Sounds fishy! Are there really marine mammals in Malaysia?

The title of this blogpost is a catchphrase the MareCet team members seem to know well. It’s one we hear often, when we tell fellow Malaysians that our waters are home to marine mammals, which include cetaceans and dugongs.

Some respond with a skeptical look, others completely in awe of the new knowledge, and many with a rain of questions that follow suit. Various accounts and responses include, but are not limited to:

“I had sent my truck for repairs and struck up a conversation with the mechanic, and he was baffled at the thought of dolphins in Perak! I had to keep convincing him I wasn’t lying and that I was indeed a marine biologist.”

“I was asked today if we could catch the dolphins and rear them in a large enclosed space, like an aquarium.”

“They kept asking questions about what our work actually contributes to, as if suggesting that we weren’t really doing anything for the animals or the environment!”

“Ah, yes I heard about the dolphins in Penang! But they are just passing by, right? Or they must be lost! No way there’s dolphins in Malaysia.”

“Yes, I have seen marine mammals in Malaysia, I think I saw the whale shark!”

“But they are just like any other fish, why should I care so much?”

MareCet was established back in 2012, and even then, not many were aware of dolphins and whales residing in our seas. Just over a decade ago, information on marine mammals in Malaysia, like the species present and their distribution along our coasts were by and large scant and limited to certain locations. It was through hearsay that MareCet’s co-founders were able to decide on the Langkawi archipelago as the initial locality to get a start on the research work that MareCet continues to do today.

The year is now 2021, and while general awareness about marine mammals in the country has greatly improved, there remains a significant proportion of Malaysians who are still in the dark when it comes to these animals in our waters. When news is spread about a sighting, many immediately assume that these animals are lost or just passing through as they go off on their migratory travels. Many don’t think that whales, dolphins and porpoises call the tropical waters of Malaysia home.

Malaysia is a country gifted with rainforests and coastlines all around, biodiversity unlike anywhere else and warm summer-like weather year-round. In fact, Malaysia is the 12th most megadiverse country in the world, and this does not yet include marine biodiversity! Plenty of Malaysians and residents alike love nature and many are avid hikers, divers and animal lovers.

That leads us on to our burning question of: why don’t more Malaysians know about the existence of marine mammals here in Malaysia?

Seeing the natural world through Attenborough
If you’re an avid nature documentary lover, you’ll know his familiar voice. It’s one that has narrated many nature documentaries for the likes of the BBC and Netflix. Usually in accompaniment with dramatic string soundtracks that back stunning video of Earth’s many ecosystems, Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries offer escapism into pristine, untouched environments. These shots sometimes seem almost otherworldly; and that’s where some of the problems lie.

Watching an underwater scene in a documentary, one might be met with manta rays sweeping over colourful reefs, and an abundance of fish in every size and colour. Typical scenes also include dolphin pods breaching out of the clear water in amazing synchrony, or whales singing their haunting melodies across ocean basins. Why then, would one look into the murkier waters of coastal Malaysia and believe there would be dolphins? Shouldn’t they be out where the waters are pristine blue with not a human or boat in sight? In fact, we have had many Malaysians tell us about how they have travelled all the way to countries like Australia and the U.S.A. just to see marine mammals, unaware of the animals’ presence in their own home waters.

Having said all that, not all Malaysians are completely unaware about locally present marine mammals. Fishermen, on-site oil rig engineers, and even the avid nature lover will tell you otherwise. With our outreach work, we find most city dwellers to not be in the know of our marine mammals. Is it then an issue of a lost connection with nature? We suppose it would be hard for one to believe we have wildlife when everywhere you look is just concrete bland walls with reimagined eco-housing centers. When one doesn’t know about the presence of marine mammals, why would you even want to conserve it?

What’s in a name? Well, everything!
Not knowing of the presence of marine mammals is one thing, but not knowing exactly what they are brings in a different set of complications. The biological world is a confusing one when it comes to monikers. Animals especially, aren’t always named appropriately or accurately, and this becomes trickier when local perceptions influence the way the animals are termed in non-English languages; such can often lead to misinformation.

In our case, the misnomer here is that in the Malay language, dolphins and whales are referred to as ikan lumba-lumba or ikan paus respectively. The key mistake here being ikan, which means fish. Fish; of which dolphins and whales are not, much like how a whale shark is actually a shark, not a whale, and flying lemurs cannot fly and neither are they lemurs. For those unaware, dolphins and whales are marine MAMMALS. Despite the fins and the fact that they live underwater, these animals breathe air and give birth to live young, just as we humans do.

With that in mind, let us broaden out of just marine mammals and instead look at the term ‘wildlife’. What comes to mind when one refers to wildlife? In our experience, it appears that most Malaysians don’t immediately think of marine life. It’s the terrestrial species that are more likely to take the spotlight here; think elephants, tigers, orangutans, tapirs and proboscis monkeys. Even if the marine realm was to be considered, here in Malaysia, it’s usually the sea turtles and coral reefs that are first mentioned or thought of.

Why exactly is any of this important? One could argue that these terms don’t mean much in the long run. However, names, terms and labels are important for identification and gives us an indication as to what something is, especially in the biological world. Sometimes, we receive responses like, “Why should we care so much, they are just fish after all”, and while fish are important, they are not what marine mammals are. Fish and marine mammals play different but equally important roles in the marine world. Complications can arise here during conservation decision-making processes when marine mammals are deemed to being “just fish”, wherein actual fish in Malaysia are typically considered a food resource to be exploited. When Malaysians think of the wildlife in their country, we want marine life, especially dolphins, dugongs, porpoises and whales, to be included in the kaleidoscope of their minds (okay, we’ll admit we’re a tad biased towards marine mammals, a valid bias nonetheless).

Ugh, you’re just another tree-hugger! (But are we, really?!)
While on the topic of labels or terms, one that is common in the world of environmentalism and conservation is the term ‘tree-hugger’. Often hurled as an insult towards anyone who shows a deep passion for the environment, the term ‘tree-hugger’ actually has quite a bit of history to it. The term came about back in 1730, when a group of Bishnoi villagers in Jodhpur, India, died while trying to prevent sacred Khejri trees from being cut down. Hundreds of villagers clung to the trees and were slaughtered in the process.

Whether it’s being an animal rights activist, vegan, or sustainability advocate, those who express passion and demand change where the environment is concerned are often labelled this term in a derogatory manner. The use of the term not only reduces the significance behind the origin and history of it, but also implies the thought that all environmentalists do are ‘hug trees’. As if to say we don’t do much else or are bent on disrupting the status quo, or more amusingly, that all we do is lounge around in bikinis and drink piña coladas!

This is of course no different for non-profit workers. In general, based on our experiences, if you were to tell Malaysians you work with an environmental non-governmental organization (NGO), they may think that all you do is collect signatures and donations at malls, or organize street protests to turn everyone vegan!

The false perception of NGOs only wanting your donations to ‘save’ the animals can often lead to skepticism (we understand, as we have been skeptical ourselves too in certain situations). This makes it hard to approach people during outreach work or vice versa, to even get Malaysians to approach us during events or exhibitions. All in all, this negative impression many people have of NGOs and environmentalists alike ultimately deters people from wanting to find out more about our work, which then leads to less support and empathy for our conservation cause. How does one promote awareness of marine mammals here in Malaysia and their conservation when the audience is doubtful of your intentions and the importance of your work in the first place?

Reaching people is key
People are at the heart of conservation, because after all, like it or not, conservation problems are caused by people (human activities all around the world continue to leave many detrimental impacts on the natural environment). By “people”, we mean whether it be the conservationists themselves, the communities and decision-makers we work with, or the audience and general public we try to get information out to. Hence, it is people that enable change and action for conservation. But to get people to make changes and take action for Mother Nature, they need to first know about the specific issue that is being advocated, and this is where outreach comes into the picture.

Outreach aims to bring information to a targeted audience, especially one that best fits the issue at hand. For us at MareCet, our target audience ranges from anyone from the communities living in and around coastal habitats, schoolchildren, decision-makers and members of the general public; basically, everyone living in Malaysia.

However, in a world of digital and virtual living, where we are constantly bombarded with arrays of information at our fingertips, outreach work can be challenging, particularly in urban areas. The situation holds especially true when posting via social media; it can sometimes feel like we are screaming into a vast ocean of information that also feels like a vacuum in some ways. Where are our fellow Malaysians and how do we best get to them?

Outreach is then further complicated due to lack of funding for conservation work in general. With this being in specific regards to Malaysia, think about how many articles or posts you have seen online about medical discoveries or breakthroughs, and now compare that to how much you have heard about environmental research and wildlife discoveries (we’ll give you a moment here to pause and ponder upon that). We don’t hear about it as much possibly because not as much research, in our case marine mammal research, is being done, in comparison to medical research. When we do hear about wildlife news here in Malaysia, it’s mostly about terrestrial roadkill, poachers being caught trafficking wildlife, or perhaps the few instances in which wild animals venture out into human establishments.

But in order to hear more about wildlife research here in Malaysia, we need to do more research, but to do that we need more funding! When more research is done, there would be more findings or information that we can share with the public. It is quite a frustrating cycle where money and funding raise challenges for the continuation of our work. How can we tackle these problems? How do we reach more people to tell them about the marine mammals in our waters?

Riding the waves of conservation
The obvious answer here is that there is no straight answer. If it was that easy, this blog post wouldn’t exist and every person living in Malaysia would already be in the know. Raising awareness is just one of the many challenges conservationists all over the world face and more and more creative methods of outreach are being actively tried. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer as conservation approaches are very dependent on factors such as location, cultural background of the area, and the species or topic of conservation at hand. Many variables affect the overall outputs and impact of the message that is being spread.

However, with the growing influence that social media has, perhaps the spread of our conservation message could be further advanced through online mediums. With everything moving online these days, you could even join us on a virtual tour to see the dolphins for yourself (just in case you were still skeptical)! The youth of today have also taken to using social media platforms to advocate for and spread awareness on an array of current issues. A great example of this was the recent collaboration between mammals4mammals, a youth-led conservation initiative under Charisma Movement that raised funds for MareCet as well as the Langur Project Penang, by advocating the conservation messages of both NGOs through social media platforms as well as hosting online events and challenges. This innovative use of social media to raise funds as well as creating infographics with ‘bite-sized’ content may be a good solution to outreach challenges and getting our crucial message out there. MareCet is actively translating our scientific publications into digestible infographics to make them more accessible to the general audience member.

Before the pandemic hit and everything came to a halt, MareCet carried out outreach activities in various forms, from day-trip excursions, to our Sea, Science and Schools Programme, to marine mammal stranding response workshops. We continue our outreach work online during these lockdown periods, through Virtual Dolphin Tours, lecture series, and policy advocacy meetings. Ultimately, our goal is not to just make conversation about conservation, but to also inspire action and ocean stewardship amongst Malaysians and those living here. Protecting, conserving and preserving our environment isn’t just the job of a conservationist, it is the responsibility of everyone. Getting Malaysians to know about our marine mammals here will be the first step in getting them to care about our marine environment.

So, tell a friend, tell your family members! Talk to them about marine mammals here in Malaysia, and why they are so important. Sharing MareCet’s online content would also help in getting more people aware and wanting to help support our cause. As James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan himself once said, “We owe it to our children to be better stewards of the environment. The alternative? — a world without whales. It’s too terrible to imagine”.

Let us protect Malaysia’s marine mammals together before we lose them due to sheer oblivion. As an organization that has committed so much time and effort (on a shoestring budget nonetheless) to conserving marine mammals in our beloved country Malaysia, it would certainly be too terrible to imagine our seas without these charismatic sentinels roaming our waters.

With the pandemic and lockdowns forcing our field and offline fundraising activities to come to a standstill, MareCet continues it’s important work through the aid of our generous followers and supporters. A little goes a long way, in ensuring we are able to continue our conservation work for marine mammals here in Malaysia. If you would like to support us, click the link here to donate and be sure to follow MareCet on all of our socials to be up-to-date on all matters marine mammal conservation and research here in Malaysia!

MareCet is an NGO dedicated to the research and conservation of marine mammals and their habitats in Malaysia.