As the COVID-19 global pandemic carries on, the world stands still. International travel restrictions have turned tourist hotspots, recently teeming with life, to sparsely populated streets occupied only by locals and ex-pats. For tourism-dependant locations such as Thailand, the pandemic has changed life thoroughly. On the 24th of March, the Thai government declared a state of emergency, resulting in business closures, social gathering restrictions, and a nightly curfew. On the southern islands of Koh Phi Phi, incoming travel became prohibited, while traveling off of the island required government clearance and a certificate of health. The uncertainty surrounding the future of life abroad urged most of the tourists on the island to book their travels home. Koh Phi Phi’s ex-pat population quickly dwindled to a community of dive professionals and ocean enthusiasts, offering a unique opportunity to work towards restoring the natural environment and ocean habitat nearby.
With an island of idle hands and a workforce eager to give back, Tero Kempas, manager of The Adventure Club, spearheaded the “Phi Phi Cleanup Project 2020” at Tonsai Pier. Throughout the project, Tero managed over one-hundred volunteer divers, representing twenty-six countries and nearly every dive center on the island. Daily schedules and shifts ensured that crews maintained social distancing measures, composing three groups of five volunteers, each working in different areas on the pier. In each group, three divers collected trash and debris underwater, while the other two members provided surface support. Surface workers emptied debris bags and watched for any surface hazards while the crews worked underwater. Divers collected trash and debris by hand, while designated crews worked to remove larger items with lift bags and supply cranes. The support shown from the local Thai community was tremendous, with businesses and individuals reaching out to help in any way they could. Restaurants and shops on the island provided daily meals and drinks to cleanup crews, while individuals contributed their time to surface support and documentation of the project.
“Having the privilege to quarantine on our island home provided us with the unique opportunity to work directly with our ocean’s trash crisis. Everyone, far from a volunteer force of only divers, found a means to contribute anything they could in a time when we have so little.” -Matthew Fichtemaier, Professional Dive Volunteer
Koh Phi Phi is among the most popular destinations in all of Thailand, boasting crystal clear turquoise waters, karst limestone cliffs, and white sand beaches around every corner. In recent years, the island receives over 1000 tourists daily, the majority of which transit through the pier at Tonsai Bay. As a consequence, the local marine environment sees its fair share of abuse. In addition to the human-induced stress put on the area, a devastating tsunami hit the island in 2004, and Tonsai Bay stood at the frontline. The tsunami swept trash and debris from the island, into the bay, depositing a significant amount of unwanted litter to the sea bed. Although the tsunami prompted initial cleanup efforts, buried debris is periodically exposed or released from the sand and silt.
Without interruption, the pier area in Tonsai Bay is too dangerous to clean. Boat traffic and daily supply operations run tirelessly, giving no hope to put workers in the water. As part of the recent effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, the governor of Krabi halted nearly all boat traffic coming to or from the island. These measures paved the way for unrestricted access to the pier for the first time in over a decade. With a rare opportunity at hand, Tonsai Pier became the chosen location for the rehabilitation project.
“We have been cleaning parts of the bay on one specific day every year, but we have never had the opportunity to clean the pier area. I am very proud of the Princess Divers staff, with over 20 people from our shop volunteering for this project. It’s sad to see how much trash is in the water around the pier, but at the same time, it makes us happy to see that we can change things and help the environment when we work together. The problem with cleaning the pier in the past is the traffic the area sees. Over fifty boats operate daily in the bay, making it nearly impossible for us to clean. It just isn’t safe.” -Roger Andreu, Manager of Princess Divers
Volunteer divers respecting social distancing measures – “Princess Divers”
Courtesy Tero Kempas; Instagram:@Terokempas
Between the 21st of April and the 24th of May, volunteers worked for twenty days to remove 21,529 kg (47,463 lb) of trash and debris from Tonsai Bay. A vast array of items were recovered: including bottles, cans, plastics, tools, chairs, and even a toilet. Divers discovered rubber tires in abundance along the sea bed, with a total of 461 tires being pulled from the water by the end of the project. In addition to hauling debris to the surface, crews worked underwater to establish an artificial reef structure at the pier. Divers collected bricks and concrete scattered across the bay, using the materials for the base of the structure. In an attempt to revitalize the nearshore ecosystem at the pier, the structure offers shelter and habitat for marine life, boosting both biomass and biodiversity in the area.
Surface crews pull debris from the water and manage trash on the surface.
Courtesy Thais Paz; Instagram:@Scuba.thaispaz
“From the early stages, we filmed the underwater area near the pier and showed the shocking footage to the officials here on Phi Phi. Educational outreach has already begun, with pier officials talking to the captains of cargo boats, who seem to be one of the main polluters. There is a plan to create new signs for the pier in English, Thai, Chinese, and several other languages warning against littering and potentially imposing a fine if caught doing so. Those decisions are out of our hands, however, and we’ll leave that for the officials to decide. All of the materials were given to them so that they can see just how extensive the problem is.” -Tero Kempas, Manager of The Adventure Club
Although the COVID-19 global pandemic initiated troubling times for Koh Phi Phi, the shutdown provided volunteers with the time they needed to make substantial changes on the island. As restrictions begin to ease, activity in Tonsai Bay will once again resume, and the challenge of maintaining the results of the restoration project will begin. With the support of the local community, public outreach will be the primary focus to ensure that the area near the pier stays healthy and productive. By the time tourism is back in full swing, visitors to the Phi Phi Islands will find it cleaner than it has been in years, and a community dedicated to keeping it that way.