Voluntary service underseas

Wanderlust's Dan Linstead travels to the gulf of Thailand to count coral and fish in the name of conservation

7 mins

After three days snorkelling along coral reefs in the Gulf of Thailand, counting fish in the name of science, I had already compiled a number of Key Findings.

One: reef fish exhibit a vexing habit of flitting in front of your face mask, ducking behind coral and suddenly joining up with schools of their neighbours – it’s almost like they don’t want to be counted. 

Two: if you choose to survey one specific 5m corridor of reef, the fish you are interested in – that big-beaked parrotfish, say – will invariably hover 1cm outside that corridor, rendering them officially uncountable. 

Three: evolution plays strange tricks. That Diadema sea urchin, for example, with the brilliant purple and yellow spot – could that be its eye? “That’s actually its anus,” drawled Kim Obermeyer, our resident marine biologist. “It’s probably the prettiest anus in the animal kingdom.”

Such insights are what had brought me to Ko Chang, a mountainous, jungle-festooned Thai island near the Cambodia border. Along with six other volunteer snorkellers and divers, I had signed up for a ‘research expedition’ run by the conservation organisation Earthwatch. Our mission? To help conduct fieldwork on the local reefs – and maybe learn a bit of biology in the process.

Like much of Thailand – and much of the equatorial belt where coral is found – Ko Chang is navigating a tricky path between tourism and conservation. A national park since 1982, it’s (mercifully) no Ko Samui, but it is firmly on the backpacker trail. A string of beach-bungalow towns along the west coast – “the dark side”, as it became known to us – draws regular ferry-loads in search of pad thai, elephant-rides and cheap diving.

A phalanx of songthaews (pickups) awaited our boat as it drew into Ao Sapparot harbour, eager to cater to the influx. But where the backpackers turned right to the beach, our truck turned left down the quieter east coat. The road snaked past shrimp farms, ornate temples and rubber plantations, and in the growing dusk we heard the squeaky-wheel screech of cicadas echoing through the jungle. As night fell, we turned down a bumpy track to the cluster of simple bungalows that served as Reef Check HQ.

Fish Dossier

We were met by Kim, a 38-year-old American whose goatee beard, surfer shorts and facility with cocktails sat intriguingly with an inexhaustible knowledge of marine flora and fauna. His work in Thailand is part of Reef Check, an international effort to assess and help protect the world’s coral. Over noodles and tofu soup, we learned the ground rules.

Although the project had two Thai staff who prepared the meals – the ever-smiling Awe and Pang – we were here to work too. We’d clean our own rooms and wash our dishes. Training would begin at eight the next morning. Had we all read our briefing dossier? Heads nodded. “We heard anyone who doesn’t do their homework gets used as chum for the sharks,” deadpanned Mark, a one-time boxer from New Jersey. “Good,” Kim smiled. “That’s the impression you should have got.”

After a sleepless night speed-reading my 120-page expedition dossier, I duly enrolled in Fish School. Ours was an idyllic classroom: a wooden veranda built on stilts, with views over the silvery sea to steep-sided islands and fishing boats freckling the horizon. As brown mullet sploshed lazily in the fishpond beneath us, we huddled around Kim’s laptop and tried to concentrate.

“The problem with reefs,” he explained, “is that there are hundreds of them, not much data, little funding for conservation and very few scientists. To really understand them you need to monitor them long-term: changes in nature don’t happen in just a couple of years.” 

Coral, it seems, is truly fighting for survival: 16% of worldwide coral has been lost in the past five years alone, and a further 27% is in “serious trouble”. The delicate polyp, from which the whole coral ecosystem springs, likes things a certain way: clean water, a narrow band of sea temperature (25-29°C), a certain salinity. Ranged against that are a legion of man-made – or at least human-influenced – threats, from rising sea temperatures to fishermen using cyanide or dynamite to bag their catch. 

Transect the Garden

But surely Ko Chang – an officially designated Marine Protected Area – was safer than most? “Yeah, that’s basically someone in Bangkok drawing a line on a map to attract tourists,” said Kim. “It’s not enforced; half the local fishermen here haven’t even been told they’re living in a national park.” As doom-laden statistics jostled with the swaying reflection of palm trees on the laptop screen, I began to wonder whether there really was anything we – a jetlagged, middle-aged bunch of lightly perspiring Westerners – could do to help.

“OK, grab the tape measure and that Coke bottle,” said Kim, clearly feeling the need for action too. “Let’s do a transect in the garden.” Ah, the transect. I had read about this in my briefing, accompanied by fiendish diagrams of the sea floor covered in cross-hatching and contour lines. But as Kim rolled out a 100m tape along the ground, it emerged that the ‘transect’ was basically science-speak for ‘a straight line’. The Reef Check approach to the global coral crisis was pleasingly simple: we were going to swim in a straight line scribbling notes on a rusty clipboard. Easy enough, surely?

“Right, now imagine that coconut’s a bumphead parrotfish,” said Kim, gesturing at the ground next to the unfurled tape. “That’s an Indicator Species. That means their presence – or absence – is a measure of the reef’s health. That’s what we’re counting.” He made a mark on the clipboard. “After the fish, we’re also looking for invertebrates – urchins, sea cucumbers, lobsters. Look, there’s a giant clam!” He prodded a stone with his toe. “And we need to know how big they are – you can use the edge of your clipboard to gauge that, but remember that underwater everything will look 25% bigger. We’re after something between a measurement and an estimate. A Mestimate.”

Finally, we were going to make notes on the type of coral we found along the transect. Kim raised one hand and waved his fingers, frond-like. “That’s the sign for soft coral”. Got it. Then he clenched his fist into a punch. “That’s rock.” OK. Then he crossed his fingers. “That’s Nutrient Indicator Algae.” Ah. It was clearly time to go back to the textbooks.

A Turner sunrise – all misty reds and ochres – was daubing the horizon as our pickup drew into the ramshackle fishing village of Salak Phet a couple of days later. We’d watched our Fish ID videos. We’d practised our hand signals. It was time to put our training into action.

Into the Deep Blue

Soon we were zipping away from a wonky red jetty aboard the Moby Dick. As we bounced across the waves, we volunteers discussed the task ahead. “I reckon I can definitely tell the difference between soft coral and a fish now,” said Gigi, a 64-year-old grandmother from Oregon. “I’m worried my groupers are going to get counted as parrotfish,” said Cynthia, a systems analyst from Newark. Personally, I was still struggling with the technical distinction between rock and rubble – but by now it was too late. We were bobbing 50m from the Bounty-ad island of Ko Wai, our prow nodding towards a neat semicircle of reef. “OK, let’s see what’s down there,” said Kim. We flopped in.

Now, if you’ve taken piggyback rides with mantas in the Maldives or gone face-to-face with great whites in South Africa, our little section of Thai reef might not have got you hyperventilating. But if, like me, you’re an occasional snorkeller whose main acquaintance with the underwater world has come via David Attenborough, it was pretty special.

The thrills here were far more Finding Nemo than Jaws. Hanging motionless in the bath-warm water, the soap opera of reef life scrolled before my eyes. A 300-strong school of rabbit- and parrotfish nibbled furiously at the coral and swarmed on. A red anemone-fish (Nemo’s cousin, presumably) wriggled flirtatiously through the fronds.

The velvet, collagened lips of giant clams pursed up as I wafted my hand in front of them. And, most extraordinary of all, I realised that, having been a complete marine ignoramus 48 hours previously, I could now actually put names to the creatures around me. That 120-page dossier had come gloriously to life, and only the snorkel champed in my mouth stopped me from exclaiming “Wow”.

The transect itself turned out to be far less complex than it had seemed on land. The tape measure unfurled clearly over the reef, and it wasn’t that hard (and only a bit weird) to write on a clipboard underwater. My task that day was to count invertebrates, and with only Diadema sea urchins in evidence – you can spot their anus a mile off – I managed fine.

It wasn’t until the next day, when I was on fish-spotting duty, that I started to compile those Key Findings about piscine behaviour. We were anchored off Ko Thong Lang, a tennis-court sized islet with a halo of high-quality reef protected by a ring of buoys.

As we performed our snorkel recce, the reasons it was protected were abundant. The coral was a multi-coloured wonderland of plateaus, tendrils, spikes and crannies. Right off the boat we plunged into a school of darting snappers and bustling fusiliers. (With reef fish, the clue is often in the name – you don’t have to be Jacques Cousteau to guess the defining characteristic of a sweetlips.) At one point, I even found myself eyeballing a sleek, silver beast that was, almost certainly, a barracuda – not an Indicator, but thrilling nonetheless.

Sustainable practices

What all these fish had in common was a profound disinterest in being counted. They lurked on the edge of the transect; they flitted and fidgeted; as subjects, they were frankly unprofessional. But at Ko Thong Lang and other reefs over the next week we persevered, noting down coralfish and mestimating the size of clams – knowing it really was in their best interests, whether they knew it or not.

At the end of every day, the totals from our clipboards joined the data from Reef Check teams worldwide – adding up to an increasingly comprehensive bank of reef information. It was a nice feeling, being part of this scientific community – but would it actually make a difference? 

“Absolutely,” Kim insisted. He is already working with local fishermen, dive shops and the mayor of Salak Phet to encourage more sustainable practices. A few months previously he had taken a class of local schoolchildren on a field trip to the reef – for many, the first time they had seen fish in their natural environment rather than on a plate.

At Ranong, on the east coast of Thailand, he is hopeful that a fishing village will actually ‘sponsor’ a local degraded reef, leaving it untouched for two years to recover its natural stocks. “The impetus has to come from the local community – it’s their livelihood,” he said. “We can provide guidance and information; when people see it works, they join in.” Ultimately he aims to take his data to the Thai government to lobby for more robust conservation legislation.

Grand plans, and having devoted our time to the cause, we all felt entitled to a certain self-satisfaction. But as Moby Dick sped back towards the harbour after a final day spent among the reef’s denizens, I had to be honest with myself. Had I nobly volunteered my time for science? Or had I just spent a frankly enjoyable week flitting between paradise islands? I could no longer tell the difference.

The author travelled with Earthwatch

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