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PHUKET: After coming face to face with shattered coral reef systems all over the world and confronting messes of plastic bags and tangled fishing nets, which are not-so-slowly strangling one of the world’s most important ecosystems, divers understand the importance of reef cleanups. There is of course that feeling of only delaying the inevitable, but isn’t that why we try to stop smoking and start exercising at some-point?

On Phuket, PADI, the world’s largest scuba diver training agency, and Project AWARE Foundation, a nonprofit environmental organization, is launching a collaborative "Dive for Debris" event, with around 25 PADI Dive Centers putting aside their profits, digging into their own pockets and attempting to make a difference with Phuket’s biggest reef cleanup. 

Project AWARE Foundation is a nonprofit group established to organize divers and make a positive impact on the world’s oceans. The foundation established its first International Cleanup Day in 1993, with divers participating in thousands of cleanups. 

According to Project AWARE’s website, "Cleanup dives from the past 18 years have been a true inspiration, placing scuba divers in the spotlight, key to addressing debris issues on a global scale."

The Phuket Gazette sat down with Thailand’s West coast PADI Regional Manager and Project AWARE Ambassador, Tony Andrewsto get a better grasp of the event and the impact it will have on Phuket’s reef systems.

Phuket Gazette
: There are dozens of cleanup projects every year on Phuket, what makes the project you are working on special?

Tony Andrews: Okay, what I think you’ve got to realize is that every PADI dive center here does underwater cleanups and they do beach cleanups, reef cleanups and reef checks independently. What makes this one special is that we’ve got about 25 official PADI centers on Phuket and we’re bringing them all together to do one massive reef cleanup. But more importantly we’re going to document and report exactly what we find under the ocean.

We’re hoping to get about 200 divers in the water on two islands [Koh Racha Yai and Noi]. 

To collect all that information about what debris is down there and lift it up in this quantity has never been done on Phuket.

Getting every dive center, especially the PADI centers to work together is fantastic.

What’s going to be the goal? How will you measure your success with this event?
The level of success will be based on how much rubbish lifted off the reefs we can document. At the moment we have 10 dive boats. 

Each dive boat is going to be assigned part of the reef to be cleaned. Now, what we’re going to do is submit the data that is collected on the day [to Project AWARE’s database]... So if we’re talking about 10 vessels and 200 divers [then] we’re talking a minimum of 10 documented marine debris data cards that we’ll present to the rest of the world and of course... the local authorities here in Thailand.

So, the information that is being collected is being added to Project AWARE’s larger marine debris database. Now, what’s the goal of that database?

To make the world aware that we need clean, healthy reefs... We’ve got to educate locals, Westerners, businesses, divers, everybody, and say, ‘Look we’ve got to look after the reefs we’ve got, because without them everything is just going to shut down.’ 

Our combined work in collecting, using and sharing data is fed into data that is submitted from divers all around the world.

Conservation cannot be done in isolation. That’s why all our divers here in Phuket together with Project AWARE can play a critical, deciding role in marine debris abatement efforts. Our data will support the development of coordinated policies and strategies to tackle marine debris at every point.

What dive boat operators and shops are part of this cleanup?
Okay, it pleases me to say that all of the big PADI five star IDC centers, PADI five centers and PADI dive centers have donated their boats.

We’ve got two live-aboards going out. One vessel is from Khao Lak Scuba Adventures. They’ve donated their boat, which is doing an overnight trip on Koh Racha Noi for professionals [divers] only. Their target will be to lift some of the big stuff, such as car tires and so on. 

All the other boats going out are day boats... so anyone can feel free to join. As I said before, we’re talking roughly 200 divers that can be taken out there, though I’m hoping that if people want to donate more boats they will feel free to contact us.

What’s your function in the project? What role are you playing?

My main goal is to unite these dive centers, because the importance of looking after these reefs is in everybody’s interest. 

From a business perspective, if your reefs go, obviously you’re going to lose your business. People are going to be out of their jobs, and that has big consequences, not just for the diving industry but for tourism too.

So, my main goal is to be a mediator in the project.

I don’t own a business here. I work for PADI. So, as a neutral person I can bring people together and drive the project forward as a PADI Regional Manager. 

Now, PADI is a main corporate sponsors of the event. We’re going to support these efforts and assist the dive businesses so their out of pocket expenses are reduced.

I think you’ve really got to emphasis the fact that these PADI centers are closing their business for one day. They are losing money to donate their boats; they’re putting their hands in their pockets for fuel and food costs. That loss of business for one day is quite substantial for Phuket. So, if you’re talking about ten of the biggest dive boats on the island going, wow, that’s pretty impressive.

But they are doing this because they understand and believe in the difference divers can make. 

We’re all honored and proud to be part of this event and fly the conservation flag for Phuket.

What are some of the difficulties you’ve run into when coordinating the efforts of all these dive centers? Everyone is PADI, but at the same time they are direct competitors...

You’ve got the main centers that have jumped at the chance, because they want to help Phuket; they want to help the dive industry, but what I would like to see is some of the smaller dive centers come on board. 

You don’t necessarily need to have a boat to do this. A lot of people think that you have to have your own boat to be on board with the project. If you want to get involved just email us or contact the Gazette [isaac@phuketgazette.net] and come on board. 

There are still some companies out there that could attend the meetings and say, ‘Yeah we’re going to help.’ They’ve been in business here for many years. It’s time to give something back to Phuket, and especially give something back to the diving community.

Everyone is trying to determine what price they can send their dive boat out for and still turn a profit. Now they came together for a meeting and leveled with each other to make this work. How did that meeting go?
The meeting was great. 

They all came, and if the owner wasn’t there, they sent a representative that could make decisions at the meeting. 

Each dive boat operator understands that they need to cover their fuel costs, so they all agreed to charge 1,000 baht per person. Let’s just give an example, a day trip to Racha Yai would average between 3,500 and 4,000 baht depending on the company. 

So they’ve all agreed that people who want to join can pay just 1,000 baht. That will cover everything, and it will help the dive center recover some of their fuel costs. And that’s open to everybody.

No one is going to deny that every piece of trash that you pick up is going to make a difference, but what are the long-term effects of this project?
If you can help sustain the reefs by at least removing the rubbish, you’ve given extra years to the diving community. That’s their office, their back garden.

What I’d like to see is that the marine debris surveys continue every month [after the project]. Dive centers can do this independently. 

Their instructors can do it, their fun divers can do it, their snorkelers can do it. Anyone can "Dive Against Debris" and be part of the solution.

It’s not necessarily about diving. People can survey the reefs from the surface and can say, ‘Yeah, we’ve seen that, we’ve seen this. We’d like to document it.’ I think the more we document it, the more our voice is going to be heard and the more we can highlight the fact that when you drop your litter it ends up in our ocean. 

It costs our marine life, our businesses and our economy. We want to stop the ocean’s silent killer and we can all be part of the solution – no matter where you live or dive.

We can then take the data and push it over to the government or all across the world and say, ‘Look, the importance of removing this trash is that it is going to give the reefs a longer life span, which will eventually create more marine life and more business’. Hopefully we’re still going to be here [he laughs], which is the big question.

You are still looking for corporate sponsor, but what sponsors have already gotten on board with you?
Okay, We’ve got the Phuket Gazette as media sponsors and had a great offer by Da Vinci’s to supply a venue for the after party, which has not been confirmed by the Go-Eco Phuket group. 

We’ve also got the COSCO Group, which is Molly Malone’s and Coyotes. They’ve actually supplied some alcohol for the after party to say thank you to everybody. 

Obviously, that will be monitored!

We’ve got Phuket Art Advertising, which is one of the local advertising agents; they are going to do all the promotional banners for us free of charge. And AM t-shirts is going to supply free event shirts for the divers.

PADI is going to be the main sponsor, funding some of the event, but what I’d like to see is some of the surrounding hotels... get involved. These guys should also be interested in what we are doing here, because a lot them have booking agencies and are sending people out snorkeling and diving.

Get Involved
Anyone interested in joining this Phuket Gazette sponsored event, or in the long-term goals of Go-Eco Phuket can find more information at goecophuket.weebly.com or on the groups facebook page .

http://www.phuketgazette.net/archives/phuketlifestyle/2012/article16641.html