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Passing of an Ocean Champion- Professor Steve Oakley

Steve Oakley collects coral fragments to transplant at Pom Pom Island

My last visit to Pom Pom Island in September 2016 was bittersweet. Nearly three years since my first visit here, the coral reef on this small island off Borneo is showing promising signs of recovery. What had been a dynamite destroyed reef, now had new coral sprouting from a stabilized reef using a novel reef block system.  Native fish populations were recovering and for the first time in a decade, sharks swam the reef.

Discovery Channel and ScubaZoo had been filming a story on restoring coral reefs and a shark rescue and study on the restoration work of the Tropical Reef Conservation Centre (TRACC) on this small island off Sabah Malaysia. Together with TRACC Manager Hazel, we built segments of bottle reefs to stabilize the reef crest with planted coral fragments saved from reefs destroyed by dynamite fishing.  We measured, tagged and released small sharks rescued from trawlers, and reintroduced them to the reef system. We patrolled the beaches at night and collected sea turtle eggs and placed them into protective care in the nursery to be safely released as hatchlings 8 weeks later.  We taught Chinese students marine biology and dived with them as they helped rebuild and study the reef. We went diving in the warm tropical waters of Pom Pom Island installing reef systems.

All of this work occurred for the first time without Steve Oakley.

My previous stay on Pom Pom a month before in August, 2016 saw Steve running the camp, a kind of beach- tent city for a A-level marine biology students, young travelers learning conservation and SCUBA and native workers from the nearby island of Kalapuan. Steve had worked hard helping construct a Malaysian-style long house dormitory to host 20 students from a university in Beijing. Along with our small research grants, these courses and the eco-tourism divers help support TRACC, and the long house was a huge addition. It also presented a huge physical and emotional toll on Steve.

Oakley Bottle Reef
Dr. Oakley’s last dive, assessing guitarfish and seagrass beds for protection

When I arrived in August, Steve was harried, exhausted and looked as if he had experienced a stroke. He lost the use of one arm, dragged his foot and had headaches. Still, he persevered, directed and cajoled his capable team of staff and volunteers, and the long house was ready for the new class.  After the Chinese students course launched,  Steve and I went diving on nearby Kalapuan, site of a research study and guitar shark conservation area we are proposing. Although overfished by hand line fishing, remnants of healthy coral have avoided the ravages of the illegal and destructive dynamite fishing.  Sand and eelgrass beds nearby provide home for endangered species of guitar sharks, and Steve’s vision was to introduce kelp farming to support the islanders, while eliminating fishing and providing protection for the sharks. His eyes sparkled with the dream of fully protecting this area while providing economic support for the locals so that the fish and reef would continue to thrive. That was Dr. Steve’s last dive.

We returned together to the capitol Kota Kinabalu, where Steve went to the doctor and I joined our partners with the Sabah Shark Protection Association in a two day workshop to plan increasing shark protection in Malaysia. Exhorted to stay home and rest, Steve appeared and participated in the planning meeting to strategize and fund our cause. The next morning Steve and I conducted a market survey of ray and shark catch to collect data, part of an ongoing survey. The following day he was diagnosed with a brain tumor requiring immediate hospitalization and treatment.

bottle Reef TRACC
Reef restoration using bottle reefs with growing coral

On my return to Malaysia, it appeared the treatment seemed to be working, and although fatigued, Steve made future plans for Pom Pom and shark protection. Following the September shoot on Pom Pom, I visited Steve at his home in Kota Kinabalu and together we wrote a grant and made plans to continue the coral and shark conservation and he had started. Leaving him behind to return to the US for our Sharktober education month, his prognosis looked good, and we made plans for January. On December 10, Steve was in hospital for a minor treatment when he passed away quite suddenly. Hazel reports he spent the previous hours haranguing the Doctors to let him have his laptop back because he had work to do and demanding a decent cup of tea. That was the Steve Oakley I remember.

Tagging and releasing a rescued shark

The Discovery Channel story, part of a series called Borneo Wildlife Rangers, was really about Professor Oakley’s vision to secure a patch of this coral island and create a marine protected area and restore the coral reef ecosystem. Supported by his family and students, Steve built a dive and teaching facility just steps from the tropical Sulu Sea, in a region of high marine biodiversity and huge human impact.  Students and volunteers stay on the island, learn SCUBA and marine biology, and are recruited to conduct scientific fish surveys and build reef systems- many with their names scratched into the cement. It is an unforgettable experience with lasting impact.

TRACC volunteers and students at Pom Pom Island

There are many stories about Steve Oakley-my friend the Mad Professor- but what I admired most was his determined, uncompromising and often vocal support to save sharks, sea turtles and coral reefs. This vision will survive and his work will endure through his family, friends and all the people he touched through TRACC.

Shark Stewards will help continue this work in 2017 with support from a Green Grant Fund through Earth Island Institute and other foundations, student contribution and donations. Shark and reef adoptions are available to support this program through our website or by visiting Pom Pom and supporting TRACC.