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SCUBA Diving is Saving Cambodia's Reefs


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Posted by on February 25, 2006 at 17:15:17:

By Antonio Graceffo

The fishermen turn away from the blast. After the hand-grenade has exploded, they can simply pick the dead fish off of the top of the water. Hand-grenade fishing is much easier than fishing with nets. But, it is one of the most destructive activities ever envisioned. Not only to the edible fish float to the top, but the blast also kills scores of inedible and endangered fish, as well as completely wrecking the coral reef, which would take decades to regenerate.

Fred, a big, friendly American, who owns the scuba diving tour company, Eco Sea, in Sihanoukvile, was teaching me about the problems threatening the undersea environment, while suiting me up for an environmentally friendly diving expedition.

"Don't worry the boat is equipped with a chemical toilet." said Fred, "Just donít swim underneath while someone is in the bathroom." He warned.

Wow! Modern diving was more dangerous than I had remembered.

"Nothing is released in the water." Explained Fred, stilling my fears. "But we donít want you to bang your head on the underside of the boat."

One of the first things I noticed about Eco Sea was that they adhered to all of the same PADI safety standards as I would expect in a first world country. This was no fly-by-night operation. The equipment had all been checked out and tagged as serviceable.

"Can I see your Open Water card?" asked Fred.

I handed him my card, and his eyes got enlarged.

"Nine-teen eighty-three! That was a long time ago." He exclaimed.

"Yes it was." I answered, not really wanting to be reminded of my age.

"You have a lot of experience." He said, testing me.

They probably get a lot of dive cards purchased on the Kaoh San Road in Bangkok, Thailand, right next to the street stalls where you can by a PHD from Harvard for twenty dollars.

"Is this a fake?"

"Someone went to Yale."

"Actually, my card isn't fake. But I only dive about once or twice a year." I explained. "But I still remember which end of the tank the bullets come out."

"We'll keep an eye on you." Said Fred, checking his insurance policy.

"Thanks." I said, taking out my notebook. "Would you mind telling me what other services you have?"

"Well, we have emergency medical training, and carry a massive medical kit."

"Can you do liposuction?" I asked, exposing my belly flab.

"I meant, we could treat anything up to and including trauma."

"My mother didnít love me, that was very traumatic."

Fred was silent, but his face said, "I donít blame her."

"We give you lunch and breakfast on the boat." He continued. "And, we offer night dives, certification courses, advanced open waterÖReally, we can accommodate almost any request."

"How about a kosher vegan meal?"

"Almost any reasonable request." Fred clarified. He threatened to force a pen in my ear, but he backed off when I promised not to write about it.

"For Kosher or Vegan meals you need to call ahead." Said Fred, accommodating me.

I made note in my book Ö "Call ahead"

"Did I just lose points?" He laughed good naturedly.

"Yes, but it doesnít have to be permanent."

"What do you mean?"

"Can I have a baseball hat?" I asked, pointing at a very cool black hat, marked Ď'urvivor Cambodia.'

ďBut there were only thirty of these ever made." he protested.

"Up to you." I said, as an implied threat. "Maybe you are so rich you donít need any new customers."

Years of working as a union organizer for the Teamsters had taught me a lesson or two. But, Fred knew how to play hardball.

"Ok if you are going to be a baby about it.Ē He said, handing me the hat.

"And a T-shirt." I added, pushing my luck.

Fred handed me the swag and made some comment about wanting to get back to the interview before he was left wearing a barrel with some shoulder straps.

Due to concerted efforts by the government and NGOs alike, guns are becoming much less common in Cambodia. But hand-grenades seem to pop up more frequently than they did back home. They are common enough that a bar I frequent in Phnom Penh has a sign with a picture of a grenade, with a big red ex through it. "No Grenades Allowed."

I heard from some environmentalists that hand-grenade fishing was pretty common in Cambodia. "Have you come in contact with that?" I asked.

"Yes," answered Fred. "They also do cyanide fishing." He went on to tell me how destructive grenade fishing was to the environment. "Coral needs a very delicate balance to survive." Apparently, Fred felt that blasts of C-4 and shrapnel werenít exactly the best way to preserve the natural world.

"But in the places where we dive, they stopped fishing. And in the few years that I have been running dive tours, we have actually seen the fish populations increase."

Scuba diving is an environmentally friendly activity. For one thing, divers donít touch, damage, or otherwise alter the natural world. Second, it is divers who produce all of those great underwater photos, which make us aware of our natural world. None of us was able to care about endangered species like manatees and sea otters until we see photos of the cute little animals, teetering on the brink of extinction. Divers are like the ambassadors of the terrestrial world. They go out, explore the undersea world, gather information, and upon their return, teach us all through the medium of Discovery and National Geographic television. This prompts viewers to donate money or push for legislation, which protects the environment.

"And it is a chain reaction, with direct, positive economic impact to the very fishermen who were displaced by the divers.Ē Fred explained. ďThe fish populations in the dive sites increase, reaching a point of saturation. So, the fish move to other areas, where the fishing is still going on, thus increasing the catch.Ē

Fred knew a lot about the environment, and cared deeply about the preservation of the Earthís oceans. Eco Dive was a member of Go Eco, an organization, which evaluates and certifies businesses as eco friendly.

Fred was in contact with other people, concerned about the environment. Apparently they would communicate their ideas to one another, and decide how best to proceed.

"A friend of mine is experimenting with a porous ceramic form, which can be dropped into the ocean to promote the growth of new coral reefs." Fred told me.

Unfortunately in developing countries, environmental issues are not the only negative forces impeding the development of eco tourism. Fred also told me great stories about pirates in the waters between the disputed Cambodian islands and Vietnam.

Corruption was also a problem as the tourist police, who I saw sleeping in hammocks on their boat, demanded a bribe of beer.

"It's a tax, not bribe." Corrected Fred.

"Does it go in the general operating fund of the government?" I asked, giving it my own litmus test to determine if it was a tax or a bribe.

"The beer?"

"Maybe they could deposit it in the bank. Youíve heard of liquid assets."

"No, they drink it."

Oh yeah, thatís a bribe. I thought.

Out on the boat, Fredís business partner, Dive Master Kyoko, ran through two separate safety briefings. Kyoko later told me that she had come from Japan to help promote Japanese tourism in Sihanoukville.

About half of the group were not certified, and had come out to do snorkeling. My guide from Phnom Penh tours, Thavrin, had never been scuba diving or even snorkeling before. But, he could swim, which made him part of an elite minority in Cambodia. Adventure sports are still a new concept in a country where much of the population still lives well below the poverty line. So, I was extremely proud of him when he announced, at the last minute, that he would go out on the boat with us.

I helped him put on the unfamiliar equipment, and just as I thought he would be fine, he spit out his snorkel and tore off his mask.

"The mask is pinching my nose, and I canít breath," he complained.

"Breath through your mouth," I suggested.

Not fully convinced, he gave the mouth breathing thing a trial run. "I guess that will work," he said. "But won't I get water in my mouth?"

"Youíll need to put the snorkel back in," I instructed.

He was puffing on his snorkel like Cheech Marian and wheezing like Darth Vater when he jumped into the water, and nearly panicked. Thinking fast, Kyoko threw him a buoyancy device. At first, Thavrin clung to it for dear life. But, eventually, he relaxed enough to let go of it. By the end of the day, he was an expert snorkeler.

After we dropped off the snorklers, we headed over to the dive site. On the way, Kyoko warned us that the water was choppy, and that we needed to suit up as fast as possible, or we would get sick. I of course took my time.

Suddenly, I became extremely unwell. Finally, I vomited. The scary thing about vomiting is that you are going to have to put the regulator in your mouth in order to breath. Or maybe the scary thing is that some else is going to have to use that regulator after you. Anyway, all I wanted out of life was to jump in the water, but I couldnít, till I had finished emptying the contents of my stomach. The nuns back at Catholic school had insisted that we wait a half hour after eating before swimming. How long after vomiting did you have to wait before going scuba diving?

My answer was, immediately. I jumped into the water. My dive partner, Rolf, an eighth year university student from Germany who hadnít chosen a major yet, jumped in soon after me.

"Did you have to eat rice for breakfast?" He shouted as he surfaced.

"Sorry."

"If you run out of air I am not buddy breathing with you," he warned.

With friends like RolfÖ

A man can build a thousand bridges, but hurl one time, and he will be known through history as a hurler.

I released the air from my buoyancy compensator and slowly drifted under the sea, like an old man, easing into bath water. Only a few feet below the surface, we were already oblivious to the violent and choppy waves above.

The boat was leaping two meters in the air. But we were floating, in that amazing and comfortable neutral buoyancy, which makes the undersea world look so unreal.

If you become sea sick your instinct might tell you to cancel your dive. But, that would mean waiting on the boat for forty-five minutes, getting sicker and sicker it is much better to just go ahead and dive.

Under the sea, I saw things I had previously only seen in dive magazines. Barrel sponges, sea cucumbers, sea anemone, large fleshy growths which covered the rocks and turned them into giant brains, and tubular growths, which fed on tiny life forms extracted from the water. There were large barrel sponges, covered with a type of parasitic worm, which swayed in the gentle current, like hair blown in the breeze.

I swam past a large, man-eating Venus flytrap, which slammed shut its vice-like jaw with when an unwary diver swam too close.

Ok, I made that last one up. But I really did see one of those giant monster clams you see in movies. I waited for it to open its lid, to check for debris. It didnít seem to be the one that ate Tokyo, although, it was clearly related.

The sea anemone, as Fred later explained, was a very interesting life form. It existed in a special symbiotic relationship with the fish that lay their eggs on the anemone to keep them safe. And, in return, the fish eat the parasites, which harm the anemone. Fred explained that the presence of these animals was a sign of a healthy reef.

After we returned from our two dives, Fred and I had a burger, while he told me about his vision for a better, cleaner ocean.

One of the GO ECO criteria was that a business had to be involved in community activities. On this note, Fred organized the first ever beach cleanings in Sihanoukville. Twice annually, he also organizes a reef cleaning. Fred also worked with the department of fishery, helping them to draw maps of the coastline, as well as the reefs themselves. According to Fred, protecting the oceanís eco system is particularly important in Cambodia, where 60% of the dietary protein comes from fish.

If we all stopped using petrol as of this minute, it would probably have a positive impact on the environment. But, then, how would you get to work? By the same token, you canít tell the fishermen to stop fishing, because this is how they earn their living. Fredís idea was to take the fishermen, and train them as dive masters. In fact, one of the two dive-masters on Fred's boat is the first Cambodian dive master ever. And, he used to be a fisherman.

"This way, they can learn about and help to preserve the ocean. At the same time you are giving them a way to make an even better living by being a dive master."

The dive master working for Fred earns a multiple of what he earned before, and can work shorter hours, without risking his life, returning home for dinner each night.

Again, Fred pointed out that fewer fishermen would mean a decrease in competition, and an increase in the size of the fish population. The remaining fishermen could then fish more efficiently and earn more money.

An increase in diving and a reclaiming of the reefs will also increase tourism, bringing a much-needed economic boost to the depressed local economy. "The tourist dollars are definitely helping," Said Fred. "A few years ago, when you came to Sihanoukville, everything was covered in a heavy cloud of dust, because the streets werenít even paved. Now there are restaurants internet shops, lots of businesses and most of them employ Khmers." Fred believed that there were better schools, and that the life of the average person in Sihanoukvile had improved dramatically. "Tourism could help to save Sihanoukille, and all of Cambodia. But now, they need to get more tourists to visit."

"Do you want me to cut out the part of the story where I threw up?" I asked.

"That might not be a bad idea," said Fred.

The world is running out of firsts. Almost everything has been done. And parts of the world which were once remote are now accessible to day tourists, with Hawaii shorts and cameras. Cambodia is still wild and untapped. And you could be the first person in your scuba club to dive Cambodia.



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