Awarded by PADI for being the best dive spot in Thailand, Ban’s Diving Resort holds the title of worlds most popular dive center, having reeled in a bubble of over 100,000 novice and experienced scuba divers from all corners of the ocean. The 21km ‘turtle island’ of Koh Tao is host to over 141,000 tourists every year, and carries more than 150 hotels and bars , making it one of the most attractive diving locations on earth. Regrettably, the same cannot be said for what sits below the vibrant and prosperous tourist-haven.
Overcrowding and pollution causes severe coral damage and harm to this fragile underwater ecosystem, a tragedy that grows exponentially as leisurely diving becomes increasingly popular among tourists. None other than prospective marine biologist and summer dive-instructor François Latrille, who paddles through the injured reef daily, can describe the extent of the damage. “I was shocked. I could clearly see the damage from my first ever dive in these waters. There were giant structures of pale, bleached coral; a result of ocean acidification directly caused by pollution. ”
Although harm has been done, efforts to restore and protect the South-East Asian marine ecosystem are in full swing. “The reefs are actually full of life in contrast to five or six years ago, and some dive-sites have been off limits for some time now to allow the coral to reanimate, so it is safe to say there has been a significant improvement” Mr. Latrille states.
However, Ban’s Diving Resort cares as much about the local marine ecosystem as it does for its guests. It insists on providing dive experiences that enhance visitor awareness, appreciation and understanding of the local aquatic environment’ by exercising eco-friendly dive training. As an active instructor, Mr. Latrille describes the training process he must teach to all divers. “I teach my students techniques that limit damage to the marine ecosystem. For instance, I emphasize buoyancy control so that they don’t scrape the ground or hold onto the reef. Additionally, I teach them not to touch or take anything, and often set an example by picking up any litter I find on the way. Since I study marine biology at Southampton University, I also teach divers about certain species, so they can familiarise themselves with the environment. This tends to have a positive impact on divers as they become conscious of what and how things are affected, allowing them to better grasp what is going on underwater.” As for tourists who would rather stay dry, Mr. Latrille must make an extra effort on land to show them how to respect the local environment. “It’s hard to teach regular tourists about marine conservation. I get frustrated when I see tourists and even locals mindlessly tossing their garbage in the water, simply because they lack knowledge. When I see something like this, I pick up whatever has been tossed, and explain, as nicely as I can why not to do that.”
To battle pollution on the surface, the resort runs weekly beach clean-ups of Sairee Beach, hosts a monthly ‘Dive Against Debris’ and installs mooring buoys so passing ships don’t drop their anchors on coral reefs. Mr. Latrille has participated in many of the clean-ups and awareness-spreading projects himself, and has taken part in other programmes at his own accord. “The resort is home to B.E.A.C.H. (Ban’s Ecological Action for Coastal Health), an NGO which organises beach and reef clean-ups every week, which I try to attend as often as possible. The resort is also involved in the annual “Save Koh Tao Festival”, a charity event that raises money for local environmental and social projects. Additionally, I have my own plans to organize a ‘Crown of Thrones’ population control project, which deals with nursing and controlling the Crown of Thorns starfish, which feeds on coral polyps, who, due to overfishing, have decreased in population drastically. I am therefore organising a charity trip to help fund this project, which is just one of the many ways in which it is possible to engage in the conservation of marine wildlife here.”
Needless to say, Ban’s Diving Resort is well balanced in both success and environmental sustainability, and thereby sets a visionary example for dive centers and environmental projects worldwide.