Cambodia is not as famous as Thailand when it comes to islands, paradisiac beaches, coral reefs and scuba diving. And this is all for the best, I am telling myself as I am writing this article from the fishing village M’Pai on the small island of Koh Rong Samloem in Southern Cambodia. Feet in the sand, I am sipping a delicious mango shake at a small wooden shack headed by a Cambodian family, overlooking the pier with its colourful wooden fishing boats and the beautiful bay where the turquoise water meets the fine sand beach. Not spoiled by mass tourism and conserving its low-key vibes, this setting seems to be postcard-perfect…
And it is. To the point where it is hard to leave the island. Almost every resident was only passing through! “I have been on the island for 5 years now”, explains Tom Mellon, former military diver and current dive instructor at Cambodian Diving Group. Indeed, it is easy to see why Tom fell in love with the Cambodian underwater world. With about 12 shallow dive spots only a 5-to-10 minute boat ride away from M’Pai, the diving is excellent with reef drift dives either on an artificial reef like at Papa’s boat, or on the natural reef such as the back door spot, with its very rich variety of coral reefs hosting some of the world’s rarest and most beautiful!
If dive sites are excellent, it doesn’t mean that the reef hasn’t started to be destroyed and is not under critical threats.
Extensive fishing has damaged the underwater world to the point where hardly any big predators can be found anymore in the Cambodian waters, and it has had a massive impact on the corals. Dynamite fishing, cyaniding and trawling are still common. From entangled fishing lines to complete nets, the vulnerable coral pinnacles are often suffocated to death as sunlight is essential to their survivals. Recently, a conservation area was created around the island, but unfortunately fishing nets and traps are regularly found, as there is no patrol enforcing the law.
Another critical threat to the coral reef is garbage, including an incredible amount of plastic that is often wrapped up around them. Beyond killing corals, plastic is also responsible for the death of other animals such as sea turtles mistaking it for jellyfish or birds for fish. Garbage drifts with currents, and specific areas around Koh Rong Samloem are an underwater dump.
With all these threats and a beautiful ecosystem to salvage, Save Cambodian Marine Life has an incredible amount of work to do, and its passionate and driven owner Dianne Martyn is more than ready for it!
A part of the mission of this Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) is to clean up the beach and the reef. In about one hour snorkelling with the current three volunteers and Dianne, we brought back two 40-litre bags full of trash: plastic bottles, clothes, fishing nets and lines, diapers, cans…
The main mission of Save Cambodian Marine Life is to conserve the reef by farming corals in a nursery.
The process is very time and effort intensive:
- From a mother frame sunk about 4-metre deep in M’Pai Bay, finger-size pieces of corals are cut and tied up onto a biodegradable bamboo frame.
- More vulnerable than on the reef, these young corals need to be cleaned up every day for the first 3 to 6 months to remove the algae and prevent suffocation. This keeps Dianne and her volunteers busy!
- For the next 6 to 12 months, young corals are more autonomous and can sustain themselves given a constant monitoring and bi-monthly clean up (preventing the algae from spreading and cutting off any potential diseases).
- When it is 12-to-18 month old and healthy enough, the nursed coral is transplanted onto the nearby natural reef.
“Beside farming the coral, I want to focus on education. Local communities are not aware of the damage their extensive fishing and littering has caused. When children see my picture of a bird with its head in a plastic bag, or the one of a turtle that died because it ate a plastic bag, they look concerned”, Dianne explains. She is working hard to implement several programs in schools with the local authorities: ecosystems, water and waste management with the “reduce, re-use, recycle” moto.
Beyond their beauty, reefs are home to a quarter of all marine life, while about a quarter of ocean’s fish is nursed on coral reefs, including important commercial species: protecting the coral reef is critical for the planet. With such a beautiful ecosystem to discover underwater in Cambodia, let’s only hope that Dianne will inspire many volunteers to support her missions in preserving the corals and saving the Cambodian marine life.
Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau (text & photographs)
- Save Cambodian Marine Life offers volunteering opportunities that are very affordable and include the dives to maintain the coral nursery.
- To go fun diving on Kong Roh Samloem, Cambodian Diving Group offers high-quality dives with knowledgeable dive masters and PADI dive instructors.
- For more details about debris dives and more actions to help protect the oceans, check out Project Aware, the PADI spin up organisation.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (tutorial)!
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