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Coral Reef Rescue Underway
RACHA YAI ISLAND, Thailand,
Apr 6 (IPS) - On a beach alive with tropical
delights as smooth white sand washed by calm
turquoise waters, an European like Bas Toeter cuts
an odd figure in a T-shirt, shorts and
Instead of lounging
on the beach or swimming in the sea as is the case
with a few dozen tourists, the lanky Toeter sweats
under the afternoon sun in the company of other
foreigners with work on their minds.
product of their labour is gathered nearby: large
balls, with holes in them, made out of a mixture
that includes cement. At a distance, they come
across like giant grey mushrooms strewn, somewhat
out of place, on the beach.
30-year-old educationist from Amsterdam, has been
making these reef balls, as they are known, for
almost a week on Racha Yai Island, some 40
kilometers west from Thailand's Andaman coastline.
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 mission to this
island to help restore its coral reefs after last
''It is a good
ecological project,'' says Toeter, as he pauses
from his turn at the mould that is making the reef
balls. ''This will help local eco-tourism.''
According to John Walch, one of the
leaders in 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 in tourist
resorts like Cancun, in Mexico, and the Bahamas,
both washed by the Caribbean Sea.
15 minutes of reef balls being placed in the sea,
fish move in and new corals spawn in a year,''
says Walch, whose organisation, the Reef Ball
Foundation, is at the forefront of this effort to
enrich marine life around Racha Yai Island.
The U.S.-based 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
colours over a hardly visible reef ball.
Walch's team of foreign volunteers plan to
churn out 300 reef balls within the space of a
month, thus adding to the half a million such
balls that have been placed on the seabed across
''We will create five
artificial reefs and one snorkeling trail near
Racha Island,'' he says. ''This will mean five new
The Thai government -
including Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra - is
backing this effort in a show of welcoming foreign
volunteers who are prepared to help Thailand's
tsunami-battered Andaman coastline recover.
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 the
nearby Phi Phi island are among them.
''Coral reefs along the shore were badly
damaged than those beyond,'' Phitul Panchaiyahum
of the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources
tells IPS. ''The debris included logs of wood,
coconut tree trunks, mattresses, and lot of
Coral cleaning efforts off the
coast of Phuket, alone, had resulted in over 20
tons of trash being brought to the surface, says
Phitul. ''Phi Phi island had the most trash that
was cleaned after the tsunami. Fifty tons.''
But 100 days since the devastating Dec. 26
tsunami struck, the exquisite marine life that is
a huge tourist attraction here is fortunately not
Only 13 percent 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
Among the areas hit were coral
reefs near the Surin, Phi Phi and Similan islands,
most of which are a draw among divers for their
spectacular coral gardens protected in national
But Niphon admits that some
of the damage to the reefs arose from bad planning
of the resort areas along Thailand's south-western
coast. ''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 said.
Excessive diving has chipped away at the
underwater beauty, largely due to damages caused
by boats anchoring in the midst of a coral reef or
divers stepping on the coral.
available estimates, the island of Phuket attracts
between four to five million tourists annually.
Among them are nearly 100,000 visitors who go
snorkeling or diving at the many coral reefs
But today, there is barely a trace
of such a large number of divers plunging into the
water to take in the beauty of Thailand's
exquisite marine life. Naokorn Amornwatpong, a
Thai marine tour operator, attributes this absence
to the fear caused by the tsunami and the damage
on the shore, than the loss of coral life in the
''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 sort after alternative to
But will they be as
pretty as nature's offering?
Balls will provide new reefs. It will ease the
pressure on the natural reefs,'' says Walch,
enthusiastically. ''Within three years, 75 percent
of marine life will be restored.'' (END/2005)
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