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Scuba Scribe - Diving the Similian Islands (Thailand)
Part 1: Diving Elephant Rock - A journey to Dive Paradise 🐟
I jumped at the chance and dragged my weary, hungover (read more in A Picture Says... 592 Words!) ass on to the three hour ferry journey to Phuket. After eight hours travelling, I arrived at Koh Lak groggy and tired. By this point I just wanted to kick back on the boat and sleep off the remaining hangover.
Day 1 - Dive Nirvana 🐠
The first days diving took place at two sites called 'East of Eden' and 'West of Eden'. These dive sites are on the east and west sides of Koh Pa-Yu Island. The first dive was relatively gentle, with huge coral boomies stretching down the gentle slope into the blue smudgy distance. I remember this being the first dive I ever experienced... dive nirvana.
Part 2: Depth Perception and the Shimmering Night 🎇
The second day's 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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, all rights reserved
Part 3: Diving Richieleu Rock
The final day's diving was at Thailand’s most famous dive site, Richieleu Rock. This isolated pinnacle was allegedly discovered by Jacques-Yves Cousteau on his way to the Similan Islands. Located out at sea and close to the border of Burma, Richieleu Rock (Hin Ploo Nam: meaning, rock rising from the water) offers the most spectacular diving in Thailand and is listed in the top 10 diving spots in the world.
As we anchored near to the site late in the evening of the third day, the dive guides were talking about recent sightings of Manta and Whale Shark in the waters near to the Rock. I could barely contain my excitement as I had only twelve dives under my belt and was in with a chance of seeing two of the most sought-after marine animals in the diving world. As the sun went down we had a few beers and chatted excitedly about the day to come, everyone was talking like it was a foregone conclusion that we would see manta and I guess I got a little caught up in it all. I went to sleep that night with high hopes, buzzing about what the day would bring.
Morning dawned and I could hardly wait to descend into the depths. I ate only fruit and some yogurt before getting in my wetsuit and jumping off the side to snorkel for a bit before the dive. I saw very little and as I climbed back aboard one of the crew laughed as he pulled me back aboard and remarked that I had divers-fever.
The final days diving was to be a story of two halves, the first dive on the south eastern side of the seamount was a gentle meander around crags and canyons, keeping our eyes peeled for macro marine life. The second was a wild dive on the exposed north side at slack water with the chance for bigger fish and the possibility of pelagic ocean voyagers.
All the Small Things
We jumped in and dropped to 28 meters hugging the wall at the base of the reef. I remember feeling disorientated from nitrogen narcosis and I followed Sylvia closely nosing in the caves that we passed. We spotted a small spiny lobster loitering around at the back of one cave with numerous multi-colored Indian parrot fish for company. As I emerged the walls seemed to stretch up endlessly towards the rippling sky and it was at this point that I made my one and only ‘spot’ of the trip. As I inspected a large gorgonian sea fan I glanced at a trail of seaweed that danced in the current. There was something strange about the silhouette and my eyes were slightly unfocused due to being 'narked' so it took me a few seconds to figure out the profile of two tiny seahorses. I grabbed Sylvia’s fin and pointed them out. She tapped her tank with a metal rod to alert the other divers as we sculled in for the first look at these amazing tiger tail seahorses. They gripped the weeds with their tails, staring at me as I hung right next to them. I was completely entranced and only came out of my reverie when someone squeezed my shoulder, pointing at their camera to let me know that they wanted to get a shot. I watched these peaceful yellow spotted Hippocampus eye us with caution until they decided we were harmless and resumed nibbling at the seaweed. I remember feeling immensely satisfied with this discovery, both on a personal level, and with the numerous thumbs up I received from my dive buddies. This is one of the joys of scuba diving, that thrill of discovery will never fade, no matter how many years and dives I racked up, I still feel this wonder.
We moved onwards ascending up the gentle sandy slope to around 22 meters when I noticed everyone moving quickly to my left. I finned after them and joined the group who were hovering above a patch of sand pointing at the sea floor. Below us, two cuttlefish danced together as we rudely gawped at their courtship ritual. This sighting ranks up there with all of the things I have seen since. I’ve seen cuttlefish on many occasions since that dive but to witness the dance of colours that they perform before mating was a privilege I’ll never forget. The male shimmered, mirroring the female’s colours as he approached. He spun round chasing her face with his before latching on in what looked like a kiss but is actually the act of procreation. We watched these alien Cephalopoda, silent observers to their water-born ballet.
The dive wound on in a dreamy drift, a fleshy carnival of clownfish, coral and clouds of anthias. The walls and canyons of the reef were covered in a carpet of soft corals creating the illusion that the reef was alive with the beating rhythm of Poseidon’s heart. As I drifted in the warm embrace of the languid tide it felt like I could feel that song, expressed in motion and the crackle of parrot fish pecking at the shell of the reef. I felt dive nirvana once again, wallowing in the oceans mystery.
As we moved through the canyons and finished our dive at 10 meters one of the other divers in the group made another amazing discovery. I searched where everyone was looking for a good minute with Sylvia motioning a circle with her fingers numerous times before I spotted the ghost pipefish. They floated in among the spines of hard coral fingers, so perfectly camouflaged that I didn’t know what I was looking at until I spotted the pin-prick eyes. These strange fish are one of those creatures that are almost too perfect an adaptation of evolution, an expression of the beauty and complexity of nature, a reflection of a million infinitesimal factors of environment that inspire a piece of natural art.
The ghost of a shark 🦈
After this first dive, I fell asleep on the sun deck in 30-degree heat and awoke groggily with the call of “Diving”. I hastily drank 3 cups of water before jumping under a cold shower to drive the fuzz from my head. The afternoon dive was to be a drift dive on the north side of the rock and the most dangerous dive of the trip so far. The boat had to be maneuvered to the south-east side of Richieleu Rock where we were to all jump in unison and descend immediately to 10 meters where the current slackened. Sylvia basically told me we would go first and I should stick to her like glue. We kitted up and I remember feeling decidedly uncomfortable from the heat and tightness of all the gear. I took a few deep breaths and steadied myself as this was the place that Manta had been spotted on the last trip.
We took the plunge with a giant stride, descended and as predicted the current, which was alarmingly strong, slackened at around 7-8 meters. I had drifted away from Sylvia about 4-5 meters and hastily finned back to her side, fighting the pull of the current. This dive was different from any I had done before. We had jumped in well away from the reef out in the blue with nothing but depth below us. The plan, to drift at around 20 meters until the current swept us into the shelter of the pinnacle and the reef. I stared into the distances, hoping to catch a glimpse of Manta or Whale Shark. When we reached around 20 meters I could see the floor of the ocean far below, maybe another 20-30 meters down. This was my first experience of drift diving, of flying in the arms of the tides with just the odd flick of my fins to guide me. We all stared out into the blue, my head swiveled from left to right in perpetual motion, gazing through the haze of distance into another world. I remember a strange effect, my eyes perpetually crossed due to the lack of any point of reference and I had to keep consciously pulling my focus back to my hands to counteract this effect.
Off in the distance, something moved, sharp lines of grey and white. I strained my eyes as we moved slowly against the current to get a better view but this smudge of silvery svelte movement faded. I turned to Sylvia and she held her hand straight upwards in a point against her forehead, the signal for a shark. I could see the reef coalescing from the green/blue murk to my right as the current slackened from a gust to a breeze. We moved onto the reef where the current faded to stillness. Soft coral waved as angel fish played around mounds of hard coral, darting in and out of barrel sponges. The sunlight arched beams of refracted light reassuringly across the living wall of the reef. Everything seemed calm once again.
Suddenly I heard tap-tapping of metal on tank and I turned to see a large black tip reef shark no more than 6 meters away passing by a group of three divers who snapped it with their cameras. When I think back on it now in retrospect, this shark was just acting curious but at the time I was unaware of shark psychology and the sudden appearance of this grey-white ghost shocked me. The group gathered closer together as the shark circled us to within about 3 meters before disappearing into the currents shifting sedimentary patina.
As we moved onto the reef a large dog-toothed tuna shot past at breakneck speed followed by a shoal of trevally. I remember associating this with the shark, it felt like something was hunting out on the edge of the reef.
The dive wore away in the sleepy afternoon heat as we finned along the sheer wall nosing among the nooks and crannies. The Danish divers spotted a frogfish which astounded me with its perfect coloration mimicking a coral-covered rock.
This ugly little critter regarded us stoically, obviously used to divers foiling its expert camouflage. As we wound our way upwards for our safety stop a great barracuda hung in the first 3 meters of water sunbathing in the late afternoon heat.
Suddenly, the tank tapping started again, hitting a fevered rhythm. I looked at Sylvia and could see her motioning everyone to follow as she tugged her dSMB (deployable surface marker buoy) along and motioned downwards with her other arm. Below, a banded sea snake swam among the coral. We had been briefed about this reptile at previous dive sites but no one expected to see this snake so far out to sea.
The banded sea snake has one of the most powerful venom of any reptile. This snake’s bite causes a range of neurological problems including convulsions and paralysis which can lead to death. They are not overly aggressive, especially at sea, unless you come between them and the surface. Unfortunately, we were right above this snake and it seemed unaware of us. As we attempted to swim out of its path, the snake moved off the reef, zig-zagging a diagonal path past us and up to the surface and the rock which was now above the low tide water line. This was the only time I saw the dive guide panicked on this trip, which tells you a lot about the perceptions and misconceptions of people around marine animals. The shark may have seemed dangerous, but with a little knowledge and experience, it is easy to recognize and deal with a shark’s behavior patterns. They are relatively predictable and will usually react in a certain way based on your reactions and body language. Whereas we encountered this innocuous looking snake in exactly the conditions which would trigger an attack, we were lucky that we met a pretty chilled out banded seas snake.
I will forever remember this first liveaboard trip as a rite of passage. I met an amazing bunch of people and made some lifelong friends. One of the guys I met on the Manta Queen traveled with me for the final 3 weeks I was in Thailand and we dived in two more locations together as buddies. The camaraderie that diving fosters is based on mutual respect, knowledge and a hierarchy that broaches no argument. Experience wins out, and most divers know how to follow while leading. This is a hard concept to explain, basically every certified diver should have the knowledge to fulfill the procedures that allow them to dive safely. In this sense, you rely on yourself to avoid decompression sickness (the bends) and remain within safe limits of air/depth. But there are usually different levels of experience in a group and the guide will pair people up according to their abilities. In this respect you follow, I have been on a dive where a diver with 600 dives and a commercial diving qualification followed the dive guides lead, even though the guide had 200 dives and a recreational divemaster qualification. The ethos is simple, you follow the plan that keeps everyone safe. Most divers respect this unwritten rule and it is this respect that makes for fun safe diving.
© Rowan Joyce, all rights reserved