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On the Bus

Turtle Island - "I don't need a bag, thanks"

THAILAND | Wednesday, 18 February 2015 | Views [228]

No sooner had we touched down in Bangkok did we hop on an early morning bus headed south for Koh Tao, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand. Koh Tao, also referred to as “Turtle Island,” is 21 square miles and is pretty much exclusively dominated by tourism. Incidentally, it’s an important breeding ground for green and hawksbill turtles, though tourism has negatively impacted the health of these grounds. I was happy to learn that partnerships between the government and local dive schools have led to the release of thousands of juvenile turtles back into these ecosystems.


Koh Tao is situated in a string of islands off the east coast of Thailand, and is comparatively quieter, and geared towards outdoor activities more so than its neighboring party animal of an island, Koh Phangan, and the swanky upscale golf course-strewn island of Koh Samui. We chose to visit this place, out of countless other Thai islands, based on its reputation as a scuba diving mecca. Indeed, from the moment we stepped off the crowded ferry filled with eager tourists ready to party, we were never more than a few steps away from a dive school. Koh Tao claims the most dive schools out of any place in the world (something on the order of 60), and churns out more certifications each year than anywhere else. As such, there are loads of folks stuffing themselves into a wetsuit for the first time and plunging into the clear blue water to see what this scuba thing is all about.


It’s often hit or miss when trying to find a dive center that will be the right “fit” for you. I’ve been, for the most part, really fortunate in diving with companies and people who are professional, friendly, safe, and at least somewhat conscious of the ecosystems we’re exploring and enjoying. I did my research before coming to Koh Tao, and decided that we should work with an outfit called New Heaven, whose mission is focused on marine conservation, carried out through programs like coral nurseries and artificial reefs, sea turtle headstarting, land and underwater clean-ups, research and monitoring of many different species, and so on. Their official slogan is “Our Ocean, Our Responsibility,” and they have signs up warning of fines if anyone brings plastic bags or styrofoam into the shop, the proceeds of which support their sea turtle program. We had some great conversations with Devrim, who runs the school and has lived on Koh Tao for more than 20 years now, originally hailing from London. He’s quietly and passionately devoted to the work, and admitted how challenging it can be, to take the lead in a place with so many economical and environmental complexities. He described a slew of issues that New Heaven has come up against in its efforts to create change and do things differently - issues that sounded strangely familiar to me. It further affirms for me that mission-driven work is subject to similar frustrations and flaws no matter where you are: small-town politics, turf wars, claiming credit for another’s work, lack of interest, misunderstandings, failure to build meaningful relationships, inertia, lack of sustainable funding, shaky collaboration...the list goes on and I know many of you reading this have been there, as I have :) And yet, just like we all do, New Heaven keeps on keepin on, despite being drowned out by the load motors of the big boats and the thumping music from late night parties on the beach. They do their good work not because it’s easy, or because they see sweeping changes regularly, but because they believe in it and understand that we have to protect our oceans. It reminds me of the Vaclav Havel quote, “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.


Evan and I completed our Advanced Diver certification with New Heaven, and overall it was a great experience - very relaxed, comfortable and fun. This certification isn’t particularly necessary for a diver, but since we are volunteering for a marine conservation program in Indonesia in April, we had to get it. It also provides an opportunity to enhance your underwater skills, which I’m all for. We can now dive deeper, and we picked up some navigation skills, as well as the ability to dive at night. If you ever find yourself in Koh Tao wanting to dive, I highly recommend New Heaven: http://www.newheavendiveschool.com/


What I really want to talk about though, is plastic. By Goddess, there’s a lot of trash in this picture-perfect turquoise water. I recall sitting in one of my favorite lunch spots finishing up a simple, delicious sandwich, watching as as a turtle-necklace-wearing woman requested a plastic bag to take her sandwich home in. Hello! Where do you think all that plastic ends up? What do you think happens to a turtle when it eats a plastic bag? I’m of course being unfair, because she probably disposed of it properly, and it’s not like I never use plastic. But they give out plastic bags and plastic straws here like it’s their job! Possibly my most frequently uttered phrase that week was, "I don't need a bag, thanks." The plastic theme was pretty salient from the very beginning of the trip. The boat ride from the mainland to the island (about 3 hours in total), revealed a calm, glassy gulf peppered with trash (mostly plastic) and I saw not a single sign of any marine life the entire time. I’ve known for a long time now, especially on an intellectual level, that plastic in the ocean is a huge problem (in addition to many other pressures including overfishing, climate change, coral bleaching, etc.). Seeing it, swimming through it, pulling it up from the bottom of a 20 metre dive site, however, made it personal. We visited a small, secluded beach on our first day there, which we presumed would be lovely for snorkeling. We arrived and quickly dubbed it “trash beach,” a place so small and yet so clogged with rubbish that I don’t think we could have cleared it with a full day’s work. We found a laundry basket, filled it with trash, and hauled it up out of there; even that felt like a drop in the proverbial bucket. I mentioned above that New Heaven has a policy of charging 10 baht per plastic bag. I was a bit stunned to see even the dive masters who work there strolling in with plastic bags on a daily basis. It reminded me of how daunting behavior change is - like, maybe one of the hardest things to actually accomplish. It seemed a no brainer that shops should be charging for plastic bags and that reusables should be sold everywhere. But, it’s an ingrained habit here, and I have no doubt it would be met with serious resistance.


Another little vignette on this topic…


I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned it yet, but Koh Tao is a stunningly beautiful island. For all its busy-ness, its drunk party boys and macho scuba dudes, and elephant-pants wearing beach babes, it’s a gorgeous place, and a veritable playground for anyone with a penchant for water, rocks, trees, and flowers. Getting off the main beaches where most of the tourists hang, you can easily discover quieter, more rugged, and much more biologically diverse bays and beaches to play on. The east side of the island is where you’ll find the rocky cliffs and the impossibly high views of the big blue waters, not to mention the snorkeling. We made our way one day to Tanote Bay, which turned out to be one of my favorite places on the island; a beautiful, rocky, wild beach with beautiful reefs and loads of fish, and not too many humans. The first thing I noticed as we walked in were piles of seaweed clogged with plastic in all forms, from tiny bits of blue plastic to plastic bottles to huge hunks of it. Two people (and let me just say, two absolutely beautiful people) were raking the beach, pulling bags and other plastic debris from the water that was washing in to shore, and getting tangled in the mats of seaweed. We quickly joined them, shocked and saddened by the condition of this beautiful spot, and yet so inspired by their ethic and action. “We are just random tourists, but the beaches, the ocean, they belong to us...if we all just do a little bit, it will help!” were some of the words Tom and Julia from Argentina spoke to me as we hauled plastic garbage bags off the beach. These words are simple and poignant, and it made me adore them. It can be really painful for me to witness all of this degradation, destruction, and frankly, stupidity, but when I encounter people like them, it reminds me of the goodness, and the connectivity, and the role of hope (a la Vaclav Havel). They had to leave shortly after the impromptu beach clean-up, “we have our first scuba class at 4 today!” they cried excitedly. I couldn’t have been more thrilled to hug them and send them on their way.


Tags: koh tao


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