Environmentalism and Snorkeling the Sacred Island of Menjangan

Our first night at House of Hobbit, we got to meet a few members of the family running this bed and breakfast. It seems that a great number of the cousins and siblings in this family all live in the area, with the owner, Bobi, just down the road, his brother Putu (one of our hosts) living next door, his cousin Sila (another one of our hosts) living around the corner, a sister running a massage center down the road, and so on…  Putu was the one who got us settled in, and while we were chatting with him, he invited us to eat dinner at House of Hobbit.  It turned out that this meant his sister and daughters would come over and cook us a large and delicious traditional meal for about the same cost as a small meal at a tourist-targeted restaurant might: that is, the equivalent of $3-4 American dollars.

So we absolutely decided to accept their hospitality, and we did not regret it.  The women came over and used the little kitchen attached to our cottage, whipping up a generous meal with several different courses involving rice, meat, and cooked vegetables, and then serving it to us with great politeness, deference, and charm.  They were so busy that we didn’t want to get in their way, and we instead spent the evening chatting with Putu and eventually also Sila, even though it felt strange to have them do so much work while we relaxed with the men.  (We later learned that this is standard in Balinese culture.)

Putu is a charming and jovial fellow who is often smiling – except, we found out, when he is posing for a photo.  He asked us questions about our homes, what we like to do, and what we had experienced in Indonesia so far, and we asked him about his life in this somewhat rural part of Bali.  He is clearly working hard on his English and has learned a lot, although we did have to come up with ways to simplify the language in our responses at times in order to make them more understandable to him.  Since Toby and I are both language geeks, we know that feeling from the other side –  being at an intermediate level of learning a foreign language and still needing native speakers to articulate clearly and to not use too fancy of words to keep the conversation going smoothly – so we adapted to that rhythm and style and enjoyed hanging out with Putu for the evening.

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Toby and our guide Sila on our way back from snorkeling the next day

Eventually, Sila joined us to ask about activities we might want to do in the area, and to offer to be our guide for the next few days.  Sila is a professional snorkeling guide, a bit younger than Putu – only a few days older than Toby, actually – and is friendly but also a little quieter than Putu, at least at first.  He has great English, and was initially more just about the business of setting us up with our plans for our stay rather than chatting for fun.  He did open up a lot more over the coming days, which we really appreciated as a way to get to know him, his family, and their world better.  But for the meantime, we arranged with Sila for him to be our snorkeling guide the following day to the reefs around the nearby island of Menjangan, on which only wild deer, rabbits, iguanas, and a handful of Hindu priests are allowed to live.

And so Sila picked us up early in the morning in this old, rumbly, black, rover-like car, with seat belts that didn’t work and an engine that growled.  We felt safe enough to go the short distance down to the sea in this grumbly old vehicle, given the slow speeds of Balinese roads, but the car did make me a little nervous anyway (I’m really not used to riding without a seat belt!).  We rented some equipment at a dive shop along the way, and headed down to a beach where some fisherman were working on their boats.  Sila joked around with them for a minute, grinning, and then arranged with one boatman to take us out for the morning together.  The boat was white and blue, with peeling paint and benches along the inner walls, as well as a little motor and canopy to protect its occupants from the sun.  The boatman didn’t seem to speak English, and we were grateful for Sila translating for us and leading the way.

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Our boat on the way to snorkeling near Menjangan – I loved the patterns and contrasts of the crackling blue paint

The island we were heading to, Menjangan, is part of the West Bali National Park, and is prohibited from development with the exception of a few Hindu temples that have been there for many years.  Sila told us how much of the island was nearly given up to a hotel developer a while back, and protests about the need to protect the fragile ecosystem there were ignored.  Eventually, the protesters brought up how it is also a sacred island, where only wild animals, a few priests, and a yearly round of pilgrims have ever been allowed to set foot there, and the government agency that had been about to sell off the land gave in.  Other parts of the West Bali National Park have not been so lucky, despite their nominal status as a no-development region set aside for conservation, but at least the island has been left alone.

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One of the temples on Menjangan with a large Ganesha statue facing the sea

Since no one can go on the island without a legitimate religious reason, the main attraction there for visitors like us is the reef itself.  It stretches in walls and shelf formations around the island, and has its fair share of life.  Sila brought us to two sections of Menjangan’s shallows, and had the boat wait at a specific spot down current to pick us up after we snorkeled our way along the rocky, coral-coated shores.  In the meantime, we followed the path Sila took through the reef, which was in part determined by the location of floating plastic rubbish along the way.

You might expect that by that we mean that our route involved going around the debris.  But nope.  Sila would zig and zag straight towards the floating trash, and scoop it up into a netted bag he had brought along for the purpose.

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Emmons following Sila to the reef – also you’ll see that all 3 of us had on “rash guard” shirts, which are lightweight and comfortable in the water, but helpful for preventing scrapes (hence their name, derived from their use in surfing) and, most useful for us, reducing your sun exposure when your back is hanging out in the equatorial sunshine while snorkeling, since that is just asking for a sunburn otherwise.

It turns out that Sila is an environmentalist, if not in exactly the way we think about it in a Euro-American context these days (the effects of climate change aren’t really part of the discussion in Bali, it seems), and really doing a lot to make a difference in the pollution of the land and waters that he loves.  As we had mentioned in our posts about Padang Bai and Nusa Lembongan, the waters around Bali sadly have an unfortunate amount of trash littering them, probably killing a fair number of the fish, corals, and other creatures that call that area home.  In all our previous snorkeling trips around the island, we didn’t see anyone cleaning up the actual waters (although we did witness a group of kids cleaning up a beach in Padang Bai), and weren’t really sure of how we could do so ourselves on our short visits to the area.  But Sila has a good solution for making a little difference at a time – every time he heads out snorkeling for fun, for teaching local kids, or for professionally guiding visitors like us, he brings net bags to fill with the plastic rubbish that he finds.  The netting of the bags allows them to move through the water easily, while still providing an easy way to gather up debris that can be taken ashore for later recycling.

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Sila with his net bag, cleaning up the reef while guiding us snorkeling

He hadn’t mentioned this to us at all before we jumped in the water, so we were pleasantly surprised at watching him do this as we went.  Here and there, he would miss a few pieces off to the side that Toby or I could grab instead, and he seemed pleased whenever we would swim up and tap him on the shoulder to indicate he should open up his bag for an addition to his collection.  One of the cups I found even had a little tiny fishy hanging out inside, not wanting to come out, and something Sila found had a small crab clinging on, both of which he showed us before gently scooting them back onto the relative safety of the reef.  All of this also ended up being a great way to start a conversation with Sila after we were all done, and really seemed like the thing that allowed us to start getting to know each other beyond the limits of touristic small talk.

When we asked him about his work cleaning up the reef, he pointed out how he was only picking up the plastic along the way, even though he would have liked to be able to do something about all the rest of the debris, too.  It turns out that his family has set up a large plastic compacter, and collects as much as they can from around the region, squishes it, and every few months transports it en masse over to eastern Java, where the closest recycling center is.  He explained how they didn’t yet have facilities available for properly dealing with other kinds of rubbish, so his cleaning efforts were currently just focused on the plastic around the reefs.  We had been curious about how so much stuff got into the sea, and so he told us that many towns simply do not have the infrastructure to deal with either trash or recycling of modern industrial materials, and certainly not on the scale that our globalized economy has created (at least that was the point, although those weren’t the terms he used).  Since there isn’t a good way to dispose of this stuff otherwise, many people simply throw things into the riverbeds and gutters, particularly during the dry season, and the heavy downpours of the rainy season will wash it all out to sea.  Much of it comes from the cities of Java, and the currents pull it to eddy around the harbors and bays of Bali, polluting the precious reefs and ecosystems around the island even more than the Balinese rubbish already does on its own.

Sila also told us how many people simply don’t see the point to picking up the debris, whether on land or at sea, and how he and his family are effectively fighting an uphill battle trying to make a difference in the community over this issue.  From what I understood, I imagine that so much of that attitude doesn’t come from failing to recognize the rubbish as a bad thing, but rather that the mechanics of survival in the face of poverty are more important for many people to focus on, and they don’t really have the mental and emotional space left over to put much work into the environment around them otherwise.

But for Sila, the thought of the trash just piling up over the years, to the point where the next generation and beyond would no longer be able to know the beauty of the natural environment that he had grown up with and so clearly loved – that was more than enough to motivate him to keep trying to make a change.  Part of that work is raising awareness of what people can do about the trash, and organizing group walks and swims with his children and the other kids in the village to clean it up together.  It seems to make some difference, but there is still a lot of apathy and resistance to this situation.  We can’t really blame those people who are focused more on survival in the immediate sense, but it still makes us sad at how widespread this problem is and how hard it is to overcome.  We later on talked with Sila about the possibility of marketing his clean-up efforts at foreigners who want to engage in eco-tourism, advertising this as a place you could come to relax, see the reefs, AND help in conservation efforts.  We figure that eager eco-tourists could really help out in this long-term project of cleaning up the reefs around Menjangan and Pejarakan.  Any one reading this have advice we could pass along for how to get a business like that set up?

Rubbish and recycling efforts aside, we did enjoy the reefs themselves and the creatures we got to see along the way!  Sila brought us to some cool areas, and was good at encouraging some of the critters out into the open for us to see better (like a clown fish in an anemone!)  And once again, our waterproof camera served us well as we enjoyed exploring this fascinating, alien-seeming underwater world.

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Parrot fish!

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You can really see the contrast between the healthy coral and those that are bleaching and dying off.  Rising water temperatures are leading to massive die-offs of the reefs around the world, with up to 95% having bleached recently in the barrier reefs reaching from Indonesia down to Australia, as the warmer temperatures lead the corals to expel their symbiotic algae from the niches in the reef skeleton in which the coral creatures live.  But without that algae, the corals both lose their color and, more importantly, their ability to feed themselves, which has disastrous consequences for the reef.
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Sila swam through a crevasse deep in the reef, and into a tunnel.  He popped out the other end about 45 seconds later – and had been free diving, holding his breath the whole way through!  Toby and I did not follow him inside, as we weren’t confident enough in our free diving abilities.

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A trigger fish like this actually nipped Toby on the knee when we were at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia later on – apparently he got too close to its nest!

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Baby squid!  One of them inked at Emmons as they swam away from us…
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Emmons and Toby snorkeling together!  Photo courtesy of Sila.

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Cute little jellyfish!  Unfortunately, we got stung by an astonishing number of baby jellies on this reef (and a few others around Bali).  They were rather unpleasant by the time we got back to the boat, but mild enough overall that time and a fresh water shower made us all better again.  No vinegar required.

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