RAJA ISLAND, Thailand: Every day for
weeks, American John Walch has made quirky cement balls he is
convinced will sprout to life once when they are dumped this
month into Thailand's coastal waters.
The project is not pollution, it's a
form of environmental protection, rehabilitation and,
ultimately preservation of part of Thailand's spectacular
natural heritage that was bruised in the December 26 tsunami.
Thailand's lush marine paradise lures millions of
tourists annually with its gorgeous coral treasures, but it's
aiming to improve on nature's bounty by planting artificial
reefs along the Andaman coast.
The kingdom's coral has
earned global renown, but as tourism has boomed in recent
years, the natural reefs are under threat as many visitors
take advantage of Thailand's cheap and easy access to
world-class dive sites.
"There is too much diving, the
number of people visiting each particular dive site has
exceeded the limit," conservationist Phitul Panchaiyaphum of
the department of marine and coastal resources explained on a
boat to Raja island off the southern tip of Phuket.
addition to pollution such as plastic bags and fishing lines
and nets, reefs have suffered from dive boats dropping anchor
directly onto sensitive coral areas, he said. Divers
themselves sometimes touch, break off or step on the reefs.
"We need to create more diving destinations," he told
reporters. "We are installing artificial reefs -- concrete
cubes or balls where fish will reside and coral can grow."
Enter Walch and his non-profit Reef Ball Foundation.
The group has put half a million of the cement structures into
the sea in 50 countries.
At the request of a resort
hotel under construction on Raja island, Reef Ball began
preparing a Thai project in September. Three months later
disaster struck, with the tsunami barreling into the coast.
A January assessment of the region's coral found 13
percent of reefs showed "high impact" from the waves -- either
broken or upturned coral, reefs smothered by sand, or damaged
by debris swept into the sea by the huge waves.
all here to help this bay recover after the tsunami," Walch,
56, said alongside a cement mixer set up at the site of the
future hotel dominating Raja's beach.
Over the next
month Walch and his team of international volunteers plan to
place 300 reefballs in the bay, creating five new reefs and
one snorkel trail to sit alongside the bay's lone natural
"It will provide new reefs for the increased
number of tourists coming into this bay," he said, nodding at
the handful of visitors snorkeling out in the bay's turquoise
"You only have so many natural reefs to go to.
This will help lessen the pressure by giving alternatives."
Similar artificial reefs are planned for Kata, Patong
and Kamala bays on Phuket, and on the island of Phi Phi, famed
for its coral formations.
The projects have the
backing of the prime minister's office, the Tourism Authority
of Thailand and the ministry of environment, all of which are
eager to find ways to ease mounting pressure on the kingdom's
Though they look crude to they eye, the
meter-wide reef balls, patented by the foundation, are
actually quite technical. They are designed so that when water
passes through its many holes, a vortex is created that pushes
the ball down, ensuring stability.
Four reef balls had
already been set in place in the bay as a demonstration before
the tsunami. All of them stayed put.
The balls, Walch
said, are quick to become hosts of flourishing coral systems,
with fish claiming them as their new homes barely a quarter
hour after its placement on the sea floor.
three years, reef balls have 75 percent of the marine
organisms that inhabit a normal reef," he said. Pieces of
coral broken off by the tsunami that would die if left
unattended are attached to the balls where they grow anew.
Not everyone is a reef ball fan, though, with some
wondering if overextension of the projects will backfire with
tourists who come to Thailand for the genuine article.
"This is a way to decrease pressure on coral reefs ...
but I don't see the point of reef balls in the natural reef,"
said Niphon Phongsuwan, a senior biologist at the department
of marine and coastal resources, who put the number of divers
and snorkelers visiting Phuket at about 100,000 per year.
"For the first 10 years they might look ugly."
Walch, who has worked on artificial reefs for three
decades, said they'll look splendid after only a few years,
but conceded the true treasures of the sea belonged to nature.
"We can never replace what mother nature has done," he
said, "but we can try and replicate it as good as we can."