Pom Pom Island – Malaysia – Another TRACC Record

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JULY 2015:

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Pom Pom Island is idyllic. A desert island paradise.

Pom Pom - Hut 4 Sunset You can walk around the whole island in 30-45 minutes.

You can kayak around it in just over 1 hour.

And, as I found out on my penultimate day, you can snorkel around the reef crest in about 2.5 hours.

If you haven’t done so already, click here to find out how we ended up as Tropical Research And Conservation Centre (TRACC) Volunteers on Pom Pom Island in the first place.

To find out more about TRACC Borneo, itself, click here.


Pom Pom Island is all about young Marine Biologists / Conservationists learning, expanding, and growing their skills. As you can well imagine, when you put so many youngsters together in such an environment, it has a bit of a ‘university culture’ feel to it.

TRACC have paying guests and interns.

The paying guests help to subsidise the interns.

By financially subsidising the interns, you are helping them to complete their studies, run projects, and learn their trade.

That said, let’s get back to our GRANDPAcking break…


You are assigned a tent. Each volunteer gets their own single tent. Couples get 2 tents: one tent to sleep in and another tent for their belongings.

Your tent includes a power plug, a fan, clean sheets, blankets and towels.


You make your own breakfast. Porridge, bread, eggs and noodles are provided so are water, Milo, coffee, and tea.

Lunch and Dinner are provided by the resident (Malay) cook. Don’t expect western food. Most of the time the meat is chicken. These meals are served down in Hut 4.

There are complimentary noodles, bread, biscuits and snacks in the pantry for between-meals.


There is usually a supply of cold beer (MYR7.50) and carbonated soft drinks (MYR5). No spirits.

TRACC staff go to town to shop on a Monday and a Thursday; if you place an order with them, they can return with 35-40% bottles of spirits (rum, whisky, gin, vodka, tequila, etc) for about MYR30 per 700ml. This helps to keep costs down.

Most nights you have a beer or two… and some games of cards (like UNO).


TRACC provide SCUBA or Snorkelling equipment.

When you arrive, you are assigned some equipment. They have a dive store where everything is kept.

Not everyone gets first choice of equipment and some items may need to be shared or rotated.

It is a good idea to have your own mask, fins and snorkel.


TRACC has several projects under-way. In the past, they have focused on building bottle reefs. Bottle reefs are generally used on the crest of a slope. Bottle reefs are cement slabs with glass bottles placed in two lines. The purpose of the bottle reef is to try and stabilise the rubble from the top of the slope.

SCUBA volunteers help build the bottle reef, then drop and plant coral on it.

SCUBA divers usually do 2 – 3 dives per day. Diving usually starts between 08:00 and 09:00. But this operates on ‘Pom Pom time’.


The main objective for Snorkelling volunteers is to ensure that the turtles nest safely.  In addition you monitor and collate population counts from around Pom Pom Island and (try to) maintain a turtle identification database. This means snorkelling from the TRACC jetty to the Pom Pom Island Resort jetty recording turtle numbers and species.

Turtle counts are usually conducted around low and high tide.

During turtle nesting season, you are encouraged to patrol the island to ensure that all turtle eggs are relocated to the Pom Pom Island Resort hatchery. A Turtle Patrol is usually conducted two hours before high tide and two hours after. You will need a red torch (Turtles are blind to red light) – bring one if you can.

A lot of rubbish and debris gets washed up onto the beach. Not only is the rubbish hazardous to us, but it may also prevent female turtles nesting. Volunteers collect the plastic bottles and part fill them with sand; these are used to make more reefs. Other debris is removed from the beach and burnt.


I apologise up front for not being able to provide many pictures. Much of the conservation work is done under water – and, I only have a smartphone.


We GRANDPAcking snorkellers arrived late afternoon. After settling into our tents, we just chilled out into the evening with a couple of cold beers and getting to know everyone.

The main camp is set back from the beach but there is a hut on the beach (Hut 4) where people get together. Even though the evenings are social, most people go to bed early at about 20:30-21:30pm.

I went for a walk along the beach at sunset. There are a lot of mozzies on the island (but few sandflies). Sometimes a few people spend sunset at the end of the pier (where there is more of a wind to keep the mozzies away).

We have a safety briefing the next morning at 08:00 (this might have been 08:30 in Pom Pom time). There is a poisonous centipede on the island (but you have to be VERY unlucky to even see one). There are several water species to keep away from; some are VERY poisonous / fatal. Sharks aren’t a problem around here.


Properly briefed, we head out to do a Turtle Survey at 09:30. We don our snorkelling gear and hit the water. Our job is to spot, count, and classify all of the turtles that we see between the TRACC Pier and the Pom Pom Resort Pier.

We see three female Green Turtles under 1 metre long and one more than 1 metre long. This is a poor count. Over the coming days we will see as many as 30 turtles in a single count.

We get back by 11:00am. Lunch is at 12:30 and our next assignment is at 14:30. People are lazing around in Hut 4.

I prefer to be a bit busier so I fill in my time going for a Kayak. In the Kayak I saw flying fish and about 5 more Turtles.

At 14:30 we were back in the water culling Crown Of Thorn starfish (COTs). These prey on hard corals and we have to cull them to help the Coral Rebuilding programme. COTs are VERY poisonous so we have to be careful.

We work as a team. Virginia proves herself to be an excellent ‘spotter’. Alan, a malay intern, dives down with a dive watch to register the depth. Martin dives with a measuring stick to register the size. I use a long metal hook to prise the COT off of the corals and up towards the surface. Martin is waiting with metal tongs to grasp the COT and take it over to Kit. Kit holds a large sack which we put them into.

We collected a total of 16 COTs that afternoon. We swim to shore, dig a big hole in the sand, and bury them. That’s the end of those COTs.

Our work is almost done for the day. Martin, Virginia, Alan, and I decide to snorkel home. We are glad that we did. We saw about 15 turtles on the way home (in the same area where we saw only 4 whilst doing the Survey in the morning). One group of 5 were well over 1 metre long. We could hover only 1-2 meters above these giants without scaring them away. One even circled me to check me out before returning to his previous spot on the seabed.

We are back to laze around in Hut 4 by 17:00. At 20:00 those who are keen go for a walk along the beach in search of Turtle nests. We don’t find any that night but on other nights we do. Any hatchlings and eggs found are taken to Pom Pom Resort.

I am in bed by 09:30.


There is something satisfying about being a volunteer and helping these young people both physically and financially.

However, I came away from Pom Pom Island feeling a little bit disappointed.

Please don’t read me wrong.

The people were lovely…

The place was lovely…

And, what they are doing is great…

My issue is that it could be so much more… So much better… And appeal to a much wider audience…

And, therefore, be so much more successful.

 When I booked my 2 weeks on Pom Pom, I was hoping to find somewhere that I could encourage GRANDPAckers to come to; somewhere for them to make a positive contribution to conservation in a unique setting. Something special.

That is not what I found.

It goes without saying that the people who want to be involved with TRACC are already sold on conservation.

 However, right now, the only people likely to enjoy TRACC Pom Pom are SCUBA Divers between 17 and 30 years old.

There is camping, eco-tourism, and roughing it.

At TRACC Pom Pom, you are roughing it.

Most people over the age of 30 are unlikely to accept the standard of facilities offered:

  • The toilets and showers are in ripped tarpaulin / tenting that is just above head height with no mozzie nets above
  • The toilets are western ‘sit down’ types but you have to flush them by pouring buckets of water down when you are finished
  • Water is scarce so, in the showers, you have to turn the water off whilst lathering yourself and on when ready to hose down (there is not hot water in the showers)
  • The tents are much too close together – you can hear everything
  • The tent beds are basic and uncomfortable
  • You get bitten to death by mozzies in the toilets and showers
  • The tents, toilets, and showers offer little personal privacy

If you do go, I STRONGLY SUGGEST that you go in dry season. It is bad enough as it is. In the rain, it would be pretty miserable.

I pre-booked 2 weeks on Pom Pom and paid in cash on arrival. I can take a reasonable degree of discomfort, but I decided to terminate my stay 1 week early. I hadn’t had one decent night’s sleep all week and I felt like I needed a really good wash.

As I left the island, the thing that I was looking forward to the most is (what we call in NZ) a “Shit, Shower, Shave, and Shampoo”. I planned to take it slowly and use lots and lots of hot water…

At MYR200 / night for a snorkeller, this is very poor value for money.

For exactly the same price, you can stay in the Bilit Resort in the Kinabatangan National Park in comparative luxury.

For a volunteer SCUBA diver, the value for money proposition is just as bad.

For under MYR2,800 you can go on a 1 week SCUBA Liveaboard in the Andaman Sea including 19 dives in the Similans, Koh Bon, Koh Tachai, and Richelieu Rock.

The coral around the island is in very poor condition – hence the conservation work. This means that neither the diving nor the snorkelling are very good. You are there to rebuild and conserve. You are there to work as a volunteer.

Simply put, the cost of volunteering is too high and the facilities are unacceptable.


My objective on the island was to establish whether or not GRANDPAckers would see it as something that they would want to do. These people have both time and money. Many would see conservation activities like TRACC’s as a ‘bucket list’ item.

It wouldn’t take too much money and effort to move Pom Pom out of the ‘roughing it’ category into the ‘camping’ category. It would make a big difference to the over-30s if TRACC could

  • Disperse the tents over a wider area for more privacy
  • Improve the bed / sleep quality
  • Provide a “western budget campsite” quality, cold-water Ablutions Block – with mozzie screened showers and toilets, a separate wash basin(s) with a mirror, etc
  • Other minor items

I would suggest that TRACC redirect the money that they are getting from volunteers into improving the facilities.

I addition, at least when I was there, many of the snorkellers felt excluded.

They were doing their Turtle Surveys but, on a number of occasions, the results weren’t making into the log book. It felt like what they were doing was unimportant or a sham. The fact that there was only 1 entry in the log book dated several days before us didn’t help that perception. TRACC need to think of ways to get the snorkellers more involved with what the divers are doing; make them feel part of what is going on and more useful.

Would I go back to TRACC Pom Pom? Maybe…

The facilities would need to be fixed and the price would need to be halved.


I thought that Liz, the resident Dive Instructor, was gorgeous. 🙂

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