Sunday, August 14, 2011

Dongsha Atoll in South China Sea: Protected for a better and beautiful tomorrow

By Nancy T. Lu
Dongsha from the air is a stunning jewel rising from the blue and green waters of the South China Sea.

The coral reef enclosing a lagoon, a protected area known today as the Dongsha Marine National Park, holds promise of a perfect getaway from the stressful city life. White sandy beach, seen through the window of a plane moments before touchdown, stretches around a part of the tranquil island in the sun.

To visitors arriving in Dongsha for a very brief stay, the story about the coral spawning and bloom millions of years ago to create this wonderful natural habitat for flora and fauna fascinates. Time spent in Dongsha, in fact, is full of moments of reflection on what life is all about, what is absolutely necessary in life and what is superfluous.

Soft and hard corals of many shapes in the waters of the Dongsha Atoll, a breathtaking sight not open to tourism, remain colorful only for as long as their symbiotic relationship with the algae living within them remains in place. Coral branches washed ashore by the waves from time to time, in fact, show bleaching due to stress. Disease, excess shade, pollution, salinity changes (rain), and mainly the increased water temperature affect the beautiful coral colonies.

About 10 years ago, experienced Taiwanese diver Kuo Tao-jen went down to have a look and his heart broke to find whole dive areas covered with dead corals. Sea temperature anomalies brought on by El Nino in 1997-1998 had something to do with the demise of the reefs, he said. In August 2007, he returned to do more documentary filming for the Public Television Service Foundation and the Construction and Planning Agency under the Ministry of Interior of the Republic of China on Taiwan. He was very excited to see patches of recovering corals.

Coral reefs as learned from the books are the most productive natural communities on earth, found usually in clear and shallow waters. Dongsha's reefs, a good example, provide food and habitat for fish and other marine life, making each dive in the now restricted area a thrilling experience for researchers. Even the servicemen trained to dive have few opportunities to go into the water these days. Nature must be protected.

Diver Kuo likes to chase the creatures of the undersea fairy garden, seeking to interact in a friendly way with them. But farther out in the South China Sea, where the coral beds are the most beautiful, the approach of divers automatically sends the schools of fish fleeing in panic.

Unsustainable fishing practices in the past wiped out the bounty of the sea, ruining the ecosystem. The fishermen on boats from China, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and the Philippines in recent years resorted to the use of gill nets, long lines, purse seines, and even dynamite and cyanide to catch fish in the area along the sea and trade routes dating back to the Han Dynasty. They also dumped mercury batteries in the water.

Taiwan’s Coast Guard now sends out patrol boats to warn trespassers about their illegal fishing practices. The men in uniform are constantly amazed to see how ingenious albeit crude these fishermen could be in their deadly fishing devices.

The trauma inflicted on the marine life is long-lasting. According to Kuo, a Japanese research found that fish have long memories, in fact, as long as 50 years. Man, after destroying the ecological balance in nature, must now try to win back the trust of the creatures of the waters. It will definitely take time to befriend the fish again and erase the ugly memories.

Sea turtles used to crawl ashore after swimming a long distance to lay their eggs and then bury them in the sand. But Dongsha during the Japanese colonial days ceased to be a safe and suitable place for female turtles to leave their eggs.

Cuthbert Collingwood, a naturalist, wrote down his impressions of the Pratas Island (former name of Dongsha) after a one-day visit in 1866. He described seeing hundreds of birds on the horseshoe-shaped island. Returning researchers in recent years have not been able to spot and document such huge flocks of birds again.

Archaeological findings on the island have included buried feathers of birds and stony shells of sea reptiles. Records indicate Japanese interest in Dongsha from 1907 to 1909 mainly because of resources like the phosphorus mine and birds.

The phosphorus mineral on the island was traced to bird droppings. The feathered species, which were attracted to Dongsha by food, could not digest the phosphorus in the fish, which they caught and ate. Over time, the discharged droppings accumulated, creating a mine rich in phosphorus.

The birds themselves were coveted for their feathers, which found their way to the fashion capitals of the world like Paris.

The bird count on Dongsha island today has dropped sharply. The atoll, however, continues to be a stop along the route taken by the migratory birds such as swallows, egrets, and herons, among others, because the sea grass beds yield food season after season.

Strolls along the shoreline today lead to never-ending discoveries about the atoll's ecology. Changing tides expose the baby sharks combing the underwater sea grass beds for fish, easily spotted darting here and there. Powdery white sands, each grain a seashell, cover the beach that is a dream retreat for those who must earn a living in a city like Taipei. But resist any temptation to bring home white sands in bottles. It is forbidden.

Holes left gaping along the coast in the daytime mark out the presence of crustaceans and mollusks. Pulling out a peeping animal by force entails the risk of pain from the grip of pincers.

Return at night and catch countless hermit crabs having a party under the moonlight. They crawl all over the place with their salvaged empty seashells on their backs, searching for food. All that are left on the sandy shore the following morning are what seem like crisscrossing tank trails.

When on Dongsha island, race down a bike trail and even the entire airport runway at the end of the day to catch the dramatic sunset from a vantage point. The next morning, rise early from bed to chase the awe-inspiring glow of dawn from the seaside. White, puffy clouds constantly changing shape in the big, blue sky are mirrored like a painting on the calm lagoon in the early morning.

Breakfast with the servicemen includes bread baked in the kitchen on the island. In the morning, right after breakfast, men on duty at the Meteorological Station release a weather balloon to gauge the temperatures at different altitudes as well as the wind velocity.

The Uni-Air plane, which flies in about 56 passengers every Thursday, also regularly delivers food supplies like meat, fish, vegetables and fruits. Cargo comes in by sea, too, once a month.

A harbor capable of handling a ship with 20-ton cargo was a project earmarked for 2008, said Liu Kuo-lieh, the Dongsha commander and Coast Guard officer with strong engineering background.

"Typhoon Pearl's visit in 2006 proved so far to be my most unforgettable experience here in Dongsha," Liu said. " For 19 hours, the typhoon kept turning and swirling over the atoll, refusing to go away."

The typhoon brought heavy rains. The dike on one side of the island was destroyed, causing the water to rush in during high tide. The airport next to the lagoon remained under water for sometime. The debris left by the typhoon took a long time to clean up.

Fishermen in the vicinity at that time sought refuge in Dongsha's waters. An invitation for them to come ashore was turned down because they did not want to abandon their boats.

Dongsha, which is seeking listing as World Heritage Site, is indeed a beautiful atoll where the divine hand paints endlessly stretches of breathtaking natural shoreline and awe-inspiring blue or cloudy skies as far as the eyes can see. Explorations either on foot or on bike (no other transportation is allowed on the island) keep opening windows of surprises.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Memorable five-day Malaysian tour combines bits of history, culture, and even adventure

By Nancy T. Lu

Malaysia, truly Asia in its offer of a blend of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures, entices as a travel destination. It is indeed a land of many charms.

A tour package lasting five days and four nights worth considering kicks off with the Malaysian Airlines plane touching down in Kuala Lumpur. From the modern airport, the tour group is taken straight to Malacca. The ride requires about two hours.

Rambutan and mangosteen are tropical fruits worth tasting at the first stop. The lisuruly drive continues to the heart of the historical city on the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia.

Malacca was once a powerful nerve center of trade between the East and the West. The trading of spice, gold, silk, tea, opium, tobacco and perfumes here led to the great interest of the Dutch, the Portuguese, and the British colonial powers in Malacca.

Vestiges of the Dutch period can be seen in the 17th century Stadhuys featuring the heavy wooden doors, the thick and red walls as well as the wrought-iron hinges. The Dutch governors of old used it as residence. The Malacca historical, ethnographic and literature museums are today housed in the Stadhuys.

At the main square near the Stadhuys is the 18th century Dutch Reformed Church called Christ Church. It replaced at one point St. Paul’s Church as principal place of worship. The red bricks were brought to Malaysia from Holland. The handmade pews inside have a history of 200 years.

From the Stadhuys, there are steps leading to the top of St. Paul’s Hill. Here can be found the ruins of St. Paul’s Church, originally intended by the Portuguese to be the leading Catholic church in the city. St. Francis Xavier, who visited this house of worship regularly, was buried here in 1553. But his remains were later moved to Goa, India.

The steps from St. Paul’s Church lead down to A’Famosa (Porta de Santiago) or what is left of the fortress built in 1511. Not far from here is the wooden replica of a 15th century Malacca sultan’s palace with the Cultural Museum.

Certainly not to be missed is a British villa, circa 1912, from where Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, proclaimed the country’s independence. The museum building now houses the manuscripts, videotapes, films and slides depicting the events leading to independence in 1957. The Tunku is depicted inside the Malaysian Independence Memorial as waving while riding on a convertible after his arrival from negotiations in London, during a parade down the crowded street.

The Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, another sightseeing stop, is the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia. It has a marker commemorating the first visit of Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He), the Ming Dynasty Emperor’s ambassador to Malacca.

Meanwhile the Sam Po Kong Temple is where Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He) is venerated. He was believed to have visited Malacca five times during his seven voyages. Legend has it that on one of his trips, his ship sprang a leak but a fish got stuck in the hole, preventing it from sinking. The temple built in 1795 was named after the fish.

A stay at the Legend Water Chalets in Port Dickson is unforgettable. Accommodation units on the beach are built right above the water. A guest enters his room through a huge bathroom. Floor openings covered with glass enable him to look at the water below.

A tourist bent on bringing back from Malaysia an unusual souvenir – not just batik clothes and pewter items – can try to earn a very special certificate from the Ostrich Farm in Port Dickson. The text on it reads: “The bearer of this award has been judged by our fun-loving trainers to be full of bravado, stuffed with fun and certainly a little crazy in even considering riding a big brainless ostrich.”

The fun visit to the Ostrich Farm in Port Dickson, Malacca, begins with the guide asking: “Have you ever thought of riding an ostrich? You can do it in Malaysia.”

The farm tour starts with a lengthy introduction of the feathered creature said to have a brain smaller than its pupil in size. The guide explains that the productive ostrich at 18 months begins to lay eggs, as many as 40 to 70 per year.

The feeding of the animals is encouraged at the farm. The friendly birds, in fact, rush to meet visitors at every turn, naughtily pecking the outsiders and even snatching their hats without warning.

Before a guided tour is over, everyone is herded around a pen. Two trainers hold back a hooded ostrich to enable an adventurous volunteer to climb the railings and get on the bird’s back. And then they are off for a walk inside the fenced area.

The rider holds tightly in his grip a silk cloth entwined around the neck of the ostrich to guard against sliding off the back of the animal. The fun ride is over in just a few minutes.

After a trip to the Ostrich Farm, it is time to head for an orchard for an introduction to Malaysia’s tropical fruits as well as herbs.

The Putrajaya, seat of the national government just outside Kuala Lumpur, calls for a visit, too. The Prime Minister’s Department or the Perdana Putra is viewed from a distance. Its Islamic-Mogul architecture stands out. Within sight is the impressive mosque with pink domes.

The modern city with parks, gardens and wetlands, has an area for visitors to learn about Malaysia’s diverse flora and fauna. Besides a stroll, the Putrajaya lake cruise is another option for tourists.

Kuala Lumpur, the capital, beckons with the 88-story Petronas Twin Towers. The buildings used as backdrop in the Hollywood film “The Entrapment” are connected by a bridge high above the ground.

The Istana Negara, the official residence of His Majesty, the King of Malaysia, is another tourist attraction. Traffic is usually heavy in this neighborhood. Guards appear on horseback. Motorcycle escorts are on standby, too.

The Dataran Merdeka (Merdeka Square) with the world’s tallest flagpole flying the Malaysian flag is where Malaysians gather every year to celebrate their independence. On August 31, 1957, the Union Jack was lowered for the last time at this historical place.

Near the Railway Station is the National Mosque built along modern lines. Modest dressing is emphasized especially for the non-Muslim women seeking to enter. A relaxing spa treatment at the Berjaya Times Square is arranged before the end of the short stay in Kuala Lumpur. Accommodation is at the Palace of Golden Horses, where some floors are often blocked off for use by state visitors.

The Genting Highlands, the popular playground in the sky, is 2,000 meters above sea level. Therefore, it stays pleasantly cool the whole year round. The cable car ride of about 20 minutes is said to be the longest in the world. The casino complex features indoor and outdoor theme parks to keep the entire family entertained. The resort is only an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur.

Before heading for the airport on the last day, the group makes a brief stop at the Batu Caves, famous for the annual Thaipusam Festival of the Hindu Indian community in late January or early February. Devotees to Lord Subramaniam on this occasion carry around kavadis with hooks or spikes extending to parts of their bodies. Climb 272 steps to reach the main cave decorated with Hindu shrines. Birds’ nest delight can be savored down below after the climb. Indian roti canai, a crispy food specialty, can also be tried.

The tour package covers a lot of ground at a leisurely pace. The Malaysian Airlines brings the happy tourist home after a truly relaxing holiday.