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Clean-up day in the bay

October 19, 2011

After the recent wet weather, organisers of the Phang Nga Bay Conservancy’s ‘Bay Clean-up Day’ last Saturday (October 15) were pleased to wake up to a bright blue sky and serene, calm seas. Once loaded up, three large boats, transporting 40 volunteers each, left Phuket and set course for the spectacular limestone islands that jut vertically out of the sea on the northern horizon.

Volunteers on-board include a small group of young students from the QSI International School of Phuket ; marine scientist and PhD researcher Petch Manopawitr; long-time island resident and eco-warrior John ‘Caveman’ Gray, sporting flowery shorts, his grey hair tied in a pony tail; and members of the International Business Association of Phuket (IBAP), founders of the Phang Nga Bay Conservancy.

Heading out to sea alongside the three clean-up vessels are dozens of speedboats, laden with hundreds of tourists, fanning out to the offshore islands for a day of sight-seeing and kayaking.

In his many years operating the award-winning John Gray’s Sea Canoe tours to the Phang Nga Bay islands and limestone caves, ‘Caveman’ says he has seen the adverse effects of mass tourism on the area, and on his own collected tonnes of rubbish from the sea and the islands over the years.

Indeed, Gray is occasionally invited to consult overseas on creating village-based eco-tourism businesses in Vietnam and the Philippines, which he does gratis, and is rewarded, for example, by seeing villagers in the Philippines able to build a school with the profits from their local business.

Upon arrival in the bay, villagers from Ban Khlong Khian, who Gray has trained, approach the clean-up boats on inflatable sea kayaks, ready to paddle volunteers around the island to collect litter. On a normal day, they come out to paddle Caveman’s paying tourists on daily tours into the caves.

On this day, with an armada of keen volunteers geared up to clean up, the litter around the islands stands little chance. Soon just about every floating plastic bag, broken piece of Styrofoam and abandoned plastic bottles is collected. Suddenly, as the boats cruise by, an alert is sounded about an errant patch of floating rubbish, left by a passing tourist vessel. A kayak is immediately launched from the boat, headed by Phuket-based lawyer Olaf Duensing, and soon the culprit litter is also bagged up.

Following a curry lunch on the top deck, as hungry volunteers listen to Gray explain about the best way to tour here with minimal disturbance, the three clean-up boats head back to the rendezvous point at Laem Hin Pier, and unload almost a tonne (987kg) of rubbish collected from mangrove forests and beaches.

It might only be a drop in the ocean, but Phang Nga Bay is a little cleaner today.

 Norachai Thavisin

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