It smells like mildew. The musty smell of my bungalow (before the a/c kicked in) amidst the humid jungles of Baan Krating lingers on my black wrap sweater as I sit on the plane. I am not ready for the flight back to reality. I smell it again and smile. Instantly I am transported back 10 days ago when this amazing adventure started.
I was a little nervous and very excited. It felt like I was just selected to be on a mash up of Road Rules/RealWorld goes Scuba diving! 10 strangers, (5 guys, 5 girls) from all around the country, hand selected by Malibu Rum out of hundreds of applicants.to be flown to Thailand for an all expenses paid internship to learn about coral reef conservation and become certified EcoDivers. Sounds like the makings of a reality show to me! To put this into context I must explain.
It all started when I was checking the surf cam one day on for my home break, first point Malibu. A banner ad that said something about a Malibu Reef Check internship caught my attention. As an avid diver, surfer, and producer of an environmental documentary project, this was right up my alley. Upon realizing it was Malibu Rum sponsoring a trip with the non-profit organization Reef Check that involved traveling to the Maldives, Thailand, or the Phillipines, it was on! Some girls are enticed by flowers and chocolates, but the way to get to my heart is travel (especially some where tropical)! I filled out the online application, had a phone interview, and the rest was history. I travel a lot for work in television and film, so many of my friends thought this was just another “work” trip, but this was unrelated. One of my big passions happens to be the coral reefs and anything to do with sports and water.
Giddy as fat kid about to walk into a candy store, I strolled into breakfast with my Malibu Rum Reef Check nametag hanging around my neck. “Hi, are you guys with the internship?” I ask a group of young people who looked distinctly American. “Yup!” They chimed. It seemed like everyone already knew each other. (They had all met on the flights over to Bangkok) I covertly place my giant nametag in my pocket, since I’m the ONLY dorky one wearing it, and sheepishly take a seat. I learn that everyone found out about the internship serendipitously, and that they are all just as excited as I am.
From Bangkok, we hop on the earliest flight to Phuket, the westside of Thailand’s skinny southern tail, eager to meet the Andaman Sea and its good friend Reef Check Thailand, a.k.a. coordinators Kim and Awe. I had been here once before, 10 years ago. So I was curious to see how much has changed, especially after the tsunami.
Tucked away in the quiet southwest corner of the island of Phuket, secluded from the chaos and ladyboys of Patong, we arrive at what would be home for the next 7 days, Baan Krating Jungle Beach Resort. Little did the staffers know, the resort was our canvas, and we planned to paint it red! Many a night would be spent in the open -air dining room, karaoking to cheesy 80s classics, mixing up new Malibu cocktails in pursuits of bragging rights, and dancing the night away.
This is how we started every night. Cheers!
Don’t be fooled, though there was a lot of fun to be had, we did have jam-packed classroom sessions learning how to conduct a survey, and how to identify reef check indicators. Greg Hodgson, head of Reef Check, taught us about substrates, invertebrates, and fish indicators for the Indo-Pacific region. This uniformity in data collection helps the 90 Reef Check offices worldwide gather accurate information in their annual reports on the state of our coral reefs. After too many cups of coffee, the caffeine starts to kick in and its time to put our newfound knowledge to the test!
The reef in front of our resort beckons us with the sound of the waves, crashing on her white sandy shore. The amazingly warm crystal clear water washes over my feet as I get my mask and fins together. Surfing in California, I’ve always appreciated the tropical end of the Pacific, milking every moment I can be in water without a wetsuit! I am in paradise.
Its show and tell time as Greg and Kim from Reef Check, point out different reef check indicators swimming below our fins. One indicator fish species is the grouper, a bottom dweller that has been over fished to satisfy the appetites of hungry patrons in restaurants from Hong Kong to Japan to the rest of Asia. The Andaman waters used to be home to big Groupers, (some the size of me) as well as the famous Phuket lobster, another reef check indicator. When I was here 10 years ago, every restaurant in town would boast of who’s got the biggest Phuket lobster displayed neatly on beds of ice for customers to pick the freshest catch of the day. Nowadays spotting a big lobster at restaurant (or during a dive) would be like finding a rare gemstone.
I am eager to explore and wander off from the group of little ducklings following Mother Goose Greg. “That’s a butterfly fish, not an Moorish idol, cause it has a butter colored tail” my over achieving voice in my head thinks, as I breath loudly into my snorkel. I dive down for a closer inspection of the coral head below and realize what I thought was algae was actually a big piece of fishing net! I look around and find more ghost nets latched onto healthy coral suffocating the life out of them. I try to untangle and remove some of the nets but only manage to release one small coral head from its man-made captor. Fishing nets make up at least 10% of all marine debris, and it saddens me when I think removing all ghost nets from our oceans would be an impossible task. Deflated, I snorkeled back to shore with my little piece of net tightly in my hand. I throw it in the trash, and head up to lunch where I finally find the elusive grouper, served to me on my plate.
KO PHI PHI
The sun beats down as the boat rocks back and forth. Back and forth….ugh, I’m starting to get seasick, and my less-drowsy Dramamine is making me sleepy. Focus on the horizon, I tell myself. I gaze forward at the small limestone karst cliffs that jut out of the ocean like sirens, tempting us to come closer for a look. It’s a chain of small rock formations, called Ko Phi Phi, famously known for being the backdrop of many a Hollywood movie, including Leonardo Dicaprio’s quest to fill his wanderlust in “The Beach”. Thousands of tourists flock to this marine protected area daily as well as a handful of illegal fishing boats, The impact of these underwater footprints can be detrimental to the reefs.
Laying the transect line
I tread lightly, floating above the bed of large leafy lettuce coral like Peter Rabbit curiously poking about with my huge measuring tape scouting out a good 100m area to lay down the transect. We are divided into dive teams, and my team’s job was to set the line. Huge hundred year old coral heads protects the fragile inhabitants hiding in its nooks and crannies. This reef bed was pristine. A friendly and curious giant moral eel startles me, and I quickly dart away, in hopes he wouldn’t see my fingers as a nice snack. We start the survey counting first the indicator fish, then invertebrates. After counting my 150th sea urchin I was over it. Being a marine biologist out in the field gathering data is hard work! We decide to take a little dance break underwater (see video) before realizing we had been diving for almost an hour and a half! Feeling confident about my reef checking capabilities, I return to the boat happy as a giant clam, with the utmost respect for real marine biologists who do this all the time.
Underwater Dance Break
Along with the amazing underwater world, we took a cultural excursion to a Muslim fishing village. (Reef Check partners with many local villages to teach about coral conservation) We saw many larger fish that we had not seen on the reef—leopard sharks, toddler-sized giant groupers, lobsters, big wrasses—all in little six foot cubed nets. I was disheartened to find that this “fish jail” was a form of eco-tourism as well as a way to harvest “sustainable” local fishing. I had seen many of these species swimming freely while diving in remote parts of the Philippines, South Pacific, and the Great Barrier Reef and it saddened me to think for many of my team members, this is the first time, and perhaps the only time they would see these majestic creatures, held captive until they are sold or eaten.
THE PERFECT MALIBU COCKTAIL
As for my fellow interns, I could not have imagined a better tasting concoction. Take 10 strangers from all walks of life. Add in 2 cups of adventure, 1 cup of passion, 1 quart of marine biology and coral conservation. Gently stir in Reef Check surveys and scuba diving until thoroughly mixed. Add a splash of Malibu Rum, 1 shot of dancing, 1/2 shot of singing, 1 shot of laughter, and 1 cup of good times. Blend together with ice. Serve chilled with a garnish of memories, and get your island on! That was my Malibu Reef Check internship in a cocktail! Thank you Malibu, Thomas Collective, and Reef Check– Sarah, Avril, Morgan, Greg, Kim and Awe for making this happen. And thank you my fellow interns to Marc, Drew, Aaron, Ryan, Geoff, Diana, Laura, Karla and Meredith for an experience of a lifetime.