Welcome to Pom Pom!

Trip Start Jul 16, 2012
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Flag of Malaysia  , Sabah,
Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Back in December in the spur of the moment Tim and I decided that we wanted to do something a bit different on our travels and feeling inspired by our friends adventures volunteering in an animal sanctuary we decided to volunteer with Tropical Research and Conservation Centre (TRACC) on Pom Pom Island, spending a month on an island in Borneo, living in a tent on the beach counting turtles and walking the beach looking for eggs, little did we know what we were letting ourselves in for.

We arrived in Tawau airport and were transported at the usual Formula 1 speed to Semporna, a town that time forgot. No really, Semporna really doesn't have anything much going for it at all, aside from being the gateway to some lovely diving islands no one would choose to come here.  After a night in a dingy hotel with Kat and Abbie a couple of other volunteers we had our breakfast and set off to the pier to leave civilisation and enter island life.

Upon arrival it was difficult not to be wowed by the beauty of Pom Pom with its pier perched in crystal clear water, we were given the tour and escorted to our tent to get settled.  With an inflatable mattress and a fan the tents were basic to say the least but would do the job just fine.

There is no messing around on Pom Pom and it was straight on with the job, we had a dangerous animals lecture which left me not wanting to ever go in the sea again and definitely never wanting to see a blue ring octopus, the most poisonous animal in the sea with pretty much no chance of survival if you are bitten.  The good thing about these lectures is that usually you are generally told not to worry as none of the animals are around this area.  We were told the complete opposite, aside from sharks Pom Pom was surrounded with every type of bitey stingy sea life possible.  Great, now where is my snorkel and mask.

Our role as turtle volunteers or 'Turtlers’ as we liked to call ourselves was to swim from one pier to the other (1km) at high and low tide and to count the Green Turtles we see and mark down their sex and to note any Hawksbills turtles.  The first snorkel I didn’t have my turtle vision honed in and maybe saw a flash of one turtle in the distance, little did I know once I had my eyes honed in I would be seeing up to 60 amazing turtles each day.

Our first day on Pom Pom was not your average day as at around 5pm 18 Australian volunteers who were due to be staying on a different island appeared and the plan suddenly changed that they would be staying on Pom Pom as well.  With Pom Pom already full to capacity it was something of a panicked evening trying to set up extra tents and create dinner for 50 people, needless to say it was not the most relaxing start to our stay and the next 10 days followed a similarly chaotic pattern.  Trying to integrate the other volunteers meant that we were taken away from our usual high and low tide surveys and were scattered onto the surrounding islands for turtle surveys.  Whilst usually it would be a treat to visit the surrounding islands, with no shade and the occasional day when our water supply was inadvertently spilled upon our arrival led to some less that comfortable day trips.

After our first week of utter chaos, we were ready to throw in the towel and call it a day, we were tired as getting used to the noises sleeping in tents was tough, we were hungry as there was never enough food and the general organised chaos was just too much.  We decided that it was time to walk to the main island pier for one last snorkel and to say goodbye to the turtles.  We got in the water and it was rough and murky and was generally one of the worst snorkels we had had on the island, however as we were about to get out and declare that we were done on Pom Pom I saw a flash of a flipper and right in front of us in water no more than 3 feet deep was the most beautiful 1 meter female green turtle, just hovering in the shallows eating sea grass.  We watched her for a good 15 minutes and for us this was the sign we needed.  If we can get that close to an amazing turtle we need to stick this out and stay on Pom Pom.

Don’t get me wrong Pom Pom didn’t get much easier when the big group left, there was still chaos, hunger, storms, leaky tents and worst of all Pom Pom infections.  No one was quite sure what it was about Pom Pom but the smallest most simple little cut turned in a matter of hours into a huge septic festering hole.  I had wet suit rub on my ankles from my fins which turned into huge open gashes and Tim’s feet looked like something from a horror movie with holes in his feet, toe nails snapped off and a trench in his leg that started as a simple scratch.  There was not a moment that you could walk through the kitchen without seeing someone tending to their wounds with antiseptic, hydrochloric acid and plasters or seeking out antibiotics.  If it wasn’t weeping wounds it was a sickness bug or an ear infection that was keeping us all out of the water.  There was one person who actually took the Pom Pom syndrome to a whole new level by having an entirely infected leg which he treated by wrapping in electric tape and hoping for the best, yes Killian, that’s you!  Just to add to his array of impressive wounds one afternoon when we were all relaxing in our lounge area (known as number 4), he was moving a huge wire container that was to be used to collect glass bottles and suddenly stopped.  It wasn’t that he had over exerted himself and needed a rest, no, in true Killian form he had impaled his foot on the wire structure and was at one with it.  Enter ‘Diver Diver’ Bridget and here first aid kit to try and fix him up.  I on the other had grabbed my camera to fully document the incident, ha ha.  After a fair amount of blood, antiseptic, plasters and Whiskey it was decided that a trip to the hospital was the sensible move so the patient hobbled to the boat for a day trip to Semporna.  However before he had even made it to the boat and before Bridget had put away the first aid kit a Chinese snorkeler came hobbling up the beach having trodden on a sea anemone – no one was safe from the Pom Pom syndrome.  The Pom Pom injuries reached a whole new low when Sonny decided to have a go on the zip line attached to our tree house. The zip line is designed for a small child, which Sonny is definitely not and the outcome of the experiment left Sonny lying on his back on a table being carried to a boat for a very slow speedboat trip to Semporna to the doctor.  Thankfully after a long night waiting around the clinic he was given the all clear.  Come on Pom Pom, give us a break.

But it was not just dangerous sea creatures and on land obstacles that we had to contend with, we also had centipedes!  Most people associate centipedes with little bugs with lots of legs that are not at all dangerous and are nothing to worry about.  But no on Pom Pom, these poisonous monsters with many legs and nasty pincers left us all afraid, very afraid.  My first encounter with a centipede was when it came running through number 4, the girls all ran, Sonny grabbed a machete and cut the monster in half.  Much to all of our disgust it carried on running regardless, he cut it again and again and still it kept running, it took a machete between the eyes to take this critter down.  The first victim of the centipede was Ali, who whilst trying boldly to protect us all from the fierce beast battled it was a bottle of suncream, sadly for Ali the centipede was a master of gymnastics and contorted its body around and bit her on the finger leaving her with a painful, numb finger and a hand that looked a bit like Mickey Mouse’.  Ali seemingly had some kind of connection with these monsters as just days later she had another encounter when she sat on one in the tree house and ended up with a one sided J-Lo bum, unlucky.  Amazingly Tim and I managed to steer clear of the curse of the centipede but others were not so lucky.  Sophie managed to step on one whilst walking to her tent and the beast decided to fight back by biting her food.  The most comical centipede bite award goes to Fletch who was sat in Number 4 and started to scratch his leg as if something was biting him.  It was, he had a centipede in his pocket.  I have never seen anyone move so fast whist removing their shorts, it was utterly hysterical for everyone except Fletch and the centipede which ended up with a machete through the head.

As turtlers one of our other main roles was to walk the beach every night in search in turtles that have come up to the beach to lay their eggs.  It has been a while so here are some turtle factoids for you.  It takes up to 50 years for a Green turtle to reach sexual maturity and when it does the turtle will return to the beach that it was born on to lay its eggs.  So the turtles that live on the reef at Pom Pom are not usually the same turtles that come to lay eggs as they travel around and tend not to eat where they nest.  So anyway, the turtle walks take place hourly from sunset and we walk the beach with red torches quietly looking for turtle tracks.  I don’t know about you, but I had no idea what turtle tracks looked like until I saw them for the first time.  They basically look like a tractor wheel has been rolled up the beach.  When you see tracks you hope to only see one set as the that means that the turtle is still there looking for a nest.  We had a few false starts as tracks would come up the beach and would hit a log so the turtle would give up and go back to the sea.  Turtles can hold onto their eggs for a few days so it means she will come back in the next day or so to try again.  Walking the beach was quite therapeutic, especially on nights when the stars were bright and shooting and the trees were alive with fireflies.  But when you walk night after night with no turtle and there are parties that you are missing it could get a bit tough.  However on the 9 July everything changed and we became turtle parents for the first time!  Nothing can ever compare to the amazing feeling of being their watching a beautiful huge green turtle mama lay her eggs.  We found her tracks and followed her into the foliage and found her settled having dug her nest.  When turtles lay eggs they usually lay around 100, and after the first 20 or so they go into a trance so they are not easily disturbed. Therefore we could dig a trench behind her into the nest and could see the perfect bucket shaped egg chamber that she had dug.  Tim, Mad and I became turtle midwives for the night.  Tim held her flippers apart, Mad picked the eggs out of the nest and I transferred them into our bucket, then Tim took over picking the eggs out of the nest.  The turtle was totally silent aside from a few big sighs, so cute.  We were officially turtle parents.  It can have only taken her about 10 or 15 minutes to lay her 82 eggs then she started to bury her nest so we left her in peace to have a nice sand bath to recover whilst we transplanted her eggs into a safe hatchery to keep them safe from lizards, birds, ants and poachers!  Sadly turtle eggs are a real delicacy in Malaysia and at a couple of ringgits an egg they are quite a good income for poachers.  Sadly this was our only turtle mama to come up and lay on our watch but it was the most incredible experience ever.

The eggs that we collect get taken to a hatchery at the main resort on Pom Pom, I had high expectations for the hatchery which actually turned out to just be a big sand pit.  The hotel usually tell us when they are going to release babys so we can see but occasionally they have to do it in a hurry so we miss out.  One day we went to check on the nests and found one rogue baby scurrying across the volleyball court. It turned out that they had had to make an urgent release and this little fellow had escaped.  Thankfully we found him and sent him off into the sea with his brothers and sisters to go and live on the reef.  Eventually we managed to get the message that there was going to be a release of 3 nests at once, so 168 baby turtles headed off into the big wide world.  Sadly there were over 100 Chinese tourists all trying to get a look at the babies which left it all a little chaotic, but I got a perfect spot on the beach to watch them scamper off into the sea.  When baby turtles hatch they have a 3 day swim frenzy which means that they just swim and swim and swim until they reach a deep reef and then they stay there until they are big enough to survive.  The survival rate of baby turtles is horribly low with just 1% of babies reaching sexual maturity.  I am still living in hope that my little baby with the poorly flipper made it to the reef, swim little one, swim!

Aside from diving, turtles and fish there was one main topic of conversation on Pom Pom, food.  We were all working hard diving, snorkelling and beach walking and after a few weeks the rice, noodles and vegetables were getting harder and harder to stomach.  We were pretty much always hungry and most nights the food ran out so there was no chance of seconds.  Whilst it is probably the worst way to overcome the problem we all did nothing but talk about food and what we wanted to eat when we escaped Pom Pom. Occasionally we were treated to a few chips each to supplement the rice rations but nothing beat our last night on the island when we were treated to a full blown greasy food buffet with chips, chicken nuggets, onion rings, veggie burgers, coleslaw and salad where there was so much food everyone could have seconds and even thirds.  Thank you Chef Michael for spending a whole day pealing and chopping potatoes!  I don’t think anyone leaving Pom Pom will be having soggy noodles again anytime soon.

After 2 weeks on Pom Pom, it was all getting a bit much for some of us, regardless of how dank and unappealing it is the draw of Semporna was just too much and we needed to get off the island.  After much debating and waiting finally the Semporna Seven were given permission to have a day trip.  With shopping lists from the rest of the island we set off and pretty much ate our way around Semporna with KFC for breakfast, smoothies for Brunch and proper burgers, chips, pizza, salad and fresh cold water for lunch.  Ace, no noodles or rice needed for us today thanks!

Despite all my years of snorkelling I have always been a snorkeler that bobs about on the surface because I never knew how to dive down.  Enter Fletch, free diver extraordinaire!  After a 10 minute lesson in free diving I was 5 meters down examining the reef below me, all these years I have been missing out, better late than never, next stop 30 meters. Thanks Fletch!

Using my new found free diving skills I got involved with another Pom Pom project, whilst most of the coral planting projects are done by the divers as they need to be in deep water we have a "No Go Zone" (NGZ) which is a boat and foot free zone where we plant hard and soft coral and sea sponges in the shallows to see how the shoreline survives without boats and people destroying it.  I found some of my favourite fish whilst snorkeling and working in the NGZ, from scary looking scorpion fish to a really cool crocodile fish.  One day Fletch called me over and he had lost what he was going to show me before I got there….. It was a Blue Ringed Octopus, Arggggghhhhh I am out of here!!

After a month of turtle surveys I only had eyes for the turtles, I could see them in rubbish visability at 10 meters hidden under a rock and after a few weeks you knew which turtles would be where each day.  Some would be chilling out on the piles of tires, our friendly hawksbill was always swimming in the same place and our favourite turtle who we named Georgina was always to be found in the same spot munching on sea grass.  The amazing thing about the Pom Pom turtles is that after a month of watching us swim over them they seemingly got quite used to us and we could swim with them, take photos and just hover watching them whilst they just watched us and didn’t make any attempt to swim away.  We battled currents, jelly fish, lion fish to see them each day but there is something a bit special about feeling so close and at one with a turtle, truly a fantastic experience that I will never forget.

Aside from the turtles there was something else a bit special about Pom Pom, the people!  We made so many amazing friends and met some truly inspirational and fantastic people.  Quiz night, party nights, watching the rescue divers in training (and providing biscuits from the pier), octopus hunting with my snorkel buddy Sophie and crossword days provided the best laughs ever and made sure we forgot that we were hungry, infected and likely to float out of our tents in the night.  It was a bit like the United Nations with people from pretty much all over the globe from the US to Australia with not many missed out in between, who knows maybe we can swing by a see a few of you again on our travels, or maybe we can have a 2014 Pom Pom reunion? 

All good things sadly have to come to an end and Tim and I had just finished our last ever turtle walk and got to bed at about 12am and were tucked up asleep.  Suddenly I heard someone outside our tent shout Tim’s name.  I looked out the tent and our Boat men asked me if I wanted to see a turtle.  Of course I did, I always want to see a turtle so at 1.30am, I was in my pyjamas with a torch, my phone and the turtle bucket following 4 Malaysian boat men around the beach.  Typically the turtle was as far away as she could possibly have got from out camp and Tim couldn’t find us.  When we got to the turtle she was still on her nest so we tried to dig behind her to get at her eggs but she had already finished and had buried them.  So we gave her time to turn around and head back into the sea and the boat men set to work digging up the eggs.  I had an idea where they would be based on where she was sat but it took us a good 30 minutes to find the chamber and safely collect the eggs.  This time we had 109 eggs.  What made this egg recovey even more crazy than it already was, was that a huge storm was rolling in.  As we started to dig up the nest the heavens opened so I was wet to my underwear and then we had to keep the eggs dry and get them to the hatchery.  With the wind picking up and thunder clapping it was not the most relaxing experience, but we safely dug a new nest and planted our eggs.  It was all worthwhile the next day….  As we took a boat to another island to do an early turtle survey a fishing boat was parked up on our beach and there were two poachers digging in the nest that we had recovered.  TRACC 1-Poachers 0!  So proud.

So time to pack up and leave, having cried for 2 days in the run up I knew that this was going to be emotional and it totally lived up to expectations.  Bags packed, goodbyes done and tears flowing strong we were back on the boat and headed to Semporna.

In true Pom Pom fashion our departure was as chaotic as ever. We arrived at the airport 20 minutes after check in had closed, despite having had a white knuckle ride and broken the sound barrier on more than one occasion.  Upon entry into the airport I ran to the check-in desk and suddenly I heard Tim shrieking whilst throwing his bag around the departure hall.  Seemingly Tim decided to help ease the suffering on Pom Pom just a little and removed an entire ants nest in his backpack.  After 5 minutes of tossing his bag around the lobby whilst spraying it with citronella we managed to check the said offending bag in and safely made our flight.  Hello real world, we have missed you, but I am pretty sure we are going to miss the turtles more!
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