This is part two of a three part adventure diving in the Similian isladns in Thailand. To read the beginning of the diving liveaboard trip, please follow this link to part one. Thanks for following this series.
Day 2 - Depth Perception and the Shimmering Night 🎇
The second days diving took place at Elephant Rock
and included one of my most memorable dives ever. It truly was a day of firsts as I was to complete my first deep dive and Sylvia had agreed to allow me to join the night dive.
The boat had dropped anchor in the bay of the island and we were assured we would get some much-needed beach time in the afternoon before completing our night dive and then journeying overnight to the final site at a seamount in the open ocean.
I took a giant stride off the boat platform to plunge into the balmy warmth of the blue beneath. A labyrinth of coral corridors stretched away on all sides, interspersed by small bommies and the odd smear of sand; it looked like a patchwork quilt, a tapestry of living light, shimmering with a kaleidoscope of multi-colored tropical fish.
It amazed me the monumental difference in the health of the reef away from man's influence. At Phi Phi island, the coral was in sparse patches, desecrated by fishing and over-use by dive operators. Here, the coral species were abundant and pervasive, dominating the sea floor in healthy exuberance. I felt privileged to meander those days away in this garden of 'aquatic' Eden.
Sylvia led me off from the group as I was to take my deep specialty test. We descended slowly down the sloping reef and I remember feeling the pressure keenly after descending 25 meters. She had explained previously that we would descend to around 28 meters as quickly as was comfortable, before running some visual acuity tests with numbers and colors. These tests are essential to check how strongly a diver is affected by nitrogen narcosis (feeling high or drunk due to the effects of higher levels of nitrogen in your blood at depth). We settled on the sandy bottom surrounded by coral, I have to admit I was quite heavily 'Narked', a heavy headed feeling of slight panic; uncomfortable but not overwhelming.
I took a deep breath and performed the tests. Sylvia showed me a card with numbers on and pointed at each number in turn. I was to hold the number of fingers for the number on the card. Next, she held up cards with words of colors on, and I pointed out the colors on the dive test slate that lay on the sand. I remember this being quite hard! It was like thinking through pea soup, but the concerted effort calmed me and the panic feeling receded. Sylvia indicated the buddy OK sign and we slowly ascended up the slope to join the group, entering a gully where trails of bubbles lazily drifted toward the surface.
This dive was also my first experience of swim-throughs. Dive terminology for small caves and arches enclosed overhead but with a visible source of light and obvious route out. We wound our way through these tunnels and gullies, the walls swaying rhythmically with soft coral and seaweeds.
Clownfish peeked out from anemone and various Sweetlips' flitted overhead or languished in the shadow watching suspiciously as we passed. As I nosed around the cracks and crevices I saw a snaggle-toothed pirate staring up at me. This Moray Eel was as thick as my head and I remember being a little startled and bumping into my buddy and dive guide Sylvia. She grinned at me and indicated to keep my arms folded inwards to avoid provoking any possible attack by the Moray.
We surfaced around 11am with time for a snooze (diving makes you sleepy as your body processes the excess nitrogen in your blood) on the sun deck before lunch. The afternoon was to be spent on the island of elephant head rock. Staring at the lush green of the forested island inspired dreams of Swiss family Robinson, coconuts, and cool sea breezes. This wasn't far from the truth.
A few of us decided to swim from the boat to the island. That is me you can see taking the plunge in the picture collage. I won't talk too much about the island. It was pretty much everything you could imagine. White sand, warm breezes, swaying palm trees and crystal clear water. We played hide and seek around the rocks in the bay and everyone seemed to have regressed back to childhood with the wonder of it all. If I visited Thailand again I would like to camp on that island for at least three or four days.
Back on the boat and we motored out to sea some distance from the island. It winked at us, a green flash in endless fields of blue. As the sun crept towards the horizon we kitted up fastening regulators to tanks, donning wetsuits and weight belts before sitting down for the dive briefing. This is when the dive guides started to get cryptic, they explained that we would be doing a very special sunset dive. Entering the water as the sun went down we would see the reef around us and it would start to get black as night fell when we were down at around eighteen meters. I remember feeling a little apprehensive (this was my 9th sea dive) as they described the importance of staying in a line of buddy pairs, using torches to highlight the reef often and not shining lights in each other's faces. They described an odd procedure at the end of the dive while we made the 5 meters 3-minute safety stop. Apparently, everyone was to watch Sylvia and when she made a signal press there dive torch against their chest with one hand and wave the other in front of their face. I didn't know what to make of this but as the sun slipped closer to the sea, with my heart thumping in my chest, we took the plunge.
We drifted down into a gloomy world of crackling snaps and the reassuring rumble of the bubbles from our regulators. The reef was a different place in this twilight, all monotone shapes and pensive fish staring out from dim coral contours. Darkness fell as we descended and everyone turned on their torches. It is hard to describe how this dive felt as a beginner. I have done more than twenty night-dives to date (out of over 100 dives) and none of them felt as heart-stopping as this one.
There was a slight current, the reef passing by below as I struggled to control my depth. I flashed the torch across the reef and to the side in fits and starts, trying to keep my orientation while everyone else focused their lights on points of interest. Around halfway through the dive I lost this fear, the nervousness just drained out of me as I focused on following the other diver’s torches with mine. We saw a Moray Eel swimming free from its cave, hunting around the mounds of coral. Near to the end of the dive, one of the other divers kept making the octopus signal at me and circling a patch of coral with their torch. This ocean alien was so well camouflaged that I spent a minute trying to pick it out. Just as my friend was getting bored I spotted its strange eyes staring at me, and then the tentacles and head coalesced from the gloom.
As we ascended another of my fellow divers, startled me from below as he gestured me to look closely at his hand where a Durban dancing Shrimp was carefully cleaning micro-organisms from his fingers. All of the divers on this trip were well in advance of me and went out of their way to show me these incredible finds. He deposited his hitcher on the reef and we stopped to hang at 5 meters for our safety stop.
Sylvia signaled us all to chest our torches and as the light faded to blackness I experienced one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. Silver-blue flecks, traced stars through the black emptiness, comet tails of bioluminescence erupting in the inky reef-scape. As my eyes adjusted, I could dimly make out the tips of my fingers at the apex of the closest tracers. I waved my hand in a figure of eight, then an R, marveling at the vague shimmering symbols. Just before we ascended, I realized that I could see smudgy flares of luminescence as fish flitted by, painting silver smudges in the night, before the light bled out into blackness. Describing this from memory is hard and words are failing me now, I still dream about this dive as it was one of the most profound experiences of my adult life. I had been suffering severe depression prior to my backpacking trip to Thailand and this experience was instrumental in reigniting my reverence for nature and reminding me of the transcendental beauty in even the smallest organisms.
This amazing phenomenon is caused by microscopic plankton called Dinoflagellates which glow when disturbed. Kayakers can often see this glow, but it is nothing compared to the impression you get 6-8 meters below the surface of the ocean. The memory of this event still lingers in my subconscious and I wrote a poem after that dive lying on the sun deck of the boat staring up at the sky and musing on the stars in the deep beneath.
Diamond Drop Sea
I’ve witnessed diamond drops through lapis sea’s,
Floating right there in front of me. Suspended in perpetuity,
Reflections from the full moons light,
Guiding my way to the surface.
Witnessed a thousand stars,
Flecked between my fingers,
Streaming from every digit.
The light lingers, then fades,
Emptying everything but wonder!
But I’ve always wondered if I could catch a diamond
When dancing in the rain,
To spin around, arms stretched out
And catch those stars again.
© Rowan Joyce
Poem first published on my (now inactive) Scuba Scribe WordPress blog in 2013
To be continued...
If you have enjoyed this post, check back on Friday for the final part - a ghost of a shark. You can also check out part one here and all my other travel posts and scuba scribe series at my blog home page raj808. All photos are my own unless stated below the picture, links for verification of pictures: 1 2 creative commons licences.
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