Image Credit: Teja

How to Get Certified as a Reef Check Volunteer EcoDiver in Malaysia

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Reef Check is an international non-profit organisation founded in California in 1997, dedicated to conservation of marine ecologies, such as tropical coral reefs, via the empowerment of citizen scientists in the local communities where those ecosystems are. In Malaysia, Reef Check focuses on coral reef monitoring as well as island-based community capacity building programs. 

The EcoDiver certification program is part of the coral reef monitoring by Reef Check as a partner to Malaysia’s Marine Park authorities. I first learned about it while I was volunteering in the Perhentian Islands with Ecoteer. Reef Check coincidentally came during my volunteering program to complete their annual survey for Perhentian’s coral reefs, and had dropped in to catch up with Ecoteer’s long-term volunteers. I was a new diver back then, so I did not think about it again until some years and a lot of travel later, and I finally got around to getting certified as an EcoDiver.

Aside from running the EcoDive surveys, Reef Check Malaysia also carries out other programs. They organize and support the establishment of community-led conservation groups on inhabited marine park islands, and support the audit and certification of participating dive centers under the Green Fins program for sustainable scuba tourism.

My experience getting certified with Reef Check Malaysia during the pandemic

The Reef Check EcoDiver program trains citizen scientists from the scuba diving community on how to collect scientific data for the Reef Check reef monitoring system. Completing the training qualifies a diver to participate in EcoDive surveys across the tropical seas in the Indo Pacific region. In Malaysia, these surveys cover over 200 reef sites across the Malaysian east coast and Borneo. 

As it happened, I completed my training during the Covid19 pandemic. The Malaysian Reef Check chapter delivered outstanding resilience during the pandemic travel restrictions, managing to keep their programs running with island volunteers. It was the only Reef Check chapter able to continue their programs during the pandemic, due to a successful past focus towards empowering local people rather than relying on foreign volunteers. 

I had already passed the screening stage months before the island training slot that I chose. When the pandemic struck, I was sure that it would be cancelled. But as it happened, Malaysia’s initial lockdowns in 2020 managed to control the spread temporarily, such that limited domestic travel could be allowed. So I was able to go to Tioman Island for the final training segment after all. 

Diver screening

The fee for the EcoDiver course is RM900 (training location in Peninsular Malaysia) and RM950 (training location in East Malaysia). This does not cover costs related to travelling to the training locations, associated accommodations and meals, or any scuba equipment rentals. The fee covers everything else. 

The screening step is to check the suitability of the diver for EcoDive surveys. If you don’t pass the buoyancy assessment, you don’t even get to go to the island portion of the training. 

  • Obviously, you’ll need to be a certified scuba diver, with sufficient dive experience (a minimum of 25 logged dives). 
  • You’ll also need to have done at least two of those dives in the 12 month period before taking the course. 
  • As EcoDive surveys require the diver to be close to the reef, you’ll need to pass a buoyancy check (this is basically the same skills as taught in PADI’s peak performance buoyancy certification).
  • You can get certified as a teenager, but need to be at least 15 years old.

This assessment is carried out in a swimming pool for scuba training, which Reef Check will rent in advance. Typically this will be a pool in the Petaling Jaya suburb of the Klang Valley. Although if you’re based somewhere else in the country, there might be other possibilities. 

Petaling Jaya is well known to have perpetual traffic and limited parking spots. When I did my screening, it was at the pool of the PJ Palms Sport Centre. If you’re not local, it’s probably easier to take a ride share to Petaling Jaya. For PJ Palms Sport Centre specifically, there is a nearby LRT station, Taman Jaya, which is on the Kelana Jaya train line. This is convenient if you’re staying near an LRT line.

Training and exam on Tioman Island

If you pass the screening, you’ll get some study materials and choose a suitable island training date. Most of the time, the training location will be on Tioman Island, one of the marine parks where Reef Check has staff permanently on the island. But it may be possible to be trained at other locations. 

For Tioman Island specifically, you will need to travel to the town of Mersing on the east coast of the Malaysian peninsula. At the moment, this is typically a journey by road (self-drive or bus) as there aren’t convenient airports or intercity rail connections near this seaside town. From Mersing, it is a ferry journey to Tioman Island. Reef Check will give more details if you qualify for training. 

There are three qualifications you will be trained for under the EcoDiver system. An EcoDive survey will collect data for all three. As an EcoDiver, you can only carry out an EcoDive survey role for the type of survey you qualified for. These are:

  • Fish identification
  • Invertebrates identification 
  • Substrate identification

You can retake exams later if you failed any of these. 

The training begins with a classroom portion. They will train you on the survey methodology, as well as the skills necessary to identify key indicator species for each survey category. This is followed by a mock survey on the beach, where you physically practice following a transect line for the different survey tasks. The divers carrying out fish identification cover a larger area from the transect (since fish are more mobile). The divers doing invertebrate identification stay closer to the transect and the reef. The diver on substrate identification stays on top of the transect line and takes data readings at more frequent intervals.

You then practice identification skills underwater, and carry out mock surveys while underwater. Buoyancy skills would also be assessed at this time. At the end, you will take multiple choice tests for the three survey categories (on land). 

Image credit: Teja

The scuba portion of the training will be facilitated by the dive shop in the Swiss Cottage resort, on the Tekek village side of the island. Tekek is also the main ferry port of Tioman, and where Reef Check has their office (where the classroom training takes place). I opted to just stay at the Swiss Cottage for the whole duration to maximize convenience. As Tioman Island is also a great vacation spot, you could consider combining this trip with a holiday, and take some time to explore.

Volunteering for an EcoDive survey in Malaysia

After you get certified, you’ll be added to a Facebook Group of EcoDivers in Malaysia. This is where EcoDive survey dates for the year will be published. Surveys typically cover a weekend period, to accommodate volunteers’ day jobs. You could zip out to do a survey and zip back to work. Or if you have the flexibility, you could make a holiday out of it. 

Volunteer spots are on a first come, first served basis, and my experience so far is that spots for the more accessible islands are snapped up fast! I hope to get a slot this year!

Who should get certified as an EcoDiver?

Reef Check EcoDiver certification is recommended for any scuba diver who wants to carry out conservation work while diving. The most important diving skill is buoyancy. 

What are your thoughts about becoming certified as an EcoDiver?