Spilling oil in Paradise
Ao Prao Beach, Thailand
By Athit Perawongmetha
I first met Piyapong Sopakhon on Coconut Bay on Samet island. He was surrounded by men in white bio-hazard suits and he stuck out because he was a young boy wearing a simple plastic sheet that protected his small body as well as orange dish-washing gloves that were too big for his small hands. It was as though he had opened up a chest of dress-up clothes and was getting ready for fun — but matter at hand was not child’s play — the gloves were covered in a thick goo of the black gobs that were smeared across the beach — a toxic spread on golden buttered toast.
Piyapong is not a soldier nor is he a marine biologist. He’s just a school boy who, on any other day, would have been told off for skipping class. So I asked him: “Why aren’t you in school today?” His reply? “I just want to help.”
Born and bred on Samet island, his face was one of ardent determination. On this day, he was a volunteer along with the adults frantically trying to clean up this corner of paradise. So I told him he should find something with which to cover his nose and mouth or he might start to feel dizzy.
News of a crude oil spill in the Gulf of Thailand first broke on the weekend. Most people, fellow photographer colleagues included, were not actively monitoring the spill. We were told by officials that it had not yet reached dry land and so we played a waiting game. By Monday, the spill had spread to Samet island’s Coconut Bay, a stretch of beach with white, powdery sand and turquoise water — the kind of place Thailand would be proud to show in tourist brochures and postcards under any other circumstance.
Thais and foreigners will tell you that Samet is a popular tourist destination. It’s a weekend break and a place to escape the confines of the city. Despite its popularity and proximity to Bangkok, I had never been to Samet island. Covering this spill and seeing the bay splattered with oil would be my first encounter with Samet island. Arriving at Coconut Bay, the smell tickled my nostrils and prickled my eyes. At first, I didn’t bother closing my nose. Surely, the smell wouldn’t be that strong? But it permeated everything and I began to feel light-headed and dizzy.
From above, the bay looked as though a child had tipped a pot of ink over a picture of paradise island. The tips of rocks were flecked in black and swirls of cream and charcoal gathered in pools while volunteers waded knee-deep in the sea; man against nature, nature against man.
The saline smell and other scents associated with the sea and sand had been replaced by the pungent smell of oil; we had entered a used car mechanic’s shop.
When a press conference was called that same day, the true extent of the damage was unveiled little by little. When you’re told that oil has engulfed a bay on a medium-sized island, one reaction is to believe that the impact won’t be that severe. Then you see marine life covered in gunk and news reports that the local fish are already contaminated and the realization dawns on you that the damage could be extensive.
The spill, which blackened parts of other beaches, is the fourth worst oil spill in Thai history and the worst in terms of volume, according to the country’s energy ministry. Environmentalists say the oil giant PTT is not revealing the true extent of the damage. Resorts emptied as tourists took precautions and were leaving the island.
As I left the island too, Supoj, a boat driver, told me business was going well. “So many people want to get off this place. I’m busy day and night ferrying them to the mainland.”