Island Stories, Part I – On the Far Edge of Hong Kong, Unexpectedly Thriving Coral Reefs

Tung Ping Chau is as far as you can get from Hong Kong without a passport. As the morning ferry puts forth from Ma Liu Shui, plowing the placid waters of the Tolo Channel, the tower blocks of Sha Tin and Ma On Shan slowly slide astern. An hour and a half later, if it feels like you’ve gone off the map, it’s because you have – on many images of the Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong’s easternmost island is forgotten or exiled to its own inset box like Hawaii in maps of the United States, or the Spratleys in maps of China.  

As the ferry rounds the islet’s jagged spine, it pulls into the a semi-closed bay cradled in the island’s gentler, leeward side that faces the Chinese mainland a few kilometres opposite. Sheer sea cliffs and serrated, wave-cut rock formations swiftly give way to sandy beaches. Here, far from the silty Pearl River runoff that muddies western Hong Kong, the water looks almost topaz on a good day.

Just a few steps offshore, coral heads bubble up in the shallows: staghorn, starburst, moon and maze colonies home to shoals of small fish. These are far from the world’s most vibrant or colourful coral communities, but they are among the most resilient—and could hold invaluable secrets to help coral reefs around the world as they struggle to adapt to warming oceans, climate change and marine degradation.

Corals do not deal well with change. It’s a point dramatically illustrated by a spate of mass die-off and bleaching events in recent years, affecting over two-thirds of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in the summers of 2016 and 2017. All it takes is ocean temperatures a few degrees above the usual maximum for thermally-sensitive coral to expel the symbiotic algae that give them both their colourful palate and their main source of energy.

So how do Tung Ping Chau’s calcareous gardens survive between two booming conurbations close to the northern limit of their global distribution, where the water temperature can more than double from 14 degrees in winter to over 32 degrees in summer?

“It’s believed that Hong Kong corals either developed resistance mechanisms or changed their genetic information over the time,” says Walter Dellisanti, a PhD candidate at City University’s State Key Laboratory in Marine Pollution. “So they could adapt to these environmental changes and produce future generations with the same genetic information.”

Scientists are clambering to learn more about what makes local corals special in the hopes that it could unlock survival secrets applicable elsewhere. The world has lost roughly half its coral reefs in the last 30 years, and America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that 90 percent will be dead by 2050 without drastic intervention.

Tung Ping Chau A plastic bag snagged on corals off Tung Ping Chau’s main beach – Photo by Walter Dellisanti

The Pearl River is one of the planet’s worst sources of marine refuse, discharging more than 30,000 tonnes of plastic into the sea each year together with over 100 million tonnes of sedimentation. Tung Ping Chau is spared the worst of this but, like even the most remote islands on earth, it cannot escape pollution. As elsewhere in Hong Kong, water quality in northern Mirs Bay has badly deteriorated in recent decades, with its shores now belted by LNG terminals, mariculture zones, and one of the world’s busiest container ports. Just opposite Tung Ping Chau, titanic beach resorts have been built on the shores of Shenzhen’s Dapeng Peninsula. Even in the dead of night, their bright lights and fireworks lock the island’s overgrown ghost towns in a haunting moment of perpetual nautical twilight.

Ocean Park researcher Eszter Matrai is well acquainted with the perils that persist in the waters around Tung Ping Chau, despite their designation as Hong Kong’s fourth Marine Park in 2001. For the past year, she has been organizing monthly underwater cleanups on Tung Ping Chau’s main beach as a part of Project AWARE’s flagship Adopt a Dive Site programme, collecting both rubbish and data about its volume and composition to help drive policy change. She says that plastic packaging, bags and discarded fishing gear are the items most commonly found on the seafloor. While commercial fishing around the island is a thing of the past, recreational and spear fishing are still allowed within the protected zone.

Tung Ping Chau An orange nudibranch photographed during a night dive off Tung Ping Chau – Photo by Walter Dellisanti

Matrai decided to adopt this submarine habitat worth her group Tursiopsdivers after first coming on a snorkelling trip. “I was amazed to see so many corals and fish,” she remembers. Over 30 species of hard corals have been recorded around Tung Ping Chau, in addition to 130 reef fish, over 100 marine invertebrates, and more than 40 species of algae. Local divers spoilt by their proximity Southeast Asia’s Coral Triangle are bound to compare Tung Ping Chau unfavourably with their holiday dives, but Matrai, coming from Hungary, appreciated how different it was to the Adriatic coast she knew from childhood. The variety of life here, she says, convinced her this was a place worth preserving.

Another reason she chose to adopt Tung Ping Chau is the support she receives from the island community. May Ng, the manager of Tung Ping Chau Diving Paradise, helps to arrange the group’s transportation and equipment each month and provides space to sort through and catalogue the sacks of garbage they haul back from the beach. She also makes efforts to repurpose salvaged items like buckets and tools for local businesses to use.

Tung Ping Chau An abandoned hamlet in the interior of Tung Ping Chau – Photo by Ryan Kilpatrick

Ng, who opened the store with her husband in the 1980s, still remembers the days when Tung Ping Chau was a Wild East frontier – a hive for smugglers, and an avalonian promised land for those escaping the political chaos and poverty of the mainland. She says that before China’s reform and opening up in the 1980s, daily necessities were smuggled by speedboat across the narrow channel to the mainland. Afterwards the flow reversed, with Chinese no longer deprived of everyday goods and illicit items being ferried across to Hong Kong instead.

Today this has slowed to a trickle, but she says almost once a month someone from the mainland is caught trying to sneak across the channel to find a new life in Hong Kong or beyond. Tung Ping Chau still retains an unusually high police presence. Officers frequently patrol the island’s interior trails whilst marine police cutters and launches continually orbit its shores.

Tung Ping Chau An abandoned village house is reclaimed by nature – Photo by Ryan Kilpatrick

At the peak of the island’s population, Ng says some 3,000 people called Tung Ping Chau home, spread over crumbling hamlets where the silence is now broken only by cicadas, birdsong, creaking bamboo groves and the distant slosh of surf. Ng says that only five people live on the island permanently, with others returning to work or relax at weekends.

Tung Ping Chau has neither electricity nor running water. Remaining villagers and the descendents of those who have left continue to campaign for the government to bring both to the territory’s most remote outpost. It may seem like an excessive demand for just five people, but Ng says that the island has become a victim of its own success. Since it was included in the Hong Kong’s UNESCO Global Geopark in 2009, it has become a hotspot for ecotourism, and the water supply barged in the government is insufficient to meet the demands of this deluge of daytrippers—particularly during record-breaking heat waves such as the one that turned some reservoirs into expanses of dry, caked earth this May.

Yet in spite of the torrent of people disgorged from tour boats every weekend, you needn’t plumb the depths to find peace and quiet here. When the evening ferry casts off and the chug of its engine fades along with the setting sun, silence washes over the land like a flood tide. Suddenly, you see it’s more than just corals that makes Tung Ping Chau so special.  

Scheduled ferry service to Tung Ping Chau is available on Saturday and Sunday from Ma Liu Shiu, Sha Tin. Click here for more information.

Tung Ping Chau Sunset over Tung Ping Chau – Photo by Ryan Kilpatrick
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