Renewing Koh Tao: Youth-Led Coral Rescue Efforts

by | Jun 30, 2024

On the sun-drenched shores of Koh Tao, a burgeoning generation of divers is championing a grassroots movement dedicated to preserving the island’s delicate coral reefs. Among these fervent conservationists is 14-year-old Nannalin “Fleur” Pornprasertsom. Her commitment to marine life epitomizes a larger global endeavor to protect underwater ecosystems from the relentless impact of climate change.

Nannalin’s foray into coral conservation began at the tender age of 12. Now, having recently completed an intensive two-week course at Black Turtle Dive, she is adept at identifying various coral species, executing reef restoration, and meticulously documenting the health of these underwater habitats. “It’s just something that I can do that will have a good consequence for the environment,” she stated following a series of dives. “I want to help the reef.”

The urgency of her mission is underscored by the alarming prevalence of coral bleaching, a phenomenon exacerbated by rising ocean temperatures and reported in over 60 countries since early 2023. This bleaching phenomenon endangers reefs that are vital to marine biodiversity and the livelihoods of communities reliant on fishing and tourism. The Gulf of Thailand, which surrounds Koh Tao, is no exception, experiencing what experts describe as a “death spiral,” particularly affecting fast-growing but temperature-sensitive branching coral species.

The Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) has observed a notable increase in conservation certifications, reporting a six percent rise globally from 2021 to 2023. This trend reflects a growing awareness and commitment to marine preservation among divers worldwide. In the current year, PADI is leveraging its extensive network of divers to launch a comprehensive shark and ray census, gathering crucial data to inform protective measures.

Local efforts on Koh Tao are gaining significant traction. Black Turtle Dive offers an array of courses designed to equip divers with practical skills for marine conservation. From “diving against debris” initiatives, which involve collecting marine plastic and abandoned fishing nets, to specialized coral restoration techniques, these programs foster a hands-on approach to environmental stewardship. “There’s an increased awareness,” noted Steve Minks, a certified conservation instructor. “There’s a lot of bleaching going on and there’s a lot of concern about the marine environment.”

One of the most promising strategies employed by these conservationists is the creation of artificial reefs. These man-made structures provide new habitats for marine life, helping to alleviate the loss of natural coral reefs. On a bright afternoon, schoolchildren’s starfish-shaped rebar structures are carefully transported out to sea for Global Reef’s latest coral restoration project. Founded two years ago, Global Reef has transplanted around 2,000 coral colonies, boasting a survival rate of approximately 75 percent. “It’s not really going to maybe save coral reefs globally… but what it does do is have a very, very large impact locally,” said Gavin Miller, the group’s scientific program director. “We have snappers returning. We have resident pufferfish.”

Further to physical restoration efforts, Global Reef hosts interns who are training artificial intelligence programs to identify fish in 360-degree videos, aiding in comprehensive reef health surveys. These technological advancements are revealing the surprising resilience of some local corals to persistently high temperatures, potentially identifying refuges that could be crucial for future conservation efforts. “These might be sort of refuges for coral,” Miller explained.

Despite the grim reality of widespread bleaching, the community’s response is one of hope and determination. For many, like Sandra Rubio, a 28-year-old instructor at Black Turtle Dive, the conservation work provides a sense of purpose and a way to mitigate the sadness of witnessing the underwater changes. “It’s not like we are going to change things from one day to another, but we are doing our best, and that is the best feeling,” she said. “I’m working every day to do something good for the environment and for the reef that I love.”

The plight of Koh Tao’s coral reefs mirrors a critical global issue: the devastating impact of climate change on marine ecosystems. Coral reefs support approximately 25% of all marine species, making their conservation essential not just for biodiversity but also for human livelihoods. The rise in awareness and participation in conservation activities, as evidenced by the increase in PADI certifications, is an encouraging trend. However, the scale of the challenge necessitates more significant, coordinated global efforts.

Looking forward, the future of coral conservation could see a blend of technology and grassroots activism. The use of artificial intelligence to monitor reef health, as demonstrated by Global Reef’s interns, could revolutionize data collection and analysis, providing more precise information to inform conservation strategies. Additionally, citizen science projects like Coral Watch could expand, harnessing the power of ordinary people to contribute to scientific research. On a broader scale, international policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions and mitigating climate change will be crucial to ensuring the long-term survival of coral reefs.

For Nannalin and her peers, the fight to save Koh Tao’s reefs is as much about education and awareness as it is about direct action. “In the previous generations, we didn’t have this research and education that we have now,” she remarked. “I think people my age should make the most of it and try their best to reverse the things that have already been done.”

While the situation is dire, the efforts on Koh Tao offer a glimmer of hope. Through education, technology, and collective action, there is potential to make a meaningful impact on coral conservation globally. The dedication of young divers like Nannalin, coupled with innovative local initiatives, serves as an inspiring testament to what can be achieved when communities unite for a common cause.