Science is beginning to confirm what we already know; nature plays an important role in our physical health and also our emotional and psychological well-being.
People identify with what they most care about and we care most about those things in our lives that we come into contact with most often. Experience of the natural environment plays an important role in forming environment-related identities; those people who spend more time in nature are more connected to nature and in turn are more likely to feel in a positive mood after being outside. The same people are also more likely to engage in environment-related activities such as conservation and environmental protection. Simply put, the more time we spend in “nature” the more we identify with it and the more we want to protect it. In return, nature offers us a restorative experience each time we step outside. Fatigue and stress brought on by our hectic lifestyles are soon forgotten once we take a few steps on the golden sands of one of Pattaya’s islands, for example.
The degree to which nature provides a restorative effect depends in part on the “naturalness” of the environment being considered. The less “natural” the environment is, the less restored we feel. This is true for indirect exposure and even for subliminal exposure. We don’t even have to be in nature for us to feel better; we just have to see it, even if we don’t consciously know we’ve seen it. But the more natural the environment is that we are exposed to, the better we feel.
So, let’s consider the beaches of Pattaya and its islands and coral reefs. The beaches have improved considerably since the bad-old days, but our love affair with convenience has dealt them a devastating blow.
On a recent trip to Koh Sak my students investigated the problem of trash on the island. The island has two beaches (see Fig 1); the north beach is sandy and is visited by many tourists each day; in a period of only one hour, the beach was visited by over 350 people. Between the hours of 9am and 1pm, on average over 190 speedboats approach the beach to drop off and pick up tourists .
Trash on north beach is dropped by day-trip tourists – these groups often spend less than 30 minutes on the island and are whisked away to the next island before they have even had chance to explore. In one day, on 100m stretch of the beach, my students found 403 drinking-water bottle lids, 243 plastic straws, 64 plastic spoons and forks and over 100 rubber bands and too many cigarette butts to count.
The fact that the south beach receives fewer visitors does not mean that the trash situation is any better. In fact, it’s worse. Trash is brought in by the tide and no matter how much trash you pick up, each crashing wave deposits more. In one recent visit, over 500 shoes, 200+ disposable lighters and the detritus from passing ferries and fishing boats were found on a 100m stretch of the beach. In one day, my students picked up 137kg of trash and moved over 750kg of rope and fishing nets.
This last weekend my students worked with the Dive Tribe to install bins on the north beach. The bins, paid for through contributions from Dive Tribe’s followers, were placed in strategic positions along the beach.
The situation on the south beach is somewhat more complicated; the management of the trash is only possible within the context of a community-wide approach to waste management. This requires a change in behavior of the fishermen, boat operators, hotel waste managers and all stakeholders, including tourists.
This is not an overnight mission. It takes time. But, as always, you need to take the first step. In terms of trash, that first step is breaking away from our love affair with convenience and plastic. Plastic is non-biodegradable and stays in the environment for a very long period of time. It doesn’t disappear; it just gets smaller and smaller. It’s always there. Ask my students. The most obvious litter on both beaches and on any beach in the world is small pieces of plastic that were far too numerous to count (see Fig 5). This trash smothers the reef and is often ingested by life on the reef. If something doesn’t change, the reef is in trouble.
Perhaps a new approach to tourism is needed. Many of the visitors come to Koh Sak with tour operators offering trips to three islands in one day. If each tourist is shunted from island-to-island there is no time for implicit connections to be made and without a connection to our environment the restorative benefits of the environment is reduced. It also leads to a careless attitude to the environment.
So a relaxing trip to the beach may not be as relaxing as we hoped if we don’t have time to connect with what calms us. If the quality of our trip is reduced by operators rushing us from place to place or the quality of the environment is reduced by trash or too many people and queues, then perhaps we should beat a hasty retreat and look for a provider who will offer us a more relaxing time. You’ll help save the reef at the same time.
Why not contact the Dive Tribe and ask to join one of their Koh Sak Beach Clean Up days? You might just be surprised by how much you enjoy it. I know my students always do.
Dr Wayne Phillips/Director Dive Tribe