Finnish divers awarded

Janne Miikkulainen of Raya Divers in Phuket and his Finnish colleagues were by the end of March 2005 awarded by the Ministry of Education in Finland for their prompt dissemination of information from Thailand in the wake of the Tsunami disaster.
     Soon after the tsunami struck, Janne Miikulainen, 31 and a diver since young age, and his partner Jani Mäkinen, 29, along with reporter (and fellow diver) Petri Ahoniemi started gathering information on Finns in the crisis area along the coast of Southern Thailand.
     They then SMS’ed the names back to administrator Alex Nieminen in Finland, who published the names on the Finnish dive website sukellus.fi.
     As the people on the ground, they also made sure to separate reliable information from rumours.
     The website received 900,000 hits in the last week of December as it was the only real-time source of information on the whereabouts of Finns in the disaster zone. In doing so, they overshadowed the government’s inability to act.
     Up until the award they had not received any appreciation from the authorities. Except for an e-mail from the Finnish Embassy in Bangkok, nobody had even bothered to get in contact with them. A few months later the recognition came when the group of divers were included among the recipients of this year’s State Award for Dissemination of Information, for their effort to provide valuable information on survivors of the Asian tsunami disaster.
     For Janne Miikkulainen and his colleagues the tsunami was also a personal tragedy. A Finnish staff member died from his injuries, his three children disappeared and a secretary perished with her child in Khao Lak.
     “Following the award, there has been quite a lot in the Finnish media about what happened to our company and to us due to our actions,” Janne explains.
     On that disastrous day, December 26, most diving and snorkelling tours had luckily already gone out to sea. Indeed, with a few tragic exceptions most dive operators and their staff and almost all of their customers survived. Being on or under water was in most instances safer than being on or near the beach.
     Janne had that morning already left shore for open sea, heading towards Similan Islands with 51 Finnish customers.
     “We had altogether 120 people out on different kinds of trips. And what actually happened after that is a very long story…” says Janne.
     On the way out he received an SMS saying there had been a small earthquake in Phuket. He just looked at his phone thinking ‘Unbelievable, what is this?’
     Reaching the islands he had another message saying: ‘Watch for big waves’.
     “We were looking out at a flat and calm sea so I thought it was nonsense. Then the sea started to act very strange.”
     “The waves came, but they were not like you’ve seen from Khao Lak. It was just that the sea level rose up and covered the islands. We moved out to the deeper sea and were just waiting.”
     At that time Janne or anybody else on board had no idea of the severity of the situation they would encounter back at the pier south of Khao Lak. Coming back to shore, where the resorts on tens of kilometres of beaches were no more, was surreal, not one building left, Janne recalls.
     “There was this Thai navy ship lying 50 metres inland from the beach. I just couldn’t believe what could have brought it up there!”
     In the first hectic hours they started gathering information on Finnish people they knew of. They found hundreds of Finns in the devastated area, who were lost or had lost their families and started collecting their names, and sent the information as SMS by mobile phone to Finland to be put out on the website. SMS was at the time the only thing working. Then in the days that followed they did rounds of hospitals and temples in search of missing Finns.
     Raya Divers’ office in Khao Lak was practically gone, but they will re-open for the next high season and they operate out of four different locations. Actually most of Khao Lak’s dive centres survived relatively intact.
     Soon afterwards they started fearing a double disaster from reports of damage to the underwater environment.
     “At first we were very afraid of what we heard and thought ‘Oh no, this is the end of all diving in this area’. Then after two weeks, when we had the possibility ourselves to go and look we realized that everything is at least as good as it was before.”
     Actual damage to reefs and popular dive sites are minimal.
     “Similan has the best visibility I’ve ever seen there. On the 50 sites that we go to, the only damage that you can see is on a few places where the corral reefs come from very deep to shallow water,” said Janne.
     From Koh Lanta, Janne’s colleague, the diver Ulf Peterson reports:
     “During our 7 years on the island we have never seen the island looking better, and it has never been more peaceful. The area thought by many to be a catastrophe zone suddenly fits the picture of a topical paradise better than ever. It’s a tragic paradox. “
     Despite his loss of equipment and an office (60 000 Euros) and 1,5 months of sales from the busiest time of the year, Janne is confident that Raya Divers will survive the disaster. Their first dive customers after the tsunami came already on December 31, and since the Finnish tour operators resumed their business, they have had almost fully booked trips every day, he says.
     Janne Miikkulainen and Jani Mäkinen were at the Asia Dive Expo show in Bangkok when they received the good news that they had been awarded for their efforts to collect and disseminate information about Finns in the area. They had accepted a good offer to participate in the exhibition although they don’t get their customers from walk-in visitors. Almost all their clients buy their services through travel operators in Finland.
     “For the next high season, I’ve been talking very closely with all the major tour operators – Aurinkomatkat, Detur, Finnmatkat etc – and they are all actually increasing their volume. There will be many more people coming to Thailand next high season from Finland than before,” Janne predicts.

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