The Marine Ecology Research Center (MERC)

/////The Marine Ecology Research Center (MERC)

I first heard of the Marine Ecology Research Center (also known as MERC) when I was checking out the things to do in Kota Kinabalu. Located on the Gaya island off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, the Marine Ecology center is a part of Gayana and is a little off the beaten path. Why? Simply because the Gaya island resorts are an expensive alternative to the popular Sapi, Manukan and Mamutik islands. In order to visit you need a private boat to take you over or you need to be staying on the island. Both of which can get extremely costly. Luckily there is a not so costly alternative. Day trips!


Marine Ecology Research Center (MERC) on Gaya Island

Learning about Marine life from the experts!

Everything seems to fall into place the moment you set foot on Gaya. The MERC employees are notified of your impending arrival. It is a short walk from the jetty to the MERC center. We were greeted by one of the employees who immediately escorted us to a small auditorium where we watched a 15 minute video on what MERC aims to do.

MERC initially started out to conserve Giant clams. It is the video that told us about the seven different species of giant clams that live around the coast of Borneo. These clams however are going extinct for a number of reasons. In order to protect the species, MERC was set up and the center now breeds and releases clams into the waters around Gaya.

As time progressed the center also started working with coral restoration projects. Some of their works can be seen as you snorkel in the waters surrounding Gaya. They use a variety of techniques to create artificial coral reefs and enhance the growth of coral. Much to the satisfaction of everyone, these techniques seem to be working.


A Stone fish at the Marine Ecology Research Center (MERC) on Gaya Island

Spot the stone fish!

With the short video done, we were taken to see the different species that were housed within MERC. It Was here that we first caught sight of the stone fish. Don’t worry if you haven’t spotted a stone fish when snorkeling or diving. These guys are so notoriously good at camouflaging that it took me a while to spot the guy even though I knew that he was there!

A clown fish at the Marine Ecology Research Center (MERC) on Gaya Island

A very angry Nemo!

We also caught a glimpse of the famous clown fish. The one that we popularly know as Nemo. You can see them when you dive or snorkel and they are really quite pretty. What we didn’t know is that the pretty thing that the clown fish live in is called a sea anemone. Looks pretty and you do feel tempted to touch it but DON’T! Sea anemones have a nasty sting. In fact, the sea anemone is a predator. After implanting itself on a rock it waits for its prey to swim into it. The tentacles then paralyze the poor fish with its toxins. The clown fish is the only species that is known to be resistant to this toxin. Hence it doesn’t seem to mind the sea anemone at all.

A starfish at the Marine Ecology Research Center (MERC) on Gaya Island

Life is all about learning.

One of the most interesting parts of the short tour was the hands on experience. One of the tanks houses star fish and sea cucumbers. At first I was very hesitant to touch the sea cucumbers. They looked so much like slugs that it really went against my grain. After a bit of encouragement, I did and I must admit that I don’t have the same response now. The glass allows you to see how the starfish and the sea cucumbers use their mouth parts. I spent a good amount of time marveling at how the different sea creatures survive.

The starfish tank at the Marine Ecology Research Center (MERC) on Gaya Island

A view of the starfish tank.

I guess I tend to forget just how diverse the marine world is! The Marine Ecology Center (MERC) on Gaya was a good reminder about how diverse and yet how fragile our marine world is. It reminds us just how big a role we have to play in keeping this ecosystem alive. For me it was reminder to do my part however small it maybe.
2018-06-13T14:27:27+00:00 July 21st, 2017|Asia, Destinations, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia|35 Comments


  1. Aimee July 22, 2017 at 4:21 am - Reply

    The photos in this post are brilliant!

    • Penny July 22, 2017 at 7:32 am - Reply

      Thanks Aimee!

  2. Hayley Russell July 22, 2017 at 8:11 am - Reply

    Looks like fun! I used to work in an aquatic petshop so know a lot about fish keeping but nothing as fun or colourful as these!

    • Penny July 22, 2017 at 11:14 am - Reply

      Wow Hayley! You have such an amazing job. It must be so much fun. My Dad used to have loads of freshwater fish when I was a child. It was his passion. I guess I got my love for them from him. Definitely recommend visiting MERC!

  3. Alison - Up&AtEm Travel July 22, 2017 at 8:19 am - Reply

    First of all – that photo of the giant clam is incredible! I think it’s great that the Marine Ecology Research Center expanded to conserve other species 🙂 Looks like an interesting place to tour.

    • Penny July 22, 2017 at 11:15 am - Reply

      Thanks Alison. The credit for that particular photograph goes to Shawn. 🙂 I was really happy to hear that they MERC was expanding and beginning to conserve other species too. We need more organizations like this!

  4. Maria Angelova July 22, 2017 at 8:47 am - Reply

    There are places on this planet that look as if they are not real, like this one. P.S. They said that clown fish live in anemones in the first Nemo cartoon 🙂

    • Penny July 22, 2017 at 11:16 am - Reply

      I think I missed the anemone part. I such a nut. Lol! I definitely did not know that anemones sting. That was a whole new learning for me!

  5. jin July 22, 2017 at 10:20 am - Reply

    First of all, your marine photos are incredible – it totally sold me into wanting to go here! And second of all, love how it’s off the beaten track! Such a lovely and pleasant find it must have been! This is something I def have to keep in mind if I’m ever in Borneo!

    • Penny July 22, 2017 at 11:18 am - Reply

      I love stumbling across something unexpected. The Marine Ecology Research Center (MERC) definitely fell into that category. The people who work there are also genuinely nice. They want you to learn about conserving the marine life. It was fun and educational too!

  6. Jurga July 22, 2017 at 10:37 am - Reply

    How colorful and really nice pictures! And it’s so cool that you could touch the sea stars and sea cucumbers!

    • Penny July 22, 2017 at 11:19 am - Reply

      Thank you Jurga. Being shown how to handle the starfish and the sea cucumbers really was fun!

  7. Christine July 22, 2017 at 11:21 am - Reply

    Wow these photos are beautiful. I love the starfish! This seems like the perfect activity for someone who is curious about what lives under the sea!

    • Penny July 22, 2017 at 11:35 pm - Reply

      Thanks Christine. I’ve never seen such beautiful starfish before. Normally the ones we see in Goa are white and dead by the time they hit the sandy beaches.

  8. Kay July 22, 2017 at 1:08 pm - Reply

    The angry Nemo made me laugh out loud! 😀 Thanks for taking us along for the tour! I agree with the others– you took some great photos.

    • Penny July 22, 2017 at 11:36 pm - Reply

      The angry and pouting Nemo really was funny. Couldn’t resist putting up his photograph. Thanks for stopping by!

  9. Karen July 22, 2017 at 1:35 pm - Reply

    I can’t believe I didn’t know about this place when I was in KK! I need to go back anyways since I didn’t climb Kinabalu….

    • Penny July 22, 2017 at 11:37 pm - Reply

      There is a lot that I would have missed if I hadn’t stayed so long in KK. Its a really beautiful and peaceful place. Hope you get a chance to visit the Marine Ecology Research center some day.

  10. Cali July 22, 2017 at 1:52 pm - Reply

    The pictures are SOOO pretty. And Nemo is so pouty, haha! I just love learning about animals and ecology, so this definitely sounds like a worthwhile day trip!

    • Penny July 22, 2017 at 11:38 pm - Reply

      So if you are passing through the Borneo part of Malaysia you know where to stop along the way! 🙂

  11. Kathi July 23, 2017 at 5:33 am - Reply

    I always get really sad when I visit places with animals in encasements. That said though, educating people about the environment in a relatable way is such an important element of raising awareness for sustainability! Sounds like this centre gets it right and I’m happy to hear that you had such a great experience!

    • Penny July 23, 2017 at 9:41 am - Reply

      I know exactly what you mean by that. It feels as is an animals wild spirit is trapped. No MERC does get it right. These fish are treated and set free. While they are in their tanks they also help educate people. Win-Win situation.

  12. Nicole Arnott July 23, 2017 at 9:12 am - Reply

    Your photgraphy is amazing. I’ve only ever visited KL in Malaysia but I’d love to see more of the country. This is a great excuse to go 😊

    • Penny July 23, 2017 at 9:39 am - Reply

      Kota Kinabalu is definitely worth the trip!

  13. Amy Krigsman July 23, 2017 at 12:36 pm - Reply

    I love all of the colors of the marine world. They’re stunning. Did you get to go snorkeling in the area to see their work up close?

    • Penny July 23, 2017 at 8:29 pm - Reply

      You can snorkel around the island in the designated snorkeling zone. We swam and we saw their work. We also got to watch them doing their work which was cool too!

  14. Kellt July 23, 2017 at 3:33 pm - Reply

    Omg i love this. I had no idea they were setup to preserve clams and I love how attentive they were. I actually studied at mote marine lab in florida in college and I studied coral reefs and marine ecosystems. We studied the oyster and its function in chesapeake bay as well. Love this!!

    • Penny July 23, 2017 at 8:30 pm - Reply

      Wow! Kelly! That is so cool. It must have been awesome to study the marine life up close. 🙂

  15. Anna Schlaht July 23, 2017 at 7:27 pm - Reply

    What a lovely, informative experience! I love that the staff took good care of you and made sure you learned a lot, as that’s exactly what research centers are all about. Plus, you got some great photos of the marine life there! Would love to see this someday and am putting it on our list if we get to Malaysia. Thanks for sharing!

    • Penny July 23, 2017 at 8:32 pm - Reply

      I really loved Kota Kinabalu. Not just because of the food and the culture but also because of the environment and the scenery. With the influx of tourists increasing almost everyday, I find that places like MERC are definitely the need of the hour. Fingers crossed… Hopefully people learn from the experts. 🙂

  16. Nina Danielle July 23, 2017 at 8:34 pm - Reply

    I love places like this. Learning about and appreciating marine life is so important. The hands on part is so fun! I got to touch baby sharks and sting ray once and loved it.

  17. Madi | Restless Worker July 23, 2017 at 8:36 pm - Reply

    I’ve never seen a starfish in person before, how crazy is that? They look so cool! Great post Penny, really looks like a cool place to go.

    • Penny July 23, 2017 at 10:26 pm - Reply

      I don’t think that’s crazy. I think that is an opportunity Madi! Something to put on your bucket list!

  18. Daniel A. November 23, 2018 at 7:18 am - Reply

    We did this tour, along with lunch, and can confirm that the MERC tour a great idea to do! Lunch was 5/10, so I’d opt for a quick packed lunch so you can spend more time enjoying the pool and exploring the island.

    You also have the option to go snorkeling after the MERC tour.

    Thanks for the tips!

    • Penny November 23, 2018 at 8:34 am - Reply

      I’m so happy that you had a fun trip. We opted to spend more time in the water like you. The snorkeling area was beautiful and a part of me really wished I could stay there but it is also expensive. Maybe someday. Listening to your feedback, I am so glad that we chose a packed lunch over a hurried one.

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