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Day 56 – Clobbered Cambodian Coral (Cambodia Dive 1)

April 28, 2010

Dateline: Koh Tang off the coast near Sihanoukville, Cambodia – Wednesday, April 28, 2010

It’s like swimming through a battlefield. The Koh Tang reef off Cambodia’s coast is damaged. Very damaged. There seem to be more sea urchins than living coral. There aren’t a lot of crown-of-thorns starfish, but it’s clear something is killing this ecosystem.

I started the morning by boarding a small wooden boat off a dilapidated pier. To get to the boat we had to walk through shacks and stilt houses. It was an odd sight, us rich divers marching through a poor Cambodian waterfront community off on our expensive dive holiday.

The double-decker that awaited us is to be my home for the night and the next day.

I am joined by two scuba guides: a mad scientist-looking Frenchman and a young Scot. The divers are an Aussie couple, a young French guy just out of university, and a middle-aged Scotsman who’s brought along his younger Venezuelan girlfriend, the kind of girl that talks and laughs loudly like she’s cuter than she actually is. She’s lived in London for some time so she provides the oddity of saying “cheers” and “reckon” in a Venezuelan accent. Her boyfriend doesn’t say much.

I decided to indulge in a scuba dive trip while in Cambodia. It’s a luxury, but one I thought I needed. I was sick a couple days back. My travel spirit needed a bit of a recharge.

Now that I’m here, I’m not so sure. It’s not been as lovely as I’d hoped. I realized today that I’d been pampered by the Similans in Thailand. That had been an epic dive trip. A first class boat in a first class location with first class food.

The boat that I’m now on is a bit rougher as is the crew. The food is more basic. Here, I have no cabin. We’ll basically sleep outdoors on cots. The dive locations are equally rough. Cambodia, it’s clear, has not made it as high a priority to keep its reefs. Where the Similans were colorful and vibrant, the reefs here are sad and hurting. The fish seem to be more timid, at least those that are left. The sandy bottom is littered with dead pieces of coral. It’s a sharp contrast to all my previous dives. It helps me appreciate just how precious a good reef is. This reef is in tough shape.

On my second dive of the day, I discover why. Embedded in the reef is fishing net after fishing net. The fishermen just cut them loose after they got caught on the reef. Some have been there a while, some look newer. People are still fishing here.

It’s sad really. This reef is the home of smaller fish. Those fish feed the big fish that serve as food for humans. The fishermen are slowly killing the source of their livelihood. They probably don’t even know it.

Despite the damage, I did see remnants of the reef’s former glory. There are crevices protected from nets where sea fans still flourish. There’s an eel here and there. Bluespotted ribbontail rays peer out from under the reef.

The state of the reef seems to reflect the state of Cambodia itself. The reefs, like the nation, are hurting. They’ve suffered a tremendous amount of damage to the point where it seems hopeless. If you look closely though, you can find signs of hope. The crevices of the reef, like Angkor Wat, hint at a glorious past that could perhaps be reclaimed. A little sign of hope that the tragic thing that is might still recapture its beauty. If only it’s not too late.

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