Scientists have come up with an unlikely way to restore marine life to a Thai beach that’s been ravaged by overtourism: superglue.
Maya Bay, a small cove made famous by Leonardo DiCaprio’s blockbuster The Beach in 2000, was closed indefinitely last October after buckling under the pressure of up to 5,000 visitors a day, all of whom arrive in boats that can damage the coral reef and pollute the water.
Since then, ecologists have been working to regrow the coral by glueing dead portions of it back onto the rocks; and futile as it sounds, the painstaking process is working. After about a week, the coral is stable enough to grip the terrain independently, the glue dissolves and the reef can flourish.
Thailand-based Swedish photographer Magnus Larsson has been first to document the underwater process, and told Solent: “As a lifelong diver, photographer and admirer of marine life, it is very sad to see the degradation of the corals.
“They are the base in the coral reef ecosystem and so if they disappear, everything else goes with it. The corals provide food and shelter for many species of marine life, so when they corals are healthy, the marine life will move in, and when they are flourishing, the reef fish, octopuses and turtles will all come back as well.”
Maya Bay, only 800 feet long and 50 feet deep, was closed to tourists on June 1, 2018 – a move that was long overdue.
Initially there were plans to re-open it a few months later – the beach is believed to generate about £9.5 million in revenue each year for Thailand – but it quickly became apparent that more time was needed, around four years by most estimates. Hard coral grows at a rate of just 1cm to 3cm per year.
“We need a time-out for the beach,” marine scientist Thon Thamrongnawasawat said last summer. “Overworked and tired, all the beauty of the beach is gone.”
When it does re-open, visitors will be capped to 2,000 a day and the use of anchors will be banned.
Coral reefs | The main dangers
- Climate change: Exceptionally warm or cold waters cause coral ‘bleaching’, rendering reefs more vulnerable to disease and injury.
- Fishing: Destructive fishing practices, such as use of dynamite, cause damage to the reefs. Overfishing changes the ecosystem around a reef, with often unforeseen knock-on effects.
- Tourism: Careless travellers damage reefs touching and collecting coral, and dropping boat anchors.
- Pollution: Industrial, urban and agricultural waste may directly poison coral. It may also increase seawater nitrogen levels, causing algal blooms that block out the sunlight needed by a living reef.
- Sedimentation: Inland construction work increases the level of sediment in rivers, which also blocks out needed sunlight when it reaches the ocean.
- Coral mining: Coral is used as a filler in cement, road foundations and as a material for bricks.
Our destination expert Lee Cobaj wrote in October: “Having lived in Phuket, I have seen how the high-season crowds can overwhelm the delicate environment.
“On my last visit to Maya Bay, I headed to the famous cove not long after sun-up in the hope of getting ahead of the 5,000 holidaymakers that hit the beach daily. But by 8am, barely a square foot of sand was visible and dozens of long-tail boats were parked three-deep along the shore.
“The engine noise was deafening and the surface of that luminous green water was shimmering with sunscreen and gasoline. It was not an enjoyable experience.”
Since its closure, encouraging footage of dozens of reef sharks gliding through the crystal blue waters was viewed as an early sign of environmental recovery.
Thailand is not alone in its struggle to balance environmental protection with mass tourism. Last year, the Philippines closed its popular Boracay island for six months to allow a cleanup operation after overtourism reduced it to what the president Rodrigo Duterte described as a “cesspool”.