As a small island in the Gulf of Thailand it is amazing to think that Koh Tao is a hotspot for conservation projects, education, training and action. From its humble beginnings as a home to a few coconut farmers in the 1970s and 80s to a desired destination for backpackers, adventurous travellers and families alike in the 21st century.
Koh Tao is the largest certifying location on the planet for PADI scuba diving courses. But what is often overlooked is that the island has become a focus for conservation training and the development of state of the art conservation projects and coral reef restoration activities.
Scuba diving is an amazing experience, which is why so many people sign up to become certified divers. And, to be honest, it looks easy from the outset. But scuba diving takes a lot of skill, patience and most of all practice. No one can expect to be an expert from the outset.
These introductory level courses are lots of fun and provide an insight into the wide world of the sub-aquatic. The problem is that many new divers do not have great control once they get underwater.
Buoyancy control is critical to managing yourself underwater. The ability to control where you are and where you want to go all comes back to buoyancy control. As a result beginners tend to be a little clumsy and take time to adjust to the new zero gravity like three dimensional world.
Coral reefs are extremely valuable for a small island like Koh Tao. Visitors come from the world over to scuba dive and snorkel the reefs. Enjoying the spectacle of corals, fish, and other marine life that mesmerises once you put your face underwater.
On Koh Tao, a number of conscientious dive instructors and local businesses decided that it was fine to use the island for the recreational sport of scuba diving and snorkelling, which makes it even more critical that we also give something back to try and preserve the local environment.
After all without the reefs of Koh Tao the island would be a mere shadow of its former self. Tourism is crucial to the economy of Koh Tao and without the reefs, the island community would be vastly altered.
Implementation of Coral Reef Monitoring on Koh Tao
In late 2007 I undertook a coral reef monitoring course conducted by Reef Check international. This was the first step in understanding the coral ecosystem allowing me to assess the health of coral reefs using a globally standardised monitoring protocol.
With this knowledge I returned to Koh Tao and started monitoring the health of the reefs around the island. This sort of monitoring, if conducted well, indicates long term trends and illustrates changes in the ecological health of reefs. This can then be linked to how those sites or locations have been used over time.
When you want to contribute to the conservation of coral reefs and contributing to their preservation, it is highly recommended to learn more about the coral reef ecosystem itself (through such programs as the PADI Underwater Naturalist or PADI Fish Identification specialty course) or alternatively undertake something like the Reef Check Ecodiver course, which allows you to join international teams of volunteers monitoring reefs worldwide.
This provides a great opportunity for someone who may have already dived and who wants to delve deeper into the aquatic world but also wants their diving experiences to contribute to the greater good of protecting our world’s reefs.
Data collected during this time has helped identify areas being damaged or degraded by overuse as highlighted in this research paper on coral bleaching. The data has also highlighted the resilience of some of the island’s reefs as highlighted in many of Eco Koh Tao’s publications.
Building Artificial Reefs on Koh Tao for our Future
One of the ways the island’s conservationists have attempted to address growing degradation and overuse of many of the island’s dive sites has been the design, construction and deployment of a number of purpose built artificial reefs.
Artificial reefs are defined as “any structure placed on the seabed deliberately to mimic some characteristic/s of a natural reef for the broad purpose of habitat creation”.
We have strategically built and designed our artificial reefs to enhance marine life concentrations to places where interactions are more likely. As mentioned earlier, many of Koh Tao’s scuba divers are beginners and beginners often struggle with buoyancy control.
Despite this shortcoming, no matter what level of experience the diver has, they want to see spectacular marine life and interact with the aquatic realm as much as possible.
By developing artificial reefs as training locations, we have provided a safe place for people to learn to dive, but it also provides somewhat unfettered access to cool, interesting and surprising marine life. These artificial reefs attract a surprising array of marine life, much of it unusual or relatively unique for the island’s dive sites.
With artificial structures surrounded by large patches of sand, students and inexperienced divers can still get close enough to enjoy intimate experiences while protecting the surrounding reef from inadvertent kicks from stray fins.
At the same time, the natural reefs, which were often overrun by scuba divers can enjoy a modicum of respite from the constant traffic associated with dive training programs. These set ups provide a win-win scenario for both divers and the coral reef environment.
Promoting Recycling on Koh Tao
One of the most popular and spectacular artificial reefs is Junkyard Reef, located in Mae Haad. Junkyard Reef often appears as in lists as one of the top 10 dive sites around Koh Tao. As the name suggests, the majority of the structures have been developed using non-toxic recycled waste material that would otherwise have ended up in the island’s overflowing landfills.
Therefore the development of Junkyard provides additional advantages that have terrestrial reach. By re-using these materials, the marine life benefits from increased habitat, the dive community benefits from having dedicated dive sites for training giving the natural reefs a break, and the local government has less trash to manage.
Growing Coral Nurseries on Koh Tao
In addition to the artificial reefs being deployed, Eco Koh Tao and Crystal Dive have been marine conservation leaders on Koh Tao, instrumental in the development and ongoing maintenance of a number of coral nurseries around the island.
We manage coral nurseries by collecting loose coral fragments that would likely otherwise die off, and we place them in rope or table nurseries to develop into larger colonies that can be transplanted. This nursery time allows volunteers to be involved in their maintenance and research to determine which methods work best, and how best to maintain and manage corals for better growth and future survival.
Over the years our research has been focused on trying to determine which corals are more resilient, which are likely to survive through future disturbances and which provide ideal habitat for different types of marine life.
One thing we learn about coral is that the more you learn, the more there is to know. It is an amazing, fragile but resilient animal (yes, it’s an animal) that, as a foundational reef species, is crucial for the future health and well being of coral reefs.
Conservation training programs, inspiring the next generation of divers
One of the best things about the conservation movement on Koh Tao is that the programs are designed, run and managed by experts who have built their knowledge and skills not so much in a classroom reading research papers, but by being actively involved in the process of active reef restoration and coral reef monitoring.
As a diver, I became interested in marine conservation and consequently undertook a Reef Check monitoring course and it spiralled from there. The Reef Check Program has more recently been complemented by the locally relevant Koh Tao Ecological Monitoring Program Course which illustrates how to take a globally standardised program and give it local relevance. This allows us on Koh Tao to have more detailed knowledge of the local reefs and ecosystem.
Crystal Dive’s marine conservation arm, Eco Koh Tao, offers the more detailed PADI Marine Resource Management Course. The Marine Resource Management Program goes deeper into the ecology & biology of the coral reef ecosystem providing greater insight into the workings of this fascinating ecosystem.
This is a 5-day program that also provides comprehensive coverage of elements of marine conservations such as the design and construction of artificial reefs, the development and maintenance of coral nurseries and innovative reef health solutions such as the use of mineral accretion technology.
To undertake the full environmental education program requires scuba divers to be at least PADI Advanced Open Water certified with specialty buoyancy training, or alternatively have substantial dive experience to have suitable control when conducting many of these activities.
That said, there are still opportunities for beginners to be involved by participating in an intro to the Reef Check Ecodiver program, or simply ask the eco team if you can tag along on a day of eco activities. I can guarantee you that the slow pace of an eco-dive can be some of the most relaxing and rewarding diving you will ever do.
Once you are sufficiently trained up, you become a valuable asset as someone who can help protect and preserve Koh Tao’s reefs. As a passionate ecodiver the eco-internship might be the way to go. Weeks or even months of diving and involvement in the preservation of the coral reef ecosystems with limited investment. That’s the reward for all your hard work and effort in caring for our environment.
Nathan Cook M.Sc
PADI MI #479720