On a blisteringly hot and sunny afternoon on the tropical island of Langkawi, a small group of tourists huddle together on a white sandy beach talking excitedly about the fish they have just seen. They shake water out of their hair, peel off their wetsuits and make their way to the bar.
Like many people who have just experienced snorkelling for the first time, they are keen to recall their own accounts of what they’ve witnessed over a few drinks. But as I move closer, I realise their enthusiastic gestures are not directed at the azure Andaman sea that laps lazily at their feet, but towards a large pool of water 20 metres inland from the sea shore.
I wander over to the water and peer into its glassy depths. It’s not a swimming pool, and it doesn’t appear to be like any of the other ornamental ponds housed inside this five-star hotel.
A Malaysian man, who looks like he works at the hotel, is floating on his stomach at the far end of the pool.
He tells me his name is Randy and it’s his job to look after the water and all that lives in it. His official title is Marine and Coral Curator and proudly tells me that he is the first the hotel has ever had. In fact, he assures me that he is the first Marine and Coral Curator the world has ever seen.
“How do you know?” I ask.
Because he created the job title himself, he replies. Randy gets out of the pool and towels himself dry. Changing into his on-duty attire of trousers and a shirt, he begins to tell the story behind the pool.
“It all started on December 26, 2004”, he explains. “The island of Langkawi, unlike its Indonesian and Thai neighbours, was untouched by the Boxing Day tsunami as the surrounding underwater corals acted as a shock-absorber. These, however, were obliterated.”
My eye follows Randy’s finger to a shimmering patch of blue water directly in front of The Andaman Hotel. He sadly shakes his head. The hotel’s house reef was no exception.
“A year and a half ago, the hotel embarked on a beach clean-up programme to remove the remaining debris caused by the tsunami, and to recycle it into the hotel’s design,” he continues. “The rubble left in the tsunami’s wake was itself causing more damage, as the waves would churn up the dead coral and pelt it at the living reef. This would stunt its growth and eventually kill it. So, around one year ago, the hotel and its staff decided to do more to help the reef and that’s when we started growing our own coral.”
He throws an arm behind him towards the pool of clown fish. “That’s when we built this coral nursery; just in the same way you would nurture a sapling and replant it in a forest, we nurture coral snippets and replant them in the sea after they’re fully-grown and healthy.”
Randy explains this takes about three years, and the ‘transplanting’ into the ocean is a privilege enjoyed by those staying at The Andaman hotel. “We offer guests the opportunity to glue a cutting of coral to a piece of limestone from those cliffs up there and plant it in our nursery.”
He motions to the large outcrop of grey stone that pierce the tranquil sea. “We have invested in underwater cameras with GSP programming, so we can take pictures of the coral in its new home. We then email these photographs to the guest who planted it all those years ago.”
He and his team see the project as an educational programme, which is the reason why the hotel is now allowing non-guests to visit the coral nursery and house reef for a fee.
“I really do see the project as an educational tool,” concludes Randy as we say our goodbyes. “Only 0.1 percent of the world’s oceans are inhabited by coral reefs, yet 25 percent of all marine life calls it its home. If all we are doing here can influence just one youngster to study marine biology at degree level, then the programme is doing its job!”
Hidden amongst Langkawi's ancient rainforests The Andaman hotel is located on a white arch of sandy beach on the northwest tip of island.
Non-guests are charged MYR150 (VND987,000) to use the hotel’s five-star facilities, snorkel on its house reef and plant coral in its coral nursery.