Fish time

Perhentian Islands, Terengganu, Malaysia


Wrasses and damselfish above a coral reef

Terengganu, Malaysia

As soon as I jumped off the boat, I found myself surrounded by fish. They were small, with vertical black and white stripes, and they seemed entirely unafraid of the clumsy primate splashing awkwardly through their element. If I stretched out a hand towards one, it would give a little flick of its fins and put itself just out of my reach. Otherwise, they seemed entirely unperturbed by the sudden intrusion of masked and flippered humans into their world.

Down on the sea floor, the larger fishes were a little more wary. The fat, brightly-colored parrotfish would often swim quickly away if I got too close or seemed to be taking too much of an interest. Even they, however, didn’t seem particularly panicked. They simply moved elsewhere. If I gave chase, they would accelerate just a fraction, just enough to stay ahead of me until I tired of the chase and had to surface for air.

The parrotfish and triggerfish, the ever-present damselfish and wrasses, and the corals that spread out across the sea floor were the most visible inhabitants of the underwater world. Looking closer, however, you soon discovered others. Striped blennies lurked among the dead coral, seemingly outraged to discover that their camouflage wasn’t sufficient to hide them from the over-curious intruder from the world above. Two kinds of nudibranchs — one like a fat black sausage coated with fine sand, the other decorated with elaborate frills — loitered on exposed patches. Here and there were giant clams, while crevasses in the coral were home to long-spined black sea urchins and bulbous sea anemones. At one point, I looked down and realized that what I had taken for small fish were in fact a school of squid, their dark bodies elegantly constellated with irridescent spots.

Harder to overlook were the sea turtles snacking on seagrass at the second site we visited. From the surface, they were no more than a vague, dark blob with a suggestion of head and flippers, placidly browsing across the sea floor. Then, abruptly, they would decide to come up for air, rising up briskly with strong strokes, breaking the surface for an instant and then plunging back down into the depths again.

On the first day, we stayed close to Pulau Perhentian Besar, the larger of the two main islands in the Perhentians. On the second, we took a boat further out, to the uninhabited island of Pulau Rawa, about 7km further out to sea. Here there were veritable jungles of living coral and a still larger and more colorful assortment of parrot fish. As you dived down, you could hear the crunch of their beaks on the coral, and from time to time you would see one spit out a mouthful of crushed coral — instant sand.

The cephalopods were present here too. I watched a large cuttlefish glide across the bottom, changing color constantly so as to remain almost perfectly invisible. At the other extreme, vivid little red clownfish disdained camouflage in favor of strategic alliances. They made their homes inside the waving green fronds of carpet anemones, the anemone’s poison keeping potential predators at a safe distance. If you swam down towards the anemone, the clownfish would rush out to meet you head-on, only darting back into the safety of the waving tentacles if their bold challenge failed to deter you.

The underwater environment was endlessly fascinating, but I felt slightly disappointed not to have met any larger creatures (unless you counted the turtles). At one point, M. surfaced beside me to announce “There’s a fricking huge shark over there,” but by the time I had paddled over to its last known position, it had disappeared. The sharks around the Perhentians are mostly blacktip reef sharks, capable of growing to several feet in length, but seldom aggressive. Their larger relatives, the gray reef shark and the oceanic whitetip, are a different story but I trusted that any shark I was likely to meet in these waters would almost certainly be inoffensive.

When I expressed my disappointment at not having seen any sharks except a juvenile blacktip barely two feet in length, M. sniffed. “You want sharks?” she said. “Just swim out along the house reef to the point. That’s where I saw them before.”

The house reef, lying in the shallow waters just offshore from the resort, was surprisingly rich in life, with shoals of parrotfish busily at work grinding dead coral, territorial little clownfish seeing off intruders, and even a neon-blue cleaner wrasse hovering about the mouth and gills of a triggerfish in the hope of snatching a meal. I spent a good half hour just paddling around in the shallows watching them.

Eventually, however, I set off along the shore, heading for the deeper waters where I hoped to find blacktips. The waters here were faintly cloudy, and visibility fell off more rapidly. As I peered into the blue haze, searching for a predator larger than me, I began to feel a faint frisson of unease. It’s one thing to know intellectually that the creature you are looking for is about as inoffensive as a sardine. It’s another thing altogether to be out there in the water, squinting into the vague blueness and hoping to see it before it sees you. I thought of Cousteau’s observation that “When you enter the ocean, you re-enter the food chain — and not necessarily at the top.”

In the end, the shark and I saw each other almost simultaneously. It was smaller than I had hoped — a mere three-footer — and it swam rapidly across the sea floor below me, back and tail undulating in a rapid S-curve. The black tips on its fins were very clear. I pointed the camera at it and squeezed the release, but it was already disappearing from sight between two coralheads, a vague gray shape in the distance. I decided to call it a day, and paddled back along the coast towards the shallow water and the cheerful clownfish.