February 5, 2014

Richelieu rock: a spark of spectacular marine life

Spectacular Richelieu rock- fan
Richelieu rock is an oasis in the desert of overfishing that is Southeast Asia. This pinnacle sits near the southern end of the Mergui archipelago, climbing around 130 feet from the shallow waters  of the Andaman sea about twenty miles off from the coast of Thailand.

It was time to wind back to the mainland after nearly a week in the Surin islands, for the better part of a week, and it only took a minor detour to route past Richelieu on our way. With the reputation as a top dive site, making that detour that was an easy decision! We left a little after sunrise, edging past a row of longtails that had come into the quiet bay overnight.

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It might have been difficult to find- and with just a few feet of rock above the water at low tide, not something you want to find accidentally- but dive boats on the horizon made it clear where to point. In the open waters of 120 – 130 feet deep, anchoring is a possibility but a poor option. Instead, we let Totem drift, and took turns in the water while she edged south in the light breeze.

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Our friends on Nalukai offered their dinghy as a group shuttle so we could minimize water traffic and launching hassles.

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Jame and the kids went in the first wave. Floating on Totem a couple of hundred yards away, I could hear the shrieks of excitment when they first got their heads underwater. This place is that incredible!

Spectacular Richelieu rock- life
Rock face so crammed with life, there's little rock to see- backed by massive schools of fish

The kids- there are six between our two crews- dove and swam and gasped and shrieked at the wealth of marine life.

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There's no tying the dinghy up, so someone always holds onto the painter. Current swirls around and through the pinnacle, so this isn't an easy task.

Spectacular Richelieu rock- dinghy

Considering our cruising grounds the last year, from eastern Indonesia all the way to the edge of Burma, you’d think we would have seen an abundance of beautiful reefs and underwater life. Hardly the case. Instead, what we have seen in abundance are lifeless reefs, with grey shells of dead coral structures, low diversity, small scale critters, and life skewed to imbalance.

Spectacular Richelieu rock- poser
Corals, reef fish, echinoderms, molluscs, pelagics, and more

Richelieu was the counterpoint. There are others, but it's sad that they are the exceptions instead of the norm.

We've heard different explanations. It's wave action and debris from the big 2004 tsunami that killed coral and broke down reef life. Or, it's the 2010 Andaman Sea warming, where temperatures 4 degrees Celsius over historical norms bleached out coral in this previously famous diving region. Or, it's the overfishing that happens in Thailand and all over the region. Or, it's the illegal cyanide and dynamite fishing that's still being used.

Spectacular Richelieu rock- anenomes
Vast expanses of anemone fields across the rock

It is one of these things? It's probably some combination of all of them. How can we fix it? Is the ocean really broken? Can consumer behavior be changed? I want to just enjoy this beautiful place, but it smacks us with what's missing elsewhere.

We could spend all day here. Actually, we could spend many days! But it's an exposed place, not an anchorage, and we need to get to the coast. Filling with deep gulps from the oasis, then turning back toward the desert with our memories intact.

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Keen divers know that reading this on the Sailfeed website makes Behan as happy as spotting a nudibranch.

7 comments:

  1. Beautiful! Your thoughts on SE Asia overfishing make me wonder though, if it's not so good why is it so many people go there diving anyway? Is it just because it's a popular tourist place anyway, or there are a few of these little gems still? (I actually first got scuba certified in 2009 in Ko Tao, so while I'm no connoisseur like you guys and it's been a few years I do remember seeing stuff down there.)

    Also happy because I'm going to commune with the fishes of Curacao in March, so I'm mildly less jealous of your underwater pictures for a change. ;)

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    1. I think people still come for the diving because there are still spots like Richelieu. However, there is probably a divide between people who know the situation (and know where to go) and a whole lot of people who don't and end up with markedly inferior experiences- but the latter don't have a benchmark to measure against and may not even realize it's declined so much. Also, the warming event in 2010 was devastating to coral in the region. I wonder if Ko Tao today is anything like what you saw in 2009? I'm not sure it could be. Curacao sounds amazing!

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    2. If you have not seen anything different, it is hard to compare against. Our children are going to grow up seeing the current state as the norm (if they are lucky!). It breaks my heart that this is the world we are going to leave them.

      Behan, while I agree that consumer behavior shares the blame for the state of the environment, I believe the lion's share of the impact has to do with one simple thing. There are too many of us. This is a very anecdotal observation (and unfortunately I am no where near as well traveled as you) but I find that the poorer/more densely populated the region, the worse the state of the environment. All the poor have is the environment around them to exploit and scratch out a basic existence. I wonder, if I was in their shoes, with their level of education and opportunity... would I not do so as well? It is a very sad situation.

      - Mus

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    3. Mus, that's it exactly- hard to compare when you don't know the difference. :-(

      While I will readily admit to a very Malthsian bent, I can't quite agree that the core problem is that there are too many of us. Malnutrition exists in countries with food surplus- it's more complicated- of course, right? But it is horrors like this (http://www.outsideonline.com/news-from-the-field/Undercover-Activists-Bust-Illegal-Shark-Factory.html) which are squarely the result of consumer behavior. It is countries with marine-skewed diets that are just plowing through the ocean taking unsustainable quantities. If consumers didn't demand it, it would stop. If the behavior changed, the market could change, and there would be hope. Until then, plenty of places will raise their hand to cash in on the fisheries.

      The problem is not the individual subsistence fishermen in remote islands, it is not the poor scratching out an existence who have created this situation. It's the massive trawlers sent from outside. They're just the ones who are forced into the front lines.

      And yeah, it's really sad.

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    4. Hah well I didn't mention it here but I *have* been to some excellent sites before I was certified (I don't think I'll ever forget Buck Island in the US Virgin Islands as a kid), so not a question of nothing to compare it to. But you're right in that I wonder how Ko Tao is today in comparison to a few years ago- we first went to Ko Samui because a relative raved about it from his trip a decade prior, and it was crazy overdeveloped, so we struck out to a remote beach on Ko Tao as a base and it was much more in line with what we wanted. Sort of the way a lot of things go in Thailand I guess (I actually loved Laos more because it wasn't overdeveloped yet but I'm sure it's totally different... but that's neither here nor there!).

      Richelieu looks awesome btw thanks for sharing!

      -Y

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  2. I dove at Richelieu last April, and although there were tons of fish, the visibility was poor. Looks like you got the best of both. Koh Tachai is also an amazing area for marine life in the Similan/Surin area, and it's a little more protected.

    Joel

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  3. Such a beautiful, but heart-wrenching post. I hope we can fix the ocean!

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