Phuket Gazette

PHUKET: A tiny helmet diver stands at attention on the red rocks of a five-gallon freshwater aquarium. Having explored the treasure chest blowing bubbles through fake gold coins, as well as the single strand of Brazilian Pennywort – and even poked around the filter, he simply stands there watching sediment build on his feet, the occasional gold fish going belly up and a new one dumped in as a replacement. This diver has confronted the unimaginable – a fully discovered, finite underwater world.

"No aquarium, no tank in a marine land, however spacious it may be, can begin to duplicate the conditions of the sea," the father of scuba diving, Jacques Cousteau, said, and though he might have been referring to the mental health of dolphins, he was right.

For a diver who counts and logs the minutes that he is underwater, the ocean is infinite – infinitely complex, infinitely changing and infinitely spacious.

And yet here in Phuket there is no sense of the infinite. Dive instructors pad across the sands to Kata Beach, and occasionally a couple of lesser-known beach dives, while dive boats plow past countless tiny islands – unexplored microcosms – on their way to established dive sites.

The essence of diving is exploration, from Cousteau paving new roads into the underwater world for the entirety of mankind, to novice scuba divers catching their first glimpse of a clown fish bobbing in and out of an anemone. It is exploration that makes us giddy.

Weekly, international news of the underwater world reminds us that there is so much left to discover, and daily, happy divers are babbling at bars about having spotted black tip sharks, sea horses and other first-sightings of marine creatures.

Yet the island’s diving industry as a whole has stopped exploring (see atrophied).

The magnitude of the reaction to the damage reports to coral at Racha Yai, which ranged from moderate damage to complete devastation, was stunning. David Minnare of Andaman Ocean Safaris pointed out that what happened was part of the life of a reef – and rightly so. Yet as we stand on the brink of high season, the dive industry was shaken by the destruction.

Phuket is surrounded by a sea of islands, but dive boats return day in and day out to those coveted few dive sites that are established – exerting a phenomenal amount of ecological pressure on them.

Finding and establishing new dive sites offers variety to repeat customers not interested in booking a 9th dive at Shark Point. More importantly though, it gives a chance for corals and the marine environment to relax, as the pressure exerted by divers is diluted.

Such exploration initiatives are an expensive venture for a single dive company to shoulder, and impractical when the returns will be divided among competitors as word of new sites spreads and desperately-needed mooring systems are implemented.

A savior is needed. And no organization is better positioned to shoulder such necessary initiatives than Go Eco Phuket. The marine conservation group, still backed by much of the island’s dive community and supported by local government agencies, has the opportunity to direct the momentum gained through cleanups and other media stunts toward long-term sustainable projects.

There is a natural desire to weigh our progress at the end of the day, to tell the government, tell sponsors, tell supporters, tell everyone that a difference was made.

However, the real differences for Phuket’s dive industry won’t be made in a day, but when it happen, the effects will ripple through the entire tourism economy, as experienced divers and discover scuba divers provide a steady cash flow to local eateries and hotels as they return year in and year out to discover what new diving we have to offer in our own infinite corner of the sea.

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This article first appeared in the current issue (Dec 14-20) of the hard-copy Phuket Gazette newspaper. Digital subscribers may download the full issue, this week and every week, by clicking
here.
– Isaac Stone Simonelli

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