Marine conservationist, PADI Master Instructor & the driving force behind Eco Koh Tao
Jenny Dowling has been with Crystal Dive for almost 10 years and heads up Eco Koh Tao, one of Asia Pacific’s leading Marine Conservation Organisations. Eco Koh Tao specialise in education through Eco Courses, preservation and conservation of marine environments and are involved in multiple Eco projects at any one time and contribute enormously to the Koh Tao community.
How and when did you arrive on Koh Tao?
I suppose the honest answer is I was bored of ‘work’. I was working for Motorola, living in Hampshire in the UK and was fed up with everyday life. I was looking for a different way to live.
My husband Simon and I already had over 1000 dives from holidays over the years and knew scuba diving was something we loved, so we decided to take a 6 month sabbatical and do our PADI Dive Master and Dive Instructor training.
We researched South East Asia as it was the best for cost, lifestyle and the weather and found Crystal Dive here on Koh Tao. Why did we choose Crystal? Simple really, they were the most responsive of the dive schools we made contact with and they were prompt in replying, very engaged and seemed to be on top of their game.
The General Manager was and still is Matt Bolton, who came across as a very professional and personable man. I remember our first meeting at Café Corner in Sairee when it was raining heavily.
We walked down from Alan & Heidi’s and Matt talked through the Divemaster and Instructor Development Course (IDC) step by step and then later, taxied us on the back of his bike down to the dive school where we were first introduced to Stoif and some of the team.
Matt conducted my IDC and the training was to the highest of standards. Over the last 15 years he has developed a well-structured, hugely successful Dive Instructor course that has produced high quality dive educators who are now teaching in locations all around the world.
Matt has been awarded a number of diver trainer awards and is currently a 12 times Platinum rated PADI Course Director. I highly recommend IDC Koh Tao to any aspiring scuba diver who is looking for a change of lifestyle or a new career and who wants to learn how to teach the next generation of Eco conscientious divers
My mentor during my Divemaster candidacy was Nathan Cook who is a co-founder of Eco Koh Tao with Matt Bolton. It turned out that both Simon and I ended up doing a huge amount of ECO as we enjoyed it so much and it was very rewarding, inspiring and gave us a real purpose with our diving.
I’m not talking about just picking up litter on a dive, I’m talking about cement mixing, making moulds on the beach, welding, helping with the construction of a wreck, windmill, pyramids, turtles, panda’s, domes, nurseries… Deploying and manoeuvring heavy structures underwater… I could go on and on.
Apart from all of that, we both did Reef Check, Project Aware, Marine Resource Management and helped with the original construction and deployment of Junkyard Reef in 2009. This is Eco Koh Tao’s very own artificial dive site that is now an official dive site.
At that time things were very experimental. Over the years our knowledge has grown; learning what works, what doesn’t, what methods are most successful for coral transplants.
We now focus on welded metal structures to transplant coral on to. With our recent crowdfunding project to expand Junkyard we have managed to construct and deploy 36 metal frame pyramids, which we will then transplant coral fragments onto.
Why am I still here nearly 10 years later?
Simply: I love what I do. The work we do at Eco Koh Tao is about creating, nurturing and inspiring, which now I come to think of it with this interview are, I suppose, often seen as more female traits.
I love the fact that I can do my bit. It’s very rewarding. It can also be incredibly frustrating at times. It is incredibly rewarding to be able to create a new habitat for coral, fish and invertebrates and see it mature over time.
I’m not really a ‘kiddy’ person but yes, it is nice to create something genuinely useful and see it grow and thrive over time. To build up the habitat at Junkyard and use our creativity to experiment and find the best ways forward and continue to work to support that and see it succeed. It is inspiring for me and I hope for others.
For me personally it is seeing that I can relieve some of the pressure on the reefs around Koh Tao. For others? Since I took over Eco Koh Tao in 2014, we’ve had hundreds of Crystal Divemaster candidates work with Eco Koh Tao.
Every Crystal Divemaster candidate is required to pitch in and earn Eco credits during their Divemaster training, which we implemented. Plus we’ve taught so many Eco courses to customers, interns and divers, focusing on Reef Check and PADI’s Marine Resource Management distinctive speciality.
Although Junkyard and the dive sites of Koh Tao are our personal focus, I do think we have had a ripple effect in the diving world with so many divers working with us and learning how to contribute. I had no idea when I joined Crystal Dive how big it would become and that we would have the opportunity to engage with such a huge number of scuba divers to educate over the years.
How do we connect to the wider Marine Conservation world?
It all comes down to sharing knowledge and not looking away from the ‘big’ problems. I’m in touch with many different marine biologists who have so much knowledge to share.
I do sometimes feel like I’m maybe missing a piece because I didn’t train as a marine biologist, but I have the experience! I have the dives and the knowledge gained through years of work and life experience. I can show scientists what works here in practice and that is of real value, I suppose it shows that anyone can contribute at any time, you just have to start and want to learn, work and help.
The work that I do feels very ‘local’ but forms a part of a huge ‘global’ issue. Of course, the work we do with Junkyard is a local impact, but it also shows divers who visit us from all over the world what can be done in their local environment.
Nathan started Eco Koh Tao and we worked alongside him for many years to develop Junkyard dive site that is now a huge success. We are continually pushing for environmental agreements with other dives schools in Koh Tao who all dive at Junkyard! Every dive school and all their staff and customers see what we have built here.
This is about installing positive ideas for action in diver’s minds so they can see this local outcome and be moved to get involved. At the very least they should join Project Aware where they can adopt a dive site, learn how to join local action teams and sign up for weekly dive site clean ups and other local initiatives.
You said that your work is also frustrating?
Take yesterday as an example; we had wonderful volunteers, all our DMC’s at Crystal Dive and various other staff taking part in a beach clean up.
We filled up so many refuse bags with waste plastic and then later that day I see the same people carrying plastic bags onto the boat with maybe a banana wrapped in plastic or something small that they could have quite easily put in their drybags! Why?
People don’t think sometimes. Or I see our volunteers the next day walking along the same beach past empty bottles and now that the official ‘clean up’ is over they don’t seem to see them, so don’t stop again to pick it up!
I try not to be too critical, I am so grateful for our volunteers’ time and their good intentions, but it’s the small changes in how we live that really add up to big changes over time. We can’t just give an afternoon and then go back to ‘normal’ life. We need to change our mindset for our daily lives.
It is a frustration here on Koh Tao with the quality of some of the dive schools and the ‘divers’ they produce. The damage caused by new divers who were not taught the proper way, who didn’t learn to control their buoyancy and positioning as students, that can be really upsetting.
Do these schools and instructors just not care enough about the damage bad divers can cause? Just taking the time to care, that’s what makes a really good dive instructor.
When you see poorly taught students kicking coral and not even reacting, divers kicking up sand over delicate marine life, poking living things with sticks, not having the buoyancy to avoid obstacles, feeding and touching fish, turtles, or even whale sharks! I just don’t understand how or why people do it.
There is enough information out there. If people care they can easily find good training standards and practice and find out which dive schools truly abide by them. I love it when we get customers who come to us at Crystal because they have checked our record, they know we dive and teach responsibly.
Divemasters and Instructors also have a real responsibility for their customers to tell them to follow standards and some may not take that seriously enough. These are beautiful, endangered species and bad actions are killing their habitat, could be infecting and injuring them, for what – a selfie?
What are your thoughts on the global impact our ‘way of life’ is having on our oceans?
I tend to focus on Koh Tao because I’m here. I want to support others elsewhere but I am much more of a ‘hands on’ person and I know I can have an effect here and we have such great support from Crystal Dive.
Plus, there is so much to do here on Koh Tao. I sometimes wonder about starting again, going to somewhere like India, but that would also be far more frustrating and I would be constantly wondering what would happen back here.
Koh Tao is one of the busiest scuba diving locations in the world and certifies more divers than any other location worldwide, so we need an active, engaged organisation like Eco Koh Tao here.
If you had 3 wishes from a genie in a (non plastic) bottle, what would they be?
Make Koh Tao a bespoke island, where ‘SINGLE USE’ plastics are banned. Reduce the amount of dive schools, dive boats, and definitely limit the amount of tourists that are allowed on the island and on dive sites.
Money wouldn’t be lost as people would pay a fee to come to this unique, Eco friendly island. It’s the way the world is going, thankfully! This Island could be making such a statement! We could be world leaders on non-plastic! It would be amazing to show recycling, craft and creativity. The solutions are there.
My real ‘wish’ for Koh Tao is around ideas like Koh Tao Earth Day. We’re continually chatting to businesses, asking them to use paper or bamboo straws, talking to the mayor and politicians about banning plastic bags and bottles. People do respond but things happen so slowly.
PADI’s inclusion of an ‘Environmental Pillar’ has really helped push people to act when they didn’t before. It’s great that customers are now taking note of environmental work so schools have an incentive to be active to attract customers. I mean they should already have an incentive. Their business relies on a healthy ocean.
And I do sometimes wish people on Koh Tao, maybe everywhere, were not so money driven. There are such simple solutions now to some of the problems we face here; solar power, better waste management… but people are so focused on profit now, not a better future.
We need to think long-term to create a sustainable environment. We could introduce a form of island public transport to reduce the numbers of vehicles on our island. Or use electric motorbikes or bicycles to reduce emissions.
The easiest change would be to ban single use plastic, which has been already been put into effect by 16 countries so far and more are planning to. These seem like achievable goals for an island this size. Wouldn’t tourists be prepared to pay a bit more for that?
Lastly, what can divers and readers do to help?
Come to Koh Tao! JOIN IN, dive with us at Crystal Dive and learn what we are doing then take that knowledge home with you. What we hope to achieve is to teach people who dive with us to think about their own impact.
People can help minimise it here and wherever else in the world you dive of course, but also back home in your ‘normal’ life. We want people to think about their waste. We want people to think how they can recycle, reduce and reuse more in their daily actions.
Simple. Getting people to do something rather than nothing is better than nothing! I don’t expect everyone to give up their jobs and create their own artificial, transplanted coral reef and dive site, but small changes, just thinking and caring about your impact does make a difference.
There are ups and downs to this life but the ups totally outweigh the downs and my students make me very proud sometimes. Life here working on Eco Koh Tao at Crystal Dive, gives me a huge amount of job satisfaction most of the time, rather than feeling I ‘have to do it’. That is very special.