Xanthe Jackson - Diving & Marine Conservation in Thailand
I knew that I wanted to do some volunteering work during the summer vacation between finishing school and moving on to university, but I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do. I had heard about Projects Abroad from a friend and so had a look at the website, and after a long time looking at all the different courses available decided to do the Conservation & Environment Diving project in Thailand.
I had never been to that area of the world before, so that appealed to me, and I also liked the idea that I would be gaining qualifications as well as helping to save the environment while I was out there. After reading the stories of other volunteers who had done the same project I was certain that I wanted to do the same, and so decided to do a month’s conservation work.
Arriving in Thailand
I arrived on a Monday night after around 16 hours’ worth of traveling, and was met at the airport by one of the Projects Abroad staff, who was very welcoming and easily recognizable with her Projects Abroad sign. Driving to the project from the airport was quite a nerve-wracking experience for me: I was in a foreign country, I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t know anyone and I was going to be staying there for a whole month!
However once we arrived at the place that I would be staying at for the duration of my time in Thailand I knew that I would have a great time. I was immediately introduced to my roommate and then all of the other Conservation volunteers, who immediately made me feel at ease and who were incredibly helpful in showing me around and explaining to me what I would be doing during my time in Thailand.
I quickly fell into the routine of the week, which I think was a good thing; knowing what I would be doing each day of the week helped me to become accustomed to the work very early on. I also think that it made the experience more enjoyable, because everyone knew what they were doing and knew what they were expected to do.
The week in Thailand is split, so that on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays volunteers dive, and on Mondays and Fridays volunteers take part in land-based activities. After each diving day we would also enter our dive information into dive logs in order to keep track of all our dives, and have talks from some of the Projects Abroad staff about why we were doing the work that we were doing and some of the other environmental issues occurring in the area. The staff also taught us to identify all the different fish and coral that we would be seeing while diving.
My Diving Project
I arrived in Thailand with no previous experience of diving, and so was a bit nervous when I went for my first diving lesson. However, from the very first lesson I fell in love with scuba diving. My instructor was very understanding and happy to help whenever I got confused about something, and within no time I was happily swimming around the introduction pool in all my diving gear. We quickly moved on to diving in the ocean and practicing all the skills I needed to pass my PADI Open Water diving qualification, and within a week I had gained the qualification and moved on to working towards my Advanced Open Water qualification, which I also quickly gained. I was ready to use the skills I had learned to help protect the ocean.
Projects Abroad Conservation volunteers have two main purposes when diving: to help retrieve rubbish and discarded nets from the coral reef, and to collect information about the reef. The latter we did by filling in coral surveys; a group of divers would split into pairs, and each pair would tally the number of specific fish or coral they saw. For example, one pair would tally the number of brain, plate, massive and staghorn coral they saw, and another pair would tally the number of surgeonfish, lionfish, purple anthias and goatfish they saw. At the end of each day, we would enter the data into the databases of different organizations that Projects Abroad have teamed up with, so that the organizations can monitor different areas of the ocean and their ecosystems.
Initially I didn’t realize the importance of collecting this information, but after several of these survey dives I realized what a difference the information makes to organizations fighting to look after the oceans and their inhabitants, and just how easy it was to collect the information and therefore make a difference.
On Mondays and Fridays during the week we sometimes worked with APE Foundation, the Association for the Protection of the Environment. APE aims to work on issues regarding the conservation and restoration of the environment, as well as educating about permaculture and agroforestry. With APE we planted trees along the sides of roads and created a nature corridor in the forest for a local school, as well as handing out surveys to tourists and locals in Ao Nang in order to collect information on how they viewed the area’s cleanliness.
Another large part of the land-based activities were beach clean-ups, where volunteers collected trash from the beach. This meant that we stopped more trash from entering the sea and harming wildlife, and also restored the area to its natural beauty. It was quite surprising to me how much trash we collected in the space of an hour and a half; on one beach clean-up we managed to dig 19 huge tires out of the beach, as well as collecting many bin bags’ worth of recycling and rubbish from only a very short stretch of beach.
After finishing work during the week we had a little time in the afternoon and evening to do what we liked. Many people liked to swim in the sea at the Dawn of Happiness, or sit around and play cards, listen to music, read a book or just talk to other volunteers. It was also possible to take the local bus or order a tuk tuk to go into the local town Ao Nang to do some shopping or get a massage.
During the weekends we were free to do whatever we wanted, and we organized a trip somewhere: for example, to go to the Tiger Temple to climb 1,237 steps up a very steep hill to see the beautiful view at the top; to visit the nearby Railay beach famed for its beauty; to swim in the hot springs and emerald pool only around an hour’s drive away; to visit the nearby islands to kayak or snorkel or just explore. Alternatively we would laze around at the Dawn of Happiness and sunbathe on the beach, or visit Ao Nang to do present shopping for family back home. During the weekend evenings some volunteers would also go into town to visit the clubs and meet some of the Thai locals, which was a great opportunity to listen to some Thai reggae and see how the Thai have a good time.
I hugely enjoyed all of my time in Thailand. The Thai people are very welcoming and always smiling (no wonder it is called the ‘Land of Smiles’!), the scenery is breath-taking, the food is incredible, the weather (to an English girl like me) was amazing even though I visited in the rainy season, I gained new memories that will stay with me throughout my life, I made a huge number of new friends from all around the world and the atmosphere within the small community I lived in was always friendly and happy.
When I left Thailand I was very sad to be leaving but also happy in the knowledge that in just one month I had made a small but positive difference in that area of the world. I am so glad that I took part in this project and am now thinking of returning next summer to make new friends (or even be reunited with old ones) and to continue the good work that Projects Abroad is doing.