June 8, 2023
Maya Bay: How conservationists saved Thailand’s most well-known seashore from break

Maya Bay, Thailand

It’s simply previous 7 a.m. on a February morning in Maya Bay, a number of weeks after authorities reopened what’s one in every of Thailand’s hottest vacationer sights to the world for the primary time since June 2018 following an enormous rehabilitation program.

A lone vacationer walks alongside the shore, the towering limestone monoliths showing to drift over the floor of the water, their bases eroded by thousands and thousands of years of lapping salt water. Within the distance, blacktip sharks swim via the bay, their fins breaking the floor.

It’s a surreal scene, having this spectacular cove largely to oneself.

Within the hours to observe, a sluggish however regular trickle of arrivals turns into a deluge as dozens of vacationers trudge down a newly erected boardwalk, making their method to the celebrated white-sand seashore, telephones on the prepared as they take selfies and pose for pictures.

Those that enterprise quite a lot of steps into the water are met with loud whistles from a park official overlooking the seashore from a sheltered lifeguard tower nestled within the timber edging the sand; swimming is just not allowed, although guests can wade a number of steps in.

However some vacationers are seemingly unable to withstand the aquamarine waters of the bay and try and push the boundaries. One French vacationer is issued a 5,000 baht tremendous (about $137) for repeatedly ignoring the rule.

On the boardwalk, an aged lady furtively smokes a cigarette close to the doorway to the seashore – a strictly no smoking space.

It’s disheartening, however an enormous enchancment over what guests as soon as skilled right here.

Positioned in Thailand’s Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Ko Phi Phi Nationwide Park, Maya Bay is a part of the uninhabited Phi Phi Leh, one of many two foremost Phi Phi islands, in Krabi province.

For Thai authorities, balancing the necessity for vacationers – tourism contributed about 20% to Thailand’s GDP previous to the pandemic – with the pressing name to guard the park’s valuable pure assets is an ongoing problem.

“The very best answer is no person comes,” says marine biologist and professor Dr. Thon Thamrongnawasawat.

“When you ask me as a scientist, hold the bay for the sharks. However as we all know, the bay is an enormous tourism spot. So now we have to compromise.”

Maya Bay: How conservationists saved Thailand’s most well-known seashore from break

How Thailand’s most well-known bay recovered from the brink of ecological disaster

Thon is broadly credited with convincing authorities to indefinitely shut the bay 4 years in the past – a controversial resolution on the time.

Main a staff of marine scientists, he labored with the Ministry of Pure Assets and Atmosphere alongside the personal sector – specifically, property developer Singha Estates, which has put sustainability on the forefront of its operations – on the huge rejuvenation challenge that befell within the absence of vacationers.

“Round 40 years in the past, Maya Bay was already a tourism vacation spot, however (primarily) just for Thai vacationers – and never so many since you didn’t have pace boats at the moment,” Thon says.

“An increasing number of individuals got here. After which there was that film from Hollywood.”

‘That film’ in fact being “The Seaside,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Launched in 2000, it centered on a bunch of backpackers seeking to create their very own personal utopia on an unbelievably lovely island in Thailand.

Because the movie’s reputation grew, so too did vacationers’ want to go to the situation the place a lot of it was shot – Maya Bay.

Over time, the variety of vacationers elevated from lower than 1,000 to as many as 7,000 or 8,000 guests a day at its peak, says Thon. Many had been daytrippers visiting from close by Phuket. On common, round 5,000 individuals entered the bay every day.

“There have been a whole lot of boats coming in,” he recollects. “I used to examine utilizing a drone and I discovered virtually 100 boats on the identical time.”

The boats’ propellers whisked sand up onto the coral, their anchors slamming down onto the fragile sea flooring. Incoming vacationers walked on the reef as properly, most unaware of the harm they had been doing.

Thon says they first checked on the corals round 30 years in the past, and 70-80% of the bay’s reef was intact.

Years later, lower than 8% remained.

Other than essential ecological considerations, the vacationer expertise was not a constructive one both. Panoramic views of the gorgeous bay had been blocked by the lengthy line of boats anchored alongside the shore.

Since closing the bay in 2018, Thon and a staff of fellow marine specialists and volunteers have replanted over 30,000 items of coral, a lot of it grown off the coast of a close-by island, Koh Yung.

About 50% of the replanted coral survived – there was some bleaching – and now it’s beginning to develop and unfold by itself. As Thon says, “mom nature is doing the job.”

With out the transplanting course of, he says it might take 30-50 years for the reef to regenerate naturally.

In the meantime, the wildlife additionally returned and has been thriving. Among the many animals presently inhabiting the bay are clownfish, lobsters and blacktip sharks, that are innocent to people.

“Once we closed the bay, after solely three months, the blacktip sharks got here again, they carry on mating, a few of them give beginning … so there are a whole lot of issues occurring in Maya Bay, not solely the coral reef.”

(See above video for extra on the restoration challenge.)

Now, a mere seven months since reopening, Thai authorities are closing Maya Bay as soon as once more.

This time, nonetheless, the closure will solely final two months, from August 1 to September 30, through the monsoon season.

Authorities inform CNN they need to additional enhance the island’s infrastructure and provides the protected space a break from the lots of vacationers which have already returned to its gorgeous shores.

The closure comes as a reminder that a whole lot of effort has been put into rehabilitating this battered attraction, and authorities need to guarantee these strikes weren’t made in useless.

Suthep Chaikaow, present chief of Maya Bay nationwide park, recollects the environment earlier than the park was closed in 2018.

“All I can say is that it was horrible,” he tells CNN. “Prior to now, when vacationers tried to take pictures, all they may see was the bay, flooded with anchored boats. The views weren’t lovely. And the seashore was additionally filled with vacationers.”

To treatment this, the Division of Nationwide Parks has restricted the variety of guests to no more 4,125 individuals per day, allotted into one-hour slots to unfold them out. The primary slot is at 7 a.m. and every slot can’t exceed 375 individuals.

Boats can not enter the bay. As an alternative, drivers must drop passengers off at a newly constructed jetty set in the back of the island away from the famed cove – all a part of the rejuvenation program designed to keep away from the issues of the previous.

A brand new boardwalk main from the dock cuts via the forest, providing a nice five-minute stroll via the forest to the seashore on the opposite aspect of the slender island.

And that swimming ban? The park director says there are a number of causes they need to hold vacationers out of the water. For one, they’ll disturb the sharks. Additionally, he says some vacationers are usually not good at swimming, and will step on the corals that scientists labored so laborious to regrow.

“The corals may be damaged, our pure assets might once more disappear,” he says.

The present setup is a ample compromise.

“I really feel very glad once I see guests are glad. The earlier than and after of (Maya Bay) are a lot totally different… it’s inspired us to protect this space.”

Vacationers CNN spoke with appear to agree.

“It’s like paradise,” says Nicole, a German traveler visiting Maya Bay for the primary time.

“It’s an excellent factor to do,” says one Thai vacationer from Bangkok of the brand new guidelines. “For individuals who haven’t been, I like to recommend it as a as soon as in a lifetime factor to see.”

As for the criticisms the federal government confronted when closing the bay 4 years in the past, a transfer that minimize into the pockets of the numerous tour operators that organized journey to the bay, park chief Suthep says most have since come round.

“The one considered enterprise operators was to have as a lot vacationers as they may,” he recollects. “However after the shutdown, they despatched representatives to witness the realm. It was very shocking for them, they mentioned in the event that they knew it might prove this manner, we must always have completed it a very long time in the past. They’ve been cooperative.”

Only a 15-minute speedboat trip away from Maya Bay on close by Phi Phi Don sits Saii Phi Phi Island Village Resort.

Owned by Singha Estates, its marine scientists labored carefully with Thon on the Maya Bay restoration challenge – all a part of a broader purpose to usher in a brand new period of sustainable tourism in Thailand.

Amongst them is marine biologist Kullawit Limchularat, sustainability improvement supervisor for Singha Estates. He says the Maya Bay challenge is probably the most seen a part of their efforts to guard and revive all the space’s valuable underwater life, however they’re additionally invested in different essential works to enhance the area.

One such challenge that’s near his coronary heart is the resort’s brownbanded bamboo shark breeding program, referred to as “SOS (Save Our Sharks)” which is managed via the resort’s Marine Discovery Centre. A big, well-planned facility, it’s designed to coach vacationers in addition to residents from neighboring communities about marine life and ecosystems within the nationwide park, in impact cultivating environmental consciousness.

“The area people is the one who lives right here. They should know what did they’ve and the way essential it’s to guard,” says Kullawit.

As a part of the SOS program, workers handle each stage of the bamboo sharks’ improvement.

First, the juvenile bamboo shark embryos are dropped at the middle from the Phuket Marine Biology Middle. The embryos take round 90 days to hatch.

Once they attain 30 centimeters, they’re moved to the larger shark tank, the place they’ll stay for one more three months earlier than they’re launched into the ocean.

bamboo shark thumbnail

Bamboo shark breeding helps repopulate Thailand’s reefs

The middle additionally breeds and releases a much more acquainted fish that makes its dwelling in Thai waters – the clownfish, or just “Nemo fish” as most Thais consult with them colloquially due to the recognition of Disney’s “Discovering Nemo.”

Kullawit says the captively bred clownfish within the heart’s tanks shall be launched if native populations are depleted.

CNN joined Kullawit and different workers from the resort on an expedition to launch the newest totally grown bamboo sharks earlier this yr. (See video above.)

In accordance with Thai legal guidelines, the sharks can’t be launched in nationwide marine park waters because the sharks had been bred in captivity, says Kullawit. As an alternative, the staff should cruise a number of hours away to waters exterior the protected space to a tiny, rocky outcrop often called Koh Mah – or Canine Island.

“We discovered that round this space has a whole lot of coral, and it is a good place for the bamboo shark, as a result of this shark is the reef species, however they keep within the backside,” says the marine scientist as he prepares to launch a number of of the sharks bred within the heart.

Carried right down to their new dwelling by a staff of scuba divers, the sharks are timid at first, and reluctant to go away their brightly coloured baskets. Finally, they swim away, slowly.

“The bamboo shark is a small species,” says Kullawit. “They aren’t aggressive and play an essential function within the atmosphere as a result of they’re a predator. They are going to management the weak prey like weak octopus, weak small fish… the atmosphere of the coral reef shall be stronger.”

Bamboo shark numbers have declined in recent times because of fishing practices and habitat destruction, placing reefs like this one in jeopardy.

“If we should not have sharks, the ecology of the reef shall be destroyed. Once we launch them, we really feel like we give one thing again to nature.”

Boats can no longer enter the bay. Instead, drivers have to drop passengers off at this newly built floating jetty set at the back of the island.

Based on a current World Financial institution report, worldwide vacationer arrivals in Thailand are anticipated to succeed in 24 million, or round 60% of pre-pandemic ranges, by 2024.

For now, the lacking piece of Thailand’s tourism restoration puzzle is China, which continues to discourage its residents from touring internationally by imposing prolonged return quarantine restrictions.

Previous to the pandemic, Chinese language vacationers had been the most important supply marketplace for Thailand’s tourism trade.

When the lots of world vacationers finally do return at pre-pandemic ranges, park officers’ dedication to sustainability shall be put to the take a look at.

However Thon is assured the success of Maya Bay can act as a mannequin for different vacationer locations in danger.

“It’ll change the picture of Thai tourism, share the picture that we’re not only a nation which might be loopy about cash,” he says.

“We want to save our sea. And we are able to, if we are able to do on the heaviest mass tourism spot within the Thai sea, we are able to do it all over the place. The Maya Bay challenge is one in every of my greatest initiatives in my life. So so long as I stay, I’ll hold my eye on Maya Bay.”