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Tickling The Feather Star Open for Critters

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See the Clingfish and its pattern?

Crinoids are what divers know as Feather Stars, sporting feathery arms that sway back and forth towards the centre of the body. One of the easiest subjects to photograph, crinoids are prehistoric animals in the class of echinoderms with male and female species found clinging onto coral reef cliffs often asleep in the day or actively feeding at night. The challenge is to photograph the tenants that the Crinoid itself hosts. It’s important to note that no photograph is worth abusing the animal for so please handle your subjects with care as you would a live animal on land. Crinoids are somewhat sticky and brittle. You wouldn’t want to break any of their arms off in your quest to shoot the shrimp within so keep your buoyancy neutral and coax the star to do a grand opening for you. I will teach you how.

After witnessing so many dive guides using their swizzle sticks to roughly ‘part the arms’ of the Crinoid to show divers what it holds within, I felt compelled to write this article to educate the many of you who might follow the bad habit of disturbing nature for your pictures. I practice a minimal disturbance to no disturbances in all my shots. They are never manipulated, nor had my subjects tossed in mid water to get them flaring, fearful or angry and I implore all of you to nurture good habits. The ability to boast of your shots is in the way you photograph them, not how the shot was obtained with manipulation. When you understand marine animal behaviour, you will get your incredible shots. Having spent the last 17 years teaching and 12 years of photographing underwater, I am moving towards educating the diver of the habits that you should possess to encounter your subjects.

What you need in your gear:-
1) Dive equipment of course.
2) Carabiners/loops/holsters to streamline your dangling hoses (SPG/Octopus/reels/SMBs)
3) LED torch
4) Dive computer to record depth and time you see the animal to relocate it next time.
5) No gloves unless you are diving in 15? waters
6) Hood to keep your hair tucked away from curious octopuses
7) Any camera housed in respective cases
8) Marine life guide books

Pre-dive preparation:-
1) Clean your hands after you use sunblock
2) Secure all gadgets with lanyard in your pockets.
3) Identify the subject you want to shoot.
4) Decide with buddy how much time you want to spend on each subject and if you find your target, be considerate to allow your buddy to take shots as well.

It’s not what camera you have but your knowledge of marine life that would get you nearer to the animal. By knowing what your subject lives on and feeds on, you have already increased your chances of finding it. By knowing your reef, you would have access to the inhabitants if you know what feeds on what and when.

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The Shrimp also took on the colours and pattern of this Crinoid, Oxycomanthus Bennetti.


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Close-up crop of the shrimp.

The basis of not touching anything in your dive education has been the point of contention in dive circles as we see dive guides competing with one another to find elusive critters with their sticks/pointers and completely lifting the animal out of the sand even though it’s meant to be camouflaged. I found it deeply offensive and I usually stop following the guide to find my own interaction with critters when I am not the one guiding the trip. When marine scientists collect specimens for research, they can’t avoid touching. We are not scientists neither are we collecting any specimens but we want to document them and there would be some degree of touching (hence rule number 1 in pre-dive preparation is to have clean hands) but not to the point of harassing the animal.

Not all crinoids have critters within. There are several species that host them. One of my favourites is the Oxycomanthus bennetti. 9 out 10 animals that I find have ‘tenants’ within them! On this particular one, I found 3 different types of critters! They all form a symbiotic relationship with the host and even adapt to its colours and patterns. Two Clingfish, a shrimp and a crab (not displayed) were darting about as I got closer.

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There are 2 Clingfish in the picture and a shrimp. Can you spot them?

How do you get a Feather Star to open up its multiple arms for you? You only need to tap the spine of the arms gently & softly. As you begin tapping, be mindful that your neoprene suit doesn’t touch any of the brittle feathers or you might end up ripping the poor little thing apart. By tapping with your finger pads softly, it will begin to spread out. Your camera settings would have to be ready for the shot as you might only get one or two shots of the critters within. Set your focusing to Spot and metering to Centre-weighted. Crinoid will stay ‘open’ for you if it feels tickled in all its arms as long as you avoid touching the cilia (feathers). I use a drink stirrer with a ball tip to coax the critter (shrimp/crab/clingfish) into view from the opposite side carefully without touching the Crinoid. Once I get about 4 or 5 shots or a video if the subject is actively moving, mission is accomplished & I move on to other subjects on the reef. Minimal touching and absolutely no disturbance to the Crinoid. It will soon curl up to get back to sleep when it senses no threat.

For more on marine life and nature documentation, follow Pummkinography on Facebook or follow Pummkin on her trips!

Onboard Komodo Dancer – Learning Human Behaviour – Day 3 & 4

Dinners were always served in style. Sit down with a glass of wine as the first course is served by Rizal, who tirelessly wait on us. A purpose-built massive wooden table that acts as an emergency exit from the cabins below, had the capacity to fit 16 divers comfortably, 17 divers cosily. Captain Kassim set sail on the 2nd night towards Sumbawa islands & that’s when the real adventure had begun.

Sumbawa & Komodo islands seem to harbour some monstrous sized reef life and their pelagics are ginormous. Giant Trevallies are gigantic, Titan Triggerfish titanic, gargantuan Gorgonians that can wrap you twice over. The Napoleon Wrasse waltzes into schools declaring itself the emperor of the reef and Giant Groupers (Epinephelus fuscoguttatus) prance the neighbourhood without a trace, giving away its camouflage only when it moved. I was many a time, frightened by one in close proximity when I hovered to take pictures over the colourful terrain. The more vibrant cousin, the Coronation Trout (Variola louti), was more visible as it changes colours upon entering & leaving the reef, the prime reason for my decision to take more videos.

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By this time, everyone except Team Russia (language barrier), was warming up to one another around meal times as food had always been the centrepiece of conversations in Asian communities. Free access to the soda fridge meant I get to be sugar-powered by Coke after a nitrogen-loaded gawking session underwater. Again the swollen moon made everything explode, not sure if they got excited but I sure did when I caught the courtship ritual of the Trumpetfish at Padang Bai. Could it be that we would get to witness the spontaneous spawning of the reef at this time of the year? It’s hard to contain my joy…..

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Anticipating the view of the recently erupted Sangeang volcano that sent a 19km plume of ashcloud into the sky, eager beavers like us (Team China & Team Malaysia) continued to check our location with the map & GPS to see how far off we were & if there was a possibility to get near. The Captain expressed that he was not going to take the risk as molten lava can be seen miles away in the following nights. We were told to get a glimpse of it when we moved closer to Komodo.

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Team Austria had to be the walking pharmacy and most medically-equipped couple ever. On the first few days, they kindly whipped out a magic bottle of eardrops that dry out people’s ears as one member of Team Everything-Is-Wrong had gotten an ear infection. Very soon, Team Austria took out some Voltaren pills for one member of Team USA who had gotten a sprained ankle from an injury before she went onboard. She was also my lovely roommate! Her enthusiasm for muck dives was unquenchable as she voraciously searched the guidebooks after each dive for the things she had found.

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By that time, I was getting to know everyone except one aloof member of Team China who doesn’t speak English & required his diving buddy to interpret dive briefs to him. A man of few words, he was exceptionally expressive underwater, gesticulating to his awesome interpreter buddy who happened to be an incredible photographer. I think I like him already! We can sign language! And so it was that I would speak Cantonese to him & he would speak Mandarin to me……..bliss!

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Benzilan – The Place I Barely Remember

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Panorama of Benzilan

Hit by an earthquake measuring 5.8 on the Richter Scale, Benzilan in Yunnan, China had temporary make-shift tents as accommodation for the people which lined the street outside our hotel. We got there at night & it was the start of a series of cold nights thereafter. And the hotel doesn’t have any lifts! I felt sorry for the guys who brought unbreakable chunky luggages. Walking up the stairs with such load is enough to bring on back pain. My room that I shared with Miss Lai was on the first floor, not that bad considering that I had brought a convertible Eminent trolley bag which I hauled up like a backpack.

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My camera backpack, the Lowepro Photo Sport 200AW was filled with 80% essentials (survival equipment) & 20% photographic gear. On the first 2 days, people on the trip got a little surprised as to why I had a relatively big pack but only carried a Samsung NX200 wherever I went. I began to whip out things…….Lifestraw™……Lifeventure Shelter 2 Bothy Bag……Gerber multitool…….Sealskinz gloves…..survival kit…….Fenix PD32 light…hiking pole…..travel pillow….thermal blanket……spork…….power bars…..soup packs……purifying tabs……Platypus drinking bag……..alcohol wipes……first aid kit…..Garmin 76CSX…..batteries….. I explained to them that survival was my priority when going out into the wilderness for my adventures. Photos are secondary.

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Nice bag, no?

If I was going to travel for an indefinite period through the cold, mountainous region, I wasn’t going to leave my safety to chance or the tour guide. If we had gotten stranded for whatever reason, at least we would have purified & filtered water to drink. I’ve never been to China before & didn’t know what to expect except that the people look very similar to me. 😀

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Angela posing.

Sandwiched between the demure Angela & the excitable Leong, their antics drove me to the toilet. I have never laughed this much, all 12 days mind you, at two contrasting individuals trying to take pictures & get along. Leong’s model-opportunisticism, both as the photographer & the one being photographed, was worthy of commend. He took very flattering shots of Angela but Angela felt that he did better with aunties & housewives making them look like stars. So the hammering begun. Leong was untameable. He went after cows, goats, yaks, whatever that moved……even other tourists, to get his portraits. He even managed to herd a bull back across the bridge over a torrential river! In witnessing such charismatic flaunts, I decided to document him. I don’t remember much about Benzilan or the journey thereafter except that I was always in stitches as the taunts & threats were continually thrown at Leong by Angela, should he not succeed at taking flattering shots of her again. Leong took his task seriously & clicked furiously to get that right shot afterwards!

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Feeling the pressure…..Leong has to perform, or else…..

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Leong succeeded to ask Alex to photograph him. Alex is a hotshot photographer!

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He got Uncle Nigel to take a shot of him too! How does he do it??? 😀
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He would make sounds through the lens hood….

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And the only time we stopped laughing was when he was deep in slumber…..

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I took him taking me.

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Benzilan was beautiful but I can only remember how much those two amigos made me laugh.

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Walking across the suspended bridge.

Arriving in Kunming, Dali & Erhai Village, China in 24hours

As far as my eyes could see out of the little pane on my window seat, we were descending into a mountainous region. Whatever I’ve seen in paintings of old China plastered on the wall of coffeeshops as I was growing up actually reflected what was before me. Landing in Kunming, Yunnan, China, my 12 day trip began. The superfluous road journey was enough to set my hip off if it weren’t for the BackJoy Posture+ seat that I had lugged along. Absolutely necessary for long car rides. Each day, we travelled between 150 – 350km, stopping along the way for scenic spots & photo opportunity. Given the chance, I would have loved to stay put longer in one place to experience the culture & life of the people.

Our first stop was at ErHai Fishing Village, a lake that the Chinese term as the sea for the never-ending sight of the horizon. Not getting much sleep from the night before when we arrived at The Ancient City of Dali (Dali Gusheng), I woke up to a temperatures too low for my liking. A cotton-loving girl donned in Uniqlo HeatTech, fleece & technical jacket is hardly anything to marvel at. I saved my waterproof ski pants for the coldest sector of my journey…….Yading, in Sichuan near the Himalayas.

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At dawn, these boats are parked by the lakeside.

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Boats parked.

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Fisherfolks row out to haul in the catch.

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Wheat clusters left by the road.

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Mode of transport for the village folks.

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Taking out the vermicelli noodles at the factory.

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Noodles hanging out to dry.

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Garbed in balaclava, beanie & hooded jacket.

This was our first stop on our long & arduous journey to Yading Nature Reserve. On the bus, there were 12 other photographers & an MPV with 6 people plus the driver. Travelling 350km upon arrival in the evening was anything but nice. The fun only began on the 3rd day when I was accosted by Leong Taoping (Long Bean Army as I called him) and the demure but bean-bashing, Angela.

Taking Your Smartphone Underwater

Spending in access of RM1,000 for your smartphone, warrants a smarter solution to protect it especially if you are going out to sea. How often have you been caught in a situation where you wished your phone (which has doubled up as your camera) was waterproof or robust? Salt water is especially corrosive & keeping it inside a big dry bag with all your other stuff may cause you to miss precious moments around you so how do you protect your phone from accidental slips into the sea or splashes that might short-circuit it?

I got a chance to take my Galaxy Note underwater (before acquiring the Sony Xperia Z1) & I tested the Dicapac DCP-WP-C2 casing that allowed me to operate the touchscreen whilst in the water. My favourite online camera shop, Shashinki, sells it for only RM80 & delivered right to your doorstep! There’s a selection of Green, White, Blue, Yellow & Pink casing & it’s no brainer which one I picked! So I decided to take it skin-diving with me!

I snorkelled to where the reefs sloped to about 8 metres deep & all the while, I can operated the touchscreen through the thick bubble atmosphere the casing created when I locked the zip-lock top. The air pocket created space between the screen & the casing. On the surface, I could still touch the ”˜shutter button’ on the screen but once I nose-dived down to 8 metres depth, the pressure flattened the air space & I couldn’t ”˜touch’ the screen again. The casing is rated to 10 metres, which to most users, is more than enough waterproofing. Not a problem as I could turn it to video & take screenshots later. Little did I know that I had filmed the video upside down because I was inverted! Here are some shots taken with the smartphone in the Dicapac casing in the water below the surface & at 8 metres.

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Just adjusted the levels of the picture, no other edits.

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Birds eye view from below the surface.

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The house reef in Tenggol!

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See my fins beneath the surface?

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At the drop-off, I managed to take a picture….

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Yours truly staring at the phone…..

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With the supplied lanyard, I never have to worry about misplacing my phone on the boat & if you drop it in the sea, it floats!

P.S. – Also good for situations where you run the risk of getting sprayed by water cannons…… 😉

Check out their range of Dicapac casings that fit your smartphone!

Half A Year Gone

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Taiping Lake Gardens.

There are not enough hours in a day for me & every minute is precious when I’m doing the things I love to do most. When Wolfgang visited, we spent a week exploring the jungles of Malaysia equipped with tents, poles, four-legged companions & survival kits. We learnt that even a simple tent can bear quite an effect on your sleep if the roof is not vented & the fly-sheet is not totally waterproof. The tropical rainforest usually lives up to its name when you are least prepared and with Rufus & Spice coming along, there’s no option to stay in a resort. I have no problem with that & it’s so nice to see Rufus getting all protective of his space & master (or slave aka me).

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Rufus having a snooze while I drove.

Hearing the nocturnal insects & the quaak-quaak frogs at night made me feel like I was on a different planet. There was no ”˜ribbik’ nor the ”˜oowooongg’ noises from the bullfrogs but a very distinct & loud ”˜QUAAK!’ which is then answered by their fellow species somewhere else. It was an interesting night. Rufus was adapting to all these foreign noises too. Aziz had to alternate between his tent & the 4WD because Spice kept him awake frequently with the need to answer nature’s call. He decided to sleep in the car so as not to wake Wolfgang.

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Rufus taking a cool dip with me!

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The Milky Way!

We spent nights shooting the Milky Way & visited Lawrence & Ina in Gua Musang in Kelantan. After that, we headed to Grik & spent a night at Belum. There, I was visited by a wild boar while I was in the tent. We drove to Taiping for some sight-seeing before returning to KL for a dive trip to Aur & Tenggol. In between, I caught up with my ex-boss, Dato’ Loy & ex-colleagues to celebrate his birthday & facilitate sessions for FInancial Psychology’s workshops.

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Ex boss & colleagues.

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Pulau Dayang, off Pulau Aur.

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Sandwiched in between a colour-coded (coincidence) dressing for the day, Bose & Soo.

I am constantly reminded that I have to stop & smell the roses each time work gets too hectic or when the assignment gets the better of me. I found one in such splendour that smelling it alone would not justice to it. It put a smile to my face that God flutters the heart of His children when His flora flourishes! Here’s to more discoveries in the wild!

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How To Find The Milky Way

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At Bulb mode, 57 seconds, F2.8, ISO 1000 with contrast adjusted for you to see the ”˜band.’

Recuperating from a weekend of chasing birds at the Wings of KKB Selangor Bird Race 2013, I came home with the 3rd prize of a trophy, a Deuter Pulse 40 EXP waistpack & a certificate. Seizing the day of high pressure in the atmosphere, I decided to have a go at astro photography again, now that I live so far out from the city. After dinner, we set out to look for a dark spot in the countryside in Semenyih. We set up our tripods & in the total darkness, we fumbled as the lights from our LED torches temporarily blinded us whenever we switched off for shutter release. Remembering I had the red LED setting on my Petzl e+Lite headlamp, it made it easier to operate in the dark without causing dizzy spells.

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As Earth is part of the Milky Way, we can only see speckles of dust or what our eyes can make out as haze or clouds. Looking for the ever-so-familiar sight of the Milky Way, I could only guess which part of the sky it was. I had my Google Sky Map app with me & it provided a very precise location of the constellations in the sky, relative to where I was. Here are the instructions on how to equip yourself & find the Milky Way with your eyes!

 

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The equipment I brought along with me:-

1) Camera – I used the Samsung NX200 mirrorless hybrid for this.
2) Samsung 20mm F2.8 lens
3) Manfrotto MKC3-H01 tripod with movie head
4) Asus Padfone Station
5) Petzl e+Lite headlamp (Get it from Lafuma!)
6) Folding chair

And essentials that you should have with you:-

1) Mosquito repellant.
2) Snacks & drinks to quell hunger pangs when you get too excited.
3) Blinkers to mark yourself in the dark.
4) A multitool to operate quick-release plates/screws etc.
5) Hammock & pillow if you get too sleepy waiting for clouds to pass.
6) An entourage.

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‘When observing the night sky, the term “Milky Way” is limited to the hazy band of white light some 30 degrees wide arcing across the sky (although all of the stars that can be seen with the naked eye are part of the Milky Way Galaxy). The light in this band originates from un-resolved stars and other material that lie within the Galactic plane. Dark regions within the band, such as the Great Rift and the Coalsack, correspond to areas where light from distant stars is blocked by interstellar dust.’ – wikipedia.

At different times of the month, you might be able to see it if you find Pluto & a great way to do so is to do a search in Google Sky Map app on your Android device or any other star gazing apps such as Stellarium on your laptop, to point you to the exact location in the sky relative to where you are standing. Make sure your GPS is also turned on in your device.

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At Bulb mode, 60 seconds, F2.8, ISO 800, only brightness adjusted.

If you have a bright wide angle lens, use that instead. Telephoto lenses are good for taking pictures of planets, not constellations unless you have a specific constellation that you want in a frame. I have yet to experiment with other lenses & will post an update here once I do. Depending on your settings, the general rule is, the bigger your aperture (smaller F-stop), the more light it allows but to keep the image sharp, you need to keep ISO low (800 or 640) in order to keep the blacks. A minute or less should be sufficient but then again, experiment with stopping up on the ISO or time to get the desired results.

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Then I tried to take just the stars at F8.0, 37 seconds at ISO 2000 & all I got were the constellations!

I couldn’t adjust my tripod head to tilt any further as this cluster was already too high up in the sky. Your camera may or may not allow you to have priority release of shutter regardless of whether you can focus on anything or not. In my case, my camera has to be set on Manual mode, Manual Focus & Multi Point Focusing. Adjusting the focusing ring on my lens through the CCD & LCD in the dark is a great pain. Literally, my neck was craned as I had positioned my tripod over my seat to look into my screen as it pointed upwards to the sky. A lot of the aim, is GUESSWORK. Pressing the shutter release was the start, waiting for a minute or so was expected but as soon as you press the shutter again, the camera went into a processing mode which took another minute & during this time, you shouldn’t move your camera or tripod in case the shutter hasn’t really closed yet. I heard a third sound when the processing was done. Through the 4 – 5 hours of shooting, I only managed 30+ pictures, of which only 3 or 5 were usable so don’t fret if you don’t get your pictures on the first try!

Here are some of my fluke shots, the frustration that you get after waiting for the picture to be processed…..

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Best time to plan for a starry night, weather & elements dependent, is to use a Moon Phase widget on your Android device to help you decide on the days where the moon would be below the horizon. The best time would be when it’s at waxing crescent or waning crescent, what we know as new moon. Search for an ideal spot to include some trees or landscape in your picture BEFORE your actual night of shooting. This would help with any impromptu decisions to go stargazing whenever the skies are clear. Be aware of your surroundings though. You may not be able to see what’s around you but it doesn’t mean that you are not being watched. Nocturnal animals are out & about too. I found a Terrapin crossing the road & stopped to take a photo of it!

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Let me know if you have succeeded in taking any photos of the Milky Way!

The World Didn’t End, It Has Just Begun.

What 2012 had been was a year of drama, excitement, elation, grief, distress, mourning all at once. The year passed so quickly. With the blink of an eye, I’d been to several countries & back. Some of my involvement with social work has been enlightening too. Being one of the country’s representative for The Access Initiative (TAI) with Jeffrey Phang, I was able to learn what others pay top dollars to do so. Returning from our regional meeting in Bangkok, we were able to put our knowledge to work. Mom passed away just before the trip & I missed my flight but I knew it was important for me to be there. As part of the initiative, we are to advocate access to information, access to public participation in matters concerning the environment that would affect people & access to justice. We are now in the process of getting a club to adopt the hardcore poor homes by sponsoring food stuff. They are also keen to have the kids from the Drum Circle perform on their annual dinner event. More about that in time to come. Meetings with these wonderful ladies from the club is so heartening. With the passing of a life, another event begins.

On the animal welfare front, we have gained good ground by working with the first local council in Malaysia to celebrate & honour World Animal Day 2012. All thanks to Anthony T, who spearheaded & founded CAT (Canine Advisory Team, a panel in which I sit in) in MBPJ as a councillor since 2008, we will soon have a dog park to let our dogs be paw-loose & fancy-free! Listen to his speech at the launch of the day in the video below.

So much work set in motion by Sabrina Yeap, who also passed away this year, contributed to this effort of councils & organisations getting together. There are those who think that they are a contributing factor while they clamour for her stature but no one have the guts & gall that Sabrina had to have spent her life dedicated to making life worth living for the animals. Hardly surprising because those who deem themselves important have so many personalities uprising from their virtue of stunning others with incorrigible behaviour & expletives incontinence. And their little squadron of likeminded individuals, usually personalities playing up from not following doctor’s orders, would start to fire at anyone & everyone who has never known of such vocabulary. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks, the pen writes or the keyboard types. When these keyboard warriors go on a rampage, they can only fool some of the people, some of the time. When some of these individuals stopped making sense years ago, I’ve pretty much disregarded their significance in the world of rescue. They have only themselves to rescue out of the pit they have dug & fallen into some time ago. I pray that they would find peace amidst the turmoil they face within.
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Later on in the year, I was featured on a full page of a Chinese daily & Szee Cshieng, the journalist from Kwong Wah Yit Poh contacted me a month ahead to set an appointment for the feature. We met in 2007 at the LIMA exhibition in Langkawi. Since then, she had been following my pursuits on FB. Thank you for the compliments in the 7 roles that you reprised of me but I see myself as an adventurer more than as a star. If God has given us skills & talents, then we must use them to bless others. Even if it’s just to teach a new skill, impart a knowledge or to share responsibilities. In doing this, my life is enriched. In living life to the fullest, I am able to create pieces that thrills from having lived that journey of getting to wherever or whatever. This came shortly after my interview with Cars, Bikes & Trucks section of New Straits Times & a feature done by Grace Chen.

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A directive from the top had me moving out of the city & into the beautiful countryside. My move is all done now & settling into my new place is easy. It’s the unpacking & organising of my stuff that’s daunting. Taking for granted of my ever present kitchen for the last 7 years, I didn’t know how much I missed not having one so I fitted in a brand new stainless steel kitchen & got myself a full-fledged/featured microwave oven that grills, bakes, steams & microwaves! Rufus took about 10 days to resign to his new home & he’s loving it here too. And my cousin Lisa gave me an infrared gas stove as a house-warming gift and guess who has been dropping in for meals ever since??? My beloved guest from Italy & the Scotsman living opposite my place! Hahahaha! Thanks, Lisa! I love the stove! I got a chicken timer for Christmas too & a pack of drink stirrers in addition to some birthday presents (gadgets & a locket). They also loved the DOM Benedictine that’s been evaporating from my non-consumption of it & topping it with Bulla’s Caramel Toffee Ice Cream, it seemed to have made these men happy! Not to mention, we even had a go at my rice wine meant for cooking…….. Time to stock up my freezer & pantry!

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When packing to move, I found my stash of yarn. It was then that I decided to pick up my first love of crochet & made a pair of gloves, a cowl for my winter trips, two boleros and now starting on my another pair of gloves. I ordered more yarn & am enjoying church service so much more!

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Making full use of fill-in time like getting caught in traffic jams, in between appointments & travelling transits, I was able to make all that. Imagine if I had more time on my hands! I’d be attempting to make those pretty tunics & dresses! If you like crochet, follow my crochet boards on Pinterest to get patterns & inspiration!

So the world didn’t end. Even after Chien died, mom died, Chien’s mom died, Sabrina died, Maxine died. I choose to think that my chapter with them has ended. And they would want me to write new books & chart new paths with other people too. And my world, the one that God has blessed me with, has just begun. Thank you, Lord, for a remarkable 2012.

St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sharm El-Sheikh

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If visiting a UNESCO World Heritage Site is on your list to do when you visit Eqypt, then make a trip to St. Catherine’s monastery & catch a glimpse of Moses’ burning bush & the well of his destiny at Mount Sinai! It’s located a few hours away by road from Sharm El-Sheikh. We got off on foot after trailing across mountain ranges to get to St. Katherine city to see the place where Moses purportedly met with God.

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Opposite the monastery….

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The view on the road to the mountain was breathtaking to say the least, I was blown away by the terrain & vastness of the dry desert. It was in December when I visited Sharm El-Sheikh & it was a good 10?C. Reaching 1500m above sea level, we got down to walk the rest of the way to the monastery from the parking area. I had to climb a monstrous mountain to take a picture of the monastery! In my Crocs!

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At the base of the rocky range, vendors sell their wares along a row of little shops. It’s interesting to see & not be able to buy as I’m already over-weighted with all that I had to bring on my journey to Sharm El-Sheikh. The drive kept me in awe & seeing the size of the ranges up close truly made me marvel at what God can do. We went inside the monastery but many areas were cordoned off, sparking my curiosity to break in ala Tomb Raider style. I wasn’t dressed for the part neither did I have my cloak of boldness worn when I went pass the fortress. Still, I’m sure I would have headed straight for the kitchen if I were allowed to roam.

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My fascination for animals & especially animals I hadn’t seen before, was quite apparent judging by the expressions I got from my subject & the people around me. This camel was rather cautious as I pointed my camera at him. And camels sleep with their entire neck & head lying on the ground! I also learnt that walking on these pebbly & sandy ground is rather uncomfortable. Be sure you have the right kind of shoes when traversing hard terrains & wear socks to cushion impact. Wearing a hat helps & be sure to have polarised sunnies.

I flew to Sharm El-Sheikh with Emirates Air with one stopover in Jordan. Once you have your ground arrangements taken care of, getting there is a breeze with the many airlines that fly to Sharm El-Sheikh.

The monastery is Orthodox and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to the UNESCO report, this monastery is one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world together with the Monastery of Saint Anthony, situated across the Red Sea in the desert south of Cairo, which also lays claim to that title.

Cape Range National Park in Exmouth

Cape Range National Park is a wondrous place, with a rugged hilly terrain of limestone ranges situated on the west side of the North West Cape. These deep canyons form culverts in satellite maps and with 50km of pristine beaches, taking a roadtrip down would make you want to stop & dip at every bay.

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Exmouth Escape Resort.

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Thomas Carter Lookout

The 50,581 hectares park is just 40km from Exmouth. We drove here upon spending 3 days at Coral Bay & another 4 days at Exmouth Escape Resort. I saw some big red kangaroos here & stalked an emu for a picture!

According to what’s on record, ’in ancient times the range was isolated as an island as rising sea levels inundated lower lying areas. As a result of this geographic isolation there are some species of plants and animals that are endemic to the area, including the red centred variety of the Sturt Desert Pea. Surveys have recorded over 630 species of flowering plants on the peninsula of Cape Range National Park. This is a surprisingly high number for an arid limestone area. Over 700 caves are catalogued in the area and it is likely that many remain undiscovered. There are numerous gorges and sanctuary areas that provide a haven for wildlife and contain often rare and unusual flora. A beautiful array of wildflowers can be seen in late winter including Sturt Desert Peas and the beautiful Bird Flower.’

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I went on the Top of The Range tour of the Cape Range National Park to see the beautiful natural surroundings. Dave of Ningaloo Safari Tours, gave a brilliant commentary on the history & origins of this place, as he drove the 4WD over the ridges that overlooks the canyon below. The rock formations & caves in the area were a sight to behold. If I wasn’t taking photos of the rocks or the scene, I was looking out for unusual plants & fossils on the ground. Our first meander was through Charles Knife Gorge. We stopped for morning tea & fresh fruit cake on top of the ridge before continuing the journey to Milyering Visitor’s Centre. You can find interpretive displays, audio-visual facilities and a library containing a wealth of information on the National and Marine Parks to help visitors appreciate the natural environment.

Here, I bought some souvenirs & Torri Bottroff, the lady at the souvenir shop counter, suggested that I go for the patches & some stickers to commemorate my trip upon telling her where I was from. And I did just that! Thank you, Torri! It was a delight to have met you!

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We headed to Osprey Bay for a swim in the crystal clear warm sea & it was simply refreshing after the ride. Dave & his family who joined us in a separate car, prepared a delicious lunch of fresh prawns & sandwich for us after the swim & we continued to Yardie Creek to see the Black Footed Rock Wallabies! The walk to the creek before boarding the boat yielded some great fossil finds! According to Exmouth Visitor’s Centre, ”˜Centuries of erosion have formed a spectacular multi-coloured gorge. Hidden within the safety of the gorge walls is a colony of black-footed rock wallabies. Yardie is the only gorge in the area with permanent water however this is salt water fed from the ocean. This interesting ecosystem has mangrove areas that provide roosting sites for many bird species while the sheltered waters are a sanctuary for many marine animals. The beginnings of the gorge are deep in the limestone range. These timid creatures seek shelter on ledges along the gorge walls resting during daylight hours, coming out to feed in the cool of the night. There is a relatively easy walking trail along the top of the northern wall of the gorge or you can join a boat cruise through its cool depths.’ Definitely not to be missed.

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Yardie Creek.

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By evening, we headed towards Turquoise Bay & Ningaloo Marine Park, our last stop was Vlamingh Head Lighthouse. The moon had risen in the horizon & after the long ride, it was good to unwind with a glass of wine over dinner at Novotel Ningaloo Resort Exmouth to end our evening. To get to Exmouth, get your flights to Australia & land in Perth. Then fly to Exmouth in the North West.
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Shark & Yolanda Reef in Egypt

One of the most exhilarating dives I’ve had was in the Red Sea when I was in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. Visibility exceeded 30m & water temperature was around 20 – 21 degrees Celsius, prompting me to wear a 5mm farmer jane wetsuit for protection. The initial shock as I entered the cold waters set all my senses into alert. My heartbeat fluttered for awhile but as soon as I saw how clear the water was, that apprehension turned to excitement. Wolfgang was my buddy & we went down to Shark & Yolanda Reef at Ras Mohamed National Park, which sat at approximately 15m – 30m of water. The wreck sits at 145m – 200m further below after the drop off & what’s left on the shallower bed is the cargo of bathtubs & water closets strewn all over.

The corals in the surrounding reef was amazing. Sunlight penetrated to more than 20m depth & with the help of strobes, I brought out the colours of the soft corals as we inched along towards the sunken cargo.

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There wasn’t a shark in sight. I was hoping to encounter at least a reef shark & was geared to film my first oceanic shark but they just didn’t appear when I was there. I could even get close to a Sea Perch without it flinching while I pressed the shutter button.

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Sea Perch.

The sight of bathtubs stacked together was quite nostalgic as my mind wandered to how I’d been raised taking herbal baths for all my ailments but to me, it was a time to frolic! Toilets & pipes were all over the place too, albeit encrusted with corals.

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It was interesting to see what we sit on with our bottoms at the bottom of the ocean & this WC having great growth prospects gave me a new sense of respect for them!

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An inverted WC!

This part of the cargo below has turned into a reef. Can you see the pipes & bathtub?

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Visibility was near perfect!

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Flying to Egypt was quite an experience. I flew UAE & had a stopover in Dubai. I will be planning another trip really soon as I’ve yet to see the SS Thistlegorm, sunk during World War Two. If you are planning a trip to the Red Sea, you can check out holidays to Egypt & request to dive with Diving & Discovery, awarded as the best dive centre in Sharm El-Sheikh!

The Selangor Heritage Trail on Wheelsâ„¢ Event on Boxing Day

This post appeared first on Detours US blog under the Ambassador Program of which I had become a part of. Detours is the maker of bike bags in the USA. You can see it here.

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Selangor Heritage Trail on Wheels was a cycling event that took approximately 100 cyclists to get to know the historical sites & places with heritage value at Kuala Kubu Bharu (KKB), Selangor, Malaysia. We went to recce the places & earmarked them to let participants experience the splendour of that destination on bicycles! An initiative effort by the state government of Selangor under the Tourism & Environment portfolio of YB Elizabeth Wong, the Head of Tourism Executive Committee, we collaborated with the Hulu Selangor Town Council (Majlis Daerah Hulu Selangor or MDHS) to bring cyclists & cycling enthusiasts together to participate in a non-competitive, non-race event to seek out the heritage trail with a map on a route led by authorities.

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Traffic Police Station.
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How it looked like in the old days. It was once a church!

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Group photo with Well Tan (in white top to the left of person in black shirt) & her darling riders.

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So many foldies!!!

Recognising the need to reduce our carbon footprint, we designated two segments of the program for that day, one being the main trail in town, the other being the adventure trail to see the historical broken dam of Ampang Pecah, the Masjid (mosque), the Chinese & Indian temples located just outside of KKB town. The dam that collapsed in 1884, was responsible for flooding the old town of Kuala Kubu, causing the death in untold numbers, one of the reasons why they moved the old town that’s now submerged, to the new site called Kuala Kubu Bharu. There are a few churches in town & a lot of interesting eateries that have been around for ages. There’s a little quaint restaurant that used to serve chilled herbal tea in brandy bottles & ordering them is equally fun!

The cook in the kitchen of Teo Kee Restaurant at Big Tree in front of the post office in KKB.

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The heritage spots.

The route promised to be exciting with a famous Butter Sponge Cake shop as one of the stops & a police station that was formerly a church. Riders went to all the spots encompassing a 25km loop with a stop at a broken dam & a hot spring. At the end of the event, I was asked to do a similar event in a different district & it looks like the heritage trail will soon go places!

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Ampang Pecah, the broken dam.

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King George Monument

The town has a cycling lane, an effort to get citizens back to riding bicycles but the route of the heritage trail covered everywhere else.

I managed to get Folding Bike Trading to be the official supporting bicycle shop to standby with technical support for the cyclists & Lafuma as the sponsor of discount vouchers for the goodie bags. Even breakfast & lunch were catered for together with a lorry load of fruits (durians, dukus & rambutans) for the cyclists to feast on!

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Cyclists in full coloured fashion!

We asked the ladies to come dressed in their most fashionable attire as riding is not just about racing but about looking good on your bike! We wanted them to come accessorised with gadgets & bags too! Then we asked the men to come in anything but racing outfit. The photo opportunity depicted them in cool attire rather than in competition vests. They redefined Sightseeing on Wheels! The launch was officiated by the President of the town council, two Members of Parliament & head of police in the district & we had a bike acrobat to perform some really cool stunts that put people half his age to shame. 70+years Ramanathan did some calisthenics & balancing act on his bike to the stunned audience before the ride.

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Flag off!

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Bike acrobat & riding around the block.

As the country was developed without the cyclist in mind, we are helping the state gazette cycling lanes to make the roads safer to ride in & create any event that will bring cyclists together in numbers. Working with local councils who are all for the idea is a great experience & nothing beats the thrill of riding in the countryside discovering new places & finding food along the way. Follow my journey as we convince others to get on the bike again!

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Yours truly having a picture taken with YB Elizabeth Wong!

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Hot spring – a soak after a cool dip at the dam….

The Oriental Diving Bird of Borneo

The Oriental Darter (Anhinga melanogaster) is a magnificent bird that hunts for fish underwater! Listed as a threatened specie, this bird is also known as the Snake Bird, contributed by the way it moves its head on its elongated neck. When it dives down into the water, it can stay submerged as it hunts for fish & reemerges to toss the fish in the air before it swallows it. The most impressive sight would have to be when it takes off from being in the water. Only its head breaks the surface as it swims to gain momentum for the lift. At Kinabatangan River, this specie can be spotted on treetops when not in the water.

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While cruising on North Borneo Safari’s quiet, electric engined boat, Alex Tiongco, Marts (speakers from Phillippines) & Hamit Suban, our brilliant nature guide, pointed out a flock of them on a skeleton tree. Unable to contain ourselves, we were rocking the boat with excitement. Each time either one of us did that, none of us could get a focus on the bird with our cameras & binoculars but it didn’t matter! Shaking from excitement is part of the fun. Thankfully for my Manfrotto 055CXPro4 tripod, much of our shakes were minimised & I could still take pictures on the flat bottom boat.

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Count the Darters!

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A Darter emerging from underwater! Used with permission from Cede Prudente.

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Grooming.

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These were taken from at least 100m away.

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A fishing Darter! Used with permission from Cede Prudente.

That was our first sighting on our first cruise. Eight of them in one frame! Sighting of a lifer is something that birders get extremely excited over especially when the specie doesn’t exist in my part of the world (Peninsular Malaysia), what more seeing eight of them. Their sheer size was also noteworthy & Cede Prudente had the opportunity of capturing this diving bird fishing as well as emerging from the water & it is truly an aspirational picture for me to document it one day……if I get to stay long enough in the river stalking this Darter.

My Wild Encounter With A Living Legend At Sukau, Kinabatangan River

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Bukit Melapi Resort – private dock.

When we left Labuk Bay, we headed straight for Sukau. In the interiors of Sabah, the ride itself was an interesting one because Hamit, our guide kept spotting birds for us to see. We stopped several times for the Greater Coucal that walked on the fringe of the jungle. We tried to ambush it from the car with my lens sticking out of the window but this bird outsmarted us. Even the journey gave us several species of Kingfishers & Herons. I was wondering what Kinabatangan would be like.

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The crew.

Soon as we got into Bukit Melapi Resort, we headed out on a cruise. Then a boat with foreigners sailed by asking us permission if they could fly a helicopter overhead as they wanted to film. There was a boat tailing this one & looking at the solitary person sitting in front, I did a double take. I asked the foreigners, “Where are you from?” to which they replied, “We are from the BBC!” proudly. As I couldn’t hold my excitement further, recognising the lone ranger on the boat behind, I asked, “Is that Sir David Attenborough???” And they nodded excitedly. Before you know it, Alex, Marts, Hamit & myself were waving frantically saying hello to the living legend! Then I turned to the crew & said, “Sure! Fly whatever you must & take as much footage as you need to show the world what Kinabatangan is all about!!!” And the crew politely thanked us in their thick British accent.

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Sir David Attenborough himself!!!

He smiled & nodded, acknowledging our frenzy before continuing their journey. I shot the helicopter alright, with the cameraman sitting precariously over the edge as they filmed.

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Later, the helicopter parked by the open space next to our resort & we went over to ”˜inspect’ the machine as all curious creatures do when there are subjects of interest in the area. Couldn’t resist the pose with the flying machine!

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We didn’t think that we would meet him face to face after seeing tons of his works on TV & being such a fan of them. Saying we were star-struck was an understatement. He was a real-lifer! What else did we find at Kinabatangan? Find out in my next post….. 🙂

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The Golden Proboscis Primates of Labuk Bay, Sabah

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The owner of the land had wanted to convert the forest into an oil palm estate but upon discovering a family of Proboscis Monkeys in the boundaries, he decided not to cut the forest down. Instead, he went on to set up the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary to protect these primates, admitting visitors to have a closer encounter with these grunting & gleeful golden monkeys.

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The Alpha Male

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One of the females leaping onto the feeding platform.

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Don’t stare……

Feeding them twice a day at two platforms, I was able to see the harem & spotted the alpha male by the sheer size. A macaque was in the vicinity & the Proboscis monkeys were not the least perturbed by its presence. It was exhilarating to see the Silver Leaf Monkeys in the sanctuary too, roaming freely in the building & accepting humans as part of their community. One baby Silver Leaf Monkey scampered across the hall to leap onto a visitors lap, moving to perch itself on her knee. What a sight that I forgot to click the shutter. I had come for these kinds of encounters & allowing the baby monkey to grab my finger was a connection that I can’t describe. The adult monkeys would walk about the railings & plonk themselves right next to humans. One of them watched me while I shot the Proboscis when in fact, I should have grabbed my compact camera to shoot the Silver Leaf Monkey’s curiosity of my gear!

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Silver Leaf Monkeys

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Baby Silver Leaf Monkey start their lives in golden fur!

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Juvenile Proboscis Monkey

There was an ultra clingy Oriental Pied Hornbill adopted by the sanctuary since it fell out of the nest as a fledgling. This hornbill took an extreme liking to one of the girls & by that time, I couldn’t differentiate which bird was shrieking.

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The lush greenery of the sanctuary

Labuk Bay is about 30 – 45minutes drive from Sepilok, Sandakan & is a destination that you must not miss. Observe the feeding times & go earlier to set up your camera & tripod to catch them leaping into the air to traverse to the feeding platform.

Hamit Suban was our dedicated nature & bird guide who brought us to Kinabatangan River, making stops along the way to see the magnificent monkeys in Labuk Bay while giving us the history of how it all began. He is with the fantastic people at North Borneo Safari, owned & run by Cede Prudente, the NatGeo photographer whom I had hijacked by in 2007 to autograph my bird books. Four years on & I’m finally heading to Sukau, Kinabatangan River!
Let the good people at North Borneo Safari take you to Labuk Bay enroute to Sukau! I can’t wait to have my Orang Utan encounter!!!

Hours / Feeding times
Platform A : 09:30am & 02:30pm Daily
Platform B : 11:30am & 04.30pm Daily

For further information, please contact:-

North Borneo Safari Sdn Bhd
Lot 31, 1st Floor,
Block B4, Jalan BU 5/1, Bandar Utama
Mile 6, 90000 Sandakan,
Sabah, Malaysia.

E-mail:        inquiry@northborneosafari.com
Telephone: +6089 235525
Fax:         +6089 235526
http://www.northborneosafari.com