The little boy looked all excited in his shiny orange life jacket as his parents held onto his arms and tossed him into the shallow waters of the South China Sea in Pulau Redang. Sitting on a rock at the edge of the beach in the Marine Park, the family gazed at the blue-green ocean off the Malaysian island, while the boy played with the waves. Surrounding them were millions of tourists, creating a riot of colours as their orange life jackets lay scattered amidst the many shades of blue of the sea. But none of this was as colourful as the world beneath the ocean. I could look at the sea for hours and count the number of blues and call it azure or aquamarine, but the hues of the marine world were a different palette of colours entirely, lost to those who looked just at the surface.
I stood a little away from the beach watching the tourists snorkel as they dipped their heads into water and bobbed on the waves closer to the shore. A short flight of steps took me up a path and from there I had an uninterrupted view of the ocean. I continued climbing until the view was blocked by a giant uprooted tree, its roots lying mangled on the soil. In front of me were creepers dangling from the trees, the branches creating a wild foreground to the sea. Looking through the entwined branches and the knotted roots, I saw a ferry bringing in more tourists to the beach for snorkelling. I strolled around the beach to see tired kids sleeping, while their parents walked around dripping with water, having animated conversations about their discoveries under the ocean.
It is the underwater world that brings tourists from all over the world to Redang. Earlier in the day, we had sailed to the middle of the ocean to various sites where the coral reefs beckoned us. I had always harboured a deep fear of the sea. While the waters beckoned me, as if I were a mermaid, I was quite afraid to jump right into the middle of the ocean. The fear held me captive for a while, until I took my first step. My guide, Faisal Mansoor, tolerated my panic and bade me look down into the ocean. And my world changed in that moment. It was like a garden out there with hues that can only be seen through snorkels. Corals in all colours – green, brown, yellows -looked up at me as several shoals of fish swam around me, some tickling my feet as I looked down. Faisal had a good grip on me and all was fine, as long as I gazed at the fascinating underwater world with my snorkels.
Redang, I am told, has over 500 species of reef-building coral and over 3,000 varieties of fish. The ocean bed was covered with corals, some like giant leaves floating in front of my eyes. I held onto the ladder of my boat and continued looking down and the view changed every moment. Fear continued to grip me every time I felt the water pressure but my buoyant spirit kept me going as I tried snorkelling at different sites. I stayed as close to the boat as possible.but the beauty of snorkelling is that one can experience it right at the surface of the water.
The magic of Redang is not just underwater. We walked through a beach with pristine white sand and followed a muddy stream that met its destiny with the sea. In that little insignificant estuary were tiny fish swimming along the flow. We crossed the stream and entered a dense forest where shadows teased us and creepers lured us into a world that was wet, dark and mysterious. Birds called, insects screeched, and the nymphs of the jungles seemed to watch us from the tall giant trees that towered over us. The creatures of the wild did not show themselves, but I could sense invisible eyes looking at us from every corner of the jungle. After a few moments, it was an eerie silence that gave us company. The dense tropical rainforests seemed to connect two ends of the island and we passed a few local people. One of them was hurrying to fetch his wife from the other side, before the darkness engulfed him. It was late afternoon, but the tall brooding trees and the dense vegetation cut off the sunlight from trickling through the branches. It was still everywhere. Soon a path emerged in the wild and in the clearing, we saw a streak of light and a bit of blue. The sea eventually opened out to us as we cooled ourselves with tender coconut water, watching a bunch of kids burying themselves in the white sands. We walked up to the jetty and it was time to board a ferry to head back to our resort.