If staying on a deserted tropical island caring for the underwater world sounds like your cup of salty water, Tropical Research and Conservation Centre (TRACC) offers the opportunity to be a paying volunteer on their coral reef conservation project.
Based at Pom Pom Island, 30 kilometres east of Semporna, this is one place you don't need experience to help—you don’t even have to know how to dive, as they can teach you.
TRACC’s aim is to protect the reefs to support and encourage the shark population. This area has seen a decrease of 98 percent in its shark population over the past 15 years, an indication that the reef needs repair. Sharks are top-level predators; a reef healthy for sharks means a diverse range of other fish and sea creatures must be around. Planting corals in damaged areas creates shelter for juvenile fish, who will eventually grow into shark food, hopefully resulting in a healthy reef with better corals and a diverse fish population.
As well as monitoring the fish numbers, volunteers construct frameworks for coral from empty bottles, cement and wire, sink them in the ocean and secure young broken corals to encourage growth. So far the project has been successful, and fish surveys indicate an increase in fish populations. Pom Pom is also a significant nesting location site for green and hawksbill turtles, and the project hopes to eliminate poaching. Volunteers patrol the island and monitor nesting females, moving eggs to the safety of a hatchery.
Volunteers live in fan-cooled, six-person tents on the beach with simple shared facilities (cold-water shower and a Western toilet) or in a wooden longhouse with a dorm or twin share rooms, both with ensuite bathrooms. All meals are included, as is training in marine conservation.
As well as helping with the projects, there’s plenty of opportunities for snorkelling and scuba diving, or lazing on the white sandy beach. Volunteers who stay for two weeks or more can complete PADI or NDL courses. There’s no free WiFI, but signal from Malaysian SIM cards is reasonable.
The minimum stay is one week at a cost of GBP600 for snorkellers focusing on turtle conservation, or GBP650 for advanced divers, where the focus is more on the reef. The most popular package is two weeks, which includes open water dive training for GBP1,175. Trips start Mondays for unqualified divers or snorkellers and Mondays and Thursdays for qualified divers.
In 2013, terrorist activity on Pom Pom Island by Abu Sayyaf militants resulted in a murder and kidnapping. For some time after this the TRACC project closed here, but now it is again in full swing. Malaysian police have a permanent post on the island and patrol the area. Do check current the current security situation and your travel insurance coverage before booking.
By Sally Arnold
Last updated on 19th October, 2016.