KOH PHI PHI LEY- While travel stopped and the world locked down, in the dazzling blue waters of Thailand’s idyllic Phi Phi islands, a gentle renaissance was under way. Mass tourism had brought the archipelago, immortalised in Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Beach”, to the brink of ecological catastrophe. Now Thailand hopes to make Phi Phi the standard-bearer for a new, more sustainable model of tourism as the country reopens to visitors after the long covid shutdown. Near a coral islet just a few kilometres from Maya Bay — the iconic cove surrounded by towering tree-clad cliffs that was home to the beach paradise of the DiCaprio film — marine biologist Kullawit Limchularat dives through eight metres of crystalline water and carefully releases a young bamboo shark. His mission: to repopulate the reefs after years of damage caused by uncontrolled visitor numbers, a crisis that got so bad the authorities were forced to close Maya Bay itself in 2018.
Five small brownbanded bamboo sharks are set free, their striped bodies and long tails flickering through the water. But after being raised in captivity they are reluctant to swim out among the clown fish, barracudas and turtles. “They need time to adapt. We waited until they reached 30 centimetres to maximise their chance of survival,” says Kullawit, who is working on the project with the Phuket Marine Biological Center.
“The aim is that once they are adults, they will stay and breed here to help repopulate the species.”
Before the pandemic, Phi Phi National Marine Park, with its white sandy beaches and coral reefs, attracted more than two million visitors a year.
Until it was closed, Maya Bay’s dazzling beauty and Hollywood fame drew up to 6,000 people a day to its narrow 250-metre long beach.
Inevitably, so many people arriving in noisy, polluting motorboats with so little control over numbers had a huge impact on the area’s delicate ecology.
“The coral cover has decreased by more than 60 percent in just over 10 years,” says Thon Thamrongnawasawat of Kasetsart University in Bangkok.
As early as 2018, Thon raised the alarm and pushed the authorities to close part of the bay.
Then the pandemic hit and visitor numbers dwindled to virtually nil as Thailand imposed tough travel rules, putting the entire archipelago into a forced convalescence.
As a result, dozens of blacktip sharks, green turtles and hawksbill turtles have returned.
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