Volunteering with MareCet – Matang Dolphin Research

Nothing could have been more exciting than seeing an offer for a volunteering opportunity with MareCet on dolphin research in Matang during the dull exam weeks! I am not a person who crazy over dolphins that I want to swim with dolphins so so much (most people asked me whether I swam with dolphins when they knew that I went to this research), but I love animals in general. It could be a great opportunity for me to practise what I learnt so far in Environmental Science since we have limited opportunities to go for a real serious field trip due to limited budget and equipment in our faculty. After checking the dates (almost right after my exam weeks, for 5 days), I immediately sent an email to the contact provided in the picture posted by Langkawi Dolphin Research (this Facebook page is managed by MareCet) and a few days later, the email informing me that I got the offer greeted me in the morning which really made my day~



Established in 2012 (quite recent!), MareCet is the first and only non-profit NGO in Malaysia that is dedicated to the conservation and research on marine mammals. They started off in Langkawi for dolphin research, and then expended to Matang for dolphin research as well and in Johor for dugong research. They have carried out the dolphin research in Matang for the past two and a half years merely in data collection to determine the abundance and distribution for three species of dolphins: Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, Indo-Pacific finless porpoise and Irrawaddy dolphin. The methodologies used in this research are line transect method and photo ID. For the line transact method, straight lines are drawn on the map of the sea we are going to cover. The boat will cover the lines we have decided and any dolphins seen will be recorded. The exact locations will be marked using GPS so we can know where the dolphins were seen. For photo ID, the photos of the left and right sides of the dorsal fins will be taken (except finless porpoise, of course) in order to identify each individual since the pattern on their dorsal fins is different, just like our finger prints.

This is the specially made metal platform for observers to have 360 degrees view on sea (which means 360 degree sunlight exposure!!!).


The team I worked with!

(from left) Mr. Yusry, Vivian, Sandra, me, Sandy, Mr. Khairul.

I joined the second part of this 10-day survey. As a first-timer who had not spent long hours on the sea, I was glad that it was only 4 days (took a day off due to heat stroke lol). It was quite surprising that there were only four girls including me, and two local skippers. The head in this survey was Vivian, a 26-year-old phD student from UM, with Sandra who is going to study marine mammals for Master, Sandy who is a vet and also me, the youngest of them all. Basically, this was our daily routine: load equipment to car, breakfast, unload equipment and load equipment to boat, depart from jetty, start survey, lunch (on boat), end survey, unload and load equipment to car, clean equipment, key in data, dinner. During the survey, there would be three observers: two on the metal platform who would knock the metal frame with metal rod to alert the skipper to stop when there was any sighting, and one on the boat, looking out for dolphin. The other one person will be the data recorder.

Cockle-processing site under the morning sun. Do you know that Matang produces a lot of the cockles we consume?


As the least experienced, I was the data recorder most of the time, with lots of help from Sandy. Every event going on had to be recorded, including departure, break, starting the search, sighting etc. Besides, the weather, condition of the sea and water quality would be recorded as well during some occasions. Despite of the fact that marine conservation is important and research should be carried out to facilitate the effort, it was a really dull work. Imagine having to stay on the boat from morning till afternoon, looking out at the sea as the water turned from muddy colour to green or vice versa, trying to ignore the seasickness whenever the boat stopped, having to eat bread for lunch and dolphins might not show up at all throughout the tiring day. I felt like a salted fish being dried by the warm sea breeze and the oven-like heat from the sun (even though I was under the shade most of the time).

One of the fishing villages that we passed by.


Heading towards the sea!
(This is the mirror-like sea state I hoped for every day, hahaha) 
Beautiful sky with…the ripple made by a dolphin. My handphone camera was too slow to capture them!


The first problem that I wanted to overcome was seasickness. And coincidently, on my very first day, the sea was the roughest with 0.7m high swell (wave), sea water kept splashing into the boat that I had to wear the raincoat and keep all my belongings in the cooler box. Even though I bought the pill that prevents seasickness, but I was told that they would make me feel groggy, so I took half a pill on the first day (which proven useless) and no more for the rest of the survey. Luckily everything was better for the following days that it was not a big problem although I still hoped that the boat did not have to stop moving. The second problem was, there was no toilet on the boat, and we had to settle it in a bucket. It was a very big challenge for me even though it seemed like a normal thing for people who spent lots of time on sea. I wished I could pee standing.

I have seen the first dolphin in front of my very eyes on the second day of the survey, even though I didn’t see anything at first when I heard the exciting clinking of metal on the platform. The group of dolphins was swimming at quite some distance away, so we steered closer to the dolphin so that photos can be taken and details of the dolphins can be recorded (species, behavior, number etc.). They were the humpback dolphins (people commonly call them ‘sousa’, pronounced like ‘susah’ to me, hahaha), which were the most shy-less compared to the other species. I was very lucky to see them swimming up close to the boat, showing off their grey and pink body. We did bump into some finless and Irrawaddy on the other days, but they kept a distance from the boat and disappeared quite quickly that I didn’t manage to capture anything on my phone. Even for sousa, I had to take videos and then screenshot them to save as photos.


Despite of all the sweat and boredom on boat, I learnt a lot from these humorous and yet experienced people about the dolphins, the sea and also coastal birds! I am grateful that I made the right immediate decision for wanting to join this survey as a volunteer because it is wonderful to be surrounded by people who really care about the environment. All the awkwardness and gingerness when I first met them dissolved slowly as we spent more and more time together, working and also sharing knowledge of our respective field. Even the skippers told us lots of funny stories about their experiences in being tour guides in Matang. I really miss our last dinner together, the laughter was so healing that I feel energetic again to do something for the sake of environmentalism.

Thanks again for making this survey a great experience, I would surely join again whenever I can. *wink*

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