Troubled Waters – Sharks at risk off Ko Tao, Thailand


7am, Sai Daeng Beach, Ko Tao, Thailand.

The tourists are still slumbering peacefully in their bungalows and the reef in front of the beach lies placid. It’s not much of a reef, most of the coral has died – blame unregulated tourism and global warming.
But here I am, quietly swimming out into the warm, clear water, my eyes scanning the unruly sea floor. And I don’t have to wait long.

Drift out to the middle of any bay on Ko Tao’s eastern coast, lower your heart rate and keep still – and you will have the encounter of a life time. Grey shapes peel out of the blue nothing around you. Elegant movements in the water and they are there, right in front of you, around you, behind you – a group of black-tip reef sharks is checking out who’s moving around their territory. And they are curious swimming companions, slowly pushing through the water in wide circles, sensitive to every move I make. These majestic, wild and beautiful creatures are, contrary to popular opinion, totally harmless.

The upstairs room at Dirty Nelly’s, Ko Tao’s Irish pub is packed. Virtually every dive instructor working in the island’s forty dive shops is present. They have all gathered to hear Christine Ward-Paige, a Ph.D. candidate from Dalhousie University in Canada, talk about sharks.

Ward-Paige comes with somber news and a mission:

“In the last decades, many shark populations have declined by 50-99%. In the Mediterranean, 96-99% of hammerhead, blue, thresher, shortfin mako and porbeagle sharks have gone. There are also significant declines in the North Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, where oceanic white-tip sharks have been almost depleted (now less than 1% of 1950 level). Even on the Great Barrier Reef, there’s an ongoing collapse of the white-tip reef and gray reef sharks.”

Dalhousie University has long studied declining shark populations and is now engaged in a global survey of divers to help establish reliable data on shark populations.

And sharks are being fished all over the world – mostly for their fins.There’s ample proof that the depletion of sharks has run parallel to the recent rise of the Chinese economy. In a recent documentary, Sharkwater, Canadian biologist Rob Stewart discovered a massive, illegal shark finning industry in Costa Rica, courtesy of Taiwanese mafias. The fishing with long hook lines, which primarily trap sharks, stretching for hundreds of miles through the ocean, has even reached the Galapagos Islands, a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the few places on earth, where sharks should be protected. Shark fin soup is a delicacy in China, because the Chinese believe that the shark fin has medicinal properties that contribute to longevity. There’s no evidence for this. Once a shark has been finned, it is dumped back into the ocean, left to die. It’s a multi-million dollar business that can bend laws and governments.

So why should we care about sharks? They are scary and they eat people, don’t they? But think of Moby Dick and our attitude to whales today. Film maker Rob Stewart argues that, as the top predators in the sea, sharks have regulated all other fish species below them.

“Sharks have helped shape our planet. They are amongst the oldest living creatures on earth. They have survived several major extinctions, including that of the dinosaurs.”

Christine Ward-Paige has no doubt that the existence of sharks in our seas is crucial to maintaining a balanced ecosystem.

“Declines in shark populations have huge consequences on the entire ecosystem, which we can translate to what is on our plate. That makes the decline of sharks a truly global problem. For example, in North Carolina, where sharks have been depleted, there was an explosion of the cow-nose ray population. Because these rays eat scallops, they decimated the century-old Bay Scallop fishery.”

Ward-Paige has come to Ko Tao to rouse the local industry into action. More than 40.000 people qualify as divers on this tiny island every year. In fact, the tourist fortunes made here depend almost entirely on the underwater ecology surrounding the island, including the sharks.

“Koh Tao is extremely special, because it is one of the rare places left, where divers can almost be guaranteed shark sightings without using an attractant.”

But even here, on Ko Tao, where the dive industry is king and every bay is lined with dive shops, sharks lead a precarious existence. Amazingly, Ko Tao’s assets are not protected by environmental laws, merely by loosely applied fishing limits near coast-lines, hence boats surround the island and fish round the clock. The island is not a national park. All the reefs have been partially damaged by effluents running from resorts into the sea. Ko Tao is not an example for sustainable tourism yet and this irks many in the local dive community.

Says Robert Rhemrev, owner of Impian Divers, “About eight or nine dive shops engage in regular reef clean-ups. It’s a good start. The dive community needs to show the Thai government that we are serious about protecting the island’s attractions and that eventually, Ko Tao should become a National Marine Park.”

And now, Ko Tao has to face up to a new challenge. While the reefs deplete, divers are attracted, above all, by a chance to sight sharks, among them the huge whale shark, which occasionally surfaces around the island. Since last year, one of the most popular dive sites around Ko Tao has two new residents. Large reef sharks, everyone said, until a recent article in Diver Magazine stated that they are bull sharks, amongst the most aggressive species. And in late May, fishermen pulled a most unexpected catch out of the water south of Ko Tao. Christine Ward-Paige confirms the find to be a female tiger shark– an even rarer swimming companion than the bull shark. She also notes that after surveying some 60.000 dives around Ko Tao, over a period of 30 years, that it’s only the fourth sighting of a tiger shark.

The dive community is enthralled. Tiger and bull sharks might attract new customers. But some dive instructors caution the celebratory mood and advise against swimming at night, “It’s good to know what’s out there.”

The Ko Tao tourist industry finds itself in a curious position, not being able to protect its greatest assets, the sharks, against habitat depletion it is partly causing itself, while knowing well that those very same assets could turn against it. In the highly unlikely event a tourist is bitten, the dive business would find itself stranded on the beach. If, on the other hand, anyone fishes for fins, or in fact, for any other reason in Ko Tao, the island’s biggest attractions, almost its raison d’être, will soon be gone.

Christine Ward – Paige is optimistic. “It’s not too late. We have pockets of sharks left in the world and Ko Tao is one of them. It’s been shown that large enforced Marine Protected Areas can protect reef sharks.”

The shark, like the lion and the tiger, is on its way out. Whatever lurks in the deep water is more likely to be threatened than threatening. It’s not the predators, but our greed, that will do us in. But there’s still a little time in Ko Tao. That’s what I thought, when I snorkeled into the deep blue of Sai Daeng Bay to say hallo to the black-tips.

Christine Ward – Paige has developed an online survey that asks divers to report what sharks they see.

Report your sightings to:

Previously published in South Eastern Globe, 2Mag and Traversing the Orient.

Shark shots by Aroon Thaewchatturat.

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