Showcase Sunday: Scuba Scribe Diving the Similian Islands (Thailand)

raj808
Scuba Scribe @raj808October 2019 · 26 min read · #showcase-sunday

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Image modified by me using GIMP from my original pictures

It's Sunday, which has recently become synonymous with the Showcase Sunday challenge. Showcase Sunday was created by @nonameslefttouse, and is a chance to show off your best work from the past. A chance to resurrect undervalued work, and perhaps get some new eyes on those posts that took hours/days to make. It is in this spirit that I would like to share one of my scuba diving adventures from over 10 years ago.

This travel adventure was originally split over three posts as the word count was quite long. Describing my first every live-a-board scuba trip in Thailand, the narrative takes in soaring coral pinnacles, amazing undersea encounters, mating cuttlefish and my first ever shark encounter. I also explore the almost spiritual connection I have with the oceans and the life that inhabits them.

I spent days writing/editing these travel posts over two years ago, and experimented with merging use of imagery (more usual in creative writing) with a more traditional travel writing style. I'm not sure how successful I was with this, let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Thanks, I hope you enjoy...

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Scuba Scribe - Diving the Similian Islands (Thailand)

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Part 1: Diving Elephant Rock - A journey to Dive Paradise 🐟

Having just passed my Padi Open Water certification in Koh Phi Phi, my instructor offered to sell me a four day liveaboard trip at a 30% discount. The catch, there was only a day to get from Phi Phi island to Phuket, then up the coast to Koh Lak where the boat was set to depart.

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.

The dive operators inspected my log book, and after seeing that I had only completed 4 open water dives, declared that I wasn’t experienced enough to make the trip. I was shocked to hear that they were considering not allowing me on board, apparently the shop in Phi Phi shouldn’t have sold me this advanced-level trip. My guide for the trip, Silvia, told me that a lot of the dives were below 18 meters which is the maximum depth for open water certification. I calmly let her know that I wasn't going anywhere without a refund. Things were getting a little heated with the manager of the outfit, but Silvia was an angel in a wetsuit. She promptly rang the dive shop on Phi Phi, spoke to my instructor, and confirmed that I had good buoyancy and had come from a decent referral in the UK. We agreed that I would pay an extra thousand Thai Baht to take my deep specialty which would allow me to dive to 30 meters and we were golden.

I boarded the boat all set for an over-night trip to the Similian Islands. As I introduced myself to my fellow divers I remember the captain saying there would be some choppy weather on the crossing. No problem, I thought, I'll sleep right through it.

Wrong!

I awoke at 1 am sick as a dog with the cabin rolling like the proverbial drunken sailor. This was my first experience with sea sickness. I sat in the toilette for hours completely failing to be sick, I am convinced that my body was acclimatizing to the cyclic rolling of the ocean. After 3 hours the intensity of the nausea receded and I managed to sleep until 7 am when we were all awoken by a call of 'diving'.

I emerged, hangover free, sea sickness gone and feeling floaty in the gentle rocking of the swell. We sat and ate breakfast while the Sylvia ran us through the dive plan.

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N.B. I didn't own any type of underwater camera at the time but I do have my dive log book and memories to draw from. I will source a few creative commons pictures to highlight the more interesting creatures we encountered.

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.

I finned languidly in the light current, following my buddy through the winding paths between the boomies. The panicky feeling of constantly checking depth/air faded with my profound calm, there was nothing but red, purple and blue coral stretching along the seafloor. Speckled flights of glass fish reflected the defuse sunlight while psychedelic smears of yellow trumpet fish hung above barrel sponges. This picaso-esque landscape of life and living light left me in a place I can't quite explain adequately - dive nirvana ☯

As this first dive drew to a close and we reached the edge of the reef a shoal of adolescent tuna shot past, silver slicing the deep indigo of the Stygian depths. I remember thinking there might be sharks about and straining my eyes out into the distances away from the reef.

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My first days diving ended in that peculiar bliss that descends when you first get your sea legs. When your body embraces the constant sway and salt spray.

A big part of the liveaboard experience is making new friends. Everyone is bonded in a common interest and there is never a quiet moment as people recount thier dive stories. After dinner, we sat with a beer and played poker in the warm breeze that swept the ocean from the lee of the north side of Koh Pa-Yu Island. I mainly listened to the stories from my more experienced dive buddies. All of these people were friendly and encouraging, full of praise for me taking on an open ocean liveaboard at such a beginner level.

I remember one of the Portuguese guys saying that I was better off jumping in at the deep end like this, never a truer word has been spoken. I learnt so much on that trip, not least because of the steep learning curve and the knowledge that we all held each others lives in our hands. There are no excuses with diving, if you make a mistake in a buddy pair it can mean life or death for both of you, this fosters a unique conscientious camaraderie among divers that I have experienced nowhere else.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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, all rights reserved


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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.

“You'll be wet again in 10 minutes.”


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
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All images used in this post are either my own or creative commons (links in original articles). The origonal articles can be found here: 1 2 3.

If you have enjoyed this post, please check out my homepage @raj808 for similar content. Thanks for reading.


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Topics: SHOWCASE-SUNDAYDIVINGSCUBADIVINGPHOTOGRAPHYNATURE

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