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Conservation in Thailand - Monthly Update May 2008
May has been a strange month for the project here in Krabi in that for one week in the middle of the month we had no volunteers. In my two years here we have not had this situation, although there was a time in September last year when we only had one volunteer for three days. The gap, however, has given Marie, Knot and myself the chance to develop certain parts of the project further and plan for the busy summer months, as well as taking a welcome couple of days holiday. So, I'll write this update in two halves, beginning with a description of the live-aboard that Marie mentioned in April's update, and ending with the arrival of the new volunteers and what they have been up to in their first few days here.
May began with 3 days aboard the Navada over at Phi Phi, with a national TV crew from Channel 9 making a documentary about our conservation activities with the aim of raising awareness about the marine environment. This was obviously a cause for excitement and a certain apprehension as most of us had never been on television before. We had planned to show as many activities as possible for the camera to get a broad view of what the project is all about.
The first day started by loading huge quantities of food and all sorts of equipment on to the bus, then on to two longtail boats and lastly on to the Navada, which was quite a feat in itself. We also swung by the fisheries department in Ao Nam Mao to collect 600 Yellowtail damselfish (Pomacentrus auriventris), 900 Bengal sergeants (Abudefduf bengalensis) and 50 seahorses (Hippocampus spp.). Our first destination was Viking Cave on Phi Phi Lei where we released half of the fish on to parts of the reef, and half the seahorses on to Gorgonian sea fans which are their preferred habitats. Whilst moving to our second release site at Losama Bay in the south of the island, we spotted a pod of dolphins which stayed near the boat for a good ten minutes, elegantly surfacing and allowing the camera man excellent opportunity to get some good footage.
At Losama Bay we took the remaining fish and seahorses down with us, and released them in the underwater canyon of the island in the bay. We also spotted several Crown of Thorns starfish (COTS) but did not have the right equipment to remove them, so we planned to return on the third day to collect them. Unfortunately, the wind had picked up by then preventing us making it down to Losama Bay again; we are aware of their presence so when we get a chance, we will make it a mission to do a COTS clean-up there in the near future. We stayed in the bay for another hour whilst some of us jumped into the sea again to collect large amounts of floating litter from the surface, mainly plastic and polystyrene; all very lightweight but we collected so much it amounted to 10kg.
We ended the first day by a night dive at Monkey Bay, where we had anchored for the night. It was the volunteers' first night dive, and quite a good one as night dives go; we saw a Giant barracuda (Sphyraena jello) hunting, a couple of hermit crabs, a lionfish (Pterios spp.) and a small ribbon eel swimming in midwater, beautifully illuminated by our torches, though we were not able to work out what species.
After a thankfully dry night either in hammocks or on mats under the stars, we woke with the sunrise, jumped off the boat for a morning swim and got started on the day's diving. The plan for the second day was to show the TV crew the artificial reef and coral nursery that Phuket Marine Biological Centre has developed over the last three years. We are helping PMBC maintain the nursery by cleaning the trays on which the corals are growing, and by measuring the coral fragments every two months, so we carried out some of this work on the first dive. The second dive was a salvage dive, again at Viking Cave, with the mission of raising three large collapsed fish traps that Ban Gao had spotted on previous dives. We went down with the plastic bags we had released the fish from, split into three teams and swam to our allocated fish trap where we tied on the bags and inflated them with air, sending them to the surface where a couple of snorkelers pulled them back to the boat. The last dive of the day was at Hin Dot, a submerged rock between Phi Phi Don and Lei. Though it was essentially a fun dive, we did remove bits of fishing net and line whenever we came across some. We saw a couple of leopard sharks and Mon spotted five leopard shark eggs (mermaid's pouches) attached by fibrous strands to corals. This is obviously a very encouraging sign in terms of marine conservation, and for the leopard shark population in the area.
The third day started by some divers going down again at Hin Dot to remove an anchor spotted the day before. This time a BCD was attached and inflated to lift it to the surface as it weighed around 60kg. We then went back to Monkey Bay for a very shallow dive collecting vast quantities of rubbish that had collected there over the last few months. There was so much we had to use dive kit bags instead of the usual net salvage bags; there were large numbers of glass bottles and all sorts of other items of debris including a motorbike helmet and a large sheet of fiberglass. After bagging and weighing it all we went straight to the boat responsible for collecting the rubbish from Phi Phi and transporting it back to the mainland, and unloaded it all far more easily than taking it back to shore ourselves as it weighed 130kg. This brought the total amount salvaged over the three days to 280kg, which is higher than any previous month since we began keeping records; the previous record was 243kg in December 2007 so it was clearly a fantastic cleaning effort by everyone on the live-aboard.
Our last dive of the trip was at Koh Yung, where I was training the volunteers in marine animal identification. After the TV crew had filmed the underwater fish family signals being demonstrated, they then swam off to look for sea wasps which can sometimes be found in the sand at this site. I have never seen one before, but they were lucky enough to find one and film it crawling along the seabed; footage they showed us all with great pride as seamoths are quite bizarre-looking benthic fish that 'walk' on their pelvic fins with their large pectoral fins spread like wings. The first half of the documentary was aired on the 1st June and the second is showing next Sunday, though at 6.30am; we have been promised a copy of it on dvd so I am really looking forward to watching it when it arrives.
That we had no volunteers in the middle of May was very fortunate as this was the exact time that the monsoon changed direction and the low season kicked in. For ten days the winds and rains picked up and there was no way that we could have gone diving, even by longtail. Marie and I took the opportunity to visit Koh Jum, a very undeveloped island in the south of Krabi province that has no mains electricity nor cars, only dusty roads with motorbikes. I had been contacted by a Canadian who is building some beach villas there and has developed a scheme whereby after every sale of a villa, he invests a certain percentage into the local island community. He had read an article in the Krabi magazine about our school conservation camps, and wanted to establish an environmental awareness-raising programme on the island. We went across to plan a three day trip there with the volunteers in early July to do a workshop with two schools and a big beach clean on the third day; it's taking shape to be a fun and productive three days.
The first activity which the new volunteers took part in was to walk around Ao Nang, distributing the reef awareness posters that volunteers designed in March and April. We split into two groups and visited hotels asking them to put the posters up in prominent places. The poster was generally received very positively with many managers saying that it was good that we were doing this kind of thing. We are planning to laminate the remainder of the posters and give them to the big dive boats to pin up for the tourists to read on their way to dive and snorkel sites.
We've had four diving days in the second half of May, which have been taken up by fish and coral identification training. Marie and I have also finished the reef monitoring training manual, so the volunteers here now are the guinea pigs for this. They are reading this and learning survey and identification techniques, whilst at the same time making notes of minor improvements we can make to the manual before producing the final laminated version. They are also the first volunteers to take the slide show identification tests that Marie and I have developed to ensure accuracy of data collection during surveys. Daan and Robyn took two of the tests recently and, though finding them quite hard, they scored impressively, which is very encouraging as it shows our training methods work well. During the dives we've spotted both juvenile phases of the Many spotted sweetlips, a school of Yellowtail barracuda, a Khul's stingray gracefully 'flying' through the water, a shy Tigertail seahorse, a Globe sea urchin, two Banded seasnakes, a Raggy scorpionfish, a Black and white jorunna (nudibranch species), and a Comet. This last fish was one that I have never seen before, and after looking it up in the book we established that it was a male guarding its eggs in a small cave.
We have not had any more salvage dives since the live-aboard at the beginning of the month, but after beating the monthly weight record in three days, I think this is fair enough. We will get out again sometime in June once the volunteers are trained past advanced diver level. Also, due to the unusual schedule this month we have only had one beach clean-up at Andaman beach where we collected 68.5kg of rubbish, including a wide variety of unusual items such as a urine sample bottle, a plastic toy squid, ten toothpaste tubes, a regulator mouthpiece, a rusty knife, and a wine glass and champagne bottle (unfortunately empty!).
We've also had two days in the mangroves where the volunteers have been helping the community at Baan Thung Prasan to build a nursery for the mangrove seeds collected in April. The first day involved clearing and flattening land, then constructing a wooden frame to keep the soil bags in place. The following day, the volunteers helped the villagers move all the soil-filled bags from the community learning centre and other locations to the newly-built nursery. The village leader, Khun Phairot, also invited us to join him and a group of villagers and students in planting mangrove saplings on World Environment Day on 5th June, so we will definitely be going along to that event.
So, that's the round up of May's activities and achievements, and we head into June with volunteer numbers beginning to pick up again though staying at around five until the onset on the first 2 week summer programme which starts in mid July. I, however, will not be around for this as I finish my contract as Conservation Director on 20th June, and return to the UK for whatever life has in store for me there. This means that this is my last monthly update for the project and Marie will be taking over from me as Director. I wish her all the best and have confidence in her abilities to develop the project further in the future.
Click here and see our graphs of the amount of rubbish the volunteers have collected from the reefs and beaches here in Ao Nang in May 2008 - impressive work.
Click here and see our graphs of the amount of rubbish the volunteers have collected from the reefs and beaches here in Ao Nang over 2007 - impressive work.
3rd June 2008
Director for Thailand Conservation