HEADS swivel as binoculars and cameras are trained on a sighting of a magnificent grey whale surfacing off the sunny Californian coastline.
The whale-migration phenomenon was in progress and for 10-year-old Fairul Izmal Jamal Hisne, he found his life’s calling.
“If somebody could pay me to do this, I’d be the happiest boy alive!” the thought ran through his mind.
Each year, about 20,000 grey whales make the longest migration (15,000 to 20,000km) of any mammal across the seas in North America.
The marine mammal spends about one third of its life migrating from the cold, nutrient-rich waters of Alaska to the warm shallow lagoons off the coast of California.
There is a mystery about marine mammals. Like humans, they breathe air, have warm blood and give birth to live young. However, their home is in the depths of the dark ocean where so much is concealed from probing human eyes.
Twenty-four years later, the fascination with these creatures has never wavered for Fairul. “Whales are the largest creatures ever to evolve and yet there’s a lot that’s not known about them,” he begins before
adding empathically: “Yet they’re the sentinel of our ocean’s health. The health of marine mammals as a whole and the oceans can have huge impacts on human lives and livelihoods, and on coastal communities.”
He knows what he’s talking about. Coming a long way from the 10-year-old whale-watching tourist off the coastline of sun-drenched California all those years ago, he’s now a qualified marine biologist, co-founder of Marecet, a non-profit, non-governmental organisation dedicated to the research and conservation of marine mammals in Malaysia as well as an environmental consultant.
GOOD OLD DAYS
“What drove me into conservation?” he repeats my question and then, with a hearty laugh, replies: “Madness!” It’s a balmy night in Taman Melawati, the perfect backdrop for a reunion of sorts.
I know Fairul “Fish Boy” Izmal Jamal Hisne well enough. He earned the moniker “Fish Boy” back in the days when I was tentatively putting a foot into the unchartered terrains of nature conservation. Meanwhile, he was already waist deep in the field — zipping about everywhere, juggling fieldwork while feverishly writing proposals to wrangle enough funds to get his marine conservation programmes off the ground and into the oceans.
There’s plenty of laughter and exchange of stories as we reminisce over our “mad” days in Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) all those years ago.
Years later, he’s seated across me nursing a cup of coffee and telling me about Marecet and his continuing work with marine mammals in Malaysia.
While I’ve moved on to other fields, apparently “Fish Boy” is still, well, “Fish Boy”. After all, you can take the man out of the ocean but you can’t ever take the ocean out of the man, at least where he’s concerned.
“That’s probably true,” he agrees with a grin. “I’ve long been fascinated with the ocean and the outdoors since I was young. But the ocean has always had that special pull. There’s something about the wind, the open seas and the sand beneath my feet that I love.”
LONG WINDING ROAD
Still, the road to marine biology for Fairul wasn’t a straight trajectory from dreaming about it to actually becoming one.
“I applied to study for marine sciences at our local universities but got turned down,” he admits, before sheepishly adding: “I wasn’t a great student back then. I don’t do well in classrooms unless I’m in front of it, teaching!”
Adding, he recalls: “I was told I wasn’t qualified to pursue marine sciences. It was what it was back then so I opted to do my diploma in medical laboratory sciences instead.”
What exactly is that, I ask.
“I worked in the hospital dealing with people’s samples,” he says emphatically. He doesn’t need to elaborate further as I sputter out what I’m drinking. “What sort?” I finally ask. “All sorts. These are sick people so there were a lot of sick samples!” he answers with a straight face and we laugh.
That said, he remains pragmatic about the career detour, telling me that studying in a different field wasn’t a waste of time as far as he’s concerned.
“I don’t regret that actually. My years dealing with bio-medicine taught me a lot. I learnt to deal with medical emergencies and how to handle myself in all sorts of situations.”
The dream of being a marine biologist never wavered though. He confides: “I just picked myself up, did what I needed to do to get by and after obtaining my diploma, I started applying again.” Waikato University in New Zealand was the perfect choice.
“It had a very strong reputation for hands-on learning which suited me perfectly,” says Fairul, adding that the university had fieldwork for every subject, every semester. “I loved getting my hands dirty and doing actual work, and for someone who’s not too inclined towards classroom studying, it certainly helped!”
Graduating with a degree in marine sciences further strengthened his commitment towards pursuing a career in conservation, and soon after graduating, he returned to Malaysia. “That had always been the plan for me. To come back to Malaysia and bring my knowledge back to the country,” he says.
He realised soon enough that there was so much to be done in Malaysia. The field of marine biology was still very much in its infancy and little was known about the marine mammal population in this country.
“Joining MNS gave me the opportunity to develop marine programmes and shape policies but resources then were stretched thin (typical of NGOs tasked to oversee a huge field covering different ecologies and species), which limited the scope I was
hoping to cover,” he recalls.
A pause and he continues: “So I eventually left. I wanted to focus on the other things that I wanted to do.”
The scope was limitless. Fairul shares that there are at least 27 species of marine mammals found in Malaysian waters — 26 of these are whales, dolphins or porpoises, and one species of dugong.
“That’s around one third of the world’s total marine mammal species,” he declares, before adding: “This fact alone showcases the amazing biodiversity Malaysia contains.”
While there were many conservation groups like MNS which pushed for the conservation of these creatures, Fairul, along with Dr Louisa Ponnampalam, a cetacean ecologist, noticed a major disconnect between science and applied conservation efforts on the ground.
“There were no data coming out from Malaysia on marine mammals so we decided to do something about it,” he says.
And so Marecet was born. Taking its name from the Latin Mare (ocean) and Cet from the word cetacean, which is the scientific grouping of whales, dolphins and porpoises, the organisation aims to address the gap by data collection and enhancing scientific knowledge, implementing conservation actions, strengthening policies, and raising awareness on marine mammals and the greater marine environment.
“We want to be the ones driving the research and conservation efforts on marine mammals. We want to ask the questions and find those answers ourselves,” he says, emphatically. And that’s exactly what they’re doing.
Currently, Marecet has three current research projects in hand; the flagship Langkawi Dolphin Research focusing on the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins and the Indo-Pacific finless porpoises around the Langkawi archipelago and adjacent Kedah mainland; the Matang Dolphin Research conducted around the coasts of Matang Perak; and the Dugong Research and Conservation in Johor.
“Nine out of 10 Malaysians are unaware that we have quite a healthy population of marine mammals,” divulges Fairul, before stating that contrary to popular belief, they’re not migrants or strays but localised populations living in our Malaysian waters. “Our research confirms that,” he says, not without a little pride.
SPREADING THE WORD
It’s not been an easy road, he concedes. “Working in the conservation field is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Nature documentaries don’t tell you the truth about conservationists, I tell you!” he exclaims, half-indignantly.
“What they don’t show you are the months of feverishly writing proposals and attending countless meetings trying to convince people to part with their money, simply to finance the three days they spend on the boat out in the open seas!”
We laugh at the last remark and recall again our days at MNS doing just that.
There’ve been a lot of misconceptions about his area of work that Fairul has had to fight against. “Perhaps it’s the fact that back then nothing much was known about the field,” he explains.
Was he ever asked to get a “real” job? I ask.
He chuckles before answering: “Definitely. I’ve faced a lot of ridicule during the early part of my career, but I never gave up.”
This is why, he tells me, he’d like to set up opportunities for future aspiring marine biologists to be involved in the field of marine biology.
“I never got the chance to do that, but here at Marecet we want to build a new generation. After all, we won’t be here forever,” says Fairul, his voice low.
And building a legacy isn’t something that he’s focusing to do for young students alone. He’s got his 6-year-old daughter (“who’s the reason why I take less risks on the field now!”) in mind as well.
“She’s an active ambassador of Marecet, unafraid to approach strangers and talk to them about whales!” he says, chuckling.
It’s getting late and he walks me to my car. “Are you the happiest man alive like you thought you’d be?” I throw him a final question.
With the familiar impish grin on the face I’d grown accustomed to in my years at MNS, Fairul “Fish Boy” Izmal Jamal Hisne replies: “I’ve never been happier.”