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Tourists on a long-tail boat look longingly towards Maya Bay, Ko Phi Phi Lee, Thailand. Photo: James Wendlinger

Miracle of Maya Bay: how Thai paradise island wrecked by tourism has staged an incredible recovery in marine life

  • Leonardo Di Caprio film The Beach had travellers flocking to the paradise isle since 2000, but wrecked by overtourism it was closed on June 1 last year
  • It has since witnessed a near miraculous recovery in marine life and may offer a model for the rest of Asia’s fragile ecosystems

The drone video footage taken about 30m above Maya Bay in southern Thailand captures a solitary diver finning in the shallow waters while the dark shadows of reef sharks can be seen swimming around him.

“I saw at least 100 sharks yesterday,” says Malaysian coral conservationist Anuar Abdullah, the diver in the video, and the founder and CEO of social enterprise Ocean Quest Global.

He points out the rectangular outlines of some of the 120 nurseries his team of coral gardeners has built inside the bay, which are shaped like large bars of Toblerone. Each one measures 5m by 2m (16ft by 2ft), and black-tipped reef sharks, up to 1.5 metres in length, are patrolling the avenues between the blocks of coral, like taxis cruising for customers.

Maya Bay, on one of the Phi Phi islands in the Andaman Sea, is probably the most famous beach in Southeast Asia. Hollywood superstar Leonardo Di Caprio was filmed here for the 2000 movie The Beach. That, combined with its stunning natural beauty, was enough to attract more than 300 power boats, packed full of up to 5,000 tourists, every day for some 18 years.

The rectangular outline of 120 nurseries that coral gardeners have built inside Maya Bay. Black-tipped reef sharks patrol the avenues between them. Photo: James Wendlinger

This small bay surrounded by towering limestone cliffs, and its narrow strip of white powder sand beach, became a prime example of the ecological damage inflicted by overtourism. The tourist boat anchors destroyed the coral reefs, the noise of the engines frightened the birds, the marine fuel poisoned the fish, and the sediment churned up by the propellers choked the coral. Tourists trampled the vegetation, left litter on the beach and urinated in the sea.

The ecological damage was so catastrophic that in June last year, the Thai authorities took the unprecedented step of closing Maya Bay to tourists. “We inherited a 100 per cent dead ecosystem,” says Abdullah.

A typical image of the beach at Maya Bay, Thailand, in April last year, with tourists filling it. Photo: AFP via Getty Images.

Yet the impact of the closure and the conservation work since undertaken at Maya Bay have already produced such positive results that it is being described as Thailand’s conservation miracle. This year, Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation announced an extension of the bay’s closure for another two years, and the conservationists are proud of their achievement.

“When you take the human factor out, nature thrives,” says Abdullah. He explains that the natural recovery process has been accelerated by restoration of the coral reefs that provide food and shelter for a plethora of marine life.

“The seabirds are back, and even the monkeys are back. Before, the monkeys were shot to protect the tourists,” says Abdullah. The fish population, he adds, has increased by 200 per cent and sea birds such as egrets, herons and kingfishers have returned.

Anuar Abdullah is the founder and CEO of social enterprise Ocean Quest Global. Photo: James Wendlinger

The rehabilitation project also bonded the local diving community, as professionals from all dive centres in Phi Phi town have joined the conservation effort. Abdullah was one of the key architects of the closure and oversees the biggest coral propagation project in Asia, which has already seen more than 22,000 individual corals of nine species propagated in the bay.

This is the largest of 74 coral plantations and nurseries that Abdullah’s Ocean Quest Global is managing across Asia. Devoid of ego, glitzy sponsors and a public relations entourage, he is an unsung hero to thousands of divers and marine conservationists.

Born in Malaysia and trained in oceanography, Abdullah learned his coral propagation techniques through painful trial and error over many years. In hundreds of diving resorts and coastal communities in Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, he is known as “Anuar the coral gardener”.

Maya Corner near Maya Bay. Photo: James Wendlinger

“This is raw science that achieves real results, not academic science where people write papers and have dreams,” he says.

Anuar is back in Maya Bay to monitor the progress of volunteers on a training coral nursery in the nearby resort of Phi Phi Don. People travel a long way to seek out Anuar and learn how to be a coral gardener. One of the volunteers for this course has taken a six-month break from his job as a diesel engineer in Montreal, Canada.

“A friend told me about the work Anuar was doing and I don’t intend on going home until I have achieved something positive,” says Jungle Tshongo, as he assiduously places a coral fragment into a host substrate.

Buoys float on the surface of the water to prevent tourists getting access to Maya Bay. Photo: James Wendlinger

Divers and enthusiasts like Tshongo give up their time to assist staff from the national parks office in restoring the coral reefs and also work on other projects in Asia.

Maya Bay attracted the most media attention when it was closed on June 1 last year, but several other sites in Thailand’s national marine parks were also closed at the same time, including entire islands.

It is a sensitive issue. The Tourism Authority of Thailand estimates the industry was worth 2.52 trillion baht (US$71.4 billion) in 2016. Not surprisingly, there are powerful vested interests in the tourist industry, which Anuar jokingly refers to as the “tourist mafia”, who resist closure and are eager to see Maya Bay reopen as soon as possible.

“It can be very dangerous messing with these people,” says Abdullah, who campaigned for years for the closure.

A diver boat for tourists anchors at Ko Phi Phi Lee. Photo: James Wendlinger

Fortunately, the project had an influential supporter and advocate in the form of eminent scientist Dr Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a Kasetsart University marine biologist and member of the national park’s committee. Dr Thon, as he is known, is Thailand’s leading marine conservationist and a well-known public figure with useful family connections in the kingdom’s ruling elite.

“Dr Thon has been very supportive. He was willing to say ‘enough is enough, we need to stop this nonsense’,” Anuar says.

Due to the sensitivity, the authorities are reticent about publicising their achievements and even more reluctant to reveal when the bay might open again to tourists.

“The value of Maya Bay will be higher, and it will be even more popular,” says Abdullah.

There are already plans for Maya Bay when it does eventually reopen. A pier will be built on the opposite side of the bay so tourists can access it on foot. It will remain closed to speedboats. Visitors will be allocated e-tickets, and their numbers strictly limited.

A coral cutting is transplanted during a coral nursery project managed by instructor Abdullah. Photo: James Wendlinger

Tour companies in Phi Phi and Phuket still advertise boat tours to Maya Bay, and it’s still possible to visit, but it’s a very different scene from that witnessed 18 months ago when it was often impossible to see the beach for the hordes of tourists standing shoulder to shoulder.

Long-tail boats and speedboats are now prevented from roaring into the bay by a line of red marker buoys and flags. A “no entry” sign warns of a 1,000 baht fine for anyone violating the rule, and a designated boat mooring area has been set up to the north of the bay’s entrance. A park ranger vessel regularly patrols the area.

Not everyone is celebrating the ecological success story. Approaching the bay by long-tail boat, the pilot, who gives his name as Sun, says that although the closure may be good for the “natural paradise”, it’s not so good for tourists.

Long-tail boat pilot, Sun. Photo: James Wendlinger

As he navigates the boat towards the entrance of the bay, one hour before sunset, there are still more than 25 others in the designated boat park. Despite the signs and marker buoys, several pilots just lift their propellers over the buoys to encroach a few metres into the bay, eager to let their paying passengers have a closer look. There is no sign of the marine park rangers except for a large plume of wood smoke coming from the jungle behind the beach.

Sun says he was never consulted about the closure. He suggests the government should provide designated moorings for boats and just forbid them from anchoring, which is what destroys the coral heads. It seems more work is needed in community engagement to get local people who depend on tourism for their livelihoods on side.

“In conservation, there is no way to avoid dealing with people. Like it or not, people are the key,” says Abdullah.

Ko Phi Phi Lee seen from a long-tail boat. Photo: James Wendlinger

“Maya Bay is the biggest coral propagation project we have done, but so far we can only see part of the accomplishment. We are only 18 months on, but rays, sharks and urchins are back, the coral is healthy. Maya Bay is coming back.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: The Beach is back Clear water revival