Thailand’s most famous island paradise has been restored to its former glory thanks to the spectacular efforts of thousands of volunteer divers from all around the globe
Koh Phi Phi was one of the worst affected areas in Thailand by the December 2004 tsunami. The scenic island set in the Andaman Sea off the coast of Southern Thailand had long been popular with backpackers and scuba divers alike as an ocean paradise. It was a reputation sealed by the choice of Koh Phi Phi as the location for the Hollywood movie The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio. When the wave hit, it destroyed 60 per cent of the buildings on the island and claimed nearly 1300 lives. Many thought Phi Phi would never recover from the devastation wrought upon it by the sea, both on land and to its surrounding reefs. But throughout 2005, a truly Herculean clean-up effort carried out by Thai and tourist volunteers alike has ensured that Phi Phi is not only open for business once more, but that it’s just as beautiful a place to visit and to dive.
Usually the term “clean-up” in scuba diving circles is synonymous with scouring reefs and beaches for litter for a few hours before repairing to the bar for a well-earned drink. But in Koh Phi Phi’s case, the reef clean up was a huge logistical operation that has gone on for almost the entire year and cleared some 280 tonnes of debris from under the water and on the beaches. Literally thousands of volunteers, divers and non-divers alike, have passed through Phi Phi during 2005 to help with the island’s restoration. The debris retrieved from the water has ranged from trees and construction materials (including a seven tonne roof in one case) to personal effects vital in helping identify those missing in the wake of the disaster. Such work must have given the volunteers harsh moments, both physical and psychological, which makes their achievement even more remarkable.
One of the key figures in making this cleanup operation happen was Andrew Hewett, a long term Phi Phi resident and dive instructor who narrowly escaped the tsunami with his wife and children. As Project Co-ordinator of the Phi Phi Dive Camp which was founded in February 2005 to formalise the reef restoration operations on the island, Hewett has watched the clean-up grow from a seemingly impossible idea into an extraordinary achievement.
“The big surprise”, says Hewett, “was that we actually achieved the goal of what we wanted to do when we started. Over the first six months period we averaged about sixty volunteers per day. The Dive Camp also employed up to twenty five local Thai residents to help with the effort. In total we had about 4500 people assisting us. Volunteers included experienced divers, snorkelers, beach clean up crews, boat crews, and other surface support teams. In total approximately 7500 dives were made to clear the debris. At the same time, a number of other private groups were helping to support the local community. Among these was the Hi Phi Phi group organized by Bang La and Claire West, who did a fantastic job of organizing volunteers to help clean the streets and assist businesses to reopen.” Time Asia recently named Hi Phi Phi as one of their Asia Heroes of 2005 for their efforts.
Both the Phi Phi Dive Camp and Hi Phi Phi organisations used their websites to attract more volunteers and to highlight the plight of the island. PADI publicised the Camp’s dive operations on their online message boards which brought in hundreds of divers from all over the world, including divers from the French police team R.A.I.D., Emirates Diving Association, BSAC, NAUI and CMAS members.
While the bulk of the clean up operation is complete, Phi Phi still needs volunteer divers to help with the next phases of the Dive Camp’s work, which will be directed at reef monitoring and restoration. In collaboration with Reef Check, the international volunteer organisation which has developed a recognised protocol for reef assessment, Dive Camp volunteers will be conducting reef analysis while Hewett’s own company, The Adventure Club, will be offering educational courses using this reef data. In this way, Hewett hopes that tourists to the island will be able to get an idea of the direct impact of tourism on the island while they’re enjoying Phi Phi’s beaches and reefs.
Referring to the overbuilding that Phi Phi has suffered in the past and the subsequent impact on the island’s reefs, Hewett maintains that “the clean-up effort has proved a great tool in opening the eyes of the local community and travellers to the importance of protecting our environment. Many of the local people, myself included, believe the Phi Phi Islands are in a unique position to undo the mistakes done in the past and rebuild a better infrastructure that will help to give the islands a future.
“Unfortunately, this might all be just a wild dream if the appropriate authorities do not take the steps to monitor future activities, regarding construction, tourism and fishing within the Park. Without this, it is possible that Phi Phi will go back on the same path it was taking prior to the tsunami.”
There’s certainly no doubt that since the tsunami, the marine life of the Andaman Sea has paradoxically been flourishing, from the Similan Islands down to the dive sites in Southern Thailand accessible from Phuket, Koh Phi Phi and its neighbouring island Koh Lanta. One theory is that the force of the wave actually cleaned off sediments that were beginning to build up on corals. Another is probably due to the lack of boat and tourist activity allowing fish life to settle. Whatever the explanation, the key dive sites visited by Phi Phi dive boats of Koh Bida, Koh Haa and Hin Daeng and Hin Muang are possibly even more spectacular than they were before the tsunami. As Hewett says, “Hin Daeng and Hin Muang just blow the mind. They are two mid ocean reefs with thousands of fish and a 50/50 chance of seeing manta rays or whale sharks.” [Read more about Koh Bida, Koh Haa and Hin Daeng and Hin Muang in my Koh Lanta – Manta Ray Paradise article]
If the clean-up operation showed the best side of the diving community, Koh Phi Phi’s rebirth as one of Thailand’s premier island destinations will also rely on divers and backpacker tourists returning to the island. While there were many media reports about Phi Phi’s destruction, there are relatively few about its reconstruction and the return to normal life that has come about on the island. Getting the word out that Phi Phi is open for business once again – with fully functioning infrastructure and facilities – is now the other challenge facing Hewett and the rest of Phi Phi’s residents. There’s few signs that the tsunami ever happened on Phi Phi – as Hewett explains, “the reaction from people that have come back to the islands is very satisfying. People that knew Phi Phi before the tsunami are shocked by the amount of loss of the buildings that were on the island, but at the same time are surprised by the speed of the recovery. In contrast, people that have never been here say that they find it hard to believe the stories of how much damage was done.”
What’s left now is an island that has been reborn from the tragedy it suffered, and where the destruction has been transformed into a second chance for Koh Phi Phi to rebuild itself and properly protect its marine habitat. With world class dive sites like Hin Daeng and Hin Muang close by, there’s never been a better time for divers to visit Koh Phi Phi.
[This article originally appeared in Asian Diver magazine]