Neil Hinds: The Perhentian Islands of Malaysia

Neil Hinds is a conservationist and scuba-diving instructor, currently living in Pulau Perhentian. Neil founded Blue Temple Conservation, an organisation that is undertaking research to help conserve the marine environment around the Perhentian islands. Here he shares some of his experiences along the way from growing up in Swansea to marine research half a world away.

Name: Neil Hinds

Habitat: Coral Reefs

Location: Pulau Perhentian, Malaysia

Twitter: @BlueTempleDiver

Bio: I am a PhD candidate at Plymouth University and love everything about the oceans, even the scary bits! My research has led me to Malaysia where I am now conducting both social and biological research and love every minute of it. If you can’t find me in the sea, I will most likely be thinking about being in it!

Tell us a little bit about where you are based at the moment?

I work in Pulau Perhentian, a couple of small tropical islands off the North Eastern coast of Peninsula Malaysia. Jungle covered islands surrounded by tropical, clear waters make Perhentian, frankly, a superb holiday destination. That however, is why I am here. The waters have been established as a Marine Park (up to 3 nautical miles off the shore) and, whilst this has prevented a lot of problems with over-fishing, it has allowed Tourism to flourish. So much so, that the local fishing village now only has one full time fisherman!

That’s certainly quite unusual. Have you always known that you wanted to study marine biology? And how did you end up studying for a PhD where you are now?

I grew up in Swansea, and spent my entire childhood living next to the sea, playing on the beach and rockpooling with my dad and brother. Whilst my love of the environment certainly came later when I reached A-Levels, there was always a part of me that prefered the outdoors to the office.

Never imagined I would end up in Perhentian doing this though! It was a remarkable, and rather fast transition from a dead end office job after my degree to chucking it all in to go travelling for a few months, which is what led to where I am today.

I have wanted to work on a conservation project like this since I was about 18 (11 years!) and so when the opportunity found a way, I grabbed it and am not letting go. I reapplied for my PhD, using this project as a chance to fund the more costly ‘diving’ aspect of the research, and then within 4 months of starting to plan, was on the island sorting out the house!

ABOVE: Members of the team undertaking reef surveys.
" I don’t just want to collect my data and write a report for someone else to look at and think about making a change. I want to be on the ground, work from the bottom up and really make a difference."

So have you been able to make much progress so far?

Since arriving in February 2014 I have spent over 7 full days underwater conducting surveys and collecting data on coral reef health, bleaching and fish populations. Coral Reef health has been the main focus of research this year. Working with the Department of Marine Parks we are hoping to develop an understanding of the state of the reefs around the islands and then focus our work on what is causing the issues and what we can do about it.

The work is very much bottom up and ground based. I set up Blue Temple Conservation with ‘Conservation through Research’ as my design, which is why the natural environment is only half of what I look at. Based in the fishing village, and dealing with tourists regularly, the second focus is on humans, particularly behaviour, social norms and our impact. I also started questioning the tourists visiting the island to get an understanding into their motivations and awareness on specific environmental issues facing the oceans.

In general, do you find that tourists are aware of environmental issues? Or is there still a long way to go?

I have actually completed some questionnaires with the tourists this year as a side project. The biggest perceived threat to the environment is litter, followed by boat traffic. Whilst both of these are issues, they have most likely been chosen by tourists as they are more visible than sewage or diver and snorkeller impacts. So whilst they appreciate there is a threat, I am not sure what level they understand the whole picture.

More and more, we are seeing the importance of human awareness and behaviour in practical conservation efforts, and it is with this in mind where we focus our work.

ABOVE: Local children enjoying the beach.

Deciding to set up your own ‘conservation through research’ organization is a big move and must be a lot of work! Many people might just head out for 3 months to collect the data they need for their PhD then head home. What drove you to do this?

This is always something I have wanted to do since I was in college and met someone who had done some volunteering. I love the ocean and everything in it. Straight out of my undergrad I was accepted for the PhD, and although at the time I couldn’t source the funding, I never truly gave up and then, after meeting Dan Quilter of Ecoteer in Perhentian last year whilst travelling, the opportunity began to develop. It seemed easier to actually start my own project that to get a job on another!

I suppose I chose this route instead of just collecting data for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I need two seasons of data collection for the PhD! But also, there are thousands of scientists and researchers out there collecting data and writing reports. I want more than that.

I have always believed that the key to success in conservation is behaviour, awareness and humans. We are destroying it as a race, we need to fix it as a race. So whilst this is only a small-scale local project, ideas and successes we can have in Perhentian can hopefully be expanded to larger scale populations and communities and begin to make a difference. I don’t just want to collect my data and write a report for someone else to look at and think about making a change. I want to be on the ground, work from the bottom up and really make a difference. I love research and know it is important, but without real life application, what’s the point!

ABOVE: Bumphead parrotfish, famous for being able to crunch through coral.

"Training a team of locals to participate in the surveys and actually observing a change in their behaviour already shows the impact we have had."

Can you tell us a few of your favourite things about life in Pulau Perhentian?

This is hard, there is so much to love about living and working in Perhentian and within conservation and research itself. I absolutely love the ocean, so that is obviously a massive bonus, as I get to spend my days diving down on the reefs, conducting surveys and experiencing so many different species.

At the same time, when I am not in the water, I get to be based right in the heart of the fishing village, literally surrounded by Malay culture. The people are unbelievably friendly, always interested in what I am doing, where I am going etc. That type of close community that is lost back in the UK, which is a shame, as it can really boost you and push you forwards if you are having a hard day.

Basically, on a day where you get to dive with Green and Hawksbill Turtles, Eagle Rays, Black Tip Reef Sharks and Bamboo sharks, coupled with more cryptic creatures like the Lion fish and Scorpion fish, then eat amazing food and talk with fantastic people, there isn’t much to complain about!

In terms of the work itself, the accomplishment and success in training a team of locals to participate in the surveys and actually observing a change in their behaviour already shows the impact we have had.

ABOVE: Getting down to business underwater.
"The biggest issue to the work itself is attitude, getting people to change their behaviour has so far proved difficult."

By the sounds of your life style, people might imagine marine biology as rather idyllic and forget that, as with any kind of research, there is probably a desk based/ report writing side to it. How do you balance these two aspects?

I have made my life sound perfect so far, diving, tropical beaches and islands. But of course, there is the administration and report writing side to it as well. Conservations ugly twin, and usually the only way I can convince everyone back home that what I am doing is actually ‘work’, not just playing with the fish! I only dive 4 days a week, so Satuday afternoons, Sundays and most of Mondays are when I spent a lot of time sitting at a desk reading reports, writing reports, administration and emails. I haven’t actually had a ‘day off’ for about 6 months due to this set up. But when you spend four days a week in the water, it is hard to complain about that!

Language. I have always struggled to pick up languages, and in a village where only a couple of people speak English, this has proven to be quite a challenge! I have struggled through, and with the help of friends managed to learn a fair bit of the language, but still not enough.

The biggest issue to the work itself is attitude, getting people to change their behaviour has so far proved difficult. Our team of local divers who we trained to conduct surveys have improved a lot in their behaviour, but the majority of the locals don’t see any of their behaviour as an issue.

You mentioned one of the challenges being that the locals don’t see their behavious as a problem. What sort of activities are you talking about, and what changes are you trying to encourage?

The locals lived for generations with a simple lifestyle. Prior to tourism and the establishment of the marine park, they were a fishing population, with very small amounts of plastic litter and waste going out of the islands. They got into habits of throwing their rubbish on the floor/sea and not being too careful.

Since tourism and the rise in plastic, their behaviour is set, but they don’t realise plastic is a much bigger issue than paper and cardboard. We also face the issues of waste management (they burn or throw in the sea/floor still).

We have been working with Ecoteer on the island to help educate the kids, but our focus has really been on trying to change behaviour through value and knowledge. Our small (but growing) team of boat drivers and divers have been surveying with us and experiencing and understanding the state of the waters here.

You can tell a man there are no fish, but taking him underwater and making him count them himself is much more effective in raising awareness.

TOP: Close up of a Green turtle. MIDDLE: Neil enjoying life on the islands. BOTTOM: Underwater transects.

A lot of people write to me looking for volunteer conservation opportunities – there’s certainly more and more out there, but it can be difficult to find one that is truly worthwhile. Do you have any advice for young people in this position?

1) Use the internet: forums, search engines and backpacker websites are a great place to start. I found some of the opportunities I visited just by searching the internet for “volunteer asia” and then going to page 10 or something. The first results will be for the bigger organisations selling multiple projects, but if you search a little deeper, you can find direct links for projects and talk direct.

2) Think about what you want: It is easy to find a lot of opportunities, but some of them cost a lot of money, so make sure you know what you want before you splash the cash

3) Expect to pay: Whilst there are a lot of working projects out there where you can work for free, a lot of the big ones, especially marine, require a cost. Even my project charges volunteers to join. But it is often necessary, my project isn’t cheap to run, and when you book direct, all the money goes straight into the project and community.

4) Research the project: Once you have found a project you want to do, don’t just book immediately. Have a look around online, see if there are any reviews available, and if you find it through an ‘agent’ that sells lots of projects, have a look online to try and find it direct. Agents take a bit percentage of your money, so it is usually a good idea for you to try and go direct.

5) Don’t set your sights on luxury: A lot of projects I have been to have really basic accommodation, you might be in the middle of nowhere with no electricity.

ABOVE: Celebrating on the beach.
" You can tell a man there are no fish, but taking him underwater and making him count them himself is much more effective in raising awareness."

Lastly, if you could share some advice with for working on this kind of project, what would it be?

1) Enthusiasm: This project is most effective when we have a team of really enthusiastic volunteers who have integrated into the local culture and actually made an impact on their lives

2) Be Open-Minded: I am often placed in uncomfortable and weird environments and circumstances. Never be afraid to try something at least once! If you are offered something strange to eat or drink, always give it a try. Experiences make our lives richer, and let you understand their culture so much more!

3) Give 100%: different to being enthusiastic, this one is all about throwing yourself, mind, body and soul into the work. My volunteers have been so tired during their visits that they need lunchtime naps. But the ones that got the most out of their time here, made the effort to get up and play with the local kids and get involved in the data input and analysis!

4) Be Inquisitive: Remember why you want to join the project and what you want to get out of it. Ask questions, challenge the norms and make suggestions. People running these projects have knowledge and experience that can be invaluable to you. So many of my volunteers have left with a much greater appreciation of the environment and what direction they want to go with their life

5) Have fun: You will get hot, tired, dirty, have awkward moments with locals where you misunderstand them, eat weird food, learn something and get to do some really worthwhile work with the project…Enjoy every single moment of it. Never look back regretting what you didn’t try.

Thanks Neil!

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