Place: Marine Ecology Eco Research Centre (MERC)
Location: Gaya Island, Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park
Where: Kota Kinabalu, Sabah

“This is called the chocolate chip starfish. Look at the brown spots on its skin!”

“Looks very much like chocolate chips!”

Sarah, a volunteer at the Marine Ecology Research Centre (MERC), held the starfish firmly in her hand.

We were at the touch pond at MERC, where a collection of sea creatures are put on display for visitors’ to get up and close on the conservation efforts carried out here.

Everyone was trying to hold a squirmy sea cucumber, or a squiggly starfish. ‘Squiggly’ because when you tried to hold it out of water, its soft and smooth tentacles start coming out and tingle your hand.


While getting a close feel of things, volunteers at MERC, including Sarah, would attend to questions visitors’ have about MERC and its various ecological programmes.

The Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is a cluster of islands comprising Gaya Island, Sapi Island, Manukan Island, Mamutik Island and Sulug Island. Gaya Island is the largest of the five, and has hiking trails and a five-star resort, the Gayana Eco Resort, home to MERC.

The Gayana Eco Resort is located in the Malohom Bay with beautiful coral gardens, and white sandy beaches. It takes about a 20 minutes’ boat ride from the city of Kota Kinabalu.

Looking around the centre, I spotted a flash of movement in the sea water below.

“Look, look, it’s a turtle!”

I ran hurriedly along the boardwalk to catch a closer glimpse. It had appeared for a few seconds to breathe fresh air. Then, it dived back silently into the waters of Malohom Bay.

I pinched myself, nope. It’s not a dream. It really was a turtle!

“What kind of turtle is in the enclosure?”

One of the volunteers explained that it was a green sea turtle, known scientifically as Chelonia mydas. Weighing up to 317.5 kilograms, they are among the largest sea turtles in the world.

Ever since I saw Crush, the Green sea turtle featured in the animated movie, Finding Nemo, I have always wanted to see a live turtle.

Finding Nemo (2003), is a story about a clownfish named Marlin, living with his son, Nemo in the dangerous sea. One day, Nemo is captured by divers and Marlin has to find a way to rescue him. Marlin meets many sea creatures who help him along the way. One of these is a dole of Green Sea turtles. The turtles are portrayed in the film as cool ‘sea surfers’ with a deep knowledge of the sea.

It is its’ greenish skin colour, that gives rise to its name, the green turtle. Males are usually slightly larger than female turtles. Sea turtles can also stay submerged for several hours at a time.

Excellent swimmers of the sea, turtles are listed as an endangered species under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), which means that international trade of this species is prohibited.

Hence, visitors taking a trip to MERC are encouraged to participate in the activities carried out at the centre. Besides taking care of turtles, MERC also carries out the Giant Clam Propagation (Re-Stocking) Programme.

Blessed with a rich marine life, Sabah waters are also home to seven of the nine species of giant clams found in the world.  These include Tridacna gigas, Tridacna derasa, Tridacna squamosa, Tridacna maxima, Tridacna crocea, Hipoppus porcelanus and Hipoppus hipoppus.

Highly sought after, giant clams are threatened with extinction due to natural or human causes. Most end up in seafood restaurants, or are used in the ornamental fish trade.

Actually, giant clams known also as the ‘kidney of the oceans’, are important as they help preserve the water quality of the marine ecosystem by absorbing nitrates, ammonia and harmful organics that may harm the reef and its inhabitants.

At MERC, these giant clams are kept in a reef aquarium with bright lighting. Mature specimens collected at the centre, are then placed in the hatchery to breed. Although clams take up to three years to grow large, the efforts carried out by MERC makes a huge difference in the preservation of the species for generations to come.

MERC also introduced the Coral Reef Restoration Programme, where visitors can help (for a fee) to replant coral fragments found in Malohom Bay. These sensitive coral reefs are easily broken due to careless human activities, strong waves, snorkelling activities and anchoring of boats in the sea. MERC divers collect the coral fragments to be replanted at the centre.

MERC also has its own breeding pond to breed high value fish food to lessen demand for fish from the wild. The seafood restaurant at Gayana Eco Resort offers fish cultured from the farm. The fish farm is also the first of its kind in Sabah certified by the Department of Fisheries. It also adopts the Good Aquaculture Practice.

Another of its activity, the Environmental Education Programme is aimed at nurturing the younger generation, as well as the general public, on the importance and the need to care and protect sensitive marine ecosystems.

Make sure when you get to MERC, try holding a starfish or sea cucumber. Capture the smiles, and leave behind memories to last a lifetime!

Getting there

Gaya Island  is located off the coast of downtown Kota Kinabalu. The Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is accessible via 15 – 20 minutes speedboat ride from Kota Kinabalu.

The departure and arrival point for the boat transfers is at the Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal, situated next to the Malaysian Royal Customs Department. Boat transfers to the islands are available daily from 7.30am to 5pm. Visitors can also contact Gayana Eco Resort for further information.

Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia flies to Kota Kinabalu on a daily basis. Check out their websites for further information: and

Further Information


Malohom Bay, Gaya Island, Tunku Abdul Rahman Park, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia.

Tel: +6 088 271098
Fax: +6 088 271099