I’D JUST RETURNED to the boat with my two Argentinian students – both grinning ear to ear and eyes set wide with the exhilaration of those experiencing scuba diving for the first time.
“It was more beautiful than I ever imagined!” One of them said, merely seconds after surfacing. “That field of coral right beneath us, the light blue looked like a field of wildflowers!”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the coral colonies were light blue because they were dying. That summer the water temperature was hitting 34 degrees Celsius – 93 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures this warm cause the zooxanthellae living in the coral tissues to expel. Without the living tissues lending its brilliant color, the corals tinge blue and eventually become fully white. This is the global environmental collapse known as coral bleaching, and the phenomenon had arrived, in full, to my home on Koh Tao.
Over the last decade Koh Tao, located in the Gulf of Thailand, has witnessed the humbling effects of human impact. Giant resorts built atop bays add metric tons of organic matter and sedimentation to the underlying reefs, often resulting in their collapse. Thousands of tourists taking selfies snorkeling with reef fish accidentally crush their homes. Plastic waste is everywhere, with no municipal method to effectively get rid of it.
Then there is the overfishing. Thailand has long been in the spotlight for its place at the top of this several-billion-dollar industry built on the back of some pretty gross alleged human rights violations. Today, the spectacular sunset from famed Sairee Beach is speckled each evening with dozens upon dozens of massive fishing vessels dropping nets to catch whatever they can. Pinnacles and bays once teeming with turtles, sharks, and pelagic fish of all kinds are now nearly barren – entire generations of life often wiped away with one nightly catch.
These issues, however grand their scale, for a time seemed somehow manageable to the local community. Or at the very least, the island finds small ways to cope. We eat less fish, or none at all, to try and curb the fishing industry. We use reusable bags and bottles to reduce plastic waste and hold frequent beach cleanups. We try and educate tourists to understand the fragility of the coral reefs, and to treat them with respect. Even the municipality has come on board, enforcing measures like construction halts during monsoon season to reduce the amount of waste and sedimentation that would otherwise blanket the reefs, suffocating them.
But what do we do when the ocean water is basically being microwaved?
Not long after those two students departed, I took a holiday to Gili Trawangan Island, my former home before relocating to Thailand a few years ago. As I strapped into my 5-millimeter wetsuit to check out some of my old favorite dive sites, my friends laughed a bit sheepishly, insisting that I wouldn’t be needing the thermal protection.
They were right. As we descended into the bathtub-temperature water, I couldn’t believe what I saw. I’d dived this particular site dozens of times over the years and it was a consistent favorite – vibrant, colorful and effervescent, teeming with activity and life. The two or three-degree increase had instead left the pinnacle glowing white, unrecognizable.
My friends and former co-workers admitted that the massive spillover in tourism from nearby Bali left Gili Trawangan facing all of the same issues Koh Tao began experiencing more than a decade ago. But now this natural phenomenon responsible for the collapse of parts of Australia’s famed Great Barrier Reef had both ecosystems, thousands of miles apart, fighting for their lives.
While the reefs can recover from small bleaching events — and in both Koh Tao and Gili Trawangan they have, to a degree — the year-over-year increase in severity has begun to dramatically weaken the colonies. This leaves the coral incredibly susceptible to predation, breakage and bacterial diseases. What’s more, if the reefs collapse, the economy will surely follow. Most of these tropical destinations rely solely on a market of tourists eager to experience the coral life.
It’s this one economic fact that has finally convinced some governments and communities to follow Australia’s suit and provide support to the incredible grassroots organizations working to curb the effects of both climate change and human impact.
On Koh Tao, The New Heaven Reef Conservation Program has for 15 years actively repaired reefs, raised community engagement and has operated as a station for hundreds of international researchers. Ongoing studies are vying for methods to keep the reefs alive, in spite of all the challenges. The Gili Eco Trust has been operating a similar program on its namesake island since 2010 and is locally famous for its artificial reef structures and its massive initiative to rid the island of all plastic straws and bags. Trash Hero World, which originated in Thailand, has undertaken a global initiative to change society’s attitude toward waste in general. With a focus on long-term sustainable projects and education, to date, the organization has eradicated incredible amounts of trash.
These types of efforts are amazing, and a great start, but behavior globally will have to change if we hope to have fish remain in our oceans after 2050. The Gulf of Thailand’s once-sprawling marine forests, now decayed into algae-covered rubble and sand, provide eerie insight into what may be in store if climate change continues at its unruly pace.