As manager of Eco Koh Tao marine conservation centre on this small 21 sq.km island, I worked closely with Crystal Dive Resort to educate and inspire the many divers that passed through the subtle, sandy shores of this small speck in the Gulf of Thailand. Some divers joined our ranks looking to develop their ecological knowledge extensively by undertaking detailed marine ecology and conservation training lasting four weeks and beyond.
There were many such individuals who spent time and money making sure they were environmentally aware divers who had the knowledge, the ability and paid for the opportunity to do something about it.
Others were there for the cheap diving and party lifestyle that Koh Tao offered. Conservation as a focus was a secondary process, brought about by the good work organisations like Eco Koh Tao and many others selflessly undertake to provide awareness and improve the chances that the beautiful reefs around the island remain healthy and provide the services the entire economy relies on.
This small island is home to over 50 dive schools and 100’s of hotels all vying for the tourist dollar that flocks to the island. Annual estimates vary from 300,000 – 500,000 people, but regardless of the number the island is under a great deal of pressure from being over loved.
One relatively easy way to raise environmental awareness is to undertake a local clean up of a beach or a dive site. In my time on Koh Tao I have participated or coordinated numerous beach and dive site clean ups, too many to remember. Many approaches exist and the activity involves a certain sense of accomplishment from all involved that they have ‘done something’ or satisfied some intrinsic desire to ‘give something back’.
Raising awareness is important but I often felt the activity seemed pointless.
If people took responsibility for their waste, avoided discarding it in the first place then just such clean ups wouldn’t be necessary in the first place. It is a fruitless argument because despite the best intentions trash always finds a way to the ocean via waterways, wind and unintentional. Surveys of debris in the world’s oceans suggest that huge amounts of material find their way into the marine environment each year.
Much of this debris (~80%) originates from land and enters the marine environment
The Dangers Of Plastic
Besides being aesthetically displeasing, debris often has impacts on large fauna. Turtles can ingest plastic bags they mistake for more commonly consumed jellyfish. Plastic disrupts metabolism and can lead to serious injury. Discarded nets can get tangled in fish, turtles even whales.
Less well known, are the potential impacts on other marine animals especially those stuck to the bottom such as corals. Corals can get entangled end eventually die from such debris.
One of the big dangers in the marine world is the myriad of hard plastics that never biodegrade but rather disintegrate into smaller and smaller pieces being ingested by small oceanic organisms like plankton and small fish. These animal become food for others and the multiplying effect means that bigger fish, fish that we might consume, could contain hundreds of bits of plastic consumed by the animals that it ate previously. The knock on effect is substantial.
A Different Approach
Recently I decided to take a slightly different approach to the whole garbage on the beach problem and conduct a thorough survey of what is there, how big it is and where it comes from. Volunteers from Crystal Dive and Eco Koh Tao selected locations on two beaches, one on the east coast and one on the west coast of Koh Tao. On 50m sections we scoured the beach for everything we could find aiming for the small trash that often gets missed in light hearted clean ups that are conducted regularly on Koh Tao.
Once complete, the enthusiastic volunteers helped to sort the trash into different categories of plastics, foam, bottle caps, cans, rubber, metal and fishing debris. Going deeper into the problem we categorised the trash into different sizes from really small (2 x 2 cm) to big (>16cm2).
It was a pretty tough process as we had collected a lot of garbage and it was time consuming as well. The aim is to work out what the major problems are and where they might be coming from rather than pick up trash and throw it away.
For example on the west coast near a few resorts, where the sun had been shining and the weather nice and calm we collected hundreds of cigarette butts suggesting that smokers were less than vigilant in the disposal of their butts. This information provides the catalyst for a targeted advertising campaign to remind people that smoking on the beach is fine but take your trash with you.
On the east coast the story was very different. Trash was substantially more as Koh Tao’s east coast has been subject to easterly winds for the monsoonal months leading up to our efforts. In addition some wild weather had reduced the enthusiasm of the local resorts to clean the beaches as they normally would seeing that tourists would be absent til the weather blew over.
On Koh Tao’s east coast we recovered trash brought in by the tides and the wind. Hundreds of bottle caps, plastic bags and literally thousands of tiny bits of photo-degrading plankton. This suggests that much of the debris problem is ocean borne, drifting around creating part of the plankton before losing buoyancy enough to sink to the bottom or washing up on a beach somewhere.
This ocean borne plastic is harder to address and one that requires legislative changes to the way plastics are produced, the materials they use and ultimately the way people take responsibility for the things they use.
I thought the divemaster trainees I roped in to help me sort trash would be angry at given such a dirty job. On the contrary they found it extremely interesting and educational and were more than happy to help on the three occasions I proposed such a job. It was great to see such enthusiasm and appreciation for opening their eyes to the issues of trash in the place they were calling home for one, two, three months or more.
A Bright Future
Over the past few years it is evident that the message is getting through on Koh Tao. Fewer polystyrofoam are supplied with take-out food, preferring the more environmentally friendly cardboard options. Water refill stations, like the one at Crystal Dive reception provide options for visitors the refill rather and purchase new bottles of drinking water.
Recycling stations are popping up and people are investing in themselves and the environment undertaking more and more dive training and excursions that focus on preserving the environment. With such enthusiasm the future for the Koh Tao both above and below the water looks bright.
Author: Nathan Cook (PADI Master Instructor/ Reef Check Instructor Trainer)
About The Author:
Nathan lived on Koh Tao full time from 2002 – 2014 initially working as a PADI Instructor for Crystal Dive. Taking a keen interest in conservation early on during his scuba diving career, Nathan co-founded Eco Koh Tao in 2006. The driving force behind the organisation Nathan spent the next 8 years spearheading varies environmental projects including the building of Koh Tao’s most popular artificial reef, Junkyard.
An avid conservationist, Nathan is a Reef Check Instructor Trainer, teaches the Marine Resource Management program and holds an MSc in Marine Science from Southern Cross University, Australia.