath a setting sun. Eventually, reluctantly, we returned to dry land, where tourists sizzled on the sand and our phones picked up a signal. Messages from home came flooding in. The adventure was truly over.
Biosphere Expeditions’ reef research programme is now eight days long and costs £1,640 per person. Price includes flights from Singapore, plus all food, accommodation and hire of diving equipment. Participants must have their PADI Open Water qualification or equivalent to take part. The 2017 expedition takes place Aug 15-22.
Published in the Malaysia 2016 guide, distributed with the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)