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Man the Buoys; Screw the Reefs!

An extensive programme of underwater screwing is planned to help save the local marine life


The largest marine conservation project of its kind in Asia is due to start in the waters off Pattaya in coming months. Local company Dive Tribe is intending to install over 50 mooring buoys in an effort to reduce damage to coral reefs.


“For 60 to 70 percent of reefs, the damage is not from ocean acidification, global warming or coral bleaching. A lot of it is man-made. Usually it's an anchor which is thrown over, smashes into the reef and that reef – which could be 200-, 300-, 400-, 1,000-years-old – is gone. We lose it really quickly and it sometimes takes a long time for them to grow back. What we want is to prevent the anchors going over the side,” said Gwyn Mills, CEO of Dive Tribe.


The waters off Pattaya are particularly rich in sea life, especially around the Far Islands. However, the sea life attracted by the ideal conditions in turn attracts fishing boats and scuba divers. There are currently no fixed places for boat captains to place their anchors, requiring them to be thrown overboard, potentially causing serious damage to reefs.


Dr Wayne Phillips, who is a lecturer in ecology at Mahidol University International College and works alongside Gwyn Mills, added that boats making the effort to drop their anchors in the sand closer to the islands rather than into the reefs may still be part of the problem. “The sand supports a lot of important life too, which can be damaged or moved by anchors,” he said.


The solution they think is to establish a fixed point to which boats can safely fix themselves without having to throw their anchors into the water. This requires fixing a buoy in place. Tying chains around corals or rocks to anchor the buoy is not especially secure and can still cause some damage. Concrete blocks suffer the same problem as they can be moved about in extreme weather conditions. The most expensive but undoubtedly most effective solution is a Helix Sandscrew.


As the name suggests, this is essentially a giant – six metre-long – screw. Drilled into the seabed with a heavy-duty screwdriver, the only things likely to be able to remove it are the same screwdriver or an apocalyptic earthquake. With a load capacity estimated at over 20,800lb, nothing short of an aircraft carrier is going to be able to pull it out by accident. With a surface profile of less than a foot of steel – enough only to attach a chain leading to the anchoring buoy – the screw also has far less of an impact on the look of the reef than a giant block of concrete.


Unfortunately, Dive Tribe is paying for this sort of quality. The drilling rig cost over 500,000 baht. It comes in two parts: a compressor, which remains on the surface, and the drill itself, which produces nine tons of torque and is so heavy it is impossible for one man to lift but is virtually weightless when underwater and supported by inflatable lift bags. Each buoy – including the steel screw, chains, ropes and the buoy itself – currently has to be imported from America and will cost between 30-35,000 baht. There is some hope of reducing the cost slightly by getting the screws produced in Thailand.


“Our main sponsor is Dragon Capital, from Vietnam...[who] got in touch with us...[after hearing] about the project...I told them all the ins-and-outs of it and they said 'we'd like to sponsor you for all of the machinery and the first two buoys', which is a huge chunk of money,” said Gwyn.


“What we're doing now is actively look for companies who are happy to invest in one of these anchors. What we ask the company to do is sponsor one buoy and that helps us to sponsor the reef as well. What we give them is their name on the buoy, obviously, and their name on the reef in the little booklet that goes with the reef. Every six months, the university will give them a report on the health of the coral, with photographs, showing how much it's grown.”


Amari Resort has agreed to sponsor one buoy and Dive Tribe are hopeful Hard Rock Café would sponsor a second. With plans for at least 50 sandscrews (with maybe 30 more smaller versions, screwed in by hand), there is still a lot of work to be done.


Gwyn noted, “We need at least 50. The amount of boats there now are in Pattaya and the amount of tourism going on here – in another five years, you won't recognise the reef if we carry on dropping anchors on it. In the last three years we've been monitoring it and we've watched loads of it getting wiped out. We've got videos of it and photographs of it. It's not the dive operator's fault because you've got to put your anchor somewhere to let people off. They're not doing it deliberately...If we can stop that happening, we can probably protect and start to regenerate the reefs.”


The 15-minute process of actually installing the screws – which will be done with the help of local diving operators, including Seafari Dive Center, Aquanauts and Adventure Divers – is the easy part. Reaching out to boat captains and encouraging them to actually use the buoys is the more difficult task. Dive Tribe also has plans to begin marine and coral conservation and regeneration education programmes with potential divers as young as 13-years-old. The intention is to make Pattaya the eco-diving destination of choice for Southeast Asia.