November 24, 2009

Reef Check Malibu Interns Dive in to Phuket

RC Malibu Interns ready for their first survey

By Reef Check Executive Director Dr. Gregor Hodgson

Applicants from across the United States and from all walks of life applied for the opportunity to become a Reef Check Intern in Phuket, Thailand. After a rigorous screening, ten interns were selected to participate in a 10 day training and survey Expedition, organized by RC Thailand Coordinators, Kim Obermeyer and Awe, and sponsored by Malibu. They came from all over the US – from New York to Chicago to San Diego. Several had never tried to snorkel before, but had always wanted to learn more about the ocean. Others were avid scuba divers who were interested in learning more about coral reef conservation.

After a cultural orientation and jet-lag reduction in Bangkok, the group arrived at the Baan Krating Resort, on the south coast of Phuket, on November 3 and almost immediately jumped into the warm, blue Andaman Sea to try out their snorkels, masks and fins. After some defogging practice and fin adjustments, everyone began to enjoy the parrotfish, very large coral “bommies” and learned how to avoid the stinging fire coral.

What the group lacked in experience they made up for in spirit and enthusiasm. Three days of EcoDiver training followed – these mornings were spent in the classroom learning survey methods and how to identify RC indicators for the Indo-Pacific, such as the Humphead Wrasse and the Triton Seasnail. Then the afternoons were spent learning how to lay a transect line and practicing survey methods for each of the three surveys – fish, invertebrates and substrate. Just learning the metric system was another challenge for Americans used to working in inches and feet!

A presentation by Kim, who also runs an Ecolodge at Koh Ra, was an eye-opening opportunity to learn about the problems facing the reefs of Thailand. Poaching in parks, general overfishing and destructive fishing are serious threats, not to mention the tsunami of 2004 and local sewage and sedimentation problems. Most Americans are not aware that fishermen in many parts of the world use bombs to catch fish!

The interns trained on the reefs off Baan Krating, and after the new divers completed scuba training, they carried out two practice surveys on the reefs of the offshore islands – Koh Phi Phi and Raja Yai. Aaron, an intern from San Diego, California, was able to document the underwater work using a very cool Scuba Series HD Mask Cam donated by This is a scuba mask with an integrated HD camera that takes both stills and video (see video). 


The group noted the high number of fishing nets caught on the reef and Angela, a TV reporter from Los Angeles, California, (click here to read Angela’s blog about the trip) removed some. On the other hand, the interns were excited to see large individuals of the Giant Clam – an important Reef Check indicator, harvested both for the decorative shells and for food. The size and number of giant clams that are now found on the reefs are partly the result of aquaculture, seeding and also good conservation practices in that area. Sadly, some of the dive operators in Phuket complained of an increasing level of poaching at more remote sites further offshore. Reef Check has been lucky over the years to have the support of Thai marine biologists, such as Dr. Suchana Chavanich of Chulalongkorn University, who are working hard not only to carry out intensive scientific research on reefs, but also to spread the word about the importance of coral reef conservation to the Thai public through books and the media.

For many of the interns, like Ryan, a college student from Lincoln, Nebraska, diving in tropical waters was the best form of “immersion learning” and was a life changing experience. Drew, a nonprofit manager from Westport, Connecticut, said, “My experience in Thailand will stay with me and has made me want to explore reefs forever.” Other interns such as Karla, a school teacher from Richmond, Virginia, commented that she had a new found appreciation for marine scientists – “Doing a survey can be hard work when the wind is blowing and the sea is rough!”

For those who want to experience the magic of Thailand’s reefs and become certified EcoDivers, several expeditions will be offered in 2010. From Reef Check’s perspective, the very real educational process, generated by the 2009 Malibu Intern program, has been a great success and shows a strong commitment to corporate social responsibility by Malibu/Pernod Ricard and their PR team, The Thomas Collective.

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RC Thailand Coordinator Kim Obermeyer maps out a survey Data logging
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Initial RC training is done without scuba Fishing net on coral
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Preparing slates for the survey Giant clams are abundant in Phuket
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Testing the Liquid Image Video Mask Some large coral colonies survived the 1997-98 bleaching event. These are now very rare.