Eco Koh Tao

Posted on December 28, 2018

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“In a utopian world I’d limit the number of dive schools, dive boats and divers allowed in these waters,” came the reply.

I’m sat cross-legged on a paddle board on the floor of the rooftop of Crystal Dive Koh Tao across from its manager Jennifer Dowling. She’s got a small window to chat before heading back to Blighty for Christmas.

Originally from Hampshire, Jennifer moved to Koh Tao looking for a change in lifestyle – she’s never looked back.

“Sounds radical but that’s the only way to protect the water,” she says. Imported goods onto the island are another bug bear for her, she says it’s not just those goods but also the fact that fresh drinking water still has to be brought in. Then there’s landfill. Rubbish is shipped off this island but buried elsewhere.

Campaigning for change and support from the Thai government is slow, “But it is happening,” she says.

Together with her husband Simon, they initially came to Koh Tao in 2008 to join the divemaster internship programme at Crystal Dive Koh Tao with a view to later becoming instructors.

“We’ve always been environmentally minded. We decided to leave the UK because we wanted to give back rather than take. So it’s no surprise we stayed. I had more than 100 dives when I arrived. It was a hobby at the time. But after meeting Nathan, we found ourselves spending more time working with him and the eco team. It was what we wanted to focus on.”

Nathan Cook was one of three founders of the conservation arm of the dive school called Eco Koh Tao. He’s since moved to Australia. The project at the time was still in its infancy having only launched in 2007. More than ten years on, Jennifer and Simon firmly hold the reigns.

She runs the programme and Simon is responsible for the social media side of the project. “When people come to dive at Crystal they are asked to sign an environmental practices agreement, ” she told me. This includes not chasing, touching and harassing marine life. “There will be consequences if a diver is found doing that,”comes the response.

“What kind of consequences?” I interrupt.

“They will be banned from diving with us.”

This has only happened twice in the history of Crystal Dive Koh Tao, following divers getting hands-on with whale sharks. The agreement and thorough briefings before every dive appears to work. Crystal Dive Koh Tao is the third biggest school in the world.

Today there’s a growing global public consciousness about respecting the environment and biodiversity , but Eco Koh Tao wants that commitment inked by anyone coming through its doors.

The dive school has water refill stations. Glass bottles are used over plastic. Recycling is promoted, as well as regular beach cleans and dives against debris.

Jennifer says Koh Tao has seen a lot of change over the last decade. A growth in tourism has been one of the catalysts to on-going development around the island.

“When we arrived the reef was healthier and there was a bit more fish. The biggest threat right now (to the health of the ocean) is run off from construction.”

We both glance up. A dark cloud casts a shadow over us and small rain drops begin to fall. The gentle pitter patter gathering momentum as we make a dash inside.

It’s rainy season. This means roads become rivers in a matter of minutes and you’re ankle-deep in fast-flowing water. While Koh Tao is still rustic in parts, gentrification is picking up speed to keep up with the number of tourists arriving by the boat load. Any downpour is a potential hazard with toxic waste from building sites flushing directly into the ocean. The run-off suffocates biodiversity.

Eco Koh Tao is also part of the global organisation, Earth Day Group, which has helped to galvanise the banning of plastic bags on the island that came into force at the beginning of December (2018). It takes time to phase out these things, but they are also trying to encourage local shops and businesses to use paper and bamboo instead of plastic straws.

“How about the young generation arriving on Koh Tao? Are they as passionate as you about safeguarding the ocean? Do they have a clue?” I quiz.

She lets out a sigh and takes a pause………”Some people arrive willing to muck in and are informed about what’s happening to the planet and the ocean. Others arrive with a sense of entitlement and expect things to be done for them.”

“And what about fishing what are your thoughts?” I ask.

Another sigh. “Fishing laws say commercial boats are supposed to fish a mile away from dive sites but lack of patrols and corruption makes this difficult to enforce.”

It’s a picture that’s replicated the world over. I’ve seen it in every country I have dived. Western demands for certain types of fish only adds fuel to the fire.

Renown conservationists have labelled this time in history as “the tipping point”, where small changes now, can still potentially have an important impact if we all act together. Is she hopeful?

“We are doing what we can here.” She’s referring to one particular dive site, aptly named Junkyard.

It was born through crowdfunding in 2009 and the money helped Eco Koh Tao to acquire, build and sink random sculptures and objects made from natural materials to encourage coral gardens to flourish.

“There’s 36 pyramids and a couple hundred sculptures, as well as nurseries there now. Some of the junk is made from an old fin wrack, we try to use wood and different organic matter like concrete or ceramics. There’s a PVC swim through. We found that iron and cement are more hardy and coral prefer it as it’s a rougher texture.
There’s even an old keyboard and karaoke station.”

My time is up and Jennifer has to leave. Last minute hand overs with the team need to be done. I hope over the coming months I’ll be able to see in detail Eco Koh Tao’s work for myself.