Turtles and tech
Published on: Monday, July 05, 2021
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Alex and Jonathan with the drones used for aerial surveys.
MANTANANI Besar is a small island off the town of Kota Belud on the west coast of Sabah. It is part of group of islands, the other even smaller ones being Mantanani Kecil and Lungisan.

As we have already seen in previous episodes of Borneo Ocean Diaries, serious turtle re-search has been going on around these small, unassuming islands for over 15 years as it is thought the area is an important feeding ground for juvenile turtles.

Most of the research so far has been very “hands-on”; but one scientist is combining the latest technology with the serious science of data collection, using Mantanani Besar as his base.

Aerial view of a turtle on the ocean.

Alex Alexander, the local presenter for Scubazoo.TV’s Borneo Ocean Diaries (BOD), heads back to Mantanani to meet up with Jonathan Phu, a Conservation Officer at the Marine Re-search Foundation (MRF) based in Sabah.

After graduating with a Masters Degree in sea turtle biology and conservation from the University Malaysia Sabah, he has been working with MRF as part of a team to save sea turtles through various conservation projects.

Jonathan’s current project is to use drone technology to map and understand the distribution of foraging sea turtles in shallow waters.

As complicated as it sounds, Jonathan uses a simple off-the-shelf drone for his work, the kind available for anyone to buy.

He simply uses special third party software to help plan his automated drone flights.

Once the flight path has been programmed into the drone, it does everything else itself – flying over the set route at a set speed and height, whilst taking high resolution pictures at timed intervals.

The photographs capture the presence and location of turtles, which can then be marked on a map. All with-out the turtles knowing or being disturbed.

Alex was keen to find out how technology was helping Jonathan and asked him if he had been able to find out anything new with recent developments in technology?

“Yes. Without these technologies and the development of several other software applications, first, I would not be able to carry out aerial surveys to detect sea turtles at their most undisturbed behaviour from the sky.

Secondly, I would not be able to process the aerial data which I have collected through the autonomous aerial survey to visualise them. Nobody would be able to know where they are!

What’s more, it appears there is some sort of seasonality to their distribution that we would not pick up if it were not for the monthly drone surveys.”

So using a relatively cheap and simple consumer drone, he is able to gather important data on sea turtle distribution without disturbing the turtles in any way.

Reef Check

Whilst on the island with Jonathan, Alex also arranged to meet Muhammad Adzmin Abdul Fatta, who is running several projects for Reef Check Malaysia (RCM); one of them being the Mantanani Recycling Centre.

Reef Check was established in the USA in 1996 to raise awareness about the importance of, and threats too, coral reefs.

The local chapter, Reef Check Malaysia, was registered as a non-profit organisation in 2007 to engage with stake-holders to protect, restore and revive coral reefs in Malaysia.

RCM has been working on Mantanani Island since 2012, with the focus now being on community-managed projects. 

One project, The Mantanani Recycling Centre, is using simple technology to rehabilitate reefs through plastic waste management.

The idea is simple, collect plastic waste so it doesn’t end up on the reefs, and remove it from the island in an efficient way.

To do this, they have been using a plastic baler machine which compacts plastic waste for easy removal to recycling centres on the mainland.

Before, the waste removal was a massive task and too much for the local villagers; but now it is handled quickly and efficiently, stopping plastic entering the ocean environment.

With approximately 8 million pieces of plastic entering our oceans every day around the world, it is important that more projects like this are set up.

This will help reduce the estimated 1 million seabird and 100,000 marine animal deaths per year, and will give coral reefs a better chance of staying healthy. 

The Future

Keeping plastic pollution out of the ocean is essential in maintaining a healthy marine eco-system. But how can we accurately monitor how the marine life is actually doing?

Recording data in a controlled manner is obviously the base of most scientific work, but how this data is utilised for a positive outcome is equally, if not more important. 

Jonathan expanded on some of the outcomes he is already seeing.

“When I am back at the office, I use several computer applications to visualise these data so that we will be able to map sea turtle ‘hotspot’ areas, for zoning purposes.

Sea turtles are known to be struck by boat propellers because they need to swim to the water surface to breathe.

Knowing where the turtles are distributed will allow the authorities to regulate boat activities locally and enforce these areas as ‘no boat’ or ‘slow speed’ zones for the protection of sea turtles.”

With most sea turtles now classified as endangered, every single turtle saved is important.

“In the bigger picture,” Jonathan continues, “the advancement of technology provides us with more research breakthrough opportunities, which will be crucial to implement effective conservation action plans to protect sea turtles.”

It is great news that dedicated and passionate teams in Sabah are helping to push the boundaries of using technology in conservation of the oceans that surround us.

Join Alex in the next episode of Borneo Ocean Diaries to find out more about our local heroes.

"" If you dream of idyllic tropical beaches, swaying palm trees and pristine sandy beaches, then Mantanani Island is an ideal place to visit. Shallow azure seas, coral reefs and ramshackle fishing huts provide a backdrop to your escape, miles away from the hustle and bustle of modern living. But look closer, and Manatani is pushing boundaries in using the latest technological advances to further scientific work and conservation.""  

# The new series of Borneo Ocean Diaries will be shown for free on www.scubazoo.tv with the latest episode released on the July 5, 2021.

To see more of Borneo Ocean Diaries, and many other natural history productions, please visit www.scubazoo.tv. Follow Scubazoo on Instagram and Facebook: #scubazoo

Children on Mantanani interested in the science and community projects.



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