149-year-old lighthouse continues to watch over raptors’ migration
PORT DICKSON, March 4 — While many things change over the course of 149 years, tens of thousands of raptors — migratory birds of prey — continue to choose Tanjung Tuan, or Cape Rachardo, as a navigational point along their migratory route.
And there to witness it all is the Tanjung Tuan Lighthouse which has been helping sailors navigate safely along the Straits of Malacca since 1863.
One clear afternoon last week, more than one thousand raptors could be seen flying in groups, mostly from Pulau Rupat, Indonesia, heading north to countries such as China and Russia.
Although the lighthouse is a restricted area, the authorities allowed Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) volunteers to station at the deck to keep count of raptors during their migration period.
In October, these birds of prey, mostly the Oriental Honey Buzzard, migrate from the cold north, down to Australia or New Zealand, passing Tanjung Tuan. And then they back up north to China, Siberia and Japan in March.
MNS Head of Communications Andrew Sebastian told reporters this is the 13th year MNS has organised a Raptor Watch on March 10 for the bird lovers to come together and witness the remarkable event.
This year the watch will be a three-day event with plenty of activities for the family. About 5,000 people are expected to attend that weekend.
The watch site is situated on the deck of the lighthouse, which is surrounded by coastal evergreen rainforest in a small, protected forest reserve.
Sebastian explained that from Tanjung Medang on the island of Pulau Rupat of north-western Sumatra to Tanjung Tuan is the shortest distance, about 40 kilometres over the sea along the length of the Straits of Malacca, making Tanjung Tuan a suitable rest area.
He stressed that Tanjung Tuan also has the last remaining coastal rainforest.
“We can use birds as an indicator of a change in the environment,” he said enthusiastically as he made a presentation on bird migration and how Tanjung Tuan is on its way to becoming an eco-tourism destination.
Sebastian said about 360,000 raptors yearly were seen in the 1960s but last year about 57,000 raptors were recorded over 42 days. Over the last 10 days, more than 12,700 were seen from Tanjung Tuan.
One of the raptor counters, Lim Ann Tiah, 70, said although volunteers work from 9am to 5pm, the best time to catch the raptors is from 11am to 3pm when the temperature peaks.
He explained that the birds rely on thermal heat to glide their way up.
The KLite told The Malaysian Insider that he has been a volunteer raptor counter since it started 13 years ago. He has been stationed at the lighthouse since the beginning of the watch, with his wife.
He said a windwatch which is used to measure wind speed and the wind chill factor, among others, as well as a compass are some of the gadgets used to count and record information on the raptors.
Deputy Marine Officer Bachok Banan, 54, told The Malaysian Insider the oldest lighthouse in the country has gone from being called home by a group of 15 at one time — this included lighthouse keepers, a cook and a gardener — to only a team of three rotating every 10 days.
He said because of technological advancements, there is less need for lighthouse keepers to be physically on site round the clock.
Today, he explained, only one staff member from the Marine administration department and two security guards are stationed at the lighthouse.
He explained that before the 1970s when the clockwork for the rotating lenses became powered by electric generators, the light source was a kerosene lamp and the lenses were rotated by a weight-driven clockwork assembly wound by lighthouse keepers every hour.
Today, he explained, the lighthouse keeper barely has to go to the peak where the light is. The rotation is automated and any problems can be detected in the control room.
He explained that each lighthouse has very distinct light characteristics. This one flashes three times before it goes dark for 15 seconds, and then it starts again, which is some sort of a Morse code. The light emitted by this lighthouse can be seen as far as 23 nautical miles, which is 42,596 metres, away.
Bachok said as he points to the horizon, that this is the best view one can get of the Straits of Malacca. You can even see Sumatra Island in Indonesia on a clear day. Down below is a trail cutting across some a mangrove forest which leads to a beach, some say the best in Port Dickson because of its crystal clear water.
Lighthouses are frequently used as the backdrop or setting for horror and suspense films. In 2010, a lighthouse played a pivotal part in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island and was featured in the final shot of the film.
Even the lighthouse keeper half-jokingly told The Malaysian Insider that there are a lot of spirits in the forest surrounding the lighthouse and there have been “unexpected” incidents there during the night.
Another interesting fact about the lighthouse is that although it is in the Port Dickson area, it falls under the administration of the Malacca state government.