Eco-Tourism off Jiangjun’ao Isle
When the South Penghu Marine National Park was established in late 2014, local fishermen feared for their livelihood due to restrictions on fishing and other conservation measures. Meanwhile, guided snorkeling and scuba-diving excursions are providing new sources of income, putting the area on the eco-tourism map.
Eco-Tourism off Jiangjun’ao IsleBy Tsai Sheng-ta
Straddled between Taiwan proper and the Pescadores Islands (Penghu County) lie the 18 partially inhabited isles of Wang’an Township. From April 2018, day excursions to these scattered, remote isles will become feasible, with scheduled ferry services from Tainan’s Jiangjun fishing port to Dongji Islet taking just 90 minutes one-way.
Thanks to abundant marine life, the waters around these far-flung islets are veritable divers’ paradises, while the isles themselves boast quaint, picturesque 300-year-old villages with houses in the traditional Penghu architectural style. There are plenty of pastimes – rowing a canoe, eating a bowl of soup with rabbit fish and pickled cucumber, or watching green turtles as they return to the beach, and even scuba diving and snorkeling alongside them.
“Before, you couldn’t find my hometown on the Internet,” is how Yeh Sheng-hung, relaxing in his beloved hammock near the beach, describes the place where he grew up. Yeh acted as guide when a film crew from the National Geographic Channel came to Penghu to shoot a travel feature in 2014.
Born on the islet of Jiangjun’ao in Wang’an Township, Yeh, whom the locals call Ah-hung, learned from childhood on to make a living relying on the sea, diving and catching fish or gathering food with his father and grandfather. Like other kids living on offshore isles, the teenage Yeh was forced to leave home to get an education.
At age 15, he moved to the city of Tainan, which is geographically closer than the main islands of Penghu. There, he majored in distribution management and joined a convenience store chain as a store manager trainee. After Yeh became Internet-savvy, he discovered that his native place barely existed in the online world. He promised himself that one day he would take people there to see for themselves what a beautiful underwater world awaited them in the waters off Jiangjun’ao.
The isle was once known as “little Hong Kong.” In its early days, it prospered thanks to an abundance of red coral and marine resources that surpassed the islanders’ needs.
But the good times did not last. Environmental change and inappropriate fishing methods that depleted fish stocks forced the islanders to look for other ways to make a living. “I have been catching fish for more than 10 years. After several brushes with death and as catches dramatically declined, I began to wonder some ten years ago whether there could be a new way that would allow me to keep living on the island and take care of the sustainability of maritime resources,” says Ah-hung.
As a seasoned fisherman, Ah-hung knew the local ocean currents, marine animals and their hiding places like the back of his hand. At the same time, curiosity and an adventurous spirit spurred him to frequently travel to far-flung places, backpacking, to explore how other countries managed their natural environment and resources. He hoped to find inspiration as he tried to come up with feasible approaches for his native place.
“I went to Sipadan Island in Malaysia, the Red Sea off Egypt, Palau, and the Philippines, where I saw that scuba diving was booming. If you can protect sea creatures, it is possible to take care of your livelihood and ocean sustainability at the same time,” remarks Ah-hung as he vividly recalls the many twists and turns in the history of his Island 77 brand.
When he was still trying to figure out where to go professionally, he drew a lot of fire because he was hunting fish while also taking tourists scuba diving.
Many people would point their fingers at me, saying, ‘You hold a fishing gun in one hand and take people scuba diving on the other hand. You can’t have it both ways.’
Founding a company always means facing a great deal of uncertainty, and it took Yeh until 2016 before he finally hung up his fishing gun and mustered the courage to fully focus on his entrepreneurial journey.
Over the past decade, Yeh has had to overcome the lack of trust in his endeavors from his family and three bankruptcies before Island 77 gradually gained traction as a brand. Meanwhile, he owns a professional pleasure boat that meets all laws and regulations. Recently, he invested more than NT$10 million in the construction of a new boat, the “Miracle,” which was designed with the special needs of scuba divers in mind.
He has taken scuba divers from more than 10 nations out to the sea to explore the beauty of the underwater world. The waters off Jiangjun’ao offer unique sights and experiences. There is a 100-meter-long reef of branching corals popularly known as the “lavender forest” due to its striking color, and the ocean corridor between Xiji and Dongji isles with its strong tidal currents, where six species of rare fish can be observed shoaling and schooling.
Ah-hung is also the first scuba diver to publish a complete map of diving spots in southern Penghu. “A few days ago, I took an underwater photographer crew of the Penghu National Scenic Area Administration for a diving excursion. We even encountered locally established humphead wrasse, a fish listed as endangered, which shows that in comparison to many other places, the abundance of fish species here is beyond comparison,” Ah-hung proudly reports.
Aside from guiding tourists on diving tours, Ah-hung also frequently organizes seabed cleaning campaigns to collect trash. He also trains diving coaches with high-level commercial certificates to work on the island. Meanwhile, Island 77 has become an indispensable partner for recreational scuba divers and researchers of marine life from around the world who want to explore the waters of southern Penghu.
Sitting in the open sea, Jiangjun’ao seemed to have lost its way for quite some time. But Yeh and Island 77 have mapped out a new course for the islet steering it toward a sustainable future.
Translated from the Chinese article by Susanne Ganz