The former tourist site in Krabi province covers only 250 by 15 metres but has attracted more than a million tourists a year – over 4,000 tourists each day – since it featured in the 2000 Leonardo DiCaprio Hollywood blockbuster The Beach.
So it came as no surprise when the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) announced that the fragile marine ecological system had been severely damaged by over-tourism and subsequently ordered the closure of the bay from June 1, 2018. The DNP’s recent decision to reopen Maya Bay in mid-2021 follows ecological recovery in the area thanks to their projects supported by the Marine National Parks Operation Centre 3 (Trang Province), Ocean Quest Global, Reef Guardian Thailand and volunteer divers.
The Phuket News spoke to Manuel San Martín, an experienced diver from Buenos Aires, Argentina, who joined Ocean Quest Global three years ago. Manuel, who also runs Pura Vida Diving Koh Phi Phi, kindly took the time out of the group’s latest trip to Maya Bay to explain exactly what’s happening in the area.
What’s the damage?
Before its closure, Maya Bay was a far cry from the secluded idyll that guides and brochures promised; a constant crush of day-tripping tourists covered the white sands and speedboats and longtails lined the entire stretch of beachfront. The anchors, propellers, keels and hulls of these boats scraped, dislodged or otherwise damaged the resident reefs.
“Damage of the corals in Maya happened right after the movie was shot. Apparently a dune was built that was later washed by the monsoon rains into the sea, covering and suffocating the corals. After that the anchoring and beaching of the boats did most of the job to kill the reef. Water around the beach is very shallow during low tides causing boats to get stuck on the reef,” Manuel explained.
Coral bleaching and harmful contaminants in sunscreen lotions have played their respective parts too. Rising water temperatures cause corals to expel the algae living in their tissues, turning them a bleached white. And while the parts per million of the harmful chemicals in sunscreens are not enough to directly kill the corals, they do cause them to become much weaker in recovering from other damage, such as coral bleaching. With an estimated 50% of the bay’s fragile marine invertebrates destroyed, what can be done?
At the helm of the Ocean Quest Global effort at Maya Bay is Anuar Abdullah who set up the organisation in his home country of Malaysia in 2010. Anuar and his team use their own scientifically-proven techniques, methodologies and materials to restore coral reefs.
Decidedly against man-made, artificial reefs – which fail to mimic or replicate the role of a natural coral reef in the carbon cycle and as a self-sustaining food and shade source – they believe that coral restoration must be undertaken in an all-natural, non-invasive way. Rebuilding damaged reefs, not creating new reefs where they did not previously exist, is the founding principle of their Coral Propagation Programmes.
Inspired by the model for rainforest restoration, divers and snorkellers collect broken coral fragments – seedlings in the case of forests – bring them to shore in baskets and carefully bond them to rocks using superglue and a patented catalyst developed by Anuar. Once the rocks are laid on a shallow seabed in a temporary nursery area, the catalyst dissolves in a fortnight or less – leaving no glue or toxins behind – and the corals begin to grow, approximately 10 centimetres in only a few months. At this point, divers can then move the corals on to reefs to form larger, permanent colonies. Coral propagation, or coral gardening, though remarkably simple on the surface, is incredibly effective and has years of research behind it.
Ocean Quest Global’s most recent coral restoration work in Maya Bay, which took place between May 15-20, has drawn particular focus; however, they have been actively involved in the rehabilitation of the area for three years, and indeed in other projects across Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.
“We started surveying the bottom of the bay right after it was closed and started the reef rehab work in October. Before Maya we mainly ran small-scale projects to adapt the method to the local conditions and to train the local divers. There’s one ongoing project right by the shore of Phi Phi Don and another in Lam Jom (opposite side of Maya),” Manuel said.
The group’s most recent six-day trip was their final opportunity to move the young coral fragments that have been planted since last October to calm waters to prevent damage during the monsoon season.
“Threatened and damaged fragments of coral were rescued from different areas of Phi Phi Island (mainly dive sites) then fragmented into small 1-2 centimetre pieces then glued on to natural rocks and placed in nurseries in the bay. We build the nurseries in such a way that they should reduce the impact of waves during the monsoon season,” he added.
Ocean Quest Global’s work does not end at coral propagation/gardening. What makes them the world’s largest coral rehabilitation project is also their active engagement with, and eco-education of, local communities in affected areas. Recognising the challenge of equipment and training costs associated with scuba diving, the group are increasingly using freediving to include these communities whose livelihoods depend on the health of the surrounding corals.
The next two years will no doubt fly by – just as the past 19 have since The Beach hit the big screen – and Ko Phi Phi Le will be open once more. What’s next for Thailand’s most popular beach and those working so hard to protect it?
Plans by the National Parks Office, announced by Director Songtham Suksawang, include a new mooring spot at Losama Bay – instead of in front of the beach – and a booking system to limit visitor numbers and reduce corruption. Assistant Prof Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a Kasetsart University marine biologist and member of the National Park’s Committee, has also mentioned the development of facilities such as a walking board, a dock for tourist boats, toilets and a residence for officials.
According to Manuel, “The next step is to monitor the progress of the work already done and learn from that for the next years. This is the first time that this or any other coral rehabilitation method has been implemented on such big scale so there’s a lot to learn and implement for the next stages of the project. Results are already positive in many ways so there is a lot of hope for Maya’s reef if things keep going the way they are.
“Ocean Quest has worked in many locations throughout Southeast Asia but none of those compare to what’s going on in Maya. Hopefully this project is the first of many others. Delegates from an NGO in Myanmar are already interested in starting a sister project in a bay with similar conditions there.”
The importance of coral reefs cannot be underestimated. Harbourers of more than a quarter of all marine species, allies of local fishing industries, absorbers of wave energy, protectors of coastal erosion and gatekeepers of unimaginable wonder. We truly cannot afford to lose sight of this again.
For more information, visit www.oceanquest.global or www.facebook.com/oceanquestglobal. To see more of the photography featured in this article, visit www.juanleonel.com. Special thanks to Manuel for his help during this important project.