Chasing Rays
Chasing Rays
WRITER: Angela Chew PHOTOS BY: Ernest Goh
Chasing Rays 27. March 2024, by Angela Chew, Photos by Ernest Goh
Experience Tioman through the eyes of father and marine biologist Alvin Chelliah, as he shares his thoughts of living on the sun-kissed island he now calls home.

“Go on, Ray. Touch it,” I urge. My five-year-old son peers suspiciously at the tiny mudskipper perched on my outstretched hand. After some coaxing from me and mum, Sue, he lets me place it on his palm, just for a couple of seconds before quickly turning it loose. I am surprised. After all, Ray will pick up snakes in a heartbeat.

Alvin introducing Ray to a mudskipper

A mudskipper basking in the sun on Ray’s hand

Seeing him explore the shallow river at Kampung Juara as sunlight streams through the surrounding trees, I am grateful. Growing up in the town of Kajang, Selangor in less-hurried times, I caught fish in mining pools and cycled through rubber plantations. I am glad Ray can play outdoors under the watchful eye of the Tioman community.

Alvin, Sue and Ray checking out the mangroves lining the river

Alvin’s son, Ray, exploring the river at Kampung Juara

I first moved to the island 10 years ago when I was still single on a mission for Reef Check Malaysia. Since then, Tioman has changed me for the better, and I’d like to think I’ve made a difference too.


The sun’s rays hit me the moment I step off the boat onto Tioman for the first time as its long-term resident. The island feels like it is welcoming me home. For the last two years, I have been making monthly trips to Tioman for Reef Check Malaysia and fell in love with the island. So, when they needed someone here full time, I jumped at the chance.

My fascination with coral reefs started when I began diving. I was just 15 then, but they intrigued me. I took up an undergraduate degree and then a masters in marine science. During this time, I volunteered with Reef Check Malaysia, which eventually led to a permanent position at the NGO to monitor coral reefs across the peninsula.

Having travelled to several islands around Malaysia, Tioman has a special place in my heart. It has some of the healthiest reefs and hosts a mangrove forest as well as a virgin rainforest. In fact, around 60% of the island is a wildlife reserve. But more than its natural beauty, I am here for its people. Seriously, they are some of the friendliest people I’ve met. They are very contented with life and always willing to make new friends.

It is for this reason that I am adamant about not only preserving Tioman’s marine environment but getting the local community passionate about conservation to safeguard their future. But it is going to take time.

Sue will be moving here too after we get married next year. As a fellow diver and colleague, I’m sure she will love it as much as I do.


We did it. We got married. Twice, actually. The main event was held in Kajang during the monsoon season. But as many of our Tioman friends couldn’t make it, they threw us another wedding when we got back to the island. It was amazing. We tucked into home-cooked traditional dishes and a wedding cake made from nasi pulut1 as the sun dipped into the sea behind us. There was live music and we danced the night away. It is a moment I will always remember.

Meanwhile, our work is starting to garner interest among the islanders. Since I arrived last year, we have been busy teaching and running programmes in schools while working with dive shops and resorts to raise awareness among locals and tourists. I’m not here to change anyone. I just show them different ways of doing things and the pros and cons of each approach. The rest is up to them.

During the year, we set up the Tioman Marine Conservation Group (TMCG) so that the locals can work with the Department of Marine Parks Malaysia (DMPM) to help manage threats to the marine park. TMCG has just five members now, but we’re confident of recruiting others. Most of the islanders here are happy to listen to us but are hesitant to get involved. Hopefully this will change in time.

Alvin at Ali’s Waterfall, Kampung Juara


Sue and I just became parents. We travelled back to her hometown to welcome Ray into the world. Watching him sleep peacefully next to his mum, I realise his arrival has given new meaning to my work.

Back at Tioman, our efforts are paying off. The community needed some time to truly understand what we wanted to achieve before they joined in. Our school children are sharing our message with their families and word is spreading. Now, people are becoming curious to know more and do more.

It’s been four years since I arrived, but I still love it. Some days, we dive down to check on the reefs, remove ghost nets and replant coral reefs, among other conservation work. Other times, I can be found teaching at local schools, training with TMCG or working with resorts and dive shops on our sustainable tourism programme. We also get emergency calls for things like oil spills or stranded marine life.

A ghost net being removed by TMCG members and Reef Check Malaysia, which partners resorts like The Boathouse Pulau Tioman to maintain the reefs

Life on Tioman is anything but mundane.


I think Reef Check Malaysia isn’t going to be needed on Tioman much longer. The local community have really stepped up and play important roles in keeping the reefs around the island healthy. By now, we’ve trained around 80 people through TMCG. Many of them can do almost everything that Reef Check Malaysia is doing here. Soon enough, they’ll be running things on the island on their own. The day that happens is the day I accomplish what I came here to do.

TMCG members preparing to inspect the reef

Divers from TMCG busy maintaining the reef

The scrapping of the proposed airport is an example of what this community can achieve. The project would have killed thousands of marine life, destroyed flora and fauna and taken out the local economy. We banded together as an island to stop it and I was relieved when the project was rejected. Sure, I stepped on some toes but it was a calculated risk. I consider myself a local now. To me and my family, Tioman is home. So yes, I would do it again.

Now, we’re working on getting Tioman certified as an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Green List Site. Ultimately, we want the island’s natural resources to be managed sustainably, so that people and nature can thrive side by side for the generations to come.

Alvin, Sue and Ray on the island they call home

Why am I taking this personally? That little guy. Ray is now following a hermit crab as it scurries away, sunlight glinting off the waters behind him. Thanks to him, I see the world through new eyes every day. He loves all sorts of creatures, millipedes, grasshoppers, snakes…and maybe one day mudskippers too.

1 Nasi Pulut — Glutinous rice

Reef Check Malaysia partners organisations and individuals to promote the conservation and sustainable management of coral reefs throughout the Peninsula. The NGO will be teaming up with The Boathouse Pulau Tioman to maintain the reefs and take care of any ghost nets in the waters surrounding Kampung Nipah.

Discover more about their work at .