IT HAD ALL STARTED with a phonecall from my editor, Margaret, who called to let me know that I had to be at Permai Rainforest Resort on April 6 by 8am.
She let me know that Zora Chan from Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) would be giving me a call, and sure enough, hours later, an unknown number popped up on my phone screen. Sounding friendly over the phone, Zora gave me detailed instructions on what to bring for the next day and how to get to Permai since – being from Bintulu – I’d never been there before.
Maybe I was too excited or maybe it was out of fear that I would get lost (my sense of direction is very poor), but it so happened that I woke up, got dressed and arrived almost an hour earlier than the appointed time at the resort.
Together along with a couple members of the press and few members from MNS, we were divided into two groups. There was a limited number of seats available on the boat, so we had to go a group at a time to catch a rare view for most people from the city: a jellyfish swarming.
According to Rahim Bugo, the managing director of Permai Rainforest Resort, who had been paddle-boarding out to sea a day before, there were hundreds of them bobbing up and down close to the water’s surface.
As we cruised through the waves, I was fascinated. It’s not every day you have the opportunity to ride on a boat out to sea and catch a jellyfish swarm. I was pulled in by the beautiful scenery of the sea and sky, trees along the small cape to our right, thinking how Mother Nature plays with all the colours, and how this seemed so unlike Kuching.
Soon enough I reminded myself the reason I was there, so I pulled out a pen and said to myself: “Time to work, Pat.”
Dressed casually in shorts and a plaid shirt, Anthony Sebastian, chairman of MNS Kuching branch, sat near the bow of the boat and shared what he knew about jellyfish.
He started by telling us the basics of the jellyfish. Under the phylum Cnidaria – ‘family’ in layman’s terms – jellyfish share the same feature as coral which is cnidocytes: explosive cells used to capture its prey as well as a defence mechanism.
Dubbed the oldest multi-organ animal, these free-swimming creatures have been wandering the seas for at least 500 million years.
Anthony briefed us saying that the most recent data on jellyfish was from 1991 from the fisheries department and that its records only accounted for the years between 1980 to 1987.
“In those years, they were catching 820 tonnes every year. It was worth RM6 million a year; remember that was from the 1980 to 1987. Today it must be worth much more,” he pointed out. “It is a local and very lucrative industry”.
On which species were found at which locations, Anthony said, “From my understanding, most of the red ones are found in the Mukah and Bintulu area whereas the white ones are found in Kuching, Sematan area.”
These umbrella-shaped animals with trailing tentacles are food for most endangered marine turtles like the loggerhead, Ridley and leatherback turtles. Leatherback turtles rely primarily on jellyfish for their diets.
After some of my own research, I found a paper from 1991 by Richard Rumpet called ‘Some Aspects of the Biology and Fishery of Jellyfish Found along the Coast of Sarawak, Malaysia’.
Back then, Rumpet had not yet identified the species name of Sarawak jellyfish. But recent efforts by Fisheries Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) Sarawak identified that there were three dominant species foumd here; Lobonema smithii (the biggest white jellyfish in Malaysia), Rhopilema esculenta (red jellyfish) and Mastigias papua (spotted jellyfish).
According to Rumpet, the coastal waters off Sarawak are suitable for jellyfish breeding. This is shown by the occurrence of jellyfish all along the coast of Sarawak.
The Fisheries Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) Sarawak’s website listed three publications on this gelatinous animal – all done in the late 1990s – a study on jellyfish in Sarawak waters, breeding habitat and biology of jellyfish in Sarawak and the Encyclopaedia of Malaysia the Malaysian Seas: In Jellyfish.
Perhaps it was the weather – it was raining towards the end of our boat ride – or perhaps it was the slightly choppy waves but throughout the thirty-minute boat ride, we only managed to catch one jellyfish with a net for close observation.
Then I realised there was a lot of room for research and exploration on jellyfish here in Sarawak; an example clearly would be factors affecting the swarming of jellyfish.
How was it that the day before our trip out to sea, for instance, we were told by resort staff that there were hundreds of them swimming closely to the surface yet when we got there a day later only handfuls of them were sighted and few washed up onshore?
Being the oldest environmental NGO in Malaysia, MNS is still doing what it does best since 1941; to promote the conservation of Malaysia’s natural heritage.
MNS Kuching Branch is continuing to do so in Kuching with one of their efforts to organise the second instalment of Santubong Nature Festival end of this year.
Open to MNS members and the public, the festival is aimed to raise public awareness of the value of Santubong Peninsula.
Leading up to the festival, MNS is organising activities such as trips and talks. Sign up as a member by contacting MNS Kuching Branch at their Facebook page or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For Santubong Nature Festival, just watch out for more updates on the event at www.facebook.com/SantubongNatureFestival.