The disastrous tsunami which killed thousands of people in six southern provinces prompted a massive relief effort not only for human survivors but also for coral formations.
Coral reefs serve as a habitat for fish and other marine animals and are therefore important as a source of food and livelihood for people living along the Andaman coast. The reefs are also an important source of income for the domestic tourism industry.
Four days after the tsunami struck, an unprecedented number of researchers from various government agencies and educational institutes joined up with volunteer divers in a massive cooperative effort to assess the impact of the tsunami on marine resources in southern Thailand.
From December 30 to January 15, some 100 researchers from the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, from Chulalongkorn, Kasetsart, Burapha, Ramkhamhaeng, Prince of Songkla, Walailak and Mahidol universities and from Trang's Rajamangala Institute of Technology and the National Parks Department made countless dives to assess 324 spots in 174 representative sites in 10 marine parks and one wildlife reserve.
The researchers were assisted by more than 120 volunteer divers, and findings were submitted to the Phuket Marine Biological Centre which served as the research coordinating centre.
The assessments were made around Laem Son Marine National Park in Ranong; the Surin and Similan islands in Phangnga; Sirinart Marine National Park in Phuket; Krabi's Nopparat Thara and Phi Phi, Tharn Boke Koranee and Lanta islands; Chao Mai in Trang; Phae Tra and Tarutao marine national parks in Satun, and the Talibong Wildlife Reserve Area in Trang.
The researchers found that 69, or 40 percent, of the areas assessed were almost untouched by the tsunami, while 36, or 21 percent, were slightly damaged. Only 23, or 13 percent, of the sites sustained considerable damage.
Damaged coral was turned over or broken by the gigantic waves, collapsed on sliding sand slopes or was smothered by sediment, debris and garbage.
The worst affected areas were in Ranong province and in parts of the Surin, Similan and Phi Phi islands, while coral formations in Satun, Phuket, Krabi and Trang were almost untouched.
"In most of the areas surveyed, there was dead coral but this was killed not by the tsunami but by human activities _ from pollution, garbage, land development along the coast, and the impact of tourism, direct and indirect,'' said Niphon Phongsuwan, a researcher from the Phuket Marine Biological Centre who headed an initial survey two days after the tsunami struck.
Two weeks later, coral which was overturned or had branches broken was beginning to recover on its own.
"The coral destroyed by nature will heal over time and survive if protected from the destructive activities of man,'' Niphon said.
"Damage caused by man may come in small doses but it is irreversible,'' he added. ```The tsunami disaster could be nature's way of showing that man may be intelligent but there is a force more powerful than man, and that overexploitation of natural resources could affect human life and property in ways that no one could ever have imagined.''
Nalinee Thongtham, PhD, a marine biologist at the Phuket Marine Biological Centre who has worked with coral for 15 years, participated in the survey and assessment of tsunami damage.
Divers Work to Rescue Coral (Bangkok Post Feb. 6,)
Eleven volunteer divers on Tuesday rescued about 1,200 colonies of coral in the 7m-deep waters off Koh Pai. However, repairing such reefs was a difficult task and movement of the coral ideally needs to be carried out under the supervision of marine biologists. Divers must know how to identify coral by species, and be able to tell whether colonies are alive or dead, Mr Niphon said.
''If you don't see any pollen on the upper surface of the coral that means it has already died, so there is no need to return it to its original position,'' Mr Niphon said during a briefing for five foreign volunteer divers at the start of the recovery operation.
''In the case of damaged table coral, small pieces need to be placed on top of the main living part, allowing it to gradually meld. However, you have to ensure that the coral is the same species and from the same colony, otherwise they may kill each other. Coral that has only been damaged slightly should not be touched, since they will naturally recover,'' he said.
''By doing this, I believe the damaged reefs will fully recover in three to four years," he said.
''Only 13% of 174 coral sites surveyed had been badly hit. The tsunami's effect on Thailand's coral reefs has so far been less than during depression storms and outbreaks of the crown of thorns starfish in the 1980s, or the coral bleaching phenomenon in 2003,'' Mr Niphon said.
Areas where coral reefs were worst hit by the tsunami are Ranong, Surin islands, Similan islands and Phi Phi island. Coral reefs around Satun, Phuket, Trang and Phangnga were left virtually untouched by the disaster. Other areas, including Pattaya, were unaffected entirely.
''TAT, which has received a large budget from the government to revive tourism, should provide more funding for the efforts to restore coral reefs, since diving is critical to the country's tourism industry,'' said Tia, a volunteer diver from Scotland.
British Divers Support Relief Effort (Divenet UK, Feb. 3, 2005)
Following Asia's tsunami tragedy, many dive centres in the region are working to help the dispossessed, while getting their own businesses back on track. But divers in Britain, too, have been inspired to support relief and recovery programmes.
Primary relief work continues in devastated areas but, inevitably, thought is turning to the medium-term challenges of rebuilding homes and businesses. A number of incentives have been created by divers who, after being caught up in the disaster, have returned home but want to help.
DiveAid, a fund set up by three divers who have worked in Thailand's decimated Kao Lak area, is administered from Britain. The aim is to support Thai colleagues and their families, and help replace lost equipment (link 'Divers set up direct assistance for dive community in Thailand', below).
Sheffield's SDS Watersports and Tiger Diver, and Rotherham's Sub-Aqua Divers and South Yorkshire Dive Academy have raised money for, or made appeals on behalf of, DiveAid.
London's Diving Leisure and Lodge SCUBA centres are running a combined 24-hour sponsored dive over 5/6 February for DiveAid and the Disaster Emergency Committee. And London Scuba is planning a similar event.
In Jersey in the Channel Islands, St Helier's Apnea dive centre has already completed a fundraising pool try-dive day, which gathered a very reasonable £528 for tsunami relief efforts.
Among the dive training agencies, PADI has made a very substantial, $70,000 commitment in aid to South-east Asia. The money will be channelled through PADI Project AWARE's Tsunami Relief Fund, aimed primarily at supporting environmental clean-up and restoration projects.
Regional Asia offices of training agencies TDI, SDI and SSI have also provided support to diving communities.
For personal donations, a bewildering choice runs from the major organisations like the DEC to newer, smaller groups. If considering a lesser known name, beware; financial institutions have warned against scammers targetting donors, through bogus websites or unsolicited emails.
Divers Help Clean Battered Reefs (The Age (Australia) Jan. 23)
Italian diver Adriano Trapani is donning a fake designer T-shirt. Given that he retrieved it from the sea floor, still in its plastic wrapping, it's in pretty good nick.
That wasn't all he found as a volunteer diver cleaning Thailand's coral reefs. In three days diving off Patong last week, Mr Trapani found an underwater flea market of fake Gucci bags, silk pyjamas and shoes - indeed, most of the product lines of the Patong beachfront vendors. Nearby were the still-dressed torsos of mannequins, trees, twisted metal, cans of drink and the ubiquitous plastic bottle. And amid this soggy bounty was a wall clock, stopped at 10am - the time the waves hit on Boxing Day.
Yesterday's dive to a more isolated reef near Phi Phi Island found a much different situation. There was little detritus on the reef. There were plenty of fish, even a shark. The coral, too delicate to withstand the tsunami, was smashed in many places.
Amid Thailand's spectacular limestone islands, Mr Trapani joined 150 volunteer divers from 12 boats at the weekend, one of many such dives conducted daily since the tsunami. Led by the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, the divers map the damage, thought to be, at most, 20 per cent of the Andaman Sea reefs. They remove rubbish washed onto the reef and try to stand up coral that has been pushed over.
Although a month has passed since the tsunami, it will take another three to finish the job, says organiser Pitul Panchayaphum, from the marine department. The effort is focused on areas off Patong beach and the tourist-drawcard reefs off Phi Phi, Surin and Racha islands. "But for tourists there are still places to go."
Mr Panchayaphum said divers from around the world have volunteered for the clean-up. "With every job the foreigners come to help me," he said. Local dive shops and clubs are offering divers and businesses boats at cheap rates.
Divers off the Similan islands - a popular destination for multiple-day diving trips - have found coral cloaked in tents and sleeping bags.
Nearby at Surin Island, studies show that half of the 14 main snorkelling spots were seriously damaged.
Reprinted with permission from Bob Jamesfrom Aquanauts Dive Center in Thailand
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