Dive Aid

News of the Reef

Last Updated: 3-Feb-2005, Paul Foley

Statement from the Dive Operators Club of Thailand – Phuket

Divers have a very close relationship with the sea. We immerse ourselves in her. We feel her maternal primal pull as we float weightless, while we watch in awe the life she supports. We are more aware than most of her dangers, that she can be a cruel and capricious mistress as well as a beautiful friend. Never has this been more evident.

The tsunami was a terrible tragedy inflicted upon coastal communities and their guests. Nowhere was it worse than at Khao Lak and Koh Phi Phi, two destinations largely driven by the dive industry. The diving community has suffered a terrible blow. We have lost friends, and family, and colleagues, and so many others. We have shed an ocean of tears.

Yet after all this, we invite you all to come to the Phuket area at the earliest opportunity. Come have fun, see the amazing holiday destination it is. Please also consider it as the ideal place for meetings and conferences, particularly those necessary in the aftermath of the tragedy. The infrastructure and fundamentals are not only intact, they've never been better. Indeed Phuket has suffered from being so well organized it became the region’s media centre – but (without wishing to diminish the real and obvious suffering here in Phuket) it was not the centre of the tragedy as it sometimes appeared. This internationally held false impression will take time and effort to counter. We ask you to help us in this.

Inevitably, we are now entering a recession as confidence falls in the general absence of tourists – and this is misery heaped onto tragedy. We have lost lives. (But you’d never know it.) What we don’t need now is to lose livelihoods.

If you know and love Thailand, or would like to, you will find that the natural joy of the Thai character remains undimmed. It was the very first thing to reappear after the tsunami, it helped us all get through the pain and then recover fast, and it is here to greet you the second you arrive. Sabai di.

Marine Resources

A full analysis of the effect of the tsunami on marine resources is under way. It is being co-coordinated by the Department of Coastal and Marine Resources, and conducted using a standardised methodology by the Thai universities in possession of baseline data.

In the meanwhile, a preliminary ad hoc assessment has been conducted by dive operators from the Dive Operators Club Thailand – Phuket, and the private sector. It used established divemasters to estimate damage done to recognised dive sites. The areas surveyed were in the world renowned Surin -Similan archipelago, and those in the south of Phangnga Bay, the sites closest to Phuket.

The great benefit of this method is that the survey teams were day-in day-out familiar with the sites. The drawback is that the methodology was neither standardised nor rigourous; and the baselines, being only memories, are open to variation and interpretation.

The government survey should be finished shortly, and the Dive Operators Club Thailand - Phuket (DOCT) will publish their results alongside our own.

However, a clear broad picture has emerged from our assessment.

  • Reef damage is considerably less than might be expected and was initially reported (given the coastal damage).
  • As on land, significant damage is extremely localized.
  • Fish stocks appear completely intact, and are probably benefiting from reduced fishing effort.
  • Exposed shallow fringing reefs suffered (as one might expect).
  • Coral with delicate and inticate structures (such as gorgonian fans) were most susceptible to impact.
  • Damage otherwise followed no obviously discernable pattern, often being counter-intuitive (e.g. at the North end of the Similans despite the wave coming from the South West).
  • Similan Island 9 and Surin suffered most of the serious damage.
  • Several of the heavily damaged sites are still considered diveable, with abundant fish life.
  • Famous sites such as Shark Point, Richlieu Rock, and Hin Daeng are untouched.
  • The reefs of Myanmar appear completely unscathed.
  • There is no need whatsoever to cancel bookings or not to consider Phuket as a dive destination. There is an enormous wealth of natural beauty still here to see, as well as a once in a lifetime chance to view the underwater effects of a major natural phenomenon.
  • There has never been a better time in recent history to come for a clear, calm and uncluttered view of these world class attractions.

Survey Results

(Survey boats: Thailand - The Junk, Sea Bees, Colona, SeaKing.)

Damage was divided into 3 categories, as a percentage of coral cover damaged


Of 70 sites surveyed (a fairly comprehensive list of the Thai dive sites commonly visited from Phuket)

51 (73%)slight
- more than half of these (27 sites) had no or minimal (10% or less) damage.
6 (8%)moderate
13 (19%)heavy


Topography and exposure, as on the coast, appear to be the relevant local variables acting upon effect, although wave amplification and negation through constructive/destructive interference may well have had the greatest influence on site specific impact.

Interestingly, of the few severely damaged sites, several are at depth. There is an aggregation of rubble at the base of a sea mount that is otherwise unscathed. This suggests potential damage along the sea bed in places unsurveyable.

The nature of the damage has reinforced the opinion that we know remarkably little about the sea upon which life on earth depends, and we join in calls for greater attention and research budgets

Fish and other life appears generally unscathed, apart from benthic (bottom dwelling) organisms which have disappeared along with the fine sand, exposing rubble. Some sites thus look worse than they are. This phenomenon will probably not last much beyond April when the calm seas of the dry season finish.

Although there are naturally concerns about the smothering effect of displaced sediment and physical damage upon reefs and other fish nursery grounds, we feel these to be misplaced. Those of us who have dived on tsunami hit reefs before, such as at Maumere on Flores in Indonesia, know that reefs are fully capable of taking such natural events as this in their stride.

Initial widely reported fears of reef devastation in Thailand were ungrounded and not based on fact.

Mostly reefs are capable of withstanding the force of the wave, and where they are not, the reef bounces back in remarkably quick time, with no noticeable detrimental effect upon fish stocks. Indeed generally, the tsunami event may prove to be a positive thing for the health of the reef as a whole, just as forest fires play an important role in reinvigorating the forest ecosystem by allowing a spurt of fresh growth.

This is in contrast to the damage that occurs from pollution, warming, habitat destruction, damaging fishing practices, and overfishing: We remind all that these insidious dangers are the real issues needing address so as to maintain the health of the reef ecosystems we love.

The future: hope from tragedy

We welcome any moves to manage the fishing industry more effectively. Reducing the general fishing effort and eliminating damaging fishing practices will provide the artisanal fishermen of the Andaman coast with a sustainable and prosperous future for themselves, their families and communities. It would bring some real benefit to those coastal people who, like us, have lost and suffered so much.

Our hearts go out to those with whom we share the coast, the sea, and this tragic loss with. We hope we can all work together to manage this resource in the most productive manner in the future, for the benefit of the Kingdom of Thailand and its people.

It is rare in life that one has the possibility to act with hindsight. We feel the best memorial for all those lives lost and damage done is to make something positive come of it. Use the opportunity to get things right second time round, to learn from past mistakes; to put in place better (coordinated, sustainable, effective and transparent) planning and management of natural resources, both in extractive industries (e.g. fishing) and in non-extractive exploitation (e.g. tourism). This will take some institutional change. It will be difficult, yet it should be done. We owe it to their memory.

By Paul Foley, on behalf of the DOCT – Phuket.

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