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Coral Reef Rescue Underway in Thailand
Marwaan Macan-Markar

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 wide-brimmed hat.

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.

The 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.

Toeter, a 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 December's tsunami.

''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.

''Within 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 the world.

''We will create five artificial reefs and one snorkeling trail near Racha Island,'' he says. ''This will mean five new dive sites.''

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 sand.''

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 in peril.

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 Resources.

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 marine parks.

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.

According to 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 nearby.

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 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 sort after alternative to diving enthusiasts.

But will they be as pretty as nature's offering?

''The Reef 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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