Coral Tears in Thailand are Shed for All the World’s Oceans

by Phil Kline

January 23, 2012

Coral bleaching means these two fish might have what's left of the reef all to themselves.


Surin Island is your quintessential tropical paradise 60 km off the west coast of Thailand. It has the postcard-pretty beaches, swaying palms, and sparkling ocean. It is also in the midst of one of the world’s most beautiful coral reefs. That’s where my wife and I found ourselves this past Christmas — a sublime natural setting where we hoped to celebrate the holiday. 

Unfortunately, our celebration turned in to a mournful memorial. Strolling along the shore, we found two Thai college girls sitting on the sand, crying openly. Their distress was profound; of course, we stopped to ask what was wrong, and what we could do to help.

But there was nothing we could do. The reason for their grief was far beyond our power to fix. It wasn’t any typical travel inconvenience like a lost passport or stolen credit card. The reason was the reef itself. It was dead.

The girls then told us how they came to this very same place only a year ago, reveling in the reef’s beauty, the lattice of delicate corals, the dazzling spectrum of fish. It was so magnificent that they promised to return for what they hoped would become a tradition of Christmas Day snorkeling.

They had been in the water just minutes before my wife and I walked by, and were grief-stricken because everything that made that reef beautiful was gone. My first snorkeling dive confirmed what those girls saw. A staggering 90% of the hard corals were dead. Just a year ago hundreds — even thousands — of fish frolicked, clouding the reef with bursts of energy and color. Now, there were occasional clusters of perhaps five or six looking lonely and out of place.

So what happened? This pristine ecosystem, a gem in the sea of Southeast Asia, had fallen victim to coral beaching — a horrible phenomenon occuring when the water temperature warms above the long-term average. The corals expel their symbiotic algae, then turn white, and ultimately die. This was the ghostly vision that greeted me on my first dive.

I’ve since learned that this started happening late last year and stretches from India to Singapore. All of Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia have been seriously affected. During our vacation, we planned to do some reef exploring in Burma and had been warned that the dynamite fishing might put us off, but given the almost complete destruction caused by bleaching,  blowing up the reefs with dynamite now seems mild by comparison.

This heartbreaking reality showed me, in very personal terms, catastrophic impact caused by man-made climate change is very real. It’s not something on the horizon; it’s here today.  Along with bleaching, there’s ice loss, ocean acidification, warming seas, coral reef ecosystem destruction, island nations going under water, unprecedented extreme weather and more. In the case of my beloved reef, its demise is already having a tragic impact on human life as local economies dependent on its health are decimated.

We’re past the point of preparation. The fight for our oceans is upon us, and we all need to get involved if we want to keep even a faint hope that we’ll leave a livable world for future generations.

Please, join us and add your voice in this fight to save our planet. This means so much more than saving pretty dive destinations. This is about the very health of the world in which we live.

We need to fight back against the fossil fuel use that’s accelerating climate change.

We need to establish and protect ocean sanctuaries to give all ocean life a chance to thrive.

From the barely visible plankton to the biggest blue whale, when we save our oceans, we save our planet — and we’ll save ourselves.

Phil Kline

By Phil Kline

Phil is a senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace USA. He is a recognized expert on oceans policy domestically and internationally, and has represented Greenpeace U.S. at International Whaling Commission (IWC) meetings and Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission meetings around the globe.

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