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Friends of Chowder Bay - Dive against debris

By Deborah Dickson-Smith

In April, URG together with Friends of Chowder Bay took part in a beach and underwater clean-up at one of my favourite local dive sites: Chowder Bay. This was a clean-up like no other, with support from the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) Sydney Office and the Royal Thai Consulate in Sydney.

Team Thailand! Volunteers from TAT and the Thai Consulate.

Held at Clifton Gardens Reserve, on the foreshore of Chowder Bay, volunteers were rewarded with Thai massages and a delicious Thai lunch provided by Spice I Am, followed by a Thai Cooking Demonstration by Chef Sujet Saenkham Founder and Owner of Spice I Am Restaurant and Thai Performance by Siam Classic Dance Group at Taronga Zoo.

Volunteer Pete McGee liberates fishing wire from the delicate sponges adorning the jetty pylons.

So how did this come about? For months (let’s be honest, years now), divers in Chowder Bay have been dismayed by the amount of debris left behind by recreational fishermen and picnickers. The fishing debris has become of particular concern now that marine scientists have chosen the bay to try and boost Sydney’s declining (endangered) population of White’s seahorses with the installation of Seahorse Hotels.

Volunteers are rewarded with Thai massages.

So a few weeks ago, a few dedicated divers formed a group, The Friends of Chowder Bay, with an aim to highlight the amazing creatures to be found underwater here – seahorses, pipefish, several species of frogfish, nudibranchs, octopus, cuttlefish, decorator crabs, to name but a few – and also highlight the increasing threat of fishing debris.

At our first clean-up event, divers freed the Seahorse Hotels of metres and metres of fishing line as well as dozens of fishing hooks, sinkers and plastic lures. Our efforts caught the attention of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Sydney office, and they got in touch, offering to help with the next clean-up.

Thai Consul Sareeya Panyadee joins divers underwater.

According to TAT Director, Suladda Sarutilavan; “in efforts to show our appreciation for those local heroes volunteering their time to protect our oceans we are proud to support the effort of local conservation group Friends of Chowder Bay. The travel restrictions imposed on us all by the COVID-19 pandemic has inspired, in many of us, a heightened awareness and appreciation for our precious natural environment. Many tourism operators in Thailand have spent time in lock-down looking at ways to operate more sustainably.”

Friends of Chowder Bay clean up crew.

40 volunteers took part, including seven scuba divers, who spent a combined 456 minutes underwater collecting over 2kg of debris, much of this fishing debris with an estimated 200m of discarded fishing line, 63 metal hooks and sinkers and 25 plastic fishing lures.

Jayne Jenkins, co-founder of the Friends of Chowder Bay, with volunteer Pete McGee.

Above water, volunteers collected 191 cigarette butts, 54 straws and other plastic cutlery items, an estimated 250 plastic fragments, 120 plastic bag remnants, 155 polystyrene fragments and 27 balloon fragments.

PADI’s Michelle Brunton records data for Project Aware.

Data from the underwater clean-up was uploaded to the Project Aware global debris database, while topside clean-up data was uploaded to Tangaroa Blue’s Marine Debris Initiative, helping campaigners and scientists find solutions for marine pollution.

Volunteers, including SEALIFE Sydney Aquarium’s Melissa Retamales and the Underwater Research Group’s Pablo Bolomey help sort and count debris.

Thailand’s underwater world shares many wonders (and indeed critters!) with Australia and suffers similar threats – from plastic pollution and fishing debris. Mosman’s Chowder Bay is a unique biodiverse marine environment, home to many colourful critters including frogfish, decorator crabs, moray eels and the endangered Whites (Sydney) Seahorse.

Endangered White’s seahorses. Image: Pete McGee

Volunteers were also treated to a presentation from marine scientist and SEALIFE Sydney Aquarium aquarist Mitchell Brennan, who is monitoring the progress of the Seahorse Hotels

The show of support from TAT and the Royal Thai Consulate Sydney highlights the tourism office’s efforts to promote Thailand as a sustainable tourism destination, with tourism operators in Thailand encouraged to conserve their local environment, use local produce, support local communities, and minimise their carbon footprint.

Taronga Zoo Director Simon Duffy and Thai dancers welcome volunteers to the Royal Thai Pavilion.

One such example is a new offering from Sunsail yacht charters. The company has partnered with Ocean Crusaders for a Phuket Clean-up Flotilla in March 2022, a week of sailing the Andaman Sea and undertaking beach clean-ups to help preserve this beautiful part of South East Asia.

Following a delicious Thai lunch, volunteers were treated to a cooking class with Sujet Saenkham Founder and Owner of Spice I am Restaurant, in the Thai Pavilion at Taronga Zoo.

If you’re interested in taking part in future clean-ups at Chowder Bay, join the Friends of Chowder bay Facebook group.


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