Seeing the small island of Koh Tao again after 22 years was quite a shock. The ferry used to arrive on a beautiful long beach with a few simple bamboo bungalows, which has turned into a wild jumble of accomodations ranging from moldy concrete cells to higher end resort-style rooms. I remember a few longtail boats meeting the new arrivals … today it’s a cacophony of touts, trying to get you into whatever taxi and/or accommodation pays them the highest commission.
We had booked a simple bungalow, away from the main town and set into the hillside, overlooking one of the bays on the less busy east coast of the island. It turned out to be an OK choice and the next day we head down to the water for some snorkeling … which I remember to be spectacular. It’s not anymore. There are less fish, but what we notice the most are that the hard corals are mostly dead and broken … and the soft corals almost gone. I’m sure a lot of it is due to pollution or the warming ocean water, but a bit later we see what is likely the biggest factor. Around lunch time a flotilla of almost a dozen converted fishing boats arrive with day trippers. They tie up close to the best snorkeling spots and then proceed to spew out wave after wave of snorkelers. As we watch this, we realize that (amazingly) quite a lot of them don’t know how to swim … they are strapped into life vests, lowered overboard and then proceed to destroy corals that took decades to grow. Either by breaking them with their fins, or by simply standing on top of them and smiling for the camera.
Lara (indoctrinated by the marine biologist that we met in Australia) tells a few of them to stop killing the corals … but is overwhelmed by their sheer numbers and gives up. After an hour or so the first wave of day trippers move on to the next bay, leaving discarded plastic bottles and empty lunch styrofoam boxes behind. The next group of boats is already coming around the point, looking forward to their snorkel adventure.
Don’t get me wrong. The snorkeling on Koh Tao is still OK (especially in Hin Wong and Ao Leuk bay), but it’s not even close to what it used to be like.
After three nights on the muggy hillside (without much of a cooling sea breeze) we move on to a simple bungalow in a bay further north. Here the garbage problem isn’t much better, even our hosts just dump buckets full of trash between the large boulders above the beach. I’m not sure what they will do once all the cracks are filled up. To be fair, the amount of garbage generated by tourism must be huge, but there has to be a more sustainable way to get rid of it instead of just burning it or dumping it into the jungle. There are efforts to rid the island of plastic bags and one of the dive schools is organizing a weekly “clean up the beach” walk, but it feels like it’s too little too late.
After visiting all the snorkel sites (mostly via hired longtail taxi boats or a rented kayak), we move on to the main beach for our last week on the island. The quiet beach from years ago has turned into quite a party mile and we feel almost a bit out of place among all the semi drunk 20-something year olds with their “Koh Tao Pub Crawl” T-shirts on.
Our room (above one of the dive schools) turns out to be perfect. With a large balcony overlooking the beach and plenty of restaurants only a short stroll away … the only drawback (at least for us) is that the beach clubs keep pumping out their beats until long past midnight. The kids don’t seem to mind, but Anna is glad she brought her ear plugs.
And so we settle into a pleasant routine of not doing much of anything, except swimming, snorkeling, reading, eating and drinking.
On our last night we decide to try “Glow Scuba”, which seems to be one of the latest iteration on the snorkeling theme … there are now almost 50 diving schools on the island (which is only 8 square miles large) and they need a way to differentiate themselves. The concept is to go into the water at night (in complete darkness), armed with a blacklight torch and a special visor over the goggles. Some of the coral and fish are florescent and reflect the light back in various colors … quite fun!
Here are a few pictures I took during our ten days on the island: http://www.flickr.com/photos/uwefassnacht/sets/72157634806998251
We’re off tomorrow. Two hours on the ferry and then six on the bus … next stop: Hua Hin