If you were to believe the numerous media reports you could be fooled into thinking that the many islands off the west coast of Thailand have been wiped from the map. Post-tsunami, however, the scene on the islands is far from one of despair. My recent trip back to Koh Phi Phi Island, Koh Lanta and Phuket confirmed that the Thai people there can still lay claim to one of Southeast Asia's most beautiful diving destinations.
The azure waters off Koh Phi Phi and the surrounding islands are still stunning -- perhaps even more than I remembered. Having once lived there for a year I of course could not have prepared myself for the extensive damage I saw. The cleanup operation, though, has been phenomenal: Much of the debris has now been cleared, and in many places it's business as usual. Resorts, bars, restaurants and dive centers are all opening again, and backpackers -- most of whom originally arrived on the islands to volunteer -- are now returning in droves to once again enjoy the famous diving and beauty that the west coast of Thailand has to offer.
Off Koh Phi Phi you'll find some of the most amazing diving in Thailand; water temperatures reach a warm 86 degrees Fahrenheit, and visibility averages over 80 feet during the high season of October through May. Dive sites such as Bida Nok and Bida Nai are second to none, even rivalling some of my favorite dive sites on the Great Barrier Reef. On my numerous dives there in March of this year there was virtually no evidence of tsunami damage; the only damage I saw was to a gorgeous fan coral, and that was most likely the result of careless diving, not Mother Nature. Dive centers and resorts on the island, though still limited, are operating and offering fun dives and all dive courses up to divemaster. Most dive centers are still able to cater to your every diving need with boat trips leaving daily for all dive sites. You can find a host of bungalows and resorts that were unaffected by the tsunami tragedy, and the local management will be more than happy to accommodate you.
The local tsunami dive camps' effort to systematically clean any and all damaged reefs and sea bottoms around the Phi Phi islands has made noticeable differences, which is encouraging for all involved. Andrew Hewett, general manager of the Adventure Club on Koh Phi Phi, says that he has been overwhelmed by the efforts made by people who have travelled across the world not only to assist on the dive project, but also to help the local people and victims of the tsunami. "It is a pleasure and a privilege to work with these people, who are devoting all of their time and energy. Their efforts are totally selfless and they wish nothing in return, just to know that they have made a difference. My hat goes off to them."
Damage assessment done in the days following the tsunami by the Phuket Marine Biological Department showed that the immediate damage to reefs was limited to Ton Sai Bay, Loh Dalum Bay (where the larger of the waves hit), Loh Lanah Bay and Bamboo Island. The good news is that most of the country's coral reefs received no damage at all from the tsunami, and those that did had less than 5% damage. This is obviously great news for divers and dive shop operators alike.
For the local Thai people the last thing we would want to see follow this tragedy is economic devastation. I encourage anyone planning a holiday to Thailand to please consider spending your time here. You will not be disappointed. What could be more satisfying than enjoying a fantastic dive or snorkel in paradise and at the end of the day watching the smile of the Thai locals? You'll know that just by being there you have helped them on the road to recovery.
If you wish to make a donation you can go to www.projectaware.org for details.
For up-to-date information on dive centres and resorts operating throughout the region, click on the following link to e-mail and phone the operators direct: http://www.padi.com/english/common/search/dcnr/, or contact PADI International Resort and Retailer Associations in the Asia Pacific region at firstname.lastname@example.org.