I crawled into the ocean in 1945, frolicking the foamy seas with SCUBA, skim-boards, swim fins, kayaks, motorboats, water skis, sailboats, ships and submarines. 65 years ago, tuna schooled horizon to horizon and there wasn’t much marine rubbish. Plastics were not yet prevalent and Planet Earth hosted only one-third as many humans as today.
So exploring Thailand in 1989 was a real shock. My parting vision of Hawai’i was standing where Honolulu’s business district hits the harbour, watching fish swimming ten metres down.
I came here to bring environmental awareness to Asia, but I’m haunted that I sacrificed my most productive years on a hopeless cause. The Farang community gets it, but they aren’t plying the backwaters of the Bay, pulling broken glass and beer cans, disposable diapers, every plastic style imaginable and styrofoam from pellets to palettes out of the sea. Many Asians see the sea as a convenient garbage pit, but forget the consequences to marine life.
“I am very surprised with John Gray. He is not Thai people but he takes care of the Thai environment. When we arrived, I saw him cleaning garbage on the water’s surface. When we cleaned the garbage he always said ‘thank you’ to us, but I think we need to “thank you” him. I learned many things from the staff I cannot find in the classroom. I am very proud to tell my friends about this activity.” (Miss Nuttalinee)
When Sea Canoe Guide Training came this year, I realised ‘eco’ isn’t on the Thai agenda. Most locals have never heard of ‘conservation’, ‘eco’ or ‘litter’, let alone understand or practice the concepts. The history of Phuket carries more weight than environment and conservation.
After 8,000 large bags of rubbish collecting during ‘Hong By Starlight’ trips, I took matters into my own hands – literally. On my 64th birthday I gave myself a Phang Nga Bay Clean Up.
I invited my Coastal Tourism Management class at Prince of Songkla University, Phuket. Dr. Rick Kramer added his students, and we ran for five very windy days, collecting 74 bags of rubbish. Hotels contributed staff (an extra expense) but no funds, so I spent B100,000 of my own money. I’ve been homeless ever since.
The primary Phang Nga Clean Up goal is not about collecting 74 bags of rubbish, but creating awareness for local and worldwide marine rubbish and its impact, especially in marine parks. Our small effort is about creating an awareness and spirit of co-operation that benefits the overall environment of the park.
We need to involve all national park stakeholders. It’s more than cosmetics. The surrounding villages, park staff, all tour operators and their customers must work together to keep Thailand’s national treasure clean, sustainable and hospitable to marine life.
Although most of them come from Phuket and surrounding provinces, most students had never seen Phang Nga Bay, so each day included kayaking inside at least one cave/hong system. Students also received paddling training and were encouraged to paddle their own kayak in protected waters with a professional guide. We felt it was important for tourism students to see Thailand’s number one natural tourist attraction. Most major tour operators estimate the park hosts three to four million visitors a year, so it’s mandatory to give students a glimpse of this natural wonderland.
We developed a guide team from local villages around the Bay, and the interaction between Thai university students and local villagers was almost instantaneous. The locals took the project to a beach near their village and the group collected 23 bags of rubbish in just one hour. The villagers learned the importance of conservation from Thai university students their own age.
The clean-up was well worth it. We had two radio and four TV stations, and three print publications, two of them Thai language. Best of all, student comments made me realise the truth. I didn’t waste 20 years... It just took that long for the rubber to grip the road.
“I am very proud that I am one to protect and clean up the sea and beach. Could you do the activity on the next semester?” (Miss Pattarasinee) “The trip is so cool! It is not my duty or your duty but it is a duty of everybody.” (Miss Chayanit)
Things are getting better. Over the summer, a plastic bag campaign led to Governor Wichai Phraisa-ngop supporting a 60% reduction in Phuket’s plastic bag consumption. Don’t complain about paying one baht for a bag – go buy a shopping bag and eliminate plastic altogether. Phantom bags don’t go into the sea.
Phang Nga’s rubbish problem continues, so you are welcome to join this year’s Phang Nga Bay Clean-Up, scheduled for December 29 to 30. At peak-peak high season, the world visits Phuket and marine rubbish is a global issue that threatens humans as well as all marine life.
For further information
John Gray Sea Canoe Co., Ltd.
124 Soi 1 Yaowarat Rd., Taladyai, Muang, Phuket
Tel: +66 (0)76 254505-7, +66 (0)84 844 1807