Yesterday (which is now 5 days ago) I left Koh Tao at 2:45 PM on the Lomprayah High Speed Ferry. Then I took a bus to the Chumphon Train Station, where I dropped of my luggage and wandered the city until my train came. I ate mochi in coconut milk and some sort of chocolate truffle and fried chicken and sticky rice. I ate noodles with an old man who grew up in Chumphon, and sat silently until I fumbled the sauce spoon to the floor and squeaked and he laughed. I read my book. I watched a British Football league match with a table of old Thai guys until my train came at 11 PM. I woke up on the train an hour from the Malay border, signed off on my first visa and read my way to KL. I arrived in Kuala Lumpur at 10 PM. My time in Koh Tao is done. This is what’s on my mind.
Before the head should come the heart. Like a disclaimer: I met some truly devoted, talented, kind, funny, cool people on Koh Tao. It’s hard to imagine a better start to this really strange year than the one I had at New Heaven. I saw people run with ideas, make things happen. Not stop themselves from doing what they think is the right thing do do (well-informed, thorough, methodical). I was lucky (after gracefully missing my first ferry while lounging around Gaia Home, where I lived) to have two goodbye evenings with the crew – a big dinner and then a smaller night dancing to ska on the beach. It was a good send-off, and I’ve got my fingers crossed so tight that I’m back there soon. Anyway,
The NHRCP Project
The very first interview I conducted on Koh Tao was with Rahul Mehotra, an outgoing instructor with the New Heaven Restoration and Conservation Program. Rahul is an idiosyncratic naturalist, the self-proclaimed “Slug Guy” now pursuing his Masters in Bangkok. He said, somehow simultaneously forboding and hopeful, that conservation was on its heels “except or one small island in the gulf of Thailand, and maybe one individual working to make it happen.” Rahul was quick with his words to call reef conservation “a losing battle I’m proud to be a part of.”
He was quick to call coral conservation efforts “a losing battle I’m proud to be a part of.”
Almost every instructor at NHRCP touched on this theme of possibility as the only option. Their specific granule of belief in a rotating team of conservationists has, since the program’s humble beginnings in 2006, formed this lustrous, imperfect pearl in the Gulf of Thailand. Using their own specific skills, the instructors each contribute another point of entry into practicing conservation. Spencer articulated his sense of hope and despair through the very medium he hopes will bring change – underwater sculpture. Pao has a background in graphic design and youth leadership, and has a gift for making NHRCP’s daily tasks seem easy, doable. Kirsty, with a bachelor’s in Marine Biology and a lifelong preference for wildlife over people, integrates her scientific research into conservation goals for Koh Tao (contributing to the growing literature produced out of NHRCP, lending credibility to the program. See: my thesis). Chad, one of the Koh-founders of NHRCP, who has put herculean effort into the specific preservation of Koh Tao, has turned his focus back to the program after years of community organizing because he believes in the immediate impact of each person who comes through RCP.
New Heaven doesn’t exist in a bubble. The program rolls along, powered by its staff and the student-tourists that cycle through. Their activities end up subsidizing the island’s industry by increasing the vibrancy and longevity of Koh Tao’s reefs. On an island with, give or take, 70 dive shops, only one has a team that is dedicated full time to the sensitive ecology underpinning Koh Tao’s tourist industry. It goes both ways: I hope that the unique link between Koh Tao’s ecology and economy isn’t what enables a program like RCP to exist. I don’t think it is at all. There is, perhaps, a moral economy maintained by the community at New Heaven. Conservation actions sit directly on top of social life at New Heaven. There are socially experienced pressures that speak to a mandate of restoration.
How? How are people compelled to action during and after their time in Chalok? I think it’s three things:
- Problem framing: Chad in particular is good at setting the scene, motivating the emotional and empirical realities of global climate change. He has, more than any scientist I’ve seen, really, a knack for expressing his politics in accessible terms.
- Seeing immediate impact of your actions: You have a lecture on mooring line damage and the impact on coral growth. You pack your gear back. You set a mooring line. A boat of Chinese tourists immediately moors up and floods out of the boat like baby fish. In 10 years, come back to an artificial reef site and measure the growth of a fragment.
- Being in a community of likeminded people: For some students, it was a relief to meet other people invested in this work. For some staff, they have deep set anxiety about ever being good enough fro their dream job.
At New Heaven, the impact, importance, and moral imperative driving conservation work sits directly on the NHRCP community’s social norms.
Driving to the pier at Mae Haad in the back of Aim’s tiny truck with Kirsty, watching MoMo bounce along the dirt road, I said (surprised at my own surprise) that I was sad to go. This group of folks would truly never be here in this way again; maybe I was holding on to a bit of regret for all the moments I hadn’t had, imagined by typically impossible standards. Kirsty shrugged her usual shrug, “Well, yeah, sure pet – but the greatest thing about seeing groups come and go is that the program always attracts people who care about the same things.” I think the only real difference is how they care about it.
A whole other topic for a different time is the role of design. Design in artificial reefs is more a bio-philosophical question. Ultimately, you need design for a well-marketed business: design in marketing a conservation program, the TripAdvisor sinkhole, social media as a barrier to healthy all-island investment (as long as you have some pictures of cleaning a beach, you attract customers who think your shop really made a difference). Another thing NHRCP does so well is make their project visually accessible with clean, professional graphics. And accessibility is more of a problem than you think.
SCUBA: Accessibility & the Power of Product
BECAUSE THE SCUBA INDUSTRY IS A RACKET. Every certification you get – really regardless of the brand but particularly with PADI – has a huge overhead cost and variable benefit to the diver. PADI operates on a “Con-Ed” or continuing education model that, at its core, encourages divers to get more certifications rather than observe their own skills . This high cost of entry gets in the way of SCUBA being used as a tool as much as it is an adventure sport. It prevents people from local communities that are exploited in the name of tourism from knowing their own habitat. It sets a participation cost on curiosity.
So, what really got me in my last days at New Heaven was the roll-out of their Conservation Diver program. Seriously, check it out. Certifications are cheap – a few bucks on top of a conservation dive you’d already do. Lectures are more thorough than most PADI Specialty certifications. Conservation Diver certifications with be awarded to participants who are actually doing something under the surface. If it plays out, I’ll head back to Koh Tao to learn how to certify Conservation Diver students myself.
If enough people are making a difference one day at a time, maybe these efforts can be more than what Rahul called “a losing battle I’m proud to be a part of.” Maybe the same pressures that community norms exert on a multitude of behaviors can build reefs.
n.b. This is a too-brief summary of the research and writing I’m doing this year. We’re about 15 interviews in, and my goal is 50 for the year. I could have been talking about the people I met – really the highlight of any place I go – but hey.
Care about marine conservation? Follow NHRCP here!: