Underwater Learning Site: A Beginning of Hope for New Lives
Back in 2010, a rise in the seawater temperature to above 30.5 degrees Celsius for an extended period of time resulted in widespread coral bleaching under the Thai seas.
The warmer seawater and dead corals had a chain effect on other marine lives. Coral reefs serve as nurseries for young sea animals and sanctuary from predators for grown ones. Their health is inherently tied to that of the marine ecosystem and the livelihood of humans depending on the sea to provide them with food and income from fishery and tourism.
After marine scientists met at the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources to deliberate on how to tackle the situation, one recommendation was to build “man-made diving sites.” Because Studies had found that when a coral reef becomes popular, it is more likely to suffer negative impacts. Closing off diving sites or forbidding people from visiting the coral reefs would affect the tourism industry and in turn cause local people to lose their income. In this situation, creating alternative diving sites would reduce the pressures on natural coral reefs and allow them time to recover from bleaching.
As an operator of petroleum E&P projects in Thailand, PTTEP threw its support behind the project to study and develop methods to use former battleships to create underwater tourist attractions in Chumphon and Surat Thani. The project is a collaborative effort with various agencies including the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, Chumphon and Surat Thani administrations, local business operators and communities as well as the Royal Thai Navy and Kasetsart University’s Department of Fishery served as the project’s major driving force.
For this project, PTTEP took the task of coordinating between the governors of Chumphon and Surat Thani and the Navy.
Eventually, the Navy offered two suitably sized decommissioned ships for the project, namely
H.T.M.S. Prab and H.T.M.S. Sattakut. Their histories themselves are impressive enough to attract people as diving sites.
The important criterion for the site’s selection is it must be proven to help mitigate impact on the coral reef. That means the chosen location must be easily accessible for divers. The area should not be too far from natural coral reefs which are known tourist attractions either.
Hence, before the ships were put underwater, talks were held with various agencies, both public and private, state officials as well as members of local communities. Surveys of areas under the sea were conducted to find the most suitable place for the ships to rest and studied the sea currents, visibility, topography and the number of marine animals.
For Koh Tao, the team chose a location close to Hin Khao (White Rock) formation, which is a major diving spot to the west of the island, and an important habitat of sessile organisms such as corals, mushroom anemones, sea anemones, coralline algae or sea sponges.
Meanwhile, an area where concessions to harvest sea swallow’s nests are granted, Koh Ngam Noi – is also a popular diving site, which is characterised by a steep limestone cliff and is an area that attracts a massive number of marine fish.
Another major aspect of the operation is preparing the battleships for their last mission to ensure that the ships would have a minimal impact on the marine ecology, which included cleaning and re-painting the hulls with lead-free paint, removing materials that may harm marine animals such as fiber, removing the structures and elements that might cause harm and hook the divers and installing signs to inform wreck divers which areas are accessible.
Ceremonies to lay the battleships down into the sea might have been over, but the mission continued. Another important aspect of the project is gauging impacts that the ships may yield to the marine ecology. The study is divided into three areas: the study of environmental impact began as soon as the ships were lowered to the seabed. The study included monitoring the amount of stirred-up sediments, garbage or any substance, conditions of the seabed and currents. The results show that there was no significant impact in every area studied and the sessile organisms and fish remained in the same conditions; the study of living organisms, a group of trevallies was found to have circled around the wrecks on the first day. A year later, the number of fish found in the area increased to more than 40 species and 60 afterwards. Around H.T.M.S. Prab, whale sharks can be spotted regularly. At the depth of 18 metres, certain species of sponges were found and distinguished as prominent species. Further down at the depth of 25 metres, the dominent species such as black corals were found; the study of using the shipwrecks as alternative diving sites to draw tourists away from decaying natural ones was met with great success. These days, boats take turns coming in and out of the wreck sites every morning and afternoon as tourists waste no time jumping into the sea. While student divers sometimes brush their fins on the wrecks’ structures, they are definitely more durable than corals in nature as they are made of iron.
Although the creation of man-made dive sites represents a remarkable attempt to protect coral reefs, their long-term conservation demands more work.
Since human beings are part of the problem, they must play a role in its solution. As more boats bringing an increasing number of tourists into areas where there are coral reefs for them to admire, the mere act of their anchoring could cause a lot of damage to the natural resources.
Koh Tao is one of the most visited diving sites in the world. Its coral reefs see visitors both Thai and foreign coming to enjoy their natural beauty every day. A major concern was an anchoring directly on to coral reefs.
PTTEP joined to continuously support the construction of a concrete base, a mooring buoy and their maintenance. Up to now, more than 100 mooring buoys have been put into place around the island's many diving sites.
Today, H.T.M.S. Prab and H.T.M.S. Sattakut have been turned into popular diving sites. Both ships serve as artificial coral reefs while natural ones are allowed some time off from visitors to recover.