Rehabilitating hope

The sun dips into the horizon over the ocean off Chonburi province, the water taking on muted hues of pinks and blues. It?s a tranquil and fitting backdrop to the reception at the Ocean Marina Yacht Club, being held to celebrate Omega?s donation of funds to the Royal Thai Navy?s coral rehabilitation project. The Navy band whoops it up on one side of the pool; diver and model Sirinya Burbridge is on hand as MC; we press members sip our beer and enjoy the fresh barbecued seafood under the darkening night sky.

The next day we head out on Navy Coastguard boats to experience what appears to be an archetypical tropical paradise of white sands, green palms, and inviting seawater. But that?s precisely the trouble with marine environments: they hide any damage to their ecosystems under the very waters that make them appear so idyllic in the first place.

The birth of the Navy?s coral rehabilitation project stretches back to 1993, when the Navy built a wave breaker to allow ships to enter and leave its port base at Satthahip.

?The construction destroyed the environment,? admits Lieutenant Issares Lertangtam from the Royal Thai Navy Coastguard. The coral surrounding Ko Tao Moh near the base initially survived, but was at risk of being killed from the sediment now floating in the water.

There was, however, a chance to save this precious marine life if a method to safely transplant it could be devised, and a place to transplant it to could be found. The Coastguard surveyed the area and concluded that Ko Kham, a nearby island of just over sixty acres, would be the best place for the coral to have a second chance at life. The waters surrounding the island were declared as an underwater national park.

Around this time, Divemaster Thosaporn Hongsananda, who was then community service director of the Rotary Club of Prakanong, heard about the plans. Having dived at numerous sites around the country, he had seen the environment of many coral reefs slowly being destroyed. ?From my experience and study I knew that it was vital to conserve coral reefs as well as increase the overall coral reef population,? Thosaporn says.

He proposed that the Rotary International Fund support a continuing coral reef rehabilitation project in conjunction with the Navy; in 1994, the Rotary Club of Prakanong was granted 700,000 baht to donate to the Navy for this project. The one-off move to save Ko Tao Moh?s coral would be turned into an ongoing project to rehabilitate at-risk coral from other locations.

By 1995 the transplant was ready to take place. As coral is incredibly sensitive to its surroundings ? and will die if exposed to air for longer than three to five minutes – moving it was a risky operation. The coral had to be ?planted? in cement blocks, each weighing 30 kg, and then left in its original location for ten to fifteen days. Then it was quickly moved to its new location, where divers carefully lowered it into the sea. Despite the risks, close to one hundred per cent of the coral survived the move.

But in 1998, things took a turn for the worst. The El Nino effect swept the world and hit the Gulf of Thailand, causing temperatures there to rise by one to two degrees Celsius.

?Many marine organisms died, and as a result the environment changed tremendously,? says Lieutenant Issares. Around half the coral that had been successfully transplanted to Ko Kham died that year. But the project pushed on.

?It?s difficult to calculate the cost [of moving coral] ? but it?s a lot of money,? says Issares. The cement into which the coral is planted, the use of the ships and staffing costs all need to be taken into account when budgeting for such a project.

In 2000, one of divemaster Thosaporn?s students happened to be Thamonwan Rienpaiboonas, Omega?s marketing and sales manager. They discussed Omega?s successful ?No water, no life? global marketing campaign, a campaign that has seen the watch company support numerous ocean exploration missions and various ocean-loving sportspeople. ?This gave me an idea: that the project initiated by the Rotary Club of Prakanong, in association with the Royal Thai Navy, should remain active by Omega joining in with its support,? says Thosaporn.

Omega agreed that the project fitted well with its objectives and sponsored the training of a civilian volunteer diving team by Scuba O, Thosaporn?s diving instruction company, to work not just on this particular project, but also on any others concerning marine environmental issues across the country.

The Chonburi reception in June formalised Omega?s financial commitment to the project, while the daytrip on Coastguard boats to Ko Kham allowed divers to demonstrate just how it is they are able to safely transplant coral. ?Fifty pieces were moved on that weekend,? reports Issares, adding that the Coastguard has developed considerable expertise in this area of marine conservation. ?In the future, if we discover that other coral needs to be moved, we know how to do it.?

Marine-lovers can only hope that the need for them in the future isn?t too great.

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