Reef conservation in Thailand
First published 27th November, 2007
It's easy enough to find a dive shop in Thailand. Some are better than others, but they all offer roughly the same services. You can go on a fun-dive, get your PADI certification, take an advanced training course, and go to a lot of exciting, exotic dive locations. But for those who are looking for a little something more from their diving experience in the Land of Siam, there's Reefwatch in Krabi town -- a dive shop with a difference.
They offer the same diving options as all the other shops -- at competitive prices -- but they're also home to the organisation from which they take their name: Reefwatch, founded in 1998 by British nationals Kevin Garner and Ian Shaw.
After years of running dive tours on Ko Samui, the pair became increasingly concerned with the state of Thailand's coral reefs. But, despite considerable concern and scientific debate about the state of reef ecology around the world, there was precious little hard data available to gain an accurate picture of what was really going on in Thailand. So they decided to do something about it.
Kevin Garner oversees the research projects undertaken by the organisation, while Ian sticks to running the dive-training programs. The two sides of the organisation work symbiotically, as it were -- tuition dollars from the dive training help fund the research, and the research provides a very unique experience that attracts divers to the shop.
The Reefwatch program may not be for everybody, but for a number of divers, it's just what they've been searching for -- diving with a purpose.
Reefwatch conducts regular reef checks at a myriad locations along the coast of Thailand, from Krabi to the Malaysian border. They do this by running transect lines from steel spikes at fixed locations in the water, and carefully monitoring the marine life in the sample area over time. This involves carefully calibrated macro-photography, and fish counts of certain target species in the delineated area. If it sounds like a lot of hard work, it is. But that's the attraction. This isn't just leisure diving. It's the real deal. Some may be put off by the idea of 'working while on vacation', but for the right candidate, this job is the most fun they've ever had with a wet suit on.
To lay the transect lines, steel spikes need to be driven into carefully chosen locations in the sea bed. With a few days of training, experienced divers can find themselves scouting locations and pounding the steel spikes in place to lay the lines. They can conduct fish counts -- where it's not enough to simply appreciate the beauty of the marine life, they have to accurately identify it. And all the while they are learning advanced diving skills that they'd never learn from leisure diving no matter how many times they've been down.
In addition, Reefwatch divers take responsibility for reef cleanups, extricating lost fishing nets and other refuse from the reefs. Also, on any given day, Reefwatch divers are installing buoys near popular dive spots, encouraging local boat-pilots to tie up safely, without dropping anchor and inadvertently destroying part of the underlying reef.
For many divers, once they've gotten a taste of the Reefwatch experience, it's the only kind of diving they ever want to do. They come back year after year, stay for months at a time, and turn it into a hobby that becomes a passion. More serious students can take more advanced training and take on higher-level scientific research. The focus of Reefwatch is not just on the reefs of Thailand. Once trained, former students are encouraged to set up similar programs where ever they're based in the world. The data is then sent to Kevin, who is compiling a central database on the state of reef ecology across the globe.
The research is already starting to bear fruitful results, and not all of it is bad news. For instance, dead patches of coral used to be seen as a sign that a reef was in danger. But by carefully monitoring reefs over time, Reefwatch data has shown that dead patches are a part of the normal life-cycle of healthy reefs, and will eventually spring back to life.
The programs here are often tailored to the needs of whoever shows up wanting to participate. Absolute beginners are more than welcome, but to participate in Reefwatch projects once they learn to dive, they should set aside about two weeks to go from civilian to science-geek/adventurer. Experienced divers can start laying and monitoring transect lines after a few days of training, and there's ample opportunity to gain additional training to participate in the more advanced research projects. All of this costs a bit more and takes more time, of course, than standard training and leisure diving alone. Rest assured tuition dollars go directly to support future research, and at the end of the day, it's an incredibly enjoyable, immensely rewarding way to spend your time under the water.
For more information, see the Reefwatch website: or contact them directly at:
48/24 Krabi Rd
Story by Don Morgan
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