10 January 2005

Divers begin Thailand's big coral clean-up

Koh Phi Phi, Thailand - Boatloads of volunteer divers descended into the azure waters of the Andaman Sea on Sunday to clear away the tsunami debris littering Thailand's famed coral reefs.

The killer waves flung everything from people to televisions to plastic chairs into the pristine waters, including those around the paradise island of Koh Phi Phi, made famous by cult backpacker movie The Beach.

However, marine experts said overall damage was not as bad as initially feared and that Mother Nature's own clean-up process had already kicked into action.

"There was a lot of sand on the reef, but the current has moved a lot of the sediment away, so we can see that much of the coral is still alive," said Niphon Phangsuwan of the Marine Biological Centre in Phuket, 50km to the north.

Initial surveys suggest some of the reefs along Thailand's western coast, which attracts thousands of snorkeling and diving tourists each year, escaped totally unscathed. Overall, the damage has been estimated at around 5 percent.

Large chunks of coral snapped off by the rushing surge of debris were still alive and would continue to grow, Niphon said. Only the smaller fragments would die.

Off Phi Phi, where divers had to negotiate sunken computer screens and submerged fishing boats, the reefs - often referred to as the tropical rainforests of sea - continue to support their glittering array of marine life, including eels, sea snakes and turtles gliding gently beneath the waves.

Biologists said that while the tsunami rose to a height of up to 11 metres above normal sea levels when it crashed ashore around Phuket, under the surface of the water there appeared to have been relatively little movement.

"There's some damage to the coral, but not quite as much as I had expected," said Tony Clark, a British diving instructor working in Thailand. "But there is some debris: crisp packets, sanitary products, plastic bottles, things which won't decay."

Most of the rubbish appeared to have been lying on the reefs since the tsunami hit two weeks ago, although some plastic bags or cans had clearly been there for much longer - ugly reminders of man's intrusion into a pristine wilderness.

The tsunami may just reverse the unchecked development which was rapidly destroying the island's environment.

With most of the buildings on Phi Phi lying in ruins, its entire future as a tourist resort hangs in the balance, and there are even calls to turn the craggy, jungle-clad island into a nature reserve.

"I feel that some of the areas must be made off-limits, with prohibitions on the divers," said Petipong Pungbun Na Ayudhya, an environment ministry official.


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