On the North coast of Bali, there is a small island they call Menjengan. Everything on and around this island is sacred. This is where the temple of Ganesha was built, protector of all beings. It was built out of the materials of the island, which at the time the most abundant material was reef. Today the reef is visited by hundreds of people a day who come to worship. It is also frequented by tourists who marvel at some of the most vibrant and productive reefs in Bali.
I came to Bali to help with a tropical ecology course led by my friend Phil Dustan. When we began our reef exploration, we were only equipped with mask snorkel and fins. By free diving we got a top down view of the reef. This was an insightful picture, because you could see from a bird’s eye view the vastness of the coral colonies and the variation in color and species, as if you were flying over a rain forest. The corals left no space unused, each one butting up against the other competing for light and food. It was mind blowing. The small reef fish acted like energy clouds over the corals, pulsing in unison as larger fish came to the fringe of the group for a quick strike.
After our base line was set for what a healthy coral reef should look like we visited some areas with high tourist traffic. Hoards of snorkelers swam by these reefs, and you could see large table corals that had been knocked off, or had an anchor drug through them. Under a mooring line a patch of destruction cascaded down the slope where divers with no buoyancy control made their crash landing.
We traveled to the West to an area near a boat harbor and found diseased corals. Further West in front of a large
resort we found loads of debris pinned against the reef. To the Eest, in front of a salt pond we saw the remains of mining and dynamite fishing on the reef. And in front of the sacred temple of Ganesha we discovered blue-green algal mats, which imply effluent runoff.
The sacred island of Menjengan is cared for by the priests who maintain the temple. But life beyond this little haven is exerting its influence in ways that the priests can’t keep up with. The main result of more people coming to Menjengan is more waste. As banana leaves get replaced with plastic containers and bags, the biodegradable garbage that was once burned becomes a plastic waste problem. The Island also only has 1 bathroom which cannot accommodate the 100’s of people that come from all over Bali, Java and SE Asia to pray. The runoff from the island adds nutrients and bacteria’s that cause coral disease and promote algal blooms. The change in water quality is perpetuating the snowball of human impact. Reefs can be fragile to the touch, but resilient in terms of recovery. They are able to regenerate after hurricanes in a matter of years. The increase in snorkelers, SCUBA divers and boat anchors has scarred the reef, but its inability to regenerate is the puzzling piece. There is plenty of vibrant reef surrounding damaged areas that potentially could reseed them, but instead of regenerating, the reefs are appearing sick. White plague and blue green algae are both prevalent here and are telltale signs of effluent runoff. Our reefs are like a candle being burned at both ends, one end from physical damage to coral, and the other end, to water quality.
Problem solving in a country where you are a foreigner, and you don’t speak the language can be very tricky. However underwater we all speak the same language. And there has been a lot of work going on here to protect the reef around the island. The Biosphere Foundation has been working with the local Guides to spread awareness of anchor damage. They have implemented a Friends of Menjengan Mooring Buoy team to maintain and install buoys all around the island and educate the captains on how to use them.
This is a paramount start, and it highlights that change comes from within a community, and it’s leaders. Phil and I have been diving with the head of the mooring buoy team, and lead Dive Master, Sutoma, who has been looking at the reef in a new way. We have been showing him examples of disease, of algae mats, and of coral avalanches and sediment flows. He’s learning how to clean the reef by dusting sediment off sea fans and removing debris off live coral. Sutoma is ready to educate his community and the resorts that his colleagues work for.
This is where change happens, from a community effort, to protect something they feel is sacred. Menjengan is in need of an island based sewage treatment facility. A waste water garden has been designed. The politics behind it are complicated since it is a sacred place. The priests would have to bless it, the park service would have to condone it, and then people would have to use it. But this is where it starts, a few people become aware, and they spread that awareness so that when change is proposed, they understand why and they can support it.
I look forward to more visits to Bali and the Island of Menjengan. We will be putting together sponsorship’s for locals to get certified. They will need Books, basic equipment, and even a buddy. If you are interested in donating equipment or would like to come next June 2015 and participate with the friends of Menjengan support team, please contact us through firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment.