Story written by Sarah Munro-Kennedy
I remember the day that I realised my purpose in life was to protect sea life. It was a few days after an event that occurred on December 26, 2004. I was 16 and on my first international scuba diving trip with my parents in Thailand. We had just gotten certified that summer and instantly fell in love, so we decided to take our Christmas vacation somewhere known for its diving. Little did we know what that vacation would hold for us.
We spent the first few days in Bangkok, visiting the most stunning temples covered in intricate tiling and gold, buying fresh fruits from the street vendors, and, of course, doing a little shopping. Then we made our way down to Patong in Phuket, where we spent several days at a hotel located a block from the ocean, immersing ourselves in the crystal-clear waters. The water was so warm that even when you were 20 meters down, you didn’t need a wetsuit. (Side note: we wore full wetsuits and I’m so grateful that we did. If you go to Ko Phi Phi, wear a full wetsuit! During our dives, I felt constant small stinging sensations on my face, hands, and feet. It turned out to be sea lice – not the kind that live on fish and whales, but the kind that are actually jelly larvae. Thankfully, it wasn’t very painful, but it definitely caught my attention).
The sea life was amazing. There were so many fish darting around the reefs. It was like a rainbow swirl with large schools of brightly-coloured fish dancing in the currents. We did a wreck dive and I saw my first sea turtle, and then we did a shallow dive and I found my first shark! I was looking for octopus when I ducked beneath a coral ledge and saw her laying there. She was a small nurse shark, maybe three feet long, and I was obsessed. I hovered there for what felt like forever but was probably only five minutes, watching this shark rest. It was a moment that resonated with me and that I’ll never forget.
After six days of diving, snorkelling, and relaxing on the beach, we were due to fly back home. Our flight was in the afternoon, so my mom and I had planned to go down to the beach and do some snorkelling before we left. Unfortunately (yet fortunately), I slept in. My mom came to my room at around 8 to tell me that she and my dad were going to get breakfast. I decided to skip it and hop in the shower. After my shower, I was busy blow-drying my hair when suddenly the power went out. I thought it was a bit strange and began to look around the room to figure out if it was just the blow dryer or the whole room that had blown. That’s when I heard it. If you’ve ever been to a large waterfall, you’ll know the sound I’m talking about. I walked out of my room and saw thousands of gallons of water rushing down the narrow street. I heard the cracking of tree branches as the water pushed past. And yet somehow, the island was completely silent.
A woman ran past me and I snapped out of my daze. I initially thought that a pipe had burst, but when I saw a truck being pushed backwards down the street, I knew that this was more than just a pipe. I realised that my parent’s room was beneath sea level and their passports were in there, so I ran downstairs to gather their stuff. When I got halfway down the stairs, I stopped. The passageway was flooded almost halfway up the door. I stepped down into the water and opened the door. The water rushed in and soon the room was flooded up to my knees. I grabbed everything important that I could manage, ran it up to my room, and came back down to get their soaked suitcases. When I walked back into the room, I looked down. The colourful fish that I had just spent the previous day swimming with were now lying dead on the floor. I looked out my parent’s window to the pool, saw total destruction, and that’s when it hit me; this was a wave – a really really really big wave. I had heard of tsunamis, but like most people, I never ever thought that I would be involved in one.
My parents managed to find a way back to our rooms and found me, still trying to grasp the reality of what just happened. My mom is an RN and she’s done work in rural areas that have had natural disasters. She knew that if we didn’t get to the airport immediately, we would be stuck in Thailand with limited resources, possibly for weeks. She told us to grab our valuables and we were going to find a way out. At this point, the water had receded to just around our ankles and it was much easier to move around. We began to make our way to the main road, walking down the narrow street that 20 minutes earlier had been easily four feet deep in water. As we were walking, we began to hear a rumbling sound growing louder and louder. We ran up a set of stairs to the roof of our hotel. When we looked down, the devastation and destruction were immense. There was debris everywhere, cars overturned and smashed, buildings destroyed, trees cracked in half, sand covering everything. There were several other people on the roof, all in just as much shock as we were. We all stood in silence as we watched the second wall of water forcing its way through the town, bringing down everything in its path.
The next half hour was a bit of a blur for me, but I remember helping my mom give first aid to those who needed it, then she told me, “let’s go.” I didn’t know where we were going, but I knew that she would keep me safe. As my parents and I made our way down the stairs, some of the people on the roof told us not to go. We took our chances and quickly ran down the stairs and towards the main road. We managed to find a taxi who had been up in the forest at the time of the waves and was now driving people up and down the hill. The driver wanted 100 USD to take us up the hill and my dad, who loves to haggle, stood there trying to negotiate with him. My mom and I climbed into the back seat and yelled at my dad to give the man the money and get into the car. He didn’t see what we saw – a third wave coming. He jumped into the car and the driver sped off. The scariest part was that we had to drive towards the wave to get to the street that goes up the mountain. We skidded around the corner and began the climb up the mountainside. We were about 20 feet up the street when I looked back and watched as the water completely covered the main street that we had just been on.
We made it out safely with just a few cuts and bruises and considered ourselves extremely lucky. I struggled with sleeping for the next few days so I went to talk to a therapist about it. I was having what he called survivors guilt. He told me that one way to overcome this was to find my purpose. And that’s when I remembered all of the stunning fish I had swum with laying around my feet. I began to think of all the corals, the turtles, the sharks, and the eels. I even thought about the tiny sea lice that stung my lips and cheeks. I wondered if any of these animals had survived this catastrophe. I couldn’t find any information about it, and I was too young to travel back there myself to find out, and I felt somewhat defeated. Then I remembered the butterfly effect. The smallest flap of a butterfly’s wing can cause a ripple effect that leads to huge changes. I decided that if I couldn’t help the sea life in Thailand, I would help the sea life in my local waters in the hopes that a ripple will occur and help the rest of the sea life. And that was the day I found my purpose and became a sea life conservationist.
For more of Sarah’s ocean adventures, follow @tiasharks