SSI x Edges of Earth: On the Front Line – Cambodia’s Coastal Crusaders

Cambodia’s scuba diving scene was once considered the best in the world. Divers could encounter unique species not found anywhere else, thriving among abundant coral reefs dotted with elusive seahorses. Ideal for muck diving, Cambodia was a hidden gem that only the fortunate had a chance to see in its full glory. Two decades ago, Cambodia diving was, simply put, epic. 

Today, Cambodia’s dive sites are a shadow of their former selves, but dedicated divers are fighting hard to restore Cambodia’s dive scene to its former glory. Get inspired by their courageous work in this latest Edges of Earth update:

The devastating impacts of bottom trawling.

The primary culprit behind the drastic change to Cambodia’s marine ecosystems is bottom trawling, one of the most destructive fishing practices known, which has left a profound and damaging impact on the underwater world here. But before we can get into the guts of the bottom trawling problem, first we need to offer some geographical context for Cambodia’s current dive scene.

Today, Cambodia’s popular dive destinations center around a place called Sihanoukville in the southwest. Here, Cambodia diving hotspots like Koh Tang, Koh Rong Samloem, and Koh Kon are well-known and tailored for tourists. 

However, lesser-known are the islands near the Vietnam-Cambodia border that make up the Kep archipelago. These islands are easily overlooked even on the most detailed maps, as they offer a distinct contrast to the more frequented western dive sites. 

The Kep archipelago is situated a considerable distance from the capital city of Phnom Penh. It is certainly reachable, but not without trying. After a four-hour drive, you will arrive at a dock where a boat awaits to take you to these remote islands. Islands that, over the years, have lost so much of its vibrancy beneath the surface.

It is important to paint the picture of what life is like in the southeast region of Cambodia. Characterized by its remoteness and simplicity, this area revolves primarily around fishing. The local communities, with minimal tourism to rely on, depend heavily on fishing for their livelihood. And these humble communities have been struggling for years, as they are under immense pressure and demand from their neighbors, Vietnam and Thailand, for more and more fish. 

READ MORE: Overfishing: 10 Essential Facts and How You Can Help.

These two nations are infamous for overfishing their waters and have come to Cambodia for their stock instead. Fishing vessels, coming predominantly from Vietnam, have crushed the marine life and ecosystems in Cambodia, leaving this country in dire need.

It is made painfully apparent on the Kep archipelago, a place that often gets mistaken as Vietnam territory! And with this demand came the frequent practice of the aforementioned bottom trawling.

On the front line – Tackling illegal fishing in Cambodia.

Trawling is classified into two methods. The first, mid-level trawling, involves towing nets through the water column, targeting pelagic fish such as herring, mackerel and sardines. While this method can result in significant bycatch and disrupt marine ecosystems, it is the second type, bottom trawling, that is particularly destructive. 

Bottom trawling involves dragging weighted nets across the seafloor, which causes extensive damage. This method not only decimates entire ecosystems but also ensnares a wide range of non-target species.

When we started planning our expedition to explore consciously, Cambodia was always on our route. Scuba Schools International (SSI) put us onto the Kep archipelago and introduced us to their partner, Marine Conservation Cambodia (MCC).

In 2008, this renegade operation was established and began its aggressive mission to halt illegal fishing activities and restore the ocean to its original glory. The Cambodian government offered Koh Ach Seh, an island in the archipelago, to the NGO to call their own—strategically situated right in the middle of some of the heaviest illegal activity. 

Founded by a seasoned diver and ex-police officer, Paul Ferber, MCC has amassed a team of highly skilled SSI divers and ocean conservationists since its inception, preparing them for what he calls "the Wild East."

When he first started protecting these waters, it was a hostile and scary environment. Vietnamese boats would come armed with weapons—everything from simple slingshots to firearms. 

But Ferber ensured his team was well-prepared, vigilant and versed in the best practices to handle any situation. 

Innovations saving Cambodia’s marine life.

Over the years, Paul and his team, fueled by perseverance and dedication, have achieved significant milestones. Independently, they have fought the battle out at sea, coming up with innovative solutions to stop illegal activity with limited resources in the early days.

Key initiatives include deploying Conservation and Anti-Trawling Structures (CANTS) that dismantle trawling nets, establishing a Marine Fisheries Management Area (MFMA), and fostering a proactive, "bite back" approach with the local authorities. 

Paul’s primary goal was always to empower Cambodian locals to spearhead the battle against illegal fishing and revitalize fish populations for their community’s survival. 

That’s why he has passed the torch to Rachana Thap, MCC’s Executive Director and one of the most fervent conservation advocates we have met on the expedition yet. She brought us into the fold, sharing MCC’s long-standing history and her vision for Cambodia’s future in marine conservation.

RELATED: SSI x Edges of Earth: Great Barrier Reef Foundation Brings Hope for World’s Reefs.

Upon our arrival at Koh Ach Seh, Rachana was off-site, engaged in high-level discussions with government officials about MCC’s future ambitions. Meanwhile, we began acclimating to life on this secluded research island, wholly devoted to conserving, restoring and safeguarding its surrounding marine environment. And we were introduced to life on the edges of earth by Billy Brebner, the SSI Diving Instructor & Safety Officer.

Cambodia diving – Searching for signs of life.

Billy guided us through the most dynamic dive sites around the island, including one directly beneath MCC’s handmade dock. It was jarring to witness the extent of the damage underwater firsthand. Yet, amidst the mud and rubble, Billy pointed out hopeful signs of recovery.

Small thriving patches stemmed from the wreckage, hosting a variety of marine life. We even got lucky enough to see five critically endangered seahorses.

These were members of a species that has long suffered from the impacts of illegal fishing here. 

We also had the chance to see the CANTS deployment and assembly process in action, a critical and physically demanding task. Guided by Billy, the dive team moved with precision and speed, handling the weighty "blocks" that make up the CANTS with care.

Each underwater maneuver was crucial; a single misstep could put the team at serious risk. With his penchant for safety, Billy’s laser focus was apparent and settling. 

The CANTS initiative starts right on Koh Ach Seh, where MCC’s team handcrafts the blocks using a specialized cement mixture. Once these are ready, Simon Retif, the organization’s Cartographer, steps in to pinpoint the most effective locations for their deployment, drawing on insights from previous successful drops. Preparing for deployment is a meticulous process, involving a careful selection of the dive team based on their skills, experience and current health status.

READ MORE: Discover the Best Diving in Asia.

The dive team collaborates closely, working under challenging ocean conditions, particularly the limited visibility - which rarely exceeds 5 meters (16 feet) in these waters. Once the dive plan is set, the building blocks are transported by boat to their designated drop location.

The heavy blocks are then shifted from the bow to the stern of MCC’s research vessel once arriving at the deployment site—a task that is challenging due to their considerable weight and size.

As the blocks are methodically dropped into the ocean, the finless divers initiate their descent along with them. Their movements are calculated and precise, each diver navigating from block to block, interlinking them with strong ropes.

Their strategic placement and the sheer weight of the blocks ensure that the formations are immovable by fishermen. Over time, these structures not only serve as deterrents to fishing vessels but also become safe havens where marine life can revive and thrive. 

Simon showed us a comprehensive overview of the CANTS deployments. His maps vividly illustrated the extent of their efforts, with each block formation carefully marked along the MFMA—a testament to the team’s relentless commitment to protecting the Kep archipelago.

Simon’s six-year tenure has given him a front-row seat to the immense effort required to re-establish a semblance of normalcy in this region. An effort that has been met with resistance every step of the way, from every single angle possible. 

Finding a life-changing purpose on Koh Ach She.

By our fourth day at MCC’s base on Koh Ach Seh, we had fully acclimated to the simple, stripped-back way of life, a reminder of how little is needed to be happy. Our immersion into the daily rhythm of the island had deepened our understanding of Rachana’s world by the time she returned from the mainland. 

We could comprehend why she was drawn to this place back in 2016. As we sat on the end of the dock together, the sun setting before us, it was hard not to get emotional as she talked about her unwavering commitment to this cause. 

Rachana arrived at Koh Ach Seh with little knowledge of the ocean, yet she quickly recognized the severe impacts of fishing on marine life. During her six-month internship, she learned to dive and was captivated by the glimpses of beauty beneath the surface—from Irrawaddy dolphins to those special seahorses.

Inspired by MCC’s nurturing environment, which encourages creativity and personal initiative, Rachana was hooked and, in her words, "was never leaving." She decided she was to commit herself to educating and involving local communities in this journey to restore the ocean in her way. 

Rachana witnessed a transformation in the battle against illegal fishing, as MCC’s consistent efforts began yielding results and garnering support from local authorities. 

With the situation becoming more manageable, the team has expanded its focus beyond combating illegal fishing to include projects like seagrass restoration. 

Remarkably, she has observed a significant success here with new seagrass covering around 1,200 hectares in just a year, all of which play a vital role in revitalizing marine life in these waters. She even recently saw a dugong and its calf return to the area—a sign unlike any other that their work is coming to fruition. 

RELATED: Cambodia - Great Hope for Small Whales.

For Rachana, there is no such thing as a day off. The minute her eyes leave the sea, there is an open window for taking steps backwards. And this is something she will not allow under any circumstance. 

All of the hard work and dedication that has been put into these waters is a fight for survival. There have been sleepless nights, tears shed, and victories celebrated. Yet, to her, the work has only just begun. 

Rachana’s vision for MCC encompasses a dual mission:

  • Safeguarding the environment.
  • Enhancing local livelihoods. 

She understands these goals might seem conflicting, yet she is committed to finding the right balance. With every sunrise, she wakes up thinking about what she and her team can do each day to achieve this perfect harmony. And what she can do to spread the MCC team’s work beyond the Kep archipelago to the larger whole of Cambodia. A tall order, but nothing is impossible for this group of protectors.

On our journey back to the mainland, the sight of an Irrawaddy dolphin pod in the distance served as a powerful reminder of enduring hope. Rachana’s words about staying forever committed stuck firmly in our minds.

It is up to us, especially as scuba divers, to remember that we have a responsibility to the blue planet. Our choices must extend far beyond seeking picturesque dive sites. This journey to the Kep archipelago, a stark contrast to the storied dive sites we had heard of from decades past, reaffirms the necessity of our role in ocean conservation.

It is not just about witnessing the beauty of the underwater world, but also about understanding and engaging in what it will take to safeguard it. So as you consider where to dive next, think about what experiences will truly matter and how you can make an impact with your dive choices.

Get started by joining the SSI Blue Oceans community. Together we can protect our oceans for generations to come.

Andi Cross is an SSI Ambassador and lead of the Edges of Earth expedition, highlighting stories of positive ocean progress and how to explore the world more consciously. To keep up with the expedition, follow the team on InstagramLinkedInTikTokYouTube and their website