In sea-walking, participants get to walk around on the seabed wearing helmets to which air is pumped from the surface.
Sea-walking companies in the past were accused of adding to coral destruction by conducting the activity on top of coral reefs and even, in one case, digging up coral so that guests would have a nice flat surface to walk along underwater.
This time the furore came after a video appeared in the Facebook group of Bangkok-based Giftbox Travel showing several tourists handling starfish, sea cucumbers and clams and even playing a game of catch with a type of sea star.
Paksakorn “Chai” Aspawiriya, Managing Director of Bangkok-based Giftbox Travel, told The Phuket News, “We are a travel agency arranging tour packages conducted by local companies [in Phuket and elsewhere].”
He explained that Giftbox carries out frequent random checks on the tour companies it uses. On one of these trips, to a Phuket sea-walking company – which he declined to name – his staff took the video.
The games with the animals, in the water next to Koh Hae, also known as Coral Island, began when a tour guide for the unnamed company picked up a starfish and handed it to one of the clients.
“We thought the behavior shown in the video was not good for marine animals. So we posted it on our Facebook page to show that we do not support this kind of behavior, which might hurt the animals.”
The video was uploaded on Friday (April 24) and over the weekend attracted more than 80,000 views and hundreds of negative comments.
“It’s not nice. We don’t support this kind of trip,” said Mr Chai.
“I’ve heard that the company no longer allows this sort of thing and has fired the guide involved. I hope this kind of issue will be sorted out.”
He added that the video posted was raw footage, which has now been taken down. However, the company plans to edit it, adding more information, and repost it as cautionary advice to tourists.
“When we went there we did not know they were going to do this. The tour company gave us brief instructions about keeping the helmet on and hanging onto the hand rail below water. The trip, they said, was just an underwater walk.”
The Director of Marine and Coastal Resources Conservation Centre (MCRCC), Thanet Mannoi told The Phuket News, “I talked with three [sea-walking] companies, and one of them admitted that the video was taken a while ago and that a staff member had been fired. But I think that misses the point.
“We will have a meeting at Phuket Provincial Hall in May. We have to find where they were doing this.
“I have two questions I want to discuss with provincial officials. First, is sea-walking actually legal? Second, if it is legal, is it allowed in marine conservation areas?”