We're lucky on this trip: our accomocationss are spacious bungalows at a seaside resort owned, we're told, by former pirates. Ogilvie takes pains to inform us that air-conditioning and private patios are not the Earthwatch standard; future volunteers will likely have far more rustic rooms, possibly on one of the outlying islands. (Delicious Thai meals, though, are standard fare.)
We set out each morning on the Calypso, Obermeyer's custom-built wooden dive boat. There's a sense of gleeful camaraderie, and a slight adrenaline buzz, among the explorers. The high, sharp islets of Koh Chang National Park -- fossilized coral reefs that once formed an ancient seabed -- rise up around us, covered with lush jungle. White eagles circle overhead. The days are hot, but high clouds parading over the Gulf of Thailand provide some relief.
The surveys themselves are challenging. There's a world of difference, I discover, between sport diving and research. An hour underwater passes quickly on a recreational dive, but continually recording data along a 100-meter survey line is like, well, work. Sight-ing the occasional snapper or giant clam provides a burst of satisfaction. After the dive I experience a sense of relief: Pulling off my scuba gear feels like taking off a business suit.
That night at dinner, we dig into a plate of small but tasty reef fish. "What we're eating," Heiss remarks, "is the result of overfishing." He's right: I saw almost no big fish during our dive.
I'm not yet confident identifying fish (except bright yellow butterfly fish, which anyone can spot with accuracy). The invertebrate hunt was easier-they don't move around so fast-but not without its own pitfalls. In one zone I counted 62 Diadema urchins, while Heiss recorded 120. Reef Check's margin of error, I suggest, must be huge. Heiss and Obermeyer assure us otherwise. So much data will be collected, they say, that accurate trends will emerge despite inevitable inaccuracies.
Maybe it's not perfect, but short of dropping a net around the reef and counting everything, there's no faster way to assess the health of a marine ecosystem.
By night the island is quiet, and the moon is high. It feels pretty late. I ask the time. "Eight-thirty," Heiss says. "What am I going to do for the next two hours?" I yelp. Fortunately Ogilvie has brought the answer: Yahtzee.
The days pass. Our surveys are fun, and we even squeeze in a few recreational dives, hovering among huge schools of cardinal fish, barracuda, and psychedelic Christmas tree worms. Sometimes, though, the amount of time spent on logistics is frustrating: preparing the Calypso, motoring out to another island, dropping anchor, taking GPS readings, gearing up. We don't even know if a reef is worth surveying until we've investigated with snorkels.
On our last day, we're enjoying pad Thai noodles when Obermeyer rattles a glass of ice to get our attention. He is eager to put our work in perspective.
"During the time you've been here," he says, "we have visited eleven reef sites and surveyed four of them. Nine people were trained in the Reef Check protocol, and plans were made to run a summer camp at the local school, so we can teach children about reef ecology. Three local residents were interviewed about the history of these reefs: everything from major storms to trade for the aquarium industry." And, he adds, "we ate a total of 37 squid dishes."
Put in those terms, our achievement indeed sounds impressive.
In a Thai tradition called a wai, an offering is made to an image of the Buddha. As part of the ritual, a gossamer square of gold leaf is pressed onto the statue. Though seemingly insubstantial, the tiny offerings add up. After many years of devotion, some images are completely overlaid with gold.
Driving toward the ferry that will take me back to the mainland, I apply that observation to my experience. Our contribution may have been small, but small contributions add up. Someday, our work will help the government develop strategies for conserving this fragile ecosystem. That information will be worth its weight in gold -- and we'll have applied the first little squares.