Fresh out of the KLCC Aquarium water, Alvin Chelliah pursued his dream of being a marine scientist ever since he was a boy. We speak to the programme manager of Reef Check Malaysia about life-or-death diving experiences, the terrifying king of the ocean, and Malaysia’s stand on the importance of marine life.
Briefly describe a day in your life on Tioman Island.
Living on Tioman is very exciting. Each day is different – ranging from being out on the reef doing surveys, collecting ghost nets, teaching EcoDivers, to teaching in primary and secondary schools. We also do beach cleanups or collect recyclable trash to be sorted, packed, and shipped out to Mersing to be recycled.
What is the biggest misconception people often have about marine scientists / biologists?
They think we are beach bums and are on a permanent vacation… Also many people think we know everything about the sea.
If you weren’t a marine scientist, what would you be doing?
A pilot 🙂 My dad worked with Malaysian Airlines and we flew a lot when I was a kid, so that was something I wanted to do for a while. I even went for the interview and sat for the test but later got accepted to study Marine Science – that was my first choice.
Have you ever had any life-or-death encounters in the ocean?
Well, it was close. While I was in university and still a relatively new diver, I got separated from my buddy in murky water and got tangled in some fishing gear. I panicked for awhile when I could not get loose, but thankfully managed to cool down, remembered what I learned, took off my BCD [Buoyancy Control Device] and managed to free myself from the rope.
Discovery Channel’s Shark Week has always been an audience favourite. Like all of nature’s predators, sharks manage to both terrify and leave us fascinated with awe. Can you dispel any misconceptions about sharks, especially from the fear instilled by countless Jaws films?
Sharks are often thought of as mindless, ruthless, killers. The fact however, is that sharks are efficient predators that hunts for food to survive, just like an eagle, a dolphin, or a cicak. Sharks do not go around hunting for humans. In fact, majority of shark attack cases do not end in death. This is because after the initial bite, the shark realizes that we are not its normal food and the shark swims along. Shark attacks usually happen in places where you find seals and sea lions, the shark’s natural prey. Humans swimming in the same waters as seals and sea lions can easily be mistaken as prey by sharks.
That being said, should I be terrified when it comes to diving with sharks?
No, you definitely shouldn’t be terrified. If you are lucky enough to dive with sharks you will realise it is anything but terrifying. Observing sharks up close, you are able to appreciate how they move, how they hunt, how they are able to make quick sharp turns, and how they interact with their surroundings… It is nothing short of amazing and leaves me in awe every single time.
What would happen to the marine ecosystem with the absence of sharks, and how would this affect us?
Sharks are apex predators, sitting on top of the food chain in most marine ecosystems. In a balanced ecosystem small herbivorous fish get eaten by carnivores that in turn get eaten by apex predators. So sharks help control the population of these smaller carnivores such as groupers and snappers. Remove sharks from the picture and the population of these smaller carnivores will increase, thus increasing the pressure on the population of herbivores such as parrot fish and rabbit fish. Once the population of herbivores decreases, you will have excessive growth of algae, which can cause major changes to the ecosystem and even cause an irreversible phase shift to the same marine ecosystems that many of us rely on for food, coastal protection, jobs and income.
Basically the loss of sharks will have a negative impact on human lives.
On a scale of sharkfin soup to 10, how much do you think Malaysians value the lives of sharks – in both the young and older generation?
I would say around 4. Many still think the shark is just another fish, it’s just food, and there many more fish in the sea. Just walk into any fish market and you will find sharks for sale and people buying them. Having said that, I think more and more Malaysians are getting on board with the issue and I think that is awesome. Now all we need to do is to turn it up a notch.
What efforts can be made to discourage human activities that affect local marine life?
We need to educate and raise awareness among Malaysians. I grew up glued in front of the TV watching National Geographic and Discovery Channel. TV programmes like Shark Week can help educate people on the importance of sharks and why we need to protect them. We need people to start choosing environmentally friendly products, environmentally friendly resorts, Green Fins dive shops, and environmentally friendly diets. When consumers demand services and products that do not affect local marine life, businesses and service providers will start to change their old habits for environmentally friendly ones. But as long as we don’t know and we tak kenal, we tak akan cinta and tak akan kisah.
Shark Week returns to Discovery Channel for its 29th installment this summer. Watch Olympian Michael Phelps race his largest and fastest opponent yet – the Great White shark, and get schooled on the different unique shark species in the world.
Catch Shark Week next Monday 9PM, 24th July 2017 till Friday, 28th July 2017 on Discovery Channel (Astro Channel 551).