Blessed to be a witness

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Wednesday, May 11th

Underwater dustmen

At the first Hi Phi Phi meeting that we actually managed to attend, the organisers gave a progress report - very positive, even though to the first-time visitor it might appear that the surface has only just been scratched, but this is not true, as indicated by the photographs we were shown of the town just six weeks ago, when there was debris in every street, and only one shop, one restaurant, and one hotel open.

They then requested volunteers from the more than 100 people who turned up, for various jobs the next day - 50 people needed to clear up here, 20 needed to rake there, and so on. They also mentioned a parallel organisation that is cleaning the bay. As I mentioned before, the larger of the waves crashed across the isthmus in the centre of the island, and swept half of the town into Ton Sai Bay, which used to be sand and coral, but is now full of trees, building material and the contents of homes and hotels (and occasional bodies, though mercifully they are now skeletal) and the entire bay needs to be cleared to allow the marine environment to recover.

Ton Sai Bay

We signed up for the bay clearing work, and at 8 the next morning I was issued with fins, snorkel, mask and gloves, while M was made keeper of the dive roster (a vital job, as anyone who has seen Open Water will agree). About thirty of us, including three scuba divers, set out across the bay in a dive boat towards the opposite shore. Half of us then transferred to a large mobile pontoon, which we then pushed towards the shore with our flippers, while the rest of the snorkelers acted as support for the scuba divers, who were working in deeper water in the centre of the bay. We then began swimming and lifting debris from the sea bed. Most of what we were set to gather was sheets of corrugated iron that had made up the roofs of the Thai village that was completely destroyed. We also pulled up flooring materials, two entire beds, televisions, computer parts, and, depressingly, a teddy bear and a child's shoe.

Two hours or so of diving produced an approximate two tonnes of crap piled up on the pontoon, and eventually a longtail towed the pontoon, with us holding onto the sides, to a huge pile of garbage on the beach, where we formed a human chain and unloaded all the non-burnable refuse. Then we were towed again to a more remote beach at the bottom of the cliffs, where we unloaded all the wood into a big future bonfire. Then back to the shore for lunch, which was free (whoever said there was no such thing?), then back to the same area for more underwater litter-picking, where we got perhaps another tonne.

It was during the manoeuvring of the pontoon that I got slightly stuck underneath it, and managed to cut both feet on some very sharp rocks, and though I persisted in swimming for a while, my left big toe was bleeding uncontrollably, and my right foot had started to swell up and go purple. Thus in the closing stages of the day I sat out as the final unload was performed. We were finished by 4.30 in the afternoon, and then we walked (well, I hobbled) back to our bungalow for a much-needed shower, as the stuff from the sea bed stinks - a ghastly, sulphorous stench of rot that I sincerely hope is just standard stinky sea floor, not anything worse. Once clean, I felt great - it was achingly hard work, and I ended up with dreadfully sunburned arms and shoulders (I was wearing a tank-top, so now have a tank-top of white, with bright red arms and neck, when I take my shirt off), but even though the task is huge, it was still rewarding to see a one-hundred-metre strip of coastline relatively garbage-free.

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