Submitted by Paul Adams
A small group of students from Concordia International School Shanghai's (CISS) Marine Ecology Program returned to Thailand for a third year to collect data for Reef Check. Seven newbies and four returning divers traveled to Racha Yai Island, off the coast of Phuket, armed with excitement for being on summer holiday, enthusiasm to experience the thrill of being a visitor in the underwater world, and in style with personally designed team t-shirts by Reef Check EcoDivers Jane Chow and Anthony Wonsono.
Daily dive routines were quickly established on the M/V Scuba Cat, a liveaboard boat that became home for the next nine days. Returning divers immediately embarked on their chosen specialties and quickly became acclimated to their diving routines—adding additional skills to their diving repertoire. Two divers worked towards PADI's Rescue Diver Certification and remained constantly alert for a variety of emergency scenarios, while newbies quickly gained confidence as they worked through the necessary skills to become Advanced Open Water Divers. PADI scuba instructors Joel Klammer and Paul Adams supervised all diver training and certifications in coordination with Scuba Cat tour leader Stuart Robinson.
The trips to Racha Yai Island, organized by CISS teacher Terry Umphenour, have enabled CISS students to participate in the Reef Check program. On past trips, student divers found the ocean waters around Racha Yai Island teeming with life, as evident by the numerous fishing boats that constantly surrounded the area around Scuba Cat Bay. During this third expedition, fishing boats still came and went; however, their presence was not nearly as noticeable as in past years.
Upon entering the water, the reason for their sparseness became immediately clear. A bleak underwater situation greeted the dive teams. Students returning for their second or third year found horrifying conditions! Instead of viewing beautifully colorful coral, divers beheld only white, bleached coral—a result of warm ocean water. The air, surface, and bottom temperatures all hovered near 30o Celsius—in some places moving upward towards 32o Celsius. Reefs thrive in water temperatures below 28o Celsius. The water temperature around Racha Yai Island had reached a critical threshold. If not for the warm water, in which the divers swam without the need of wetsuits, they could have been visiting Antarctica—swimming over an ice-filled landscape.
Returning divers Katie Klammer and Wonsono stated, "Anchor damage to the coral continues to be an issue; however, bleaching of 87% to 95% of the coral was terrible. Numbers of "indicator species" were dramatically down in all areas. It was difficult to tell if the coral had any diseases because all we saw was white."
The Marine Ecology Group of 2010 collected and provided more data this year than in the past. In all, the divers made six data-collection dives along two different 100-meter lines: one at a depth of five meters and the second at eight meters. The data indicated a decline in the health of the reef; however, to the delight of everyone, Dr. Suchana (Apple) Chavanich, coordinating professor for Reef Check Southeast Asia, requested immediate access to the students' data for use at an important reef action conference taking place in Phuket, Thailand the week of June 21. The students' data might have an immediate impact in initiating action in the area.
Under certain conditions, bleached corals have the ability to recover. We hope the currents will change and push cooler, deep-ocean water into the area, thus lowering the overall temperature of the water over the reefs. The students were told that, in general, there was a six-month window in which coral was able to endure higher temperatures. If the water temperature declines, the reefs should be able to recover. If not, an entire ecosystem will be lost.
Concordia's Marine Ecology Reef Check team will return to Racha Yai Island in June 2011. Will they return to reefs filled with color and teeming with life, or will they find the reefs devoid of color and much of the marine life they once supported? Only time will tell.