Saturday, April 6, 2013

Koh Tao: My Bicycle and Dives

My bicycle squeeks in a mesmorizing rhythm as I ride. The chipped paint and worn seat sing a song of years of use and abuse as a rental bike. Its chain skips and dances as I ride over bumps and hills. The gears are just for looks; everything is rusted in place. Luckily the bike never goes fast enough to need solid brakes. I'm sure it hasn't seen a proper tune up in its life, poor soul. It's seen better days for sure. But these days are mine and I'll make them count.
The past few days have swept by like a raging tide. Thankfully, I've been underwater mostly, exploring the dive sites around Koh Tao and filming. On land, I've been editing footage and getting accustomed to the routine of things on the island. Topside my anchor points are Oceans Below, Scuba Junction, and Kookkai... and 7-Eleven. I'm usually withing shouting distance of any one of those places- or diving.
Thanks to Oceans Below and Scuba Junction, I am filming and edited my diving experience on Koh Tao. Here are my first two days diving:
April 5 - Aow Leuk / Hin Ngam
April 4 - Mango Bay / Twins:

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Round 2: Koh Tao

Beads of sweat trickle down my forehead gathering above my eyelids. With one blink I unleash a waterfall down my cheeks and chin. Wiping my forehead with my forearm, I make a futile attempt to clear away the sweat. It's sweltering hot here. Goodbye, winter. Hello, Koh Tao.


It's been a while since my last post- over a year... I have gotten out of the habit of logging into these things and before I knew it, a year pass. There are worse things but I figured some sort of explanation was due...

I am now writing from Koh Tao, Thailand. The island is saturated with dive shops and tourist boutiques. Motorbikes zip along the road while tourists in their bikinis and board-shorts meander the streets looking for the best deals. It's incredibly western, but thankfully I'm staying in a house away from the frenzy and the crowds on the northern edge of town (past Coral Grand).

I have come here to take an underwater videography course and internship as well as to complete my open water scuba instructor certification. For the next 2 months I'll be here filming with Oceans Below and Scuba Junction then earning my OWSI. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to share my experience with others through film and instructing. I am also looking forward to cooling off by swimming most of the day. Sanuk!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Thailand: Day 30

2/20/12 Monday, Adang, Tarutao National Park, Thailand

When it rains, it pours, even in paradise. As I rub the sleep from my eyes and emerge from my tent, I vividly recall the rain's percussive 'lullaby' beating down on my tent in concert with rumbling thunder and bursts of lightning throughout the night. This morning, however, is calm and serene; the only hint of yesterday's deluge are incredible clouds that linger lazily in the pre-dawn sky. The moon is a sliver of white, a faint smile. I watch as it dims with every step I take down the beach. I keep my eyes open, intent on the brightening skyline and highlighted clouds. There is no better way to start a day than with a simple miracle.


Adang is one of the many islands within Tarutao National Park in Thailand. It houses a ranger station, a large camping area, a few bungalows, restrooms with running water, and a small restaurant which feeds the staff and the handful of tourists that venture off the beaten path. The island has a breathtaking nature trail up to the top of Chado Cliff and a fresh water falls known as "Pirate Waterfall" a nod to the days when real pirates ravaged the Straits of Malacca. While Adang has much to offer in terms of natural beauty and environmental attractions, it lacks the tropical resort appeal that screams Ko Lipe in every tourist brochure.

The Wildlands group set up camp on Adang's southeastern shore. Everyone went about appraising the local real estate. Ant highways were investigated, neighbors considered, defenses against monkeys implemented, and access to amenities were all scrutinized in the search for the perfect spot. I decided to pitch my tent facing the ocean beneath a tall Casuarina, a sea "pine" that's not really a pine at all.

The green "pines" are actually stems with minute leaves which eventually dry out, turn brown, and blanket the ground below. The Casuarina also produces a hard, spiked seed, about the size of a blueberry, which can float in the ocean and will germinate at the surf line. They'd easily poke a hole through my tent. It took me a good long while to clear a space for my tent and even out the sand with a stick, but after all was said and done, I knew I had a little piece of paradise.

Today, the Wildlands group went out to three sites, Southwest Ko Yang, the "nature trail" off of Had Sai Khao on Ko Rawi, and North Ko Yang. Each site had something unique to offer. Both sides of Ko Yang featured soft and hard corals, as well as a number of sponges, algae and other sessile organisms. Reef fish darted in and out of crevices as I dove down to investigate, holding each breath longer than the last. As I peered into each and every nook and cranny, I couldn't help but feel a tinge of jealousy at all the underwater animals breathing water.

The Rawi's "nature trail" was a particularly interesting site because an attempt was made to forge a path for snorkelers to follow. Numbered plates were drilled into the rock to identify the route to follow, but storms have altered the substrate and it wasn't well maintained. I started from the beginning and made it to the end, but deviated from the actual route significantly. A flowerfish (Pearsonothuria graeffe) crept along the sand in search of food, 'nemos' popped in and out of anemones, and a giant moray smiled as cleaner wrasse swam in and out of its gills- there was no way I could stick to a set path in such a fluid world.

While I may have been swimming with the fail whale during my journey roughly along the nature trail, I could see its value if properly maintained. The underwater world can be daunting, especially to people who are not confident swimmers or who have never explored a reef. The idea of a path with set points and relevant information could be a good place to start for first time snorkelers or people unfamiliar with local waters. It would also localize human impacts thereby reducing disturbances and negative externalities from highly utilized reefs. It would also be interesting to compare such "nature trails" with sites that have little or no human disturbances. Needless to say, while I may not have followed the route, I appreciated it for what its potential.

I was lucky to have been able to snorkel on Rawi as the site was actually closed to snorkelers due to the extensive bleaching in 2010. Thankfully, due to our research endeavors, park rangers allowed us to explore the reefs at our leisure. While there was definitely evidence of bleaching and storm damage, there was a good amount of regenerating coral and a higher diversity of hard corals than I had expected from the grim warnings. In fact, corals may not be given enough credit for their resilience, but it is clear human impacts should be curtailed to ensure a that these reef ecosystems have a future.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Thailand: Day 1

Day 1: 1/21/12 Sunday, Bangkok

I board the express water taxi at Tha Tien headed for Wat Pho. It is no small feat. I am herded onto a teetering boat along with a flood of people while passengers on-board squeeze through the chaos, intent on getting off before the boat lurches back into the river traffic. The long-tail motor rumbles and roars making it impossible to hear anything above the din- anything besides her. A petite Thai lady with a stern face and sharp eyes elbows her way to the clump of new passengers. Somehow the sea of people part before her. There's an air of authority around her that is magnified by the intensity of her shrill voice. She's shouting in Thai for fares. Tourists with day-packs and cameras slung around their necks display a wide array of expressions from baffled and bewildered to confused and perturbed. Regulars seem oblivious to the cacophony that surrounds them, this is business as usual. This is Bangkok.


It was a very long and interesting first day in Bangkok. I arrived at the Bangkok International Airport around midnight and was united with the Wildlands Studies group outside of the Arrival Hall around 1 AM. It wasn't until the wee hours of the morning that I called it a night, falling fast asleep on a bottom bunk-bed (all the tops were taken). With 3 hours of restless sleep, the day began leisurely enough as I meandered through a local market to the closest water taxi dock. That's about the time I really woke up.

My first experience on a water taxi was sensational experience. The rusty dock creaked while the boat, overflowing with people, rocked to and fro with every swell. Bodies were packed tight and the heat of the day bore down unrelenting. The motor was so loud it made conversation practically impossible. Thankfully, I knew what stop to get off at ahead of time and was able to wiggle my way to the dock just as the water taxi pushed off, sputtering towards its next destination. Had I missed my stop, it would've been a long walk in the heat of the day.

I visited the Museum of Siam, a relatively new establishment opened in 2008. The museum explores the development of Thai identity through history. From prehistory to modern day, its various exhibition halls helped to further my understanding of Thailand's history and how Bangkok became the thriving capital city it is today.

With the history of Bangkok and greater Thailand fresh in my mind, I boarded a small long-tail. The boat explored the western bank and canals of the Chao Phraya river, an area of the city called Thon Buri. This was the part of Bangkok most severely affected by the flooding last year. It was high tide and water lapped lazily onto people's front steps and porches. A water line well above window panes was clearly distinguishable on many homes. In some places fragments of foundation were all that remained, the water had reclaimed buildings entirely.

The day ended on the river, naturally. I watched the sunset over the Rama IX bridge and mused over the day's adventures. As darkness blanketed the sky, the Chao Phraya sparkled, reflecting the city lights. I let my mind drift along its current, content with a day well lived.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Thailand: Day 17

2/7/12, Trang → Hat Yao

Bounding from boulder to boulder, I cross a small fresh water river and splash up the far bank. A virtually untouched tropical forest unfolds before my eyes, spectacular and inviting. I follow a ranger up a twisting and winding trail. As we trek up the mountainside, the sound of the river fades and a sense of wonder and curiosity takes hold of me. Large termite mounds surge up from the ground and fungi grow like steps up trunks of towering trees. Vines twirl upwards and dangle down from the leafy canopy. The journey up the mountainside is simply beautiful and the waterfall at the top is exquisite. In a moment I'm under the falls letting the cool, fresh water melt away the tension from the climb. It's not the ocean, but as one coastal proverb puts it, "the sea starts in the mountains" and I'm ready to begin.


On Tuesday, February 7th, I left Trang for Hat Yao by song-tao. The modified pickup truck was packed tight with 18 of us squeezed into its two rows and all our gear on top. The lot of us made a can of sardines look roomy. It looked comedic, but it worked. I managed to snag a standing spot on the very back and watched as Thailand's countryside appeared in front of me behind us. Rubber plantations and small villages were a blur and we whizzed by a few farms and vendor stalls selling an assortment of goods from fresh bananas and papaya to motorbike stickers and stuffed animals. It was a sensational ride, to say the least.

Around mid-morning we stopped to stretch our legs. At the base of a wildlife sanctuary we visited a rubber plantation and spoke with one of the workers. He shared his insight into the plantation's operations and others like it in the area. After a brief glimpse into the rubber industry, we trekked up to Sai Rong, the Rainbow Waterfall, where we had lunch.

It was another fun-filled, 2 hours at the back of the song-tao before we reached Hat Yao. The Islamic influence in southern Thailand was noticeable as the hours passed. The domed roofs of mosques with gleaming spires dotted the countryside, peacefully, often near spirit houses or a Buddhist shrine. As our song-tao clamored into Hat Yao in the late afternoon, the call to prayer could be heard faintly in the distance.

I spent the afternoon and evening exploring the beach and its karst limestone cliffs. The physical formations from years of chemical erosion were mind-bending and seemed to defy gravity. Gnarly trees clutched the stalactites that hung from the jagged cliff face creating tiny islands in the sky. It was an unforgettable sight to see in person. Within the first few moments of arriving, I knew that I would really enjoy the time spent in Hat Yao.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Thailand: Day 5

1/26/12, Khao Sam Roi Yot

The air is still. The space is vast, larger than life. Jagged karst limestone walls surround me stretching, reaching up towards a distant azure sky. A garden of full grown trees and shrubs populate the sink hole's floor, amazing generations of wanderers and adventurers who scale the mountain trail to find them. The caverns of Phrayanakhon Cave mesmerize me in their profound and simple beauty. This place is a world unto its own.


On January 24th, I left Bangkok by train, headed south for Yala. Car 5 was taken over by the Wildlands Studies group and I was able to find a window seat near a functional ceiling fan. Despite the luxury, I opted for a wide open window.

The train ride was about 7 or 8 hours- a nonexpress route. We passed by towns and small villages, but nothing that could compare in size or scope to Bangkok. At every stop, a parade of food vendors would march up and down the aisle with their baskets of snacks or buckets of ice cold drinks. Sitting next to the window, I was buffered from the invasion of aromas and tantalizing goodies. By the time we arrived at our destination, everyone had embarked on a surprisingly tasteful adventure with train food.

From the train station, it was another 45 minutes to Khao Sam Roi Yot by truck. We loaded our packs onto one pick-up and 18 of us hopped into the backs of two others. I stood towards the front, leaning forward into the wind as we drove out into the wilderness. As we approached the national park, lights from fish farms dotted the landscape. Looking upwards, the silhouettes of mountains distinguished themselves faintly against the night sky. Coupled with traveling by train and standing in the back of a pick-up, it was an incredible travel day.

The following morning, I woke up to run for the sun. I headed due east from the camp bungalows following a dirt road toward the ocean. I heard it before I saw it. The heartbeat of the sea, the calm pulse, the soothing sound of sand and ocean saying their hellos and goodbyes. I jogged up through a small mangrove brush and planted my feet in the sand. I said my good morning to the Gulf of Thailand.

We spent a couple days at Khao Sam Roi Yot. We climbed the mountains and visited a shrimp farm that I had seen from the pick-up on our way into the park. We also visited the largest fresh water marsh in these areas and trekked up to an isolated cave tucked away at the top of a mountain. Every moment was spent learning, exploring, and experiencing life to its fullest. And before I knew it, we were packing, headed for Kari Buri by bus with eyes set on Surin in the Andaman Sea.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Thailand: Day 14

Surin → Kari Buri

The powder fine sand shimmers in the moonlight and trickles between my toes as I trace designs with my feet. I sit on the southwest shore of Surin Nua, serenaded by the rhythmic pulse of the sea as it greets the shore while a cool breeze brings tidings of a new day. Still. Silent. Calm. The sun bursts out of the ocean as a glowing red beacon lighting up the sky in one brilliant instant. Good morning sunshine, good morning Surin.


The past 2 weeks in Thailand have been an extraordinary experience, one that I'll have to catch up on in the future... I've spent the last 6 days in Thailand's Mu Ko Surin National Park with Wildlands Studies, camping on the beach, conducting coral surveys, and enjoying the company of 17 incredible individuals. The park is a good hour from the mainland by speedboat, just far enough from civilization to attract it. Surin is a destination spot for divers and snorkelers. Both Thai and international tourists arrive on Surin's shores daily to experience its unique underwater world.

However, paradise is not without its own troubles. In 1998, a global rise in ocean temperatures facilitated a worldwide coral bleaching event which affected Surin's reefs, and more recently a second more devastating bleaching occurred in 2010. It has been an interesting and inspiring experience to survey and snorkel sites so recently destroyed.

There is evidence of rejuvenation and coral recruitment in spite of all the environmental stress. Clearly, the Acroporidae family of corals was most impacted from bleaching here, as vast forests of dead branching Acropora littered the substrate of every site- and yet in the midst of all the rubble, numerous Acropora recruits, small "baby" corals were observed. Heights varied but the average was about 3 cm, which ages these recruits at about a year old. Coral recovery must have begun very quickly after water temperatures subsided. Another positive observation of Surin's coral reefs has been the presence of a diverse and seemingly healthy population of reef fishes and invertebrates, as well as a few turtle sightings and black tip reef sharks.

The resilience of the coral reef ecosystem is remarkable, but celebrations must be put on hold as reef health is impacted by an overwhelming number of factors. Ocean temperatures, human impacts, acidification, natural disasters... the list is long and varied. I only hope that as we continue to learn more about this critical environment, the knowledge gained will help to mitigate human impact while providing insight into other stressors.


The Wildlands team is heading to the mainland today, leaving Surin behind and beginning our trek south to Trong. It'll be 4 days until we get back into the ocean- I miss it already.