Since our dive school first opened in 1995, we have been committed to safety, professionalism, and especially the protection of the marine resources around the island. We feel that as a business we have an inherent responsibility to protect the area where we live, work, and play. And, with the current global green movement, we feel that it is important for businesses to truly be green, and not just in their marketing. That is why we have dedicated ourselves towards marine conservation and social projects, our own and those being undertaken together with others here on the island.
Through the early years (1995-2005) we hosted a wide range of visitors from NGOs and Universities that wanted to too study or implement projects on the island. However, our main collaboration was with Thai groups such as the Thai Royal Navy and Khun Jintana, known locally as queen of the giant clams. Working with these groups enabled us to gain important knowledge about coral reef ecology and marine conservation in general. Projects such as mooring buoy installation, coral restoration, and crown of thorns research was carried out, by these groups, and New Heaven was always there to assist and help make these projects successful.
Later, in 2005 we joined up with other dive schools through the Koh Tao Dive Operators club to promote awareness and construct a small Biorock project in the destroyed Taa Cha Bay. After the group was dissolved, we took over the maintenance of the Taa Chaa Biorock, paying out of pocket for all repairs and work done there.
By 2006, we were hosting and participating in all the great projects being conducted by the Coastal Preservation and Development (CPAD) Foundation. The CPAD foundation was a joint American-Thai non-profit with great ideas and innovations for marine conservation projects here on Koh Tao. These projects included reef and water quality monitoring, kids swimming/diving program, digital mapping of the island, vegetable oil recycling and biodiesel production, instructor marine education during IDC courses, and much more. Unfortunately, the CPAD group ran into financial difficulties and were forced to stop the good work they had started on Koh Tao. Being so involved with CPAD we felt it would be a real loss to the island and to everyone concerned with marine conservation if the work stopped, so based on that training and vision, we started the New Heaven Reef Conservation Program (NHRCP) in 2007.
The NHRCP was started by the Owner of New Heaven, Devrim Zahir, and Chad Scott, who had previously been working with and trained by CPAD. The idea of the program was too get dive instructors, divemasters, and some advanced divers trained in coral reef ecology and some very basic marine conservation projects. A 3-day course was developed, in which participants would spend one day learning about reef ecology and monitoring programs, spend one day helping to maintain the Taa Chaa biorock, and then the last day do a clean-up. The first two students to take that course were Frank and Vera, who have since come back a few more times for longer, and who have now started their own coral restoration company based in Holland.
By the end of that first summer, we generally had 4-5 people coming along for the three day program, taught once per week. But mostly they were professional divers or long-time friends of the dive center, and so the dive school covered all costs. So although we were able to get some great work done, it was hard to see the program having much of a long-term future. But by the end of the year we had turned the 3 day training program into a two week program, and started with groups such as POD to market our program overseas.
2008 brought several firsts for our program, as we began to realize the potential of what trained divers could do to protect and enrich the coral reef environment. In May, we placed down our first experimental coral nurseries and artificial reefs, using techniques we could find in available literature or by looking at other projects in Thailand. That same month we attended a 3 day conference at the Phuket Marien Biolgocal Center which introduced us to other projects ebing done which we could start to integrate into our conservation efforts on the ilsnad. In December, we placed down our first artificial reef structure in Ao Leuk, using a simple design created out of steel rebar, and placed in in Ao Leuk next to the coral nursery. We also spent one or two days each week doing restoration work in the area above Tanote Bay where a large reservoir was constructed and subsequent erosion had deposited a 1.5 meter thick layer of sediment over the coral reef below.
It was around this time, in early 2008, that our efforts and activities were recognized by the local community group Save Koh Tao, and by an IUCN Coordinator who was helping that group. They asked if we could help to run a Marine Branch of Save Koh Tao, which helped to bring the projects and activities we had been developing out to all of the other dive schools.
In that first year of Save Koh Tao we were able to accomplish so much as a community, from land restoration, to building the Hin Fai site, installing mooring buoys, and much more. It meant that much of our time was taken away from the work at the NHRCP, but also that any students coming into the NRHCP would also be helping us to concurrently work on all of the Save Koh Tao Projects. This was an essential element to the group’s success, as many days we relied almost solely on our team to get many aspects of the community group projects completed.
Although most of our time that year was dedicated to running the Save Koh Tao Marine Branch (SKT MB), we managed to host 18 paying students and lots of professional divers into our two week program that year, and by 2009 the NHRCP was really starting to take off.
In 2009, we added more topics to our program, adding enough new projects and activities to lengthen the program to 4 weeks. We also realized that some of our best students never wanted to leave, and so we started up the internship program. We had several amazing interns during that year, including Katie (US) and Amy (UK), who both worked hard to help develop the program here further and do the work needed while we focused on the training of the new students.
At the same time, things were picking up quickly with SKT MB, and in that year we installed the first zoning lines, first giant clam nursery, built Buoyancy World, hosted several community meetings alongside the regional government and NGO’s to start making a management plan for the island, and restored much of the land above Tanote bay.
In 2009, we were simultaneously running a land conservation program to complement the work being done by our marine team. This team would join on many of the marine conservation lectures and land-based projects, then when we went out diving they would do tree and grass plantings, beach clean-ups, Photodocumentation, visitor surveys, and much more. Our program also started to get more attention oversees and here in Thailand, and we began working with several researchers from various Universities to increase the scale and scope of our research projects.