When most people think of artificial reefs, they think of structures that will add habitat to attract corals, fish, and other reef animals. But what about creating artificial reefs to attract people? SCUBA diving has quickly become one of the most important marine based tourism industries in the world, with an estimated 30 million divers having been certified by 2012, and about 1 million people currently learning to dive each year (Lew 2013). The attraction of diving in beautiful and diverse coral reefs is a major economic contributor to the 23 countries around the world that receive more than 15% of their GDP from reef-tourism (Wongthong and Harvey 2014).
Koh Tao is a great example of this effect, as it is now listed as 2nd in the world for the number of SCUBA certifications each year. In 2002 (the most recent published data), the island contributed about 500 million baht to the Thai economy through tourism, with a majority of the tourists coming for diving. This boom has been great for the economy here and in other locations around the globe, but what are the costs?
We could discuss all of the externalities of diving tourism which affects both the environment and local societies such as development/deforestation, pollution, eutrophication, etc., but here we are going to look at just the effect that divers have while under the water and following most of the rules.
Most divers come to the coral reef to enjoy the awe inspiring organisms which live there, and thus have an intrinsic motive not to harm them. For most people, any damages they cause can be put down to ‘accidental contact’ or lack of knowledge (people standing on or grabbing corals thinking they are rocks, picking up or chasing marine life, etc.) But even the most experienced divers today were once in this same category. None of us spend our first dive hovering perfectly still with the buoyancy skills needed to navigate through a reef area and the knowledge of what is around us. But, unfortunately throughout the tropics this is where most people’s first dive takes place.
Shallow reefs can be quickly and irrecoverably damaged by the chronic structural damage caused by divers standing, kicking, and touching corals. In only a few short years a vibrant reef ecosystem can be reduced to sand and rubble, which you might also remember on your first dive. . .
But this does not mean that learning to dive has to be damaging to the reef, or that everybody should have to learn in a swimming pool. It just shows that the dive industry needs to admit that the problem exists, and take a proactive stance on addressing it. Sure the existing Codes of Conduct help, but can we really expect new divers not to contact the coral reef when they are still trying to figure out how to move around and be stable in the water?
Alternative dive sites are thus areas that have been constructed by the dive industry, with the intention of using the area for diving recreation and training. Although they incorporate structures that will attract fish and other marine life, the main goal is to get novice divers off of the coral reef and reduce diving pressures to natural areas.
By constructing unique areas underwater that also include buoyancy and other training devices, the underwater skills and self-awareness of divers can be improved, and so can the efficiency of training. Although several regions have deployed wrecks and other available materials for this purpose, these are generally orientated towards experienced divers.
On Koh Tao, several alternative dive sites have been constructed over the last decade, with the duel goal of increasing the reef area and removing divers from natural areas. The first such project was in 2008, when 17 dive schools on the island joined together through the Save Koh Tao Community Group to raise nearly 1 million baht and construct what was then the largest Biorock in the Gulf of Thailand, known as Hin Fai (click here to read our article on reflection about the Hin Fai site after 5 years of Growth.).
Hin Fai does not attract too many divers, but this is mostly due to logistical reasons. Although the site is teaming with amazing marine life and some of the highest coral diversity on the island, it is a bit out of the way for most dive schools stuck in the same pattern of dive sites. For the NHRCP, it is one of our favorite sites, we dive there once per week, and have brought hundreds of people to visit and maintain the site.
In 2009, the island dive community undertook another project for the second year of Save Koh Tao, this time with just 8 dive schools (out of the then 42 on the island) banding together to raise over 350,000 Thai Baht to construct and deploy Buoyancy World. Buoyancy world is a site made of mostly concrete structures which were each built by a different dive center, over the course of a few weeks. The structures were deployed in early 2010, about a month before coral spawning, which meant that within a short time all of the structures were covered in small juvenile corals. Because the structures were placed in a sandy area devoid of any existing structure they immediately became full of fish life and greatly enriched an otherwise barren area.
But, the real success of Buoyancy World was the amount of use it receives everyday. Learning from Hin Fai, the site was placed right next to the busiest dive site on the island, Twins. In a 2012 study done by NHRCP intern Robert Nichols, about 40% of the divers learning to dive on Koh Tao had visited and spent some time at Buoyancy World (click here to see Robert’s paper). Including customers from the 36 or so dive schools that never helped out in any way with the project.
The structures designed by the individual dive schools that did participate had the theme of “Thai ecosystems and animals” and had to fit at least two of the following three criteria:
1) A buoyancy or diving training aid
2) A habitat for fish, corals, or other marine organisms
3) A sculpture or piece of artwork
With that in mind, the dive centers built some amazing structures, including a large Octopus which divers can swim in and out of (Big Bubble Dive center), a giant lizard that has become one of the top places on Koh Tao to have your photo taken (Big Blue Dive center), a Bamboo forest for the fish (Crystal Dive Center), and some cool anemones with sculptured fish (Ban’s Diving). New Heaven did a large tree structure, which is fun for divers to explore, and also has plenty of room on top for transplanting branching corals.
Following the great success of that project, in late 2010 the island received assistance from the Thai Department of Marine and Coastal Resources to build a diver training site on the East side of the island, known locally as Suan Olan. The project, overseen by Dr. Pinsak Surawadi of the DMCR, utilized pre-built concrete components to construct a fun and interactive site for divers. The site includes large rings for swim through, PVC Buoyancy Rings, and plenty of other structures to encourage diverse marine life to move in.
Then, in 2011 the Save Koh Tao group worked with MINI Thailand to add the “MINI Square” to Suan Olan, complete with a concrete replica of a MINI Cooper. That same year, we also improved Buoyancy World with lots of new structures, this time with just 6 dive schools involved.
After a few more projects and countless hours of maintenance, the island now has alternative dive sties in over 7 locations around the island. Today, there is really no excuse for dive centers to be conducting most their training dives in natural areas. Not only do the sites include many features and obstacles not normally found on the reef that can improve diver training, the customer satisfaction of those diving these sites has been really high (Nichols 2012).
Another way that we have been trying to encourage divers to venture away from the natural reefs is through the seahorse and nudibranch dives done in the ‘muck’ areas, or areas that are mostly sand bottoms. These areas tend to be a little bit deeper, and although there are not as many organisms to see there, the animals we do find are always unique and amazing. A large amount of biodiversity exists around our island in the non-reef areas, as proven by our recently submitted paper which recorded over 84 species of sea slugs around just Koh Tao.
We all want to dive in coral reefs, it is the reason most of us take up SCUBA in the first place, but we need to be conscious of “loving the area to death.” Too many visitors, especially novice and unskilled ones, quickly degrades and marginalizes these areas we all seek to enjoy. By investing more into the construction and deployment of purpose built alternative dives sites then diving industry could begin to right the wrongs it has been committing these past few decades and begin to take responsibility for the marine resources they utilize.
You can take action by supporting local groups who are working on installing and maintaining artificial reefs and alternative dive sites, and by choosing dive businesses that do the same. No matter where people learn to dive, there is always an alternative to taking ‘newbies’ into the delicate coral reef ecosystems.