Making My Dives Count

I was lucky to have parents who loved the outdoors too.

I was raised in Kajang, when it was not as busy and developed back then. I grew up spending a lot of time catching fish in the mining pools, biking in rubber plantations, looking for insects and snakes outdoors. In 1998, I visited Pulau Perhentian and tried snorkeling for the first time. All I remembered was that it was breathtaking. I had been to aquariums multiple times before but being in the sea and seeing all the marine lives in their natural environment, it was something else. A few years later I started diving and that was when I knew I wanted to work with corals. I pursued my Bachelors and Master’s Degree in Marine Science, and while studying I started volunteering with Reef Check Malaysia.

I wanted to work in conservation after completing my studies because I had witnessed firsthand the decline of coral reefs in Perhentian over the years and I wanted to do something to help.

I had heard about Reef Check and the surveys they do around the world but I didn’t fully understand what it was they did until I joined them as a volunteer. I liked their approach; Firstly they train volunteer divers how to assess the health of coral reefs, they then do surveys around the country annually with the help of these volunteers. The data from these surveys are shared not only with local reef managers and government agencies but is also shared with the international coral reef monitoring network. Reef Check shared this data freely with researchers as well, all in the hope that people will use this data to make informed decisions when it comes to managing and using coral reefs as a natural resource. Secondly, based on the information they got from the surveys, Reef Check was highlighting local threats to coral reefs such as unsustainable tourism, sewage pollution, and a lack of all-inclusive management of coral reefs, specifically in 2011. The opportunity came as I got a job offer from Reek Check towards the end of my studies and I grabbed it. 

For the first couple of years, I was based in Kuala Lumpur and I used to travel out to the islands to conduct surveys, work on our reef rehabilitation projects and conduct education programs with schools on the island along the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. Then, in 2014 I moved to Tioman Island to start a program that would build social and ecological resilience towards climate change. This was going to be Reef Check’s approach to identify local threats and find solutions to these local threats. 

We very quickly realized one of the big issues with management of the marine protected area was the lack of local community involvement.

The islanders were interested and wanted to be involved in the management of their reefs but a suitable platform didn’t exist. We started training members of the community to scuba dive, conduct surveys, monitor and control outbreaks of the invasive species “Crown-of-Thorns”, remove ghost nets, rehabilitate coral reefs and conduct awareness raising programs. These individuals eventually became known as the Tioman Marine Conservation Group, the first in the country to be recognised by the Marine Park managers as partners. They took on a role of assisting in day-to-day conservation efforts. The group turned out to be extremely successful in addressing local threats, and in 2019 they were appointed as strategic partners by the Department of Fisheries. Consequently, we were asked to aid in setting up similar groups in other marine protected areas. Now have teams in Redang, Mersing, Mabul, Larapan, Selakan, Kulapuan and we are currently working with Fuze Ecoteer on Perhentian Island who have trained up a team as well.

The approach of working with local communities, promoting co-management and addressing local threats to build resilience seems to be working well.

People often ask me what achievement am I most proud of, to me, it is seeing the 9-10 year old kids I thought in school many years ago now join the Tioman Marine Conservation Group and work alongside me training the next generation. It feels like it has come full cycle and that is what keeps driving me to do what I do.

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Alvin Chelliah
Alvin Chelliah

Alvin has been diving since he was in high school. He pursued a degree in marine Science from University Malaysia Sabah and a Masters Degree in the same field from the National University of Malaysia. He has been working with Reef Check Malaysia for the past 13 years, managing and leading annual surveys around the country as well conducting Reef Check EcoDiver courses. He is also a SCUBA Instructor and a Green Fins Assessor Trainer. He is currently the Chief Programs Officer at Reef Check Malaysia. His expertise is in reef rehabilitation, management and community consultations.
Find Alvin on Instagram @alvinchelliah

Alvin Chelliah
Alvin Chelliah

Alvin has been diving since he was in high school. He pursued a degree in marine Science from University Malaysia Sabah and a Masters Degree in the same field from the National University of Malaysia. He has been working with Reef Check Malaysia for the past 13 years, managing and leading annual surveys around the country as well conducting Reef Check EcoDiver courses. He is also a SCUBA Instructor and a Green Fins Assessor Trainer. He is currently the Chief Programs Officer at Reef Check Malaysia. His expertise is in reef rehabilitation, management and community consultations.
Find Alvin on Instagram @alvinchelliah

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