Marie Quintano - Conservation & Environment, Diving & Marine Conservation in Thailand
Arriving in Thailand
I arrived in the Krabi airport after two full days of travel from New York, reeling with the strangest combination of excitement, fear, and exhaustion. A staff member was waiting for me at the exit and during the drive to Utopia she explained some of the sights we passed. I wish I could say that I had given her my full attention, but my eyes were captivated by the impressively monumental cliffs – streaked with black and orange, home to thousands of vividly green trees – that we passed at every turn. These cliffs became my favorite view, and with each day of my four-week stay, I grew to love them more and more.
When I arrived at Utopia, my home for the next month, I found it was very empty. The bungalows were surrounded by mangroves, and it was incredible to hear the sounds of macaques and various birds calling out to each other. It was a Saturday, so most of the volunteers had chosen to go out diving for the day, and even stayed out for night dives. One volunteer had missed the morning transportation for the boat, but one of the staff members worked his magic and managed to arrange separate transportation to get her out onto the trip. This showed me on my very first day just how much effort the staff puts in to ensure volunteers make the most of their time. While some volunteers were on the diving trip, others went kayaking through the mangroves and arrived back while I was fighting off my jet lag. They were incredibly welcoming and immediately began telling me all about their adventure, and invited me on a hike the next day, making me feel part of the group already.
My induction took place Monday afternoon, while the other volunteers went out on a beach clean-up. A staff member picked me up, took me out in Ao Nang to show me the town and take me out for lunch. It was a great way to begin indulging myself in the culture. The staff was also helpful in answering all my questions, including what to order for lunch (answer: Pad Thai, two thumbs-up!). The staff took me to run some errands, like picking up water, snacks, cash from an ATM, and a SIM card for another volunteer. I felt fully prepared to tackle the rest of the week.
My Diving Experience
Tuesday began my scuba training. I had never done anything more than snorkeling on vacation, so my nerves ran wild. I am a full time high school teacher, and chose this trip specifically for the scuba diving aspect – I wanted something to push me outside my comfort zone in a way that I have not experienced nor may ever experience again. As an added bonus, I was going to help clean and take care of the Earth as well. My dive master showed incredible amounts of patience and support as I struggled through some of the diving skills which, as a teacher myself, I can truly appreciate. He shared stories of his own struggles when first learning to dive, and genuinely tried to build a connection of trust with me, which was monumental to my success both in the pool and in the open water. After the first week of training, I was a certified Open Water scuba diver ready to take on the water.
My Conservation Project
The work schedule typically followed the same pattern each week – Mondays we completed beach clean-ups or mangrove planting; Tuesdays through Thursdays we were diving, which involved fish ID training to complete the data collection surveys; but Fridays were always different. One Friday we went to the Phuket Marine Biology Center to clean tanks of disabled, recovering and baby turtles. Afterwards, the staff took us to see the Phuket Aquarium and Big Buddha statue, so we could experience as much of Phuket as possible.
The following Friday we found ourselves at a Thai school with children ranging from 3 to 14 years old, which happened to be my favorite work activity. We separated into two groups (older students and younger students) and spent the morning preparing a lesson. I was with the older students and decided, since we had just planted mangroves that week, to do my lesson on the importance of the mangrove trees. The students did not speak much English, but one of our staff members spoke both English and Thai, so she helped translate in key moments. I drew some mangrove trees on the board and handed out blank paper to the students, instructing them in words and demonstration to crumble the paper in a ball. They looked confused at first; as if they felt they were breaking some sort of unspoken school rule, but then started laughing and crumpling. Their next task was to the throw their paper ball into a pile I had already started at the front of the room. This instruction was again met with confusion and laughter. But we still hadn’t made it to my favorite part of the lesson. I split the thirteen students into groups of ten and three – ten students standing shoulder to shoulder in a line, with the three remaining students facing them. The three students were instructed to take the crumpled paper and either roll or throw it at their peers. Their goal was to get the papers passed the ten standing students. On the other hand, the ten standing students had one job: keep those papers out. Laughter filled the room as they tossed, blocked, and scrambled for papers before I asked them to pause. I selected a few students from the ‘paper blockers’ and asked them to leave their space in line open and become ‘paper throwers’. We tossed, rolled, and scrambled for papers with hilarity again. I stopped play a few more times, slowly asking students to switch to the ‘paper thrower’ role until there was only one ‘paper blocker’ left. It was twelve against one, but all thirteen students had smiles. I asked the kids to sit and with the help of their class teacher and our staff member I explained that the paper was the bad bacteria in the ocean, and the ‘paper blockers’ were the mangrove trees: Was it easier to keep the paper out when there were more ‘paper blockers’ or mangroves or fewer? We drew a group of mangrove trees on the board with happy faces and one separate mangrove tree with a sad face, illustrating that mangroves keep the ocean clean as it enters the land; thus, the more mangroves we have, the healthier our land and water will be.
In addition to the hands-on work, the staff put together workshops to give us perspective on the enormous task that is conservation. Why are mangroves important? What do they do for the environment? Why are they disappearing? How bad are plastics for the environment? Where are the invisible plastics hiding out? What can we do to fix this? As someone who has never before taken an environmental science course of any kind, the answers to these questions were astonishing. As a result of this project, I know I have the power as a teacher to pass all that I’ve learned on to the next generation and impart on them the desperate need for cleaner and greener products around the world.
I am forever grateful to Projects Abroad for this experience. My time in Thailand ended much too soon, but I am so happy to have met all of the volunteers and staff who made my experience the best it could be.