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Ko Lanta Dive Sites Unaffected by Closures

Healthy Coral Reef from Lanta Dive Site Ko Haa today

Plenty of coral reefs remain healthy in Thailand. Many top dive sites are still open. Photo taken at Ko Haa today.

All Ko Lanta dive sites remain open after reports that many of Thailand’s top dive sites are to be closed today, due to coral bleaching that occurred at shallow depths during the El Niño period in May 2010.

Healthy Corals - Photo taken today at Ko Haa

Healthy Corals - Photo taken today at Ko Haa

The director of the Department for National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation in Thailand, Sunan Arunnoparat, announced yesterday that eighteen diving and snorkelling sites, located mainly off the west (Andaman) coast of Thailand, will be closed for up to 14 months to allow coral, damaged by unusually high sea temperatures in May 2010, to recover.

The dramatic move was announced last night following a meeting in Bangkok that included marine biologists and researchers.

Dive sites listed to close lie within 7 of Thailand’s 148 National Parks and include sites within the National Marine Parks of; Ko Surin, Similan, Phi Phi, Petra, Tarutao, Chumphon and Hat Chao Mai.

It’s unclear how individual sites were chosen for closure. Although many of the sites listed are within high-profile marine parks that are famous for attracting large numbers of divers each year, none of the actual sites listed as banned are among the major diving destinations in Thailand.

The two sites listed for closure nearest the Ko Lanta area are, Ko Chuak – sometimes included as part of the popular 4-Island Snorkelling Tour, and Hin Klang – a snorkel site near Ko Phi Phi. All other sites remain open for diving and snorkelling.

Closures are due to begin today (Friday 21st January 2011). Divers or snorkeller breaching these closures could incur penalties of 1,000 – 10,000 THB (equivalent to US$30 – US$300).

Dive Sites to be closed due to Coral Bleaching

An announcement, welcomed by many marine environmentalists, stated that Thai authorities have also vowed to step up patrols to stop illegal fishing and increase moorings at spots not affected by the closures, aimed at reducing damage done by boats anchoring on, or using destructive fishing practices, near reefs. There is no indication as to how these steps will be enforced. For decades, illegal fishing has continued on and around marine parks, even though divers have been calling on the authorities to enforce protection laws.

Fishing Net Kills Coral Reef

Scuba diver gently removes a huge fishing net abandoned over a dive site at Ko Rok before it chokes the reef to death

“More than half of southern Thailand’s 15,000 hectares of coral reefs are suffering from the effects of bleaching”, a phenomenon caused largely by rising sea temperatures over an extended period. “We will study the cause and effect and find a way to restore them,” said Sunan Arunnopparat, director of the Department of National Parks.

Many local dive operators in southern Thailand are actively involved in reef monitoring projects in collaboration with Project AWARE, Greenfins and the Phuket Marine Biology Centre in order to study and limit the effects of global warming and coral bleaching.

Diving and snorkelling operators often play a vital role in local communities struggling to cope with growing levels of tourism, communicating reef conservation techniques and environmental awareness to both members of the local community and visiting diving and snorkelling tourists.

There appears to be some controversy in media coverage as to whether or not diving impacts reefs damaged by coral bleaching and why action is being taken so long after the event. Marine conservationists at last night’s meeting, are said to have blamed unregulated tourism – walking on coral, mooring boats over reefs and contaminating the water in the Andaman Sea, a region that draws thousands of tourists each year to enjoy it’s beautiful beaches and reefscapes. Sunan Arunnopparat said global warming was at fault.

A survey by Phuketwan today showed that the diving industry feels it has been made a scapegoat for the continuing failure of authorities to properly protect the reefs from illegal fishing and reef fish poachers.

It’s unclear why the widespread occurrence of coral bleaching has only just come to the attention of the authorities. By taking a look at the latest NOAA HotSpot report from yesterday – you can see that Thailand is not currently experiencing high sea temperatures.

Coral Bleaching HotSpots for Jan 2011

Compare this to their report at the end of May last year:

Degree Heating Weeks Report May 2010

Manta Ray at Hin Muang

Manta Ray at Hin Muang - Photo taken today

Current media coverage seems to incude scant focus on the fact that there are vast areas of coral reef in Thailand that are undamaged or well on their way to recovery, despite the unusually warm water temperatures some 9 months ago.

Water temperatures right now are actually a degree or two colder than normal for the time of year and reefs located further south in Thai waters are positively flourishing at the moment.

Famous dive sites Hin Daeng & Hin Muang are attracting Manta Rays in numbers not seen for many years. There have been multiple Manta sightings every day for almost 2 months and both marine and coral life is positively glowing.

Coral bleaching, (the whitening of coral as it loses its natural pigment), is caused by a rise in sea temperatures which has been linked to global warming and El Niño.

Corals start to feel stressed when the sea surface temperature is more than 1°C above the average we expect to see in the hottest month.

During May last year, sea surface temperatures in the Andaman Sea rose to 34 degrees Celsius or about 4 degrees C above the long-term average. Even more important for corals, is build-up of warm-water stress over time. NOAA also maps this cumulative stress by adding up the HotSpots over a 3-month period. These are called Degree Heating Weeks (DHWs), which pinpoint areas where corals are at risk for bleaching. The status is updated twice per week, and the data is posted to the Coral Reef Watch website for the public to access.

NOAA's Coral Reef Watch Program's satellite data Scientists use the NOAA Coral Reef Watch system to monitor coral reefs around the world – this data is available on Google Earth.

NOAA operates two polar-orbiting satellites, each with an infrared sensor that detects the temperature of the ocean’s surface. Because the satellites constantly orbit the earth, they measure the water temperature around the entire globe each day.

Using this technique NOAA maps ‘HotSpot’ areas that are higher than the expected maximum. Continuous monitoring of sea surface temperature at global scales provides researchers and stakeholders with tools to understand and better manage the complex interactions leading to coral bleaching. When bleaching conditions occur, these tools can be used to trigger bleaching response plans and support appropriate management decisions.

Coral bleaching is a growing global concern and the fact that the Thai government is taking this phenomenon seriously has got to be a good thing. Whether it’s a step in the right direction or a nail in the coffin of Thailand’s diving industry, action does need to be taken. By raising public awareness we have a better chance of taking the global steps desperately needed to slow down or reverse effects of global warming. It’s a shame that there is not a greater focus on controlling and enforcing illegal practices that would have a far more immediate and tangible benefit to Thailand’s reefs, rather than attempting to overcome mother nature.

Save Our Fins Event – a big success!

Scubafish Shark Fin Race

In July 2010 Ko Lanta’s Dive Centres and Fish4Divers organised a ‘Save our Fins’ 3-legged fin race to help raise awareness about shark finning (and much needed funds) to help the Shark Trust continue their constant fight to protect our ocean’s sharks.

Shark Fin Race

For the event we asked divers, locals and holiday-makers from all over Ko Lanta to grab a buddy and join us for a three-legged fin tournament, to help raise awareness about shark finning. We were delighted and overwhelmed by the hugely positive response and fantastic turnout to the event. Nine Dive Centres, White Rock Resort, Opium Bar and even the Thai Diving Association joined fins to sponsor the event, and over 80 people from all over the island came to take part in the race, spectate or have a giggle at the fin-wearing racers. It even became a traffic-stopping event with cars and motorbikes pulling up to see what was going on.

Winner Luke and Ben from Blue Planet

Twelve, 3-legged teams raced in 2 heats, with first and second place winners from each heat competing for overall first place in the final. Race winners, Luke and Ben from Blue Planet Divers, used questionable, but dramatic shark-like tactics to secure their win. Reports of them beating other contestants with a giant home-made Leopard shark fin have been confirmed with video evidence that can be viewed on Facebook or You-Tube.

Fin Race Action

Donations for the Shark Trust are still being counted, but if enthusiasm and support for this event had a monetary value, this was certainly a huge success and will be remembered, and hopefully repeated, for a long time to come.

Narima Diving and Scubafish will continue to support events and causes that raise awareness about Shark Finning and other environmental issues facing our oceans and marine life.

Ko Lanta ‘Save Our Fins’ Event Sponsors:

Orientation day in the SSS Recompression Chamber in Phuket

SSS Recompression Chamber Phuket

Divemasters and Instructors of Scubafish and Go Dive Lanta used the Low Season 2010 to get an insight into the work of a real recompression chamber. The SSS Recompression Chamber Network in Phuket offers free orientation days once a week during the low season. The orientation includes an overview of the chamber facilities and setup, recognition and management of Decompression Sickness, a pre-dive briefing and an actual dive down to 60ft in the recompression chamber. There is also plenty of time to ask questions to learn more about the various types of Decompression Sickness.

SSS Recompression Chamber PhuketDecompression Sickness (DCS) is the result of inadequate decompression following exposure to increased pressure during diving. In some cases, the disease is mild and not an immediate threat. In other cases, serious injury does occur. When this happens, the quicker the treatment begins, the better the chance for a full recovery.

During a dive, the body tissues absorb nitrogen from the breathing gas in proportion to the surrounding pressure. As long as the diver remains at pressure, the gas presents no problem. If the pressure is reduced too quickly, however, the nitrogen comes out of solution and forms bubbles in the tissues and bloodstream. This commonly occurs as a result of violating or approaching too closely the diving table limits, but it can also occur even when accepted guidelines have been followed.

Bubbles forming in or near joints are the presumed cause of the joint pain of a classical “bend.” When high levels of bubbles occur, complex reactions can take place in the body, usually in the spinal cord or brain. Numbness, paralysis and disorders of higher cerebral function may result. If great amounts of decompression are missed and large numbers of bubbles enter the venous bloodstream, congestive symptoms in the lung and circulatory shock can then occur.

SSS Recompression Chamber PhuketSymptons of Decompression Sickness include unusual fatigue, skin itch, pain in joints and/ or muscles of the arms, legs or torso, dizziness, vertigo, ringing in the ears, numbness, tingling and paralysis, shortness of breath. You can also recognise DCS by checking for the following signs: skin may show a blotchy rash, paralysis, muscle weakness, difficulty urinating, confusion, personality changes, bizarre behavior, amnesia, tremors, staggering, coughing up bloody, frothy sputum, collapse or unconsciousness.

Symptoms and signs usually appear within 15 minutes to 12 hours after surfacing. But in severe cases, symptoms may appear before surfacing or immediately afterwards. Delayed occurrence of symptoms is rare, but it does occur, especially if air travel follows diving.

SSS Recompression Chamber PhuketRecreational divers should dive conservatively, whether they are using dive tables or computers. Experienced divers often select a table depth (versus actual depth) of 10 feet (3 meters) deeper than called for by standard procedure. This practice is highly recommended for all divers, especially when diving in cold water or when diving under strenuous conditions. Computer divers should be cautious in approaching no-decompression limits, especially when diving deeper than 100 feet (30 meters).

Avoiding risk factors like deep and/ or long dives, exercise at depth or after a dive will decrease the chance of DCS occurring. Exposure to altitude or flying too soon after a dive can also increase the risk of decompression sickness.

Decompression Sickness could affect divers every day. Fast recognition is probabaly the most important key for a full recovery. Joining orientation days like these certainly helps to raise the awareness of the risk of decompression sickness. If you need more information about decompression sickness or other diving-related injuries, please visit the website of the Divers Alert Network(www.diversalertnetwork.org). More information about SSS Recompression Chamber Network you can find on www.sssnetwork.com.

Nudey calendar raises money for charity projects

The male Divemasters and Instructors of Blue Planet Divers showed a lot of courage by posing naked for a nudey calendar to raise funds for two local charities, Children of the Forest and Lanta Animal Welfare.

Both Children of the Forest and Lanta Animal Welfare are close to the heart of Mellisa Bunyan, co-owner of Blue Planet Divers, who came up with the idea for the calendar. She decided that both should benefit equally once the project took on a life of its own.

She credits Lanta Animal Welfare with doing wonderful work in providing treatment for injured animals who would have to leave the island for medical attention otherwise, while Children of the Forest bring Burmese children to Ko Lanta on holidays every year.

“Lanta Animal Welfare have done an incredible amount of work to reduce the numbers of packs of stray dogs on the island. They have provided a place where injured animals can be taken to, instead of having to make a two hour trip to Krabi.”

Based on the Thai-Burmese border, Children of the Forest provide facilities, education and shelter for children at risk who have crossed into Thailand from Burma. Melissa explains the work of the project:

“If it wasn’t for Children of the Forest, these children would have no rights, no schooling and no-one to look after them, and this charity has a close bond with companies on Koh Lanta because they bring these children on holidays to the island every year. Many of these children have never even seen the ocean before they come to Ko Lanta and a lot of the businesses here on Lanta help them out with free accommodation during their stay on the island.

I think the reason why so many of our guys were willing to support this unusual project was because they were aware that all funds raised would go to these two very worth charities.”

Ko Lanta’s most unusual 2011 calendar is on sale in bars and restaurants throughout the island and over the internet from www.blueplanetdivers.net

Male Pin-Up Dive Calendar

Blue Planet Calendar

In the beginning of the year, Divemasters and Instructors of Blue Planet Divers on Ko Lanta came up with an unusual and novel way of raising funds for two local charities. The male members of staff at Blue Planet Divers agreed to get their kit off for the camera and pose naked for a calendar which is set to become a huge hit among visitors and residents of the laid-back island.

Thankfully, the modesty of the dive professionals featured in 12 distinct shots has been protected by the convenient placement of different pieces of scuba equipment such as air cylinders, fins, dive flags and surface marker buoys, so nobody should be offended as they flick through the 12 months of the year!

The calendar was the brain-child of Mellisa Bunyan, co-owner of Blue Planet Divers, who became serious about what had been an on-going joke when British third level photography student Rosie Waites visited Ko Lanta for two weeks earlier this year.

Rosie, whose parents Jane and Chris had just completed their Divemaster courses with Blue Planet, was hugely receptive to the idea of taking photos of the willing members of staff in order to help out Children of the Forest and Lanta Animal Welfare.

“We had talked about this idea before, but mainly in jest! I thought it would be more appropriate to get a professional photographer in to do a proper job. Rosie loved the idea. She had done nude photography before, but only with models. She loved the idea of working with non-professionals as she felt it would be more of a challenge, getting the best out of people who don’t do this kind of thing for a living!”

Mellisa had been inspired to come up with the idea after watching the film ‘Calendar Girls’ and was determined that the photos would not be seedy. Those who come across the calendar in the Blue Planet shop in Saladan, or in many of Ko Lanta’s bars, in the coming weeks will be impressed by the professionalism of the shots and the humour which shines through them.

“The idea was that every guy would be happy with his shot and we managed to get one for every month of the year. The photos were taken in private, in a closed set, which meant that there was privacy for the guys and some of them came up with their own ideas for the shots they wanted to be taken. We didn’t want to take the photos anywhere you could see anything naughty. We wanted the guys to look hot and the photos to look cheeky. We’re delighted with the finished product. We are lucky, because there are some very good looking guys working for Blue Planet!”

There were quite a few giggles around the Blue Planet shop over a few days in March as Rosie summonsed the dive professionals into her little studio, away from the prying eyes of their colleagues.

With dive suppliers Mares coming on board as a sponsor, every Baht raised from the sale of the calendars in Ko Lanta’s bars, restaurants, the Blue Planet shop and on the internet will go directly to two charities on the island.

Underwater Proposal on Blue Planet Boat

Blue Planet Happy Couple

American visitor Jenny Prunty enjoyed an unforgettable St. Patrick’s Day during a scuba diving holiday at Koh Lanta last month when her boyfriend of nine years, Antonio Alvarado, unexpectedly proposed to her underwater. Antonio had secretly arranged with dive guide Bibi and videographer Don to ‘pop the question’ to Jenny at the bottom of the sea during a day out with Blue Planet Divers at Koh Bida Noi on March 17.

Everyone on the Blue Planet boat was in on the secret, bar Jenny, after Antonio had made his intentions known to the dive shop staff when he booked the day’s diving by email before he got to Koh Lanta. As a result, bottles of champagne were hidden away from Jenny for the trip to Koh Bida and there was a real festive atmosphere on the boat for the return trip to Koh Lanta after Jenny, still in shock, had said yes to her beloved by giving him the diver’s ‘o.k.’ signal at a depth of 10 metres.

But Antonio almost gave the game away about 20 minutes earlier. A slate he had secretly written in the boat’s cabin while Jenny was sunbathing upstairs, with the words ‘Marry me?’, had slipped out of the pocket of his Buoyancy Control Device (BCD) early in the dive.

“We were swimming along on our dive and then I saw ‘Marry Me?’ written upside down on a slate. It fell out of the pocket of his BCD a little. I kind of wondered what that was about, but I was just enjoying the dive and then I forgot about it!” exclaimed Jenny, who is from San Antonio, Texas.

Their guide, Bibi, signalled to all the divers in the group to kneel in a line along the bottom, towards the end of the dive. Jenny did not have a clue what was going on.

“Our guide signalled to me when the time was right to pull out the slate. I was very nervous. I had a string attached to the slate and it was tied to my BCD. I wanted to do something crazy, something that would last in the memory. We’ve been together for eight or nine years and we came to Thailand with two other friends, who were in on the secret,” said a joyous Antonio after Jenny had accepted his marriage offer.

He said that they were not particularly experienced scuba divers, but they had come to love the sport in the three years since they learned how to dive in the Cayman Islands. As an Irish-American, Jenny always loves to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and he wanted to make sure that she would remember the 2010 festivities for a long time to come.

For Jenny it all was a blur.

“All of the others started to kneel down and Bibi was pointing at something on the ground. I couldn’t make out what he was pointing at and then Antonio showed me the slate. I gave him the ‘o.k.’ sign under water. I was just shocked. We had just come to Thailand on a holiday with two friends and I had no idea that we were going to get engaged!”

The other divers in the group applauded when Jenny and Antonio kissed each other under water and videographer Don was on hand to capture their special moment so that they can show the video to their friends and families back in the United States.

Afterwards, their celebrations continued into the early hours at the Irish Embassy, Koh Lanta’s only Irish pub, where Antonio expressed his gratitude to Mellisa Bunyan of Blue Planet Divers for plotting the entire event in secret, much to the shock of his future wife!

And, for one day at least, the Blue Planet boat became known as Lanta’s ‘love boat’!

Scubafish – Winner of the Project Aware Conservation Award 2010

Beach Clean-Up in Kantiang Bay

To better recognise the achievements of those PADI Dive Centres and Resorts who have made significant contributions to the growth and development of diving, PADI Asia Pacific have announced the finalists and winners of this year’s PADI Asia Pacific Member Awards program which recognises the efforts of dive operators during 2009.

Beach Clean-Up in Kantiang Bay

The PADI Member Awards program was based on nine separate Asia Pacific regions; a system that ensured PADI Members compete with other PADI Members within their own geographical region for one of five Awards.
All PADI Dive Centres and Resorts within each of the nine regions were considered for nomination by a specially convened selection panel, who selected up to three finalists for each of the awards. A panel of PADI judges then considered all of the finalists within each region and we are proud and delighted to announce that Scubafish/ Narima Diving are the winners of this year’s Project AWARE Conservation Award for our region (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam).

Conservation Award 2010 for Scubafish

The Project AWARE Conservation Award “recognises outstanding ecological achievements, with a focus on fostering environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation and conservation”.

The dive team is delighted at this achievement and obviously intend to continue these efforts whilst offering a sustainable and environmentally responsible diving experience. Scubafish is now a 2 time winner of this particular award.

Breathless in Ko Lanta!

Breath Holding Competition

Residents lounging by the deluxe pool at the luxurious Rawi Warin Resort and Spa on Koh Lanta last month were treated to the bizarre sight of a select group of enthusiasts, from a variety of countries, who managed to hold their breath underwater for up to six and a half minutes at a time.

After elaborate warm-up and relaxation rituals, the competitors lay face down at the edge of the swimming pool and focused on holding their breaths as long as possible under the watchful eyes of internationally approved judges Richard Wonka (Germany) and Sarah Whitcher (England).

Andaman Freediving Challenge Breathholding CompetitionIt was the second day of the Andaman Freediving Challenge, Thailand’s only annual competition for Freedivers, and followed a day out on the Blue Planet Divers’ boat in which competitors managed to reach depths of between 20 and an astounding 53 metres in the open sea.

What was most striking about this year’s competition was how friendly the competition was throughout the three days and how keen the divers were to help each other out with advice and tips to enable rivals to extend their time underwater.

Freedivers learn how to hold their breath for long periods without the aid of scuba equipment and the annual Koh Lanta competition, organised by Blue Planet Divers, is the only one in Asia to take place outside of Japan.

Eight male and four female divers took part this year, many of them competing for the first time, in six distinct events over three days.

At 52, Italian Andrea Richichi may have been older than the other competitors, but his breath-taking times in all disciplines – including an incredible 53 metre dive from the boat – saw him collect all of the major prizes.

Andrea grew up spear fishing and snorkelling on the island of Sardinia. Amazingly, he has never undertaken any formal courses in Freediving, despite his breath-taking times, including a six minute and 33 second breath-hold in the pool.

“I have never been a scuba diver, but I have always loved being under water. When I grew up, scuba diving wasn’t an option. I have never done any courses, but you really do learn a lot at competitions and you get to meet very good people.”

“I was in Thailand for work this month, but I decided to come to Koh Lanta for this competition. People make friends very quickly at these competitions and I get asked a lot of questions because I have been Freediving for six years and I have taken part in over 25 competitions. This competition has a wonderful atmosphere and it’s in a country that I love!”

He said that world championship Freedivers might not help each other out to the extent that the competitors do on Koh Lanta, but the whole ethos of the Andaman Freediving Challenge is to encourage beginners and intermediates to challenge others (and themselves) in an extremely friendly environment.

Ossien Pekkala, from Finland, was thrilled to reach 30 metres on a single breath. He only took up Freediving four months ago, because he wanted to stay longer under water while snorkelling.

“The longer I can stay underwater, the more fun I can have!”

The women’s competition was won by Jacinta Colvin, from Melbourne, who was inspired to come to Koh Lanta after hearing about last year’s competition from friends in Australia. She was delighted to reach depths of over 30 metres in her first ever competition and managed to hold her breath for just under four minutes in the pool.

“I had never been to Koh Lanta before, I decided to come on a two week holiday, especially for the Andaman Freediving Challenge. It’s been really, really good and really friendly and I feel I have learned so much over the three days. It’s great to get to hang out with other Freedivers and I feel so much more confident now.”

Freediving Competition

One of the competition’s three Thai competitors, Petchrung Sukpong (or Aey), only undertook a Freediving course with Blue Planet Divers two weeks before the competition. She was encouraged to come back and take part by coach Richard Wonka, who told her it would be a great way to make new friends and improve her technique.

Aey works in Marine Conservation in Phuket, and was delighted she had made the short journey back to Koh Lanta for the competition. She was thrilled to reach a depth of 20 metres on a single breath, a personal best, and found that the experience was akin to meditation under water.

“I think Freediving is more relaxing than scuba diving because it is so peaceful and you don’t make any noise underwater, This competition is perfect for the beginner, because it’s so friendly, and I think I’ve learned a lot about Freediving over the three days. I’d never even thought about going into a competition before and now I’m thinking of going on and doing the Advanced Freediving course.”

Aey said that she would definitely be back next year to challenge her new friend, Jacinta, for the Andaman Freediving Challenge title!

Blue Planet Divers on Koh Lanta run regular Freediving courses throughout the diving season. Check out their website, www.blueplanetdivers.net, or telephone +66 (0)75 668 165 for details.

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