Welcome to Pom Pom!
Trip Start Jul 16, 2012
195Trip End Ongoing
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We arrived in Tawau airport and were transported at the usual Formula 1 speed to Semporna, a town that time forgot. No really, Semporna really doesn't have anything much going for it at all, aside from being the gateway to some lovely diving islands no one would choose to come here. After a night in a dingy hotel with Kat and Abbie a couple of other volunteers we had our breakfast and set off to the pier to leave civilisation and enter island life
Upon arrival it was difficult not to be wowed by the beauty of Pom Pom with its pier perched in crystal clear water, we were given the tour and escorted to our tent to get settled. With an inflatable mattress and a fan the tents were basic to say the least but would do the job just fine.
There is no messing around on Pom Pom and it was straight on with the job, we had a dangerous animals lecture which left me not wanting to ever go in the sea again and definitely never wanting to see a blue ring octopus, the most poisonous animal in the sea with pretty much no chance of survival if you are bitten. The good thing about these lectures is that usually you are generally told not to worry as none of the animals are around this area. We were told the complete opposite, aside from sharks Pom Pom was surrounded with every type of bitey stingy sea life possible. Great, now where is my snorkel and mask.
Our role as turtle volunteers or 'Turtlers’ as we liked to call ourselves was to swim from one pier to the other (1km) at high and low tide and to count the Green Turtles we see and mark down their sex and to note any Hawksbills turtles. The first snorkel I didn’t have my turtle vision honed in and maybe saw a flash of one turtle in the distance, little did I know once I had my eyes honed in I would be seeing up to 60 amazing turtles each day.
Our first day on Pom Pom was not your average day as at around 5pm 18 Australian volunteers who were due to be staying on a different island appeared and the plan suddenly changed that they would be staying on Pom Pom as well
After our first week of utter chaos, we were ready to throw in the towel and call it a day, we were tired as getting used to the noises sleeping in tents was tough, we were hungry as there was never enough food and the general organised chaos was just too much. We decided that it was time to walk to the main island pier for one last snorkel and to say goodbye to the turtles. We got in the water and it was rough and murky and was generally one of the worst snorkels we had had on the island, however as we were about to get out and declare that we were done on Pom Pom I saw a flash of a flipper and right in front of us in water no more than 3 feet deep was the most beautiful 1 meter female green turtle, just hovering in the shallows eating sea grass. We watched her for a good 15 minutes and for us this was the sign we needed. If we can get that close to an amazing turtle we need to stick this out and stay on Pom Pom.
Don’t get me wrong Pom Pom didn’t get much easier when the big group left, there was still chaos, hunger, storms, leaky tents and worst of all Pom Pom infections
But it was not just dangerous sea creatures and on land obstacles that we had to contend with, we also had centipedes! Most people associate centipedes with little bugs with lots of legs that are not at all dangerous and are nothing to worry about. But no on Pom Pom, these poisonous monsters with many legs and nasty pincers left us all afraid, very afraid. My first encounter with a centipede was when it came running through number 4, the girls all ran, Sonny grabbed a machete and cut the monster in half. Much to all of our disgust it carried on running regardless, he cut it again and again and still it kept running, it took a machete between the eyes to take this critter down. The first victim of the centipede was Ali, who whilst trying boldly to protect us all from the fierce beast battled it was a bottle of suncream, sadly for Ali the centipede was a master of gymnastics and contorted its body around and bit her on the finger leaving her with a painful, numb finger and a hand that looked a bit like Mickey Mouse’
As turtlers one of our other main roles was to walk the beach every night in search in turtles that have come up to the beach to lay their eggs. It has been a while so here are some turtle factoids for you. It takes up to 50 years for a Green turtle to reach sexual maturity and when it does the turtle will return to the beach that it was born on to lay its eggs. So the turtles that live on the reef at Pom Pom are not usually the same turtles that come to lay eggs as they travel around and tend not to eat where they nest. So anyway, the turtle walks take place hourly from sunset and we walk the beach with red torches quietly looking for turtle tracks. I don’t know about you, but I had no idea what turtle tracks looked like until I saw them for the first time. They basically look like a tractor wheel has been rolled up the beach. When you see tracks you hope to only see one set as the that means that the turtle is still there looking for a nest. We had a few false starts as tracks would come up the beach and would hit a log so the turtle would give up and go back to the sea
The eggs that we collect get taken to a hatchery at the main resort on Pom Pom, I had high expectations for the hatchery which actually turned out to just be a big sand pit
Aside from diving, turtles and fish there was one main topic of conversation on Pom Pom, food. We were all working hard diving, snorkelling and beach walking and after a few weeks the rice, noodles and vegetables were getting harder and harder to stomach
After 2 weeks on Pom Pom, it was all getting a bit much for some of us, regardless of how dank and unappealing it is the draw of Semporna was just too much and we needed to get off the island. After much debating and waiting finally the Semporna Seven were given permission to have a day trip. With shopping lists from the rest of the island we set off and pretty much ate our way around Semporna with KFC for breakfast, smoothies for Brunch and proper burgers, chips, pizza, salad and fresh cold water for lunch. Ace, no noodles or rice needed for us today thanks!
Despite all my years of snorkelling I have always been a snorkeler that bobs about on the surface because I never knew how to dive down. Enter Fletch, free diver extraordinaire! After a 10 minute lesson in free diving I was 5 meters down examining the reef below me, all these years I have been missing out, better late than never, next stop 30 meters. Thanks Fletch!
Using my new found free diving skills I got involved with another Pom Pom project, whilst most of the coral planting projects are done by the divers as they need to be in deep water we have a "No Go Zone" (NGZ) which is a boat and foot free zone where we plant hard and soft coral and sea sponges in the shallows to see how the shoreline survives without boats and people destroying it. I found some of my favourite fish whilst snorkeling and working in the NGZ, from scary looking scorpion fish to a really cool crocodile fish. One day Fletch called me over and he had lost what he was going to show me before I got there….. It was a Blue Ringed Octopus, Arggggghhhhh I am out of here!!
After a month of turtle surveys I only had eyes for the turtles, I could see them in rubbish visability at 10 meters hidden under a rock and after a few weeks you knew which turtles would be where each day. Some would be chilling out on the piles of tires, our friendly hawksbill was always swimming in the same place and our favourite turtle who we named Georgina was always to be found in the same spot munching on sea grass. The amazing thing about the Pom Pom turtles is that after a month of watching us swim over them they seemingly got quite used to us and we could swim with them, take photos and just hover watching them whilst they just watched us and didn’t make any attempt to swim away. We battled currents, jelly fish, lion fish to see them each day but there is something a bit special about feeling so close and at one with a turtle, truly a fantastic experience that I will never forget.
Aside from the turtles there was something else a bit special about Pom Pom, the people
All good things sadly have to come to an end and Tim and I had just finished our last ever turtle walk and got to bed at about 12am and were tucked up asleep. Suddenly I heard someone outside our tent shout Tim’s name. I looked out the tent and our Boat men asked me if I wanted to see a turtle. Of course I did, I always want to see a turtle so at 1.30am, I was in my pyjamas with a torch, my phone and the turtle bucket following 4 Malaysian boat men around the beach. Typically the turtle was as far away as she could possibly have got from out camp and Tim couldn’t find us. When we got to the turtle she was still on her nest so we tried to dig behind her to get at her eggs but she had already finished and had buried them. So we gave her time to turn around and head back into the sea and the boat men set to work digging up the eggs. I had an idea where they would be based on where she was sat but it took us a good 30 minutes to find the chamber and safely collect the eggs. This time we had 109 eggs. What made this egg recovey even more crazy than it already was, was that a huge storm was rolling in. As we started to dig up the nest the heavens opened so I was wet to my underwear and then we had to keep the eggs dry and get them to the hatchery
So time to pack up and leave, having cried for 2 days in the run up I knew that this was going to be emotional and it totally lived up to expectations. Bags packed, goodbyes done and tears flowing strong we were back on the boat and headed to Semporna.
In true Pom Pom fashion our departure was as chaotic as ever. We arrived at the airport 20 minutes after check in had closed, despite having had a white knuckle ride and broken the sound barrier on more than one occasion. Upon entry into the airport I ran to the check-in desk and suddenly I heard Tim shrieking whilst throwing his bag around the departure hall. Seemingly Tim decided to help ease the suffering on Pom Pom just a little and removed an entire ants nest in his backpack. After 5 minutes of tossing his bag around the lobby whilst spraying it with citronella we managed to check the said offending bag in and safely made our flight. Hello real world, we have missed you, but I am pretty sure we are going to miss the turtles more!