rescue underway in Thailand|
RACHA YAI ISLAND,
Thailand - On a beach alive with tropical delights
and smooth, white sand washed by calm, turquoise
waters, Bas Toeter cuts an odd figure in a
T-shirt, shorts and wide-brimmed hat.
Instead of lounging on the beach or
swimming in the sea, as is the case with the few
dozen European tourists here, the lanky Toeter
sweats under the afternoon sun in the company of
other foreigners with work on their minds.
The product of their labor is gathered
nearby: large balls with holes in them made of a
mixture that includes cement. At a distance, they
come across like giant grey mushrooms strewn,
somewhat out of place, across the beach.
Toeter, a 30-year-old academic from
Amsterdam, has been making these reef balls, as
they're known, for almost a week on Racha Yai
Island, some 40 kilometers west from Thailand's
So have the other men
and women, such as Mitch Carl and Melissa Keyes
from the United States, who are among a group of
25 volunteers from 13 different countries on a
mission to this island to help restore its coral
reefs after last December's tsunami.
is a good ecological project," says Toeter, as he
pauses from his turn at the mould that makes the
reef balls. "This will help local eco-tourism."
According to John Walch, one of the
leaders of this effort, the almost one-meter-high
balls have helped create man-made coral reefs
across the seas. They include artificial successes
in countries with renowned natural coral reefs,
such as the Maldive Islands, and tourist resorts
like Cancun, Mexico, and the Bahamas, both washed
by the Caribbean Sea.
"Within 15 minutes
of reef balls being placed in the sea, fish move
in and new corals spawn in a year," says Walch,
whose organization, the Reef Ball Foundation, is
at the forefront of this effort to enrich marine
life around Racha Yai Island.
non-governmental foundation demonstrates just how
rich such new sea life would be on its website. A
photo displays the fresh coral that radiates with
a diversity of shapes and colors over a hardly
visible reef ball.
Walch's team of foreign
volunteers plans to churn out 300 reef balls
within the space of a month, adding to the half a
million such balls that have been placed on the
seabed throughout the world.
create five artificial reefs and one snorkeling
trail near Racha Island," Walch says. "This will
mean five new dive sites."
government - including Prime Minister Thaksin
Shinawatra - is backing this effort in a show of
welcome to foreign volunteers who are prepared to
help Thailand's tsunami-battered Andaman coastline
The government's marine-life
experts admit that the move to create artificial
reefs off Racha Yai Island will be mirrored in
other spots near the popular tourist resort island
of Phuket. The coastal waters off Patong Bay on
Phuket and nearby Phi Phi island are among them.
"Coral reefs along the shore were [more]
badly damaged than those beyond," Phitul
Panchaiyahum of the Department of Marine and
Coastal Resources tells Inter Press Service. "The
debris included logs of wood, coconut tree trunks,
mattresses, and lots of sand."
cleaning efforts off the coast of Phuket alone
resulted in more than 20 tons of trash being
brought to the surface, says Phitul. "Phi Phi
island had the most trash that was cleaned after
the tsunami: 50 tons."
But according to
experts, 100 days after the devastating December
26 tsunami struck Thailand, the exquisite marine
life that is a huge tourist attraction here is not
in peril. Only 13% of coral was badly affected in
the tsunami-ravaged coastal belt, says Niphon
Phongsuwan, a senior marine biologist at the
Department of Marine and Coastal Resources.
Among the areas hit were coral reefs near
Surin, Phi Phi and the Similan islands, most of
which are a draw among divers for their
spectacular coral gardens protected in national
Yet Niphon admits that some
of the damage to the reefs arose from bad planning
of the resort areas along Thailand's south-western
coastline. "We have to accept that we developed in
the wrong way. In some places land reclamation was
a factor that affected the coral reefs," he says.
Excessive diving has chipped away at the
sea's underwater beauty. This is largely due to
damages caused by boats anchoring in the midst of
a coral reef or to divers stepping on the coral.
According to available estimates, the island of
Phuket attracts between 4 million to 5 million
tourists annually. Among them are nearly 100,000
visitors who go snorkeling or diving at the many
coral reefs nearby.
Today, however, there
is barely a trace of such a large number of
divers. Naokorn Amornwatpong, a Thai marine tour
operator, attributes this absence more to fear
caused by the tsunami and damage on the shore,
than the loss of coral life in the sea.
"Lot of divers are staying away; there
have been many cancellations," says Naokorn. "We
have to hope that they will be back when the next
season begins in November."
By then, the
beauty of Thailand's natural coral reefs in the
Andaman Sea will go up against the fledgling
man-made reefs, whose makers feel confident will
be a sought-after alternative to diving
But will they be as pretty as
nature's own offerings?
"The reef balls
will provide new reefs. [They] will ease the
pressure on the natural reefs," says Walch,
enthusiastically. "Within three years, 75% of [the
area's] marine life will be restored."
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