Endangered Humphead wrasse almost extinct in Semporna

Where have all the big fish gone?  Long time passing?  where oh where! Fishermen ate them everyone, long time ago!  (with apologies and thanks to Bob Dylan)
Large sub adult male humphead wrasse on
Sipadan island, the only place on the east coast
of Sabah with a breeding population.

Scary fact--- The biggest wrasse and one of the most charismatic fish on a coral reef is almost extinct in the Semporna region.  

TRACC divers have just finished (Dec 2013) a coral reef survey of Timbun mata island, a large volcanic island (70km long) to the north of Semporna. The ocean surrounding Pulau Timbun Mata is not legally protected but the land is technically a forest reserve, there were plenty of big trees but the mangrove was definitely being harvested close to Semporna.

On the north side the island has a fringing reef with quite steep slopes. Severely bombed in parts but there were a few remote areas which still had good coral cover. While the sea bed cover varies with the amount of blast fishing and other variables there was at least 50% live seabed at all the offshore reef sites to the north of Timbun Mata. In many places, the living reef cover exceeded 80% and was very biodiverse with a wide range of different species.

Fish pots made of wire have decimated
reef fish populations in some areas.
  This pot is upside down.
Surprisingly there were no HHW seen on any of the 150 transects at 50 different locations around the island. Groupers, snappers sweetlips and grunts were all noticable by their absence. There were almost no commercial fish.  

The low fish diversity and abundance is most probably related to the widespread use of fish pots. At some sites more than 5 fishpots /100m were recorded. There were very few fish of commercial size at any site. Blast fishing was widespread and there is a clear gradient of blast fishing from high close to the villages to low at the reefs further from the villages. Some reefs were reduced to rubble with very low fish and coral diversity and abundance, however most reefs were patchy with blast damage confined to the shallower reefs. Reefs at 10-15m were relatively intact with high coral cover and diversity.

Femaile Humphead wrasse have no hump
But have a characteristic eye stripe
We are not the only survey team to find very few HHW in the Semporna area. A study by a team from WWF- Malaysia surveyed 35 sites with 64 transects during 2008/9 covering all unprotected reef types across the entire Semporna reef system. There were no humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) observed during any of these surveys. The only populations of humphead wrasse in Semporna were found on the reefs of Sipadan which are protected from fishing and destructive fishing practices by the presence of Sabah Parks and divers. There is a very small population of humphead wrasse on Pom Pom Island following the introduction and release by TRACC of 6 individuals rescued from a live fish restaurant. (MORE)
Other species are also severely overfished, very few grouper (Serranidae) or other commercial fish were observed during the surveys. These results from Nina Ho and Ken Kassem in 2009 and from TRACC in 2013 indicate severe overfishing of these commercially and ecologically important species.

There is a small population on Pulau Sipadan, where does it get its recruits from?  The island is too small to hope that larvae find their way back to the tiny island.  From the TRACC surveys around the whole coast it is clear that there is no other population upcurrent from any of the Semporna islands.

If the humphead wrasse of Sipadan die because of recruitment failure then the species will be regionally extinct and will deserve to be upgraded from endangered to critical (IUCN red list).


Ho, Nina & Kassem, Kenneth. (2009). Reef Status of Semporna Priority Conservation Area. Kota Kinabalu,
Malaysia: WWF-Malaysia


Dolphins around Pom Pom

TRACC saw dolphins at Pom Pom Island
We saw a pod of Dolphins,  how cool is that.  Swimming between Pandanan and Pom pom island.  We stopped the boat and drifted and they surfaced quite close.  You could even hear the whistles.  fantastic.

Dolphins and other marine mammals are not common in the Semporna area of Sabah, Malaysia.  Even on Mabul and Sipadan (world famous dive sites 70km from us) there are very few marine mammals seen. 

More info about volunteering with TRACC in Malaysia - Turtle Snorkellers - Divers 


Diving the N. Tip of Pom Pom island

The north tip of Pom Pom island (Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia) is a wall dive with the best wall starting at 30m. The reef crest at the north end of the Pom Pom reef wall has a large flat plateau The current splits at this point and there is a choice to swim either W around the N tip wall or East around the Fleavie wall.
The boat ties to the mooring and we kit up. Quick check of the current direction and last minute gear checks and we are off.
Backwards roll dive entry into 3-4m of water next to a large mushroom shaped bommie and a large area covered with bottle reefs planted by TRACC. The reef slope is covered with rubble and macrolife such as nudibranchs and frogfish can be found. Our dive is to go deep, so we pass rapidly across this shallow dive site down to 20m. A quick ok and then we curve off to the left and down a gully. The visibility is awesome at least 40 and maybe 50m and the wall looms up some way in front. The currrent has started to pick up and there are increasing numbers of small schooling fish. Big black coral bushes (“I must remember to ask the TRACC scientists why black !!! coral is actually red or white or green”) and a school of bannerfish mark mark the end of the gulley. I learn later that in 2012 when TRACC first surveyed the island of Pom pom, there were 3 of these schooling bannerfish. Now they are impossible to count. Everything is so approachable, the current is quite strong and all the fish are facing the current looking for food and ignoring the divers. A shoal of bait fish swims past and the big fish follow, 2 giant trevally, a small group of no idea (rainbow runners – id later from the photos) and a larger school of the bluefin trevally. I stop on the corner of the wall and try to get a good photo of the red tooth triggers when the school of big eye trevally swims past. Not worried by the 4 or was it 5 species of trevally, the small fish suddenly scatter. Swimming along the wall is a huge dogtooth tuna. It glides past a few metres away and then all the small fish return. Beep Beep, all to soon the computer says go up and then the best part of the dive started.
As we slowly ascend cross the plateau we see one or two then 5 or more, green turtles resting. Each bommie has at least one large female turtle and in the water column, a male is cruising looking for action. The females are not timid, they generally ignore divers, one female lifts off slowly and the nearest male cruises alongside. I learn later that mating was finished a few weeks ago, but the males are still searching for a willing partner. The cameras are clicking and I can see my buddy gesturing for me to swim into the right place to get that fantastic picture of me and a turtle drifting across the reef.
We gradually ascend to 9m and the seabed is a flat gentle slope of broken rubble. There clearly was a great reef here once but the blast fishing has decimated the fragile coral and it looks like the gravel when a road is being built. The vis is definitely 40m and I can see rubble in all directions, flat and featureless. But ahead past the dive master is a cloud of small fish. I look closer and they are living on a bottle reef. It is made from a ring of glass bottles embedded in cement and then the centre of the ring was plastic bottles. The whole structure is covered with coral and spomges and only a few bottle tops can still be seen. The fish definitely like it - there is a sabre tooth blenny hidden in the neck of lots of bottles and many many small fish. It is easy to see that the artificial reefs built by TRACC volunteers are making a huge difference to reef recovery..
Floating up into the shallows, there are more TRACC reefs, the ribbon reef snakes across the reef crest and is a highway for butterfly fish, blue devil damsels, anthias and many others. With successful artificial reefs like these I am fired up and will definitely be making reefs this afternoon.


Rescued humphead wrasse Cheilinus undulatus

Tracc (Tropical research and conservation centre) on Pom Pom Island Semporna, have just rescued 6 humphead wrasse ( also called mauri wrasse, Cheilinus undulatus) from a certain death as the main course for dinner in a live fish restaurant. The volunteers and staff agreed not to drink any beer for a week but to put the same amount of money into a kitty to purchase the folorn looking baby humphead wrasse. TRACC as an organisation agreed to match the volunteers beer fund and together we were able to find enough money to buy all 6 of these endangered fish.

Growout cages full of Humphead wrasse in 2002,
 in 2013 there were 6 fish in this cage
Growout cages full of Humphead wrasse in 2002,
 in 2013 there were 6 fish in this cage

The IUCN endangered species list (the Red list) (Endangered A2bd+3bd ver 3.1) lists humphead wrasse as endangered but TRACC surveys around Semporna and the whole Sabah coast found very, very, very few. Apparently a normal population is around 10 individuals per hectare but in our 370+ hours of surveys on Pom Pom Island and other nearby islands in the Semporna district we found a population of less than 1 individual per sq km. That is a reduction of more than 1000 times - definitely severely endangered. A normal reef should have 10 individuals in a hectare (about the size of a football pitch) but during multiple dives on many different islands and reefs we saw an average of 1 small HHW in each 100 hectares. The information we have for Semporna district is scary but it is not unique, ask any diver and the numbers of humphead wrasse on any reef that is not 100% protected and the answer is always zero. In our area at least, the fish are severely endangered if not regionally extinct and definitely need protection.

The Juvenile HHW fish were transported to Pom Pom Island in a large dustbin filled with seawater and released onto the reef crest at around sunset. The next few days were a bit harrowing as the divers searched and reported none seen.
Small female Humphead wrasse
HOWEVER, I am pleased to report that at about 5 days later we have now seen 2 of the rescued juveniles and they seem to be behaving normally, wandering around the reef and looking for food. Still very shy to hard to approach and get a good picture.

Apparently the fish becomes mature at about 6 years, so our juveniles have a long way to go and we hope to see them many times over the next few years.

As the voice of the rescued fish I would like to thank TRACC and my fellow volunteers for contributing the cash to rescue these 6 fish.

TRACC also rescued coral cat sharks this year :-)

Aug 2013


Black Tip Reef shark - Carcharhinus melanopterus in Semporna

Black tip reef sharks (Carcharhinus melanopterus) are very infrequently seen on Pom Pom Island off Semporna.  Individuals are occasionally seen on very deep dives in the early morning at the N tip.  One juvenile was seen in the shallows in Oct 2012.  The fishermen caught it!!!  We now employ those fishermen and with our education programme in their village, we may manage to protect the next shark that comes to the island.

 Sipadan the world famous dive destination (fully protected) is only 70km away and they have a few Black tip reef sharks; about 1 seen each month.  Sipadan does have lots of White tip reef sharks and small numbers of Grey reef sharks which are seen every day.  Pom Pom island doesn't have the same shark population as Sipadan but we know there are lots of fish on the deep wall below 50m and it is possible there are sharks down there that we don't see during the day.

We do know where there are a few baby blacktips in the Semporna region but for obvious reasons we are not disclosing the location.

More info about volunteering with TRACC in Malaysia - Turtle Snorkellers - Divers 


Wonderpus (Wunderpus photogenicus)

Pom Pom Island has a resident population of wonderpus (Wunderpus photogenicus) and Blue ring octopus. While our camp site at the Tip of Borneo has a population of both wonderpus and mimic octopus.  If you like muck diving away from he eef over the sandy silty sabed, it is relatively easy to see these.  Both species are away from their burrows much more at night.

If you are a student we have a great project for these interesting octopus,

 More info about volunteering with TRACC in Malaysia - Turtle Snorkellers - Divers


Rescued coral cat sharks released on Pom Pom Island

On a trip to a live fish resturant in Kota Kinabalu, one of our volunteers was so dismayed by the sight of live coral cat sharks for sale in the aquariums that they bought all the sharks to save them from being eaten.  The sharks remained in the rstaurant tanks until we could organise the transport across to Semporna and out to the island.  The initial purchase was 12 sharks but the restaurant aquired an additional 13 before we came to collect our live sharks so we eventually bought and transported 25 small coral catsharks.  These were transported to the island in a large ice chest filled with water and oxygen.  There was no mortality or signs of stress when the sharks were released into the sea at high tide in front of the TRACC camp and Celebes Beach Resort.  Some of the sharks swam off but most were content to hide in or near the rocks on the reef slope.
The next morning no sharks could be found but since they are nocturnal we expected them to hide during the day.

The sharks were seen occasionally on night dives over the next month so hopefully they will settle down and become resident.

Stay posted as we report on sightings and shark activity.

Video 2015 

update  jan 2016