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Escape The Winter Blues…

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

…and do something worthwhile next year!

Libong Nature Beach Resort
Libong Nature Beach Resort

By now, regular readers will know that I’ve recently become interested in the Libong Nature Beach Resort, part of the Lifelong Learning Foundation, a charity that, through its resorts, seeks to promote eco-tourism, local lifelihoods, education and wildlife.

The resort regularly receives volunteers who come to learn about life in the Sea Gypsy community, ecotourism and the local wildlife. They take part in various tours and activities, help with looking after the guests—mainly with translation and advise—and keep the books, for as the Professor said, an open book policy is fundamental to the charity’s goals.

In fact there is almost no limit to what you might get up to as a Libong volunteer, from helping to build a rainforest camp, teaching English to the local children (and staff) or becoming involved in local crafts and small business initiatives.

Now an opening has arisen for one or two volunteers to spend the peak season (Nov-April) at the Libong Nature Beach Resort, to work with guests and locals and teach visitors about sustainable ecotourism. Food and lodging is provided but there will be a donation of 10,000 baht a month to cover admin expenses and support the foundation.

You know it makes sense!

Sunset Sunset at the Libong Nature Beach Resort

Libong Dugongs Aerial Survey

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Research on the dugongs of Libong is ongoing, with another aerial survey completed. It’s odd that the Professor didn’t tell me about it since his Lifelong Learning Foundation has co-funded some of the research.

In fact it’s a long-term project. The current PI, Kanjana Adulyanukosol, has worked in the Libong area since at least the mid-nineties. Given her experience I hope that there is cause for optimism, though a slight decline has been observed. The variation in sightings is large and absolute counts are not possible, so I take this to mean that the decline is non-significant. In such a small population—and given the slow reproductive rate of the dugong—it would otherwise be cause for serious concern.

It would be interesting to compare the data from all surveys carried out from 1997 (which I think was the first) until now.

The Dept. of Marine & Coastal Resources in Phuket seems to have matters in hand. Maybe rather than trying to survey the dugongs myself (I’d thought about rigging up a blimp cam), I should focus on mapping the seagrass habitat.


One thing is for sure: the field is more crowded than I thought.

And that is a good thing.

Ko Libong: Future Research?

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

All good things come to an end, but there was no hair-rising scooter ride up-and-down slippery slopes at the end of my stay on Libong. Instead I split a longtail directly from the Nature Resort to Had Yao with the nice Swedish family who had enabled me to see the dugongs.

On the pier, I turned my back to the cool shade offered by its sister resort and faced the village square which was dozing in the mid-day sun. The minivan was already waiting. There was only one direction to go from here: back to Trang.


The van would leave when it was full. For now my backpack sat forlornly in the boot, while I sat in the shade on the terrace of a private residence, watching two children—a naked toddler and a little girl—squeal and run around, occasionally helped along by a friendly slap from an adult.

Village life at its most relaxed.

From the hammock behind me, the old man who had offered me the seat lobbed stones at the toddler’s battered plastic tractor, hitting it with great accuracy. An occasional scooter or pickup drove past, but half an hour later all was quiet. Apparently nobody was up for going on a shopping trip to Trang.

A refreshing breeze picked up. Two Brahimi kites circled high above the small hill at the back of the village, bringing back memories of other journeys.

Ko Libong lay behind me, separated by a three kilometre stretch of water, looking close enough to swim across. Just a mile or so to my left, closer to the island, we had seen dugongs yesterday. And I may not have seen the last of them.
[read on]

Different Things To Do In Thailand: Build A Rainforest Camp!

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Green Wall

A large part of Ko Libong is covered with rainforest, which is protected under the ‘no hunting zone’. On my first day at the Nature Resort I decided to go for a walk up the hill at its back. The path let through fields and a rubber plantation, one of many that cover the flatter parts of Ko Libong like a park landscape with trees arranged in military rows.

I hesitated—this looked like private land—but a man sitting on the porch of a hut by the plantation’s edge waved me on. His dog Leila bounded after me, ignoring his calls, her nose to the ground and tail wagging in the air. There would be no snakes accosting us here!
[read on]


Thursday, January 14th, 2010

I’ve found my animal.

If I want a three months volunteer position to carry out research on the dugongs off Libong, it’s mine (!)

Normal service will resume shortly.

Ko Libong: Crab Capital Of Thailand

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Hermit Crab

Something clattered across the floor. A shell with legs protruding from it like a grotesque fist. Simon picked the thing up by its tip.

“This was right among the kittens!”

He pointed it towards the Swedes, who recoiled from the menacing pincers.

“I’ve never see such a monster hermit crab,” I said.

“Oh, they grow bigger,” Simon replied.

When I went beachcombing that morning, all the pretty shells had scuttled away from my reaching fingertips. Every shell big enough to house a hermit crab, did, with the juveniles sticking to the tideline rather than the rock pools as they do at home. And as for the adults: they are terrestrial. I think they feed on kittens.

And it’s not just the hermit crabs. Simon brought up a photo on his camera screen: a crab the size of my foot holding a toad by its hindleg.

“I’ll be sure to wear my booties,” I said.

Crab Habitats

But this is just skimming the surface. The terrestrial crabs have escaped the intense competition that is going on at sea. I can hear it in the clicking in the mud. The sand is covered by the neat pearls of their excavations. And crabs are part of the fauna that comprises the oyster-barnacle community which encrusts certain rocks like a belt just below the tideline.

Rockface Ecology

An exuberance of life, above the surface and below.

Dugong Tour

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Tour Boat

“Your new life begins tomorrow,” the Professor said.

We were in the bar, listening to the briefing he gave us about the tour.

“Seeing a dugong brings luck. Your life will change. Things are not the same afterwards…”

We were about to ask him what he meant with this mysterious statement when one of the children shrieked. I leaned across from my table to be confronted with an enormous cockroach scuttling past the half-empty dinner plates. The Professor shoo-ed it away.

“I’m sorry. Those creatures are completely harmless, but I’m afraid there are everywhere around the villages.”

“I think we could do with some luck,” the mother said, letting out a deep breath. I admired her fortitude; had the table not separated me from the roach, I’d have run screaming out of the door, arms flailing in the air.

The Professor suppressed a smile. “Perhaps. But back to the tour. Don’t worry if you don’t see any dugongs. There are no guarantees, but it doesn’t mean bad luck. It just means that your time hasn’t come yet.”


The longtail floated in the calm sea, illuminated by soft morning light. All three kayaks were tied to its stern. I felt a pang of guilt because I hadn’t helped to clean up the mess I’d made yesterday (I had literally been unable to lift the damn thing out of the water, and by the time I had recovered it was dark).

Today would be so much easier!

We climbed on board and sat down in the shade of the awning while our Chao Ley skipper cast off and agilely stepped along the gunwale to take the steering wheel.

The sea started to pick up, its surface rippling gently, just as it had done yesterday. Five minutes after we’d set out I saw another dolphin-sized splash. By now I was convinced that it was a fish, but what a fish!

It took us just over ten minutes to get to Stationary Beach, which the map labels as Laem Muda. The boat slowed just before we turned into the eastern bay. I squinted into the glare, but saw nothing.

Within a few minutes, another longtail arrived. It had farang on board but no kayaks. We all stared out to sea, but saw nothing apart from the gently rippling waves and small splashing fish.

“There,” The skipper shouted.

Three more minutes passed and the sea had calmed slightly, with fewer fish splashing. Both engines were silent as we continued to stare in vain.


I took out my binoculars and started to sweep but still I saw nothing while our skipper made one call after another. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I lost vision in the left lens. I don’t know whether it was smudged or something was lodged inside, but it wouldn’t budge.


“The Chao Ley are the best stewards for the marine environment,” the Professor said. “They grow up with the sea. They can see underwater. Not like us. They can grab a fish with their bare hands!”

Until recently, the Chao Ley—or Sea Gypsies—have led a nomadic life, travelling across the Pacific and Indian Ocean in their wooden boats as many of them still do in Indonesia. But more and more are settling down as they are forced to assimilate into a country.

“Otherwise they’ll be kicked out,” the Professor said. “But they belong to the sea. They’re international, from here all the way to Africa. It’s reflected in their music and their songs.”

“Do they really see differently underwater—I mean, do they have different vision from us?” the Swedish Engineer asked, still contemplating the first statement.

“No they don’t have different vision. They’re trained to see things that you’d never notice.”
[read on]

Girl’s Own Adventure: Kayak Survey

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

View From The Kayak

On the map at reception, the the dugong habitat looked to be around the corner from the Libong Nature Beach Resort, clearly marked in the bay off Na Barn village. I paddled into the calm morning with optimism, but when I reached the outcrop of rocks that marked the end of the resort’s beach, it turned out that this was not the island’s southern tip—far from it. The outcrop opened up into another secluded bay and, after that, another.

I remembered the three ‘secret’ beaches that could be explored by kayak or mountain bike as detailed on the wall posters next to the reception. The map was a much smaller scale, making the distance to Na Barn village and the bay of the dugongs appear closer. I had still some way to paddle, but it didn’t matter. It was still cool—I’d climbed into the boat just after 7:30—and the sea was mirror-calm.

I watched out for movements on the surface, but the spectacular coastline kept drawing my gaze.

Rounding The Southern Tip

It took over an hour’s paddling before I finally reached the eastern side of the island. Almost immediately, I spotted the first seagrass bed. Heart pounding I slowed down but the water was too turbid to make out any feeding tracks. Had I thought of measuring the depth, I would have found that it was probably too shallow for dugongs. One of the figures in the survey report1 shows the depth around large parts of Libong to be 70cm or less.

The sea had freshened up to a State Two, the bay rippling with gentle wavelets, although there was no noticeable breeze. At 9:21 I saw a dolphin-sized splash somewhere in the middle of the bay, and eight minutes later another. Were there dolphins here, so close to shore? Do dugongs jump? Seals do sometimes, so why not dugongs?

Another hour’s paddling followed. By now the sun had climbed high into the sky and the village of Na Barn lay a long way behind me. Cursing, I had circled its ridiculously long pier—stretching at least half a mile into the bay—and crossed from there diagonally back to shore to find that I had already passed most of the village, including anything that might have been a shop or noodle house. There was no seagrass there, just shallow mud, and I felt cheated.

I took a sip from my water bottle and chewed on a stick of fruit leather, turning away from the sun to find myself looking at a stretch of golden sand behind the mangroves.

Mangrove Beach
[read on]

Libong: Wildlife

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010


It was a moonless night and there is no electricity on Libong after midnight. But the bathroom attached to my bungalow was impeccably clean, so I thought that the dark shadows scuttling around on the floor must be my imagination.

I felt my way carefully back to the safety of the mosquito net. I abhor aircon, and on an island with intermittent electricity it makes no sense at all, so I had settled for a fan room. Through the insect screens I could hear the chirping and rustling of the jungle. A cool breeze stirred the net which kept me safe from bites. Nature at a distance: just the way I like it.

The sight that greeted me the next morning was less gratifying. Lying flat on its back on the bathroom sill, legs weaving frantically, was the second fattest cockroach I’d ever seen.

I couldn’t get past the thing, let alone turn my back to it. So much for putting in my contact lenses. I grabbed my toothbrush and headed for the staff bathroom to do my business, then—with a shudder—packed up my stuff, my eyes never wavering from that roach.

Images of snakes and scorpions invaded my mind so I gave my booties a good shake. One of them flapped a lot more than the other, but I couldn’t see anything inside and nothing came out.

Shrugging, I headed to the bar where Simon would help me set up the kayak. By the time I was ready to slip on on the booties I had forgotten about the floppy left.

My toes touched cool, yielding softness.

With a shriek I hurled the thing away. But it had definitely not been a cockroach or a scorpion. Nor a snake. It’d been…

Gingerly I fished the thing from the floor and peered inside.

…a black marked toad (Bufo melanisticus)1

1 Thanks to the Lizardking for the identification!

The Necessary Means

Monday, January 11th, 2010


It appears that most people do not come to Ko Libong to see the dugongs, which is a relief as I had visions of hordes of boats chasing the few remaining animals across the sea grass beds where they are trying to feed.

On the other hand it made it difficult to go out to see them.

Ko Libong has no banks or cash points. I’d changed a hundred quid in Trang—thinking it a generous amount, but it turned out that that isn’t a lot of money for a solo traveller out here. A dugong-watching tour would come to 3,600 baht, admittedly for up to six people.

If only I had a kayak, like in Trinidad. No sooner had I thought it that my gaze fell on a sign near the bar. There were kayaks for rent.

“How much?” I asked Simon, forgetting for the moment that dugongs do not live in tranquil canals and rivers but in the sea, including the busy stretch between Ko Libong and the mainland.

“400 baht per half-day,” he said. “800 baht for a full day. Means you can come in for a break and head back out, no pressure.”

I regarded the map. The main habitat of the dugongs was indicated along the eastern side of the island. The Libong Nature Beach Resort was practically around the corner of its southern tip.

“I’m in,” I said, hesitating for just a moment. It is true that I’m prepared to watch my animals from a raft if necessary, but it is also true that my mother once followed me for over a kilometre along the bank of the fast-streaming river flowing past our former home, waving her arms and shouting as the current worked loose the ropes around my homemade contraption. And I had seen the kayaks for hire at seaside resorts around here. Little plastic bowls that would capsize if hit head-on by a wavelet.

“Eh, what kinds of boats are they?”

“Oh, racing kayaks. Some New Zealanders sold them to the Professor after a competition. Too expensive to ship them home.”