It’s easy to see why Maya Bay has captured the imaginations of travelers. Surrounded by towering limestone cliffs on an uninhabited island in Thailand’s Phi Phi archipelago, the secluded cove with its white sand and turquoise water is the very picture of paradise.
“It’s such a beautiful place. It’s the closest you could get, if you were to envisage a bay closed off to everywhere in the world,” said Andrew Hewett, who owns a dive center on the bigger neighboring island of Phi Phi Don.
Maya Bay is just one of dozens of idyllic beaches in Thailand. But it has become world-famous as the place where the 2000 film “The Beach,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was shot.
Tourists flocked to the bay after the film’s release — at the cost of the marine environment. At the height of its popularity, there were more than 5,000 people visiting a day. In mid-2018, the overcrowding got so bad that authorities shut the beach.
Maya Bay’s ecosystem under stress
Tourist traffic led to pollution from discarded trash and damaged coastal vegetation. But the main problem was the speedboats ferrying hordes of daytrippers into the bay and dropping their anchors onto the coral below.
According to Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a marine biologist from Thailand’s Kasetsart University, at the time the bay was closed, there was only 8% of coral coverage left, compared to up to 70% some 30 years ago.
He’s been studying the Maya Bay area for decades, and his was one of the loudest voices calling for the beach to be shut. Initially meant to last just a few months, the closure has been extended indefinitely to give the coral more time to recover.
Hope for Maya Bay’s corals
Since 2018, dive teams have planted 20,000 coral fragments in the bay to help rehabilitate the reef.
“It’s growing very well,” Thamrongnawasawat told DW. “So we think that Maya Bay will return to be one of the very good coral reefs in maybe 5 to 10 years.”
He says they’re hoping to boost coral coverage to 50% within a decade, and to 60% in 15 to 20 years. New species have also been spotted since the closure, including black tip reef sharks who have returned there to breed.
This is an excerpt from an article originally published on DW.