I lived and worked with a bunch of conservationists, marine conservationsists at that, for about three months this year. We lived in a large wooden long house on stilts on a sheltered bay of the tiny Malaysian island of Balak. During our project, we were trying to avoid the destruction of the local reef ecosystem, through measurement and monitoring of fish, algae, coral, invertebrate life around our island. Cynical punters think it was an excuse to live on a beach, on a tropical island, and be taught how to dive.
There were a host of animals on our island, some of them wild, some of them semi-domesticated. Our island was poorly provisioned for the protein loving carnivore, due to the lack of refridgeration facilities. This meant that meat came twice a week if we were lucky, and the rest of the time, we were taunted by succulent wild boar, who gorged themselves on our leftover vegetables in a biodegradation pit.
Why did the boar taunt and tease us? Because they were safe. Safe from the trip wires, snare wires, elaborate traps and sharpened stick devices that we, the carnivores, devised. Even though wild and unwise boar do not look for danger above them, and that a man hiding up a tree with a big sharpened log was sure to be able to get himself some pork for the barbecue, our porcine tormentors were safe. Why were they safe? Becauase one of the few rules on the island was that “Thou shalt not kill the animals unless in self defence. Not even if you’re peckish.”
A fair amount of time was devoted to trying to provoke the boar into launching a full scale attack on our chickens so that we could fall upon them with parangs and garrotting wire, purely in self-defence, like a bunch of famished whirling dervishes, but the boar were having none of it.
While we were diving, we were advised not to kill too much of the wildlife too, some sort of unwritten law of conservation. Standing on coral was frowned upon, talking about catching fish for supper wasn’t really the done thing. The only person outside of the law was a local fisheries law enforcer who took time out from his normal job of tooling about in a boat, threatening to shoot the fishermen, so that he could learn to dive and appreciate the damage to the reef that the local fishermen were perpetrating with their destructive fishing techniques. Destructive not just in terms of killing the little baby fish before they’ve grown up and begat more fishes, but destructive as in – using dynamite to blow the living bejesus out of them.
For Jamal, the fisheries officer, the challenge was not just to learn how to dive and to protect the seas. His challenge was to leave the fisheries department and become a well paid dive instructor. Smart fellow. Jamal was the only person exempt from the unwritten rule of conservation. I think we used some kind of ‘cultural differences’ argument, which meant that we didn’t have to tell him that he shouldn’t really bring back rare shellfish from his dives and cook them. And we never really got it through to him that standing on fragile coral wasn’t a great idea to save the effort of treading water.
There was only one other anomaly to the righteous conservation rule (unless you count trees, and then only some trees, which just look at you funny, and deserve to be chopped down and burnt). That was jellyfish. For the unlucky jellyfish, there was no Geneva convention in place. Death and torture by any means possible were positively encouraged. This was war. We were briefed on effective ways to kill them before we even reached the island. The little blobs staged a Pearl Harbour style attack on Joe before he’d even got off the mainland, necessitating a hospital visit and a fair few drugs and injections.
With grim resolve we made our way to the island, vowing that they would pay for this unprovoked injustice. And laughing at Joe. Day One on the island. The first swim – Mike and Joe find a sizeable box jellyfish, in the midst of a stealth approach to our house. The box jelly is kind of vicious – its long tentacles can easily wrap around your arms, face, or as Erika discovered, ankle, and make themselves impossible to remove without inflecting a vicious, incapacitating sting. The other trick they have is shedding their still active tentacles in the water when you launch a counter attack. The detached tentacles are hard to see, and leave the sea a dangerous place to be.
The first retaliation occured, and Mike and Joe dragged the advanced spotter jelly from the sea, foiling its reconnaisance mission. It fried on the beach in the tropical heat, a grisly death. We never figured out how to mount their heads on underwater sticks as a sign to other jellyfish. Now some people say that the jellyfish is just a victim of the tide, and gets swept into bays like ours by tides and the wind. That’s what Jellyfish High Command wants you to think. Don’t believe the propoganda. They knew where we were, and staged offensives. But they also had civilians, and we were capable of collateral damage…
Over the following weeks, we were harrassed by more lone strikers – the kamikaze box jellies that would swim from miles around to sting us. We were taking hits, getting disheartened. Being chased right back onto the land by the fear these attacks created. On the occasional dive, we would see huge mother jellyfish, several feet wide. The deathjelly, whose destructive sting power had never been measured. But we carried on our tactics, with a special force of seek-and-destroy jelly fryers.
Rich was the leader in these missions – “Trudi’s been stung (again)”, “Where?”, “In front of the dive shack! About five metres out.” “How many, how long ago?”, “Solo jellyfish, six inches across, maybe three minutes.” In he’d go, plucking the jellyfish out by its non-stinging head, and dragging it carefully to a parched, dehydrated death on the sand. Maybe close-by jellyfish could hear their comrades screams, we couldn’t be sure.
Rich took to collecting jellyfish babies. Civilians in the war, in that they were too small to sting. He’d take them back into the lab and torture them. Electricity was one of his favourite persuaders. As far as I know, none of them ever talked though.
Other times, we’d find unarmed civilian ‘moon’ jellyfish with no stingers. An endearing memory is surfacing from the depths to see Mike and Joe wearing their masks, facing each other separated by about three metres. They had captured and ‘innocent’ jellyfish and were taking it in turns to throw it at the mask of the other as hard as they could. Quite what a flying jellyfish looks like as it impacts the faceplate of your snorkel mask is still a mystery to me, but they seemed to be enjoying it. Some jellyfish would disintegrate with this kind of punishment, but the good old moon jellyfish could be hoofed around for ages.
The jellyfish actually staged an invasion of our bay at one point, but their seige strategy was flawed. We had boats, with big food blenders at the back to reduce them to pulp.
So when someone said, there’s a lake full of jellyfish in Indonesia, it made sense to take the war to them. For a variety of reasons, including being arrested and missing my chums, I ended up going to the Jellyfish lake at Kakaban, the spiritual home of jellyfish, alone. But they didn’t stand a chance. The only reason that there are still jellyfish in the South China Sea, after I beat up on their breeding centre, is some trick of biology whereby you get twice as many live jellyfish if you cut one in half.