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Fascinating Cu Lao Cham

Cu Lao Cham (Cham Islands), a World Biosphere Reserve in Quang Nam Province is famous not only for its wild beauty but also for being an area which has drawn the special attention of scientists because it possesses species of corals first found in Vietnam. The successful cultivation and restoration of the coral reefs in this area have opened a new research direction to restore the damaged coral reefs in the waters of Vietnam.

Impression of the green islands

Although situated less than 20 miles from Hoi An Ancient Town, a world heritage site, in the past Cu Lao Cham was fairly wild. In 2009, it was recognized as a world biosphere reserve by UNESCO and soon became a famous marine tourism destination in central Vietnam and attracted the scientists’ interest.

In the summer of 2010, as we followed a group of Japanese tourists who participated in a competition to swim across the sea from Cu Lao Cham to Cua Dai, we had an opportunity to learn about the impressive beauty of these pristine islands. At that time, Le Vinh Thuan, Head of the Communications Department of Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area (MPA) said that the city of Hoi An and MPA had devised a plan to build Cu Lao Cham into an ideal marine tourism destination in the renowned tourist triangle of Quang area , My Son Sanctuary and Hoi An Ancient Town. Therefore, the local authorities opened training courses on tourist professional skills, such as cooking, accommodation services, transporting tourists by boat and guiding tourists for snorkeling for nearly 3,000 people living on the islands to earn their living instead of doing the work of marine resource exploitation.

In early 2014, we returned to Cu Lao Cham and met Thuan again. He cheerfully said that Cu Lao Cham had successfully built the green island into a fascinating marine tourism destination with various forms, such as snorkeling to contemplate the coral, swimming, enjoying the local food and discovering the wild beauty of the natural beaches.

Cu Lao Cham

Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area consists of eight islands in the island commune of Tan Hiep. Photo: Hoang Quang Ha

In summer, Cu Lao Cham has about 3,500 tourists each day. Photo: Tran Thanh Giang

Cu Lao Cham has 200 high-speed boats which take tourists to discover the beauty of islands. Photo: Tran Thanh Giang

With diverse tourism forms, the area attracts a large number of foreign tourists. Photo: Trinh Thong Thien

Foreign tourists discover Cu Lao Cham using coracles. Photo: Hoang Quang Ha

Joan Tubbs, a tourist from the US, learns how to catch fish with the guidance of a fisherman. Photo: Trinh Thong Thien

Cu Lao Cham has many beautiful beaches, such as Chong and Lang. Photo: Hoang Quang Ha

Beautiful coral reefs in Cu Lao Cham fascinate most tourists. Photo: Hoang Quang Ha

A Foreign tourist catches sea urchins, a species which eats coral,
to protect the coral reefs in Cu Lao Cham. Photo: Hoang Quang Ha

Huynh Duc, an MPA cadre, led us to visit the island. Duc was once a fisherman specializing in diving to catch lobster and abalone and collecting coral to make lime for construction. He said: “On the initial days of the establishment of the marine protected area the islanders were very anxious because the management board zoned a protected area and prohibited fishing in the coral reefs. For years, we were only accustomed to using small boats to catch sea creatures in the coral reefs along the island, could we survive by working in tourist services instead of fishing?”

Now, there is an answer for Duc’s anxiety because Cu Lao Cham is famous for visitors far and near and has become a well-known marine tourism destination in Central Vietnam. All members of Duc’s family are working in tourist services. His wife left her job of catching fish and shifted to cooking for visitors. His son is transporting tourists to visit the island by boat and guiding tourists for snorkeling in the coral area.
      Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area in the island commune of Tan Hiep (in Hoi An) consists of eight islands. Apart from the rich and diverse marine ecosystem, it also has many relics of ancient Vietnamese people, such as ancient sunken ships, old wells, temples and shrines. These relics show that from the 15thcentury or even earlier, this was a place for international merchant ships to pass through and anchor on the “silk road” journey on the East Sea.»

In summer, there are days that over 3,500 foreign tourists go to Cu Lao Cham a day to swim and snorkel. According to Duc’s simple calculation, each islander serves more than one tourist, which brings him/her a much higher income compared with fishing.

We followed a group of French tourists to Huong Beach to swim. There, we met Nguyen Quang, Nguyen Tung, Tran Cuc and some islanders who were guiding the tourists to cast a net like the fishermen. Many foreign tourists were very excited because it was the first time they tried fishing like the fishermen on the island. Quang said: “Formerly these nets were tools for fishing offshore. Now they are used for tourist purposes. Foreign visitors are very interested in rowing the basket boats, angling and catching fish with us.”

Huynh Duc took us on a boat equipped with professional diving devices to Mui Da Trang, which is dubbed the “undersea paradise” on Cu Lao Cham, to see the magnificent beauty of the coral reefs. The coral reefs here cover about 30ha and are the most ideal attraction for snorkeling in Cu Lao Cham. At the depth of about five meters, through their diving masks tourists can see a colourful world of marine plants and animals in the clear, blue water, which looks like a mysterious aquarium.

After the snorkeling tour, Huynh Duc took us to see the beaches with pristine beauty, such as Bai Lang, Bai Chong and Bai Huong. These beaches are always crowded with boats transporting the visitors to see the coral.

While sitting on the boat and looking at the coral in the clear blue sea water, Huynh Duc said: “Leaving the job of exploiting coral to make lime and shifting to marine conservation I seem to have paid the debt to the sea of my homeland. In the marine protected area we have revived the beautiful coral reefs and helped to make Cu Lao Cham become the most attractive place for snorkeling in Vietnam.”

Conservation and development

Tran Thi Hong Thuy, Director of Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area said that in 1996 scientists conducted a survey in this area and found 135 species of coral with 35 varieties, including six new species first found in the waters of Vietnam. Results of the survey also showed that there were also 202 species of aquatic creatures and four species of lobster. The coral reefs in Cu Lao Cham were concentrated mainly in the west and southwest of Hon Lao Island and around small islands, with a total area of about 165ha of water surface, but they were damaged because they were exploited to make lime. In this situation the MPA collaborated with the experts of Nha Trang Institute of Oceanography to implement the project on cultivation and restoration of coral reefs to serve tourist activities and preserve the rare and precious genetic resources in the water areas.

However, the cultivation of the coral in the sea bed in Cu Lao Cham had untold difficulties. In 2006, when starting the project on planting the coral, the cadres of Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area suffered many failures. At that time, Huynh Duc, Tran Gion and Vo Huu Sinh were diving into the sea to take the coral samples and replanted them in the areas where the coral had been exploited, but after a period of time these species of coral died or were swept away by the sea. Not discouraged, they continued replanting the coral many times, but their efforts were in vain due to big waves. Then Huynh Duc thought that growing the coral in the sea was like growing the trees on the mainland, so healthy seedlings had to be developed before they were cultivated on a large scale.

Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area coordinates with Nha Trang Institute of Oceanography to conduct regular surveys
and research to evaluate the process of restoring and replanting coral in Cu Lao Cham. Photo: Hoang Quang Ha

Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area’s cadres create an area for making a nursery of corals. Photo: Hoang Quang Ha

Checking the growth of coral which is cultivated in the watery area in Mui Da Trang. Photo: Hoang Quang Ha

Before being planted, coral is cultivated in seedling farms in the sea. Photo: Hoang Quang Ha

The system of frames for coral seedlings. Photo: Hoang Quang Ha

Nguyen Van Thuan, a cadre of the Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area prepares for  planting seedlings. Photo: Hoang Quang Ha

Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area’s cadres release a turtle into the sea. Photo: Hoang Quang Ha

Checking the growth of aquatic species living around coral reefs in the Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area. Photo: Hoang Quang Ha

Huynh Duc put forward his idea and received the approval of the MPA leaders for an experimental cultivation. Duc and his colleagues chose the water areas in Ran Me, Bai Tra and Bai Man where the sea is calm and is shielded from the wind, which is favourable for making a nursery. With the support of the experts from Nha Trang Institute of Oceanography, they designed the coral cultivation farms to grow more coral. The result was surprising. The seedlings grew very well.

By the end of 2013, the MPA developed 30 coral cultivation farms and successfully restored 165ha of damaged coral reefs. From the successful restoration of the coral reefs the cadres and scientists of the MPA successfully planted 146 hectares of coral in Cu Lao Cham, increasing the total area of coral reefs here to 311ha of water surface.

Tran Thi Hong Thuy said that the restoration and development of the coral reefs created a favourable environment for many aquatic species, including rare and precious species like abalone and green lobster to grow and develop.

This is a great success for Vietnam in marine conservation. From these results the scientists will apply the model in other marine protected areas in Vietnam such as Nha Trang, Kien Giang, Bai Tu Long National Park (in Quang Ninh Province) and Nui Chua National Park (in Ninh Thuan Province).
Beautiful photos of coral and marine organisms in Cu Lao Cham

Photo: Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area’s file

Photo: Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area’s file

Photo: Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area’s file

Photo: Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area’s file

Photo: Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area’s file

Photo: Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area’s file
Photo: Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area’s file
Photo: Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area’s file
Photo: Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area’s file

Photo: Hoang Quang Ha/VNP

Story: Thong Thien - Photos: Hoang Quang Ha,
Trinh Thong Thien, Tran Thanh Giang & Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area’s Files

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