Similan Islands - Diving 35m+ Viz off a Liveaboard
Trip Start Sep 24, 2008
77Trip End Jul 21, 2009
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Siam Divers 3 Liveaboard Dive Boat
Life on a Liveaboard Dive Boat
As mentioned in my last entry, Mary and I signed up for a 5-day, 4-night liveaboard in the Similan Islands, which was affectionately dubbed our honeymoon. The Similan Islands are a group of nine islands (as well as several others in a Marine Protected Area) that are about 100km northwest of Phuket in the Andaman Sea. The islands are a Marine Protected Area, meaning that boats cannot anchor anywhere near the islands, development on the islands themselves is heavily restricted and fishing boats are not allowed anywhere near the protected areas. In theory.
The islands are paradise on earth with crystal clear blue azure waters as flat as glass, untouched white sand beaches, palm groves and rock formations
We signed up with South Siam Divers, a fantastic outfit with professional divemasters/instructors and the most hard working and always smiling crew around. Because the liveaboard boats never leave the Similan Islands, there are daily departures aboard the speedboat, allowing for flexibility in terms of when and for how long you are aboard the liveaboard and for a diver to meet and hang out with many different people during your stay. During our time on the liveaboard, there were probably 5 or so divemasters, 8 members of the crew (including captain, cooks and the Thai guys who keep us alive by keeping air in our tanks and grabbing us out of the water when we surface away from them after a momentous drift dive) and between 8-25 fellow divers on any given day. The operation is highly organized and I couldn't recommend this company anymore.
A quick side note, the crew are a bunch of reggae-loving Thai dudes who are super friendly and work tirelessly to de-rig and re-fill our gear at all times. I got along pretty well with these guys, practicing my Thai as much as possible and always greeting them with a smile - even at 6am
Life aboard a liveaboard is some of the best on the planet. You essentially eat, sleep, chillout/sunbathe/disappear into your cabin, jump/dive off the three-deck roof, and dive, dive, dive. There are five dives a day and you are capped at a maximum of four dives. The night dive is limited to a maximum depth of 12m and bottom time of 30 minutes. Given you pay for air, this essentially meant that other than the first day on the boat (where the night dive was the fourth of four available dives since we arrive after the morning dive), you do all of the day dives and sit out the night dive
7:00am Dive #1
8:00am Ravenously enjoy breakfast - diving makes you insanely hungry and thirsty
11:00am Dive #2/Speedboat arrives with new divers
1:30pm Dive #3
2:45pm Speedboat leaves with anyone going home
4:00pm Dive #4
6:00 or 8:00pm Dinner
7:00pm Night Dive
Last dive onwards chillout under perfect stars while kicking back with an end-of-day beverage and looking at diving photos or curling up with your lady on the sundeck
Life Aquatic With Hari Zizou
We left early on January 29 (Happy Birthday Dad!) on a speedboat to meet up with the main liveaboard craft
Soon, we were aboard the craft and were getting our boat and dive briefing after eating lunch. Within an hour and a half of arriving at the liveaboard, we had splashed. Mary and I were dive buddies for our entire trip - 19 dives in 5 days. Our divemaster for most of our dives was a Singaporean named Stefanie, who had worked 7 years on Koh Tao and has been diving the Similans for 4 seasons while compiling more than 3,000 dives in her career. One of the Thai divemasters, Koh, has accumulated 10,000+ dives as he basically spends more time underwater than above!
All dives are drift dives, meaning that the current carries you far away from where you first descended, so we relied heavily on our DMs to safely navigate the dive sites and have us end up remotely close to where the captain has moved the boat. If you end up missing the mark, one of the crew will hop in the dingy and fetch you, forcing you to remove essentially your entire rig in the water, so that you can kick flip your way onto the rubber dingy from the deep water.
The first thing we noticed upon descent is the visibility
The second thing we noticed upon descent is the astounding marine life that lives below the Similan Islands. There are tremendous dive sites all over the world and you will hear 10 different opinions from 10 different divers on what are the best. However, you would be hard-pressed to find consistently better diving in terms of dive sites, marine life and conditions than the Similan Islands. The species of fish and coral were largely similar to those found in Koh Tao, but ALL of them were in much greater quantities, significantly larger, more colorful and absolutely everywhere. Such "common, normal and everyday" fish as angelfish, butterflyfish, parrotfish, batfish, rabbitfish, squirrelfish, groupers, sweetlips were all nearly three times the size of those found around Koh Tao. Blue ringed angelfish, some of my favorites, were easily 2ft in length and thick
Of course, the Similans are so magical that they also turned extraordinary fish into ordinary sightings. Frequently, we would see titan and clown triggerfish (much larger than and not aggressive as compared with their cousins near Koh Tao), blue-spotted stingrays (I saw one in Koh Tao and would consistently see 4-6 of them on dives, especially the first dives of the day), morey eels (long, scary and disgusting ones that were as much as 6-8inches in diameter), scorpionfish, lionfish, seal faced puffers (one of the cutest fish out there), porcupinefish (massive ones 2ft long and one of the dopiest and most adorable common fish in the ocean), tons of tiny shrimp/crabs and other crustaceans (such as the beautiful praying mantis shrimp), nudibranches (beautifully colored seaslugs), crown-of-thorns starfish (massive starfish that are decimating the reefs of the Barrier Reef in Australia), marble and pineapple sea cucumbers (that were easily 9in diameter and 3-4ft long), cuttlefish and squid, boxfish, large octopus, etc. Surprisingly, we didn't see that many barracuda, which were (chevron and great) abundantly found swimming around Koh Tao. We didn't miss the lack of barracuda one bit given the plethora of other eyecandy around.
Swimming With Sharks (and New Friends)
One of the joys of diving, besides the obvious and amazing thrill that is the actual act of the sport, are the different people and new friends you meet (PADI allows you to Go Places, Meet People and Do Things!)
Frederick, a Belgian, was our first buddy and immediately the three of us clicked. He came out on the same speedboat as us and is one of the nicest dudes I've ever met. He's done only his OWD certification, but was able to dive successfully with us. He was paired up with this Chinese dude named Woo, who also joined us on the speedboat. Woo, a nice guy on the surface, is an absolute menace underwater. I don't know if it is because he is from Shanghai and used to pushing his way through crowds, but if you were diving anywhere near this guy you were certain to get fins in the head and have him barrel through you in order to see what you were seeing. His underwater etiquette was sincerely lacking and I gave him a couple of fins in the head and it was hysterical to watch Fred give him sign language underwater to the effect of "back the hell off man!"
We had been searching in earnest for both turtles and sharks ever since we started diving
As mentioned earlier, during the lulls between dives on a few of the dives, we were given the opportunity for a private dingy ride out to a deserted beach on one of the islands. The island we visited with Fred was what we dubbed Sailrock Beach, because of the massive clifftop sail-shaped rock that was sentinel to the island
Other than the turtles, the other animal we had been searching for was a shark. Fred and I were both on a mad quest to find a shark. On our second day, we had also changed DMs to a Thai guy named Boh. He was an incredibly nice and young DM and insanely good at spotting things underwater. This is a skill that cannot be overstated as many of the most interesting things beneath the surface are not large and take a careful eye to notice - such as nudibrances, scorpionfish, lionfish and every type of shrimp and crab out there. That being said, Fred was leaving the boat that afternoon and did not want to depart without witnessing what even a moron with poor eyesight could see - a tame reef or zebra shark. Mary and I had an informal wager between each other where a shark sighting would cause the other person to be their slave for the day
As luck would have it, late into our second dive with Boh we passed through a huge canyon to come across two 3m long zebra sharks. I was trailing and inspecting very close to the bottom, as I often am, and looked up to see Mary's bulging eyes and her hand planted in a vertical straight line across her forehead - the sign for a shark! I quickly swam through the canyon and before my eyes were the two beautiful creatures. Virtually every dive team had converged on this spot at the same time to view the two prehistoric killers. One of them was swimming around while the other one sat peacefully on the bottom. Forget Shark Week on the Discovery Channel or any aquarium, I was probably 1-2m away from this shark sitting on the bottom and there have been fewer awesome feelings in my life. Interestingly, I didn't flinch and only after sitting there in awe of this amazing animal did it dawn on me how close I was swimming to a shark. As if this wasn't enough to vault this dive to the best one of my life, we slowly began our ascent along the rock wall and were rewarded with a lionfish, a crab hiding in the coral and at the top of the rock wall a monstrous napoleon wrasse that was easily 1.5m long and bearing the elongated forehead characteristic of this fish. Zebra sharks, lionfish, a cool crab and a napoleon wrasse all on the same dive within a 10 MINUTE PERIOD! Boh took some great elation photos of all of us at the end of this momentous dive and we sent Fred home on the speedboat with an ear to ear grin
Sadly, we said goodbye to Fred who was heading back on the speedboat on our third day on the boat, but it meant new arrivals and new friends. We quickly became good friends with David (UK), Robert (UK), Kristoffer (Denmark) and Mark/Agnes (UK/Poland). David is a young guy in finance who was about to move to NYC, so we filled him up with some good advice on New York. Robert, interested in politics and economics, and I hit it off immediately as I had someone to chew the fat with on all things global. It had been a while and I had been without an Economist or current periodical, so that was quite a treat (and he gifted me an FT special on India and Globalization from a couple of days earlier). Kristoffer is an active Dane, so we enjoyed many a conversation on travel and tennis. The Australian Open was reaching its triumphant end as we were on the boat, so there was much to discuss in the tennis world. Mark and Agnes were a sweet couple, though with a big age and personality difference. Mark is a pub owner in London while Agnes is a sweet and much younger Pole who wants to travel the world. Their interactions with each other provided for some high quality humor.
Once again, we had some dead time and were offered a visit to a beach. This beach was much smaller than Sailrock Beach, but incredibly beautiful in its own right
We enjoyed several more great dives with our new friends, Mary and I getting better and better with our respective diving skills and our underwater communication between each other. One particular dive was in this very shallow dive site that was pass-through heaven. Many of the dive sites are littered with massive boulders that create all sorts of caves and pass-throughs. With Vincent as our DM and our British friend David and his buddy completing our dive team, we set out for probably the most fun dive I've ever done. It was basically a sequence of pass-throughs up, down, around in the shallows. At one point, I strayed from the team, giving Mary a quick "I'm checking this out sign" and shimmied my way through a hole that barely fit my kit and me. All of a sudden I was sucked through the hole towards the shore as the curent bottlenecked and pushed me through
Thailand and Its Environmental Record
My conversations with Robert and some of the divemasters turned at some point to the Thai concept of a Marine Protected Area and what it really means. As I have seen in northern Thailand, protection of natural areas and animal rights is far from perfect here.
At night, when you look out at the horizon in the Similans, it is littered with boat lights in a line. While pretty at night, I found out that these are all fishing boats. Legally, the boats are not allowed anywhere within the boundaries of the Marine Protected Area, which is why they sit out there. Fishing is an incredibly lucrative business in Thailand, so unfortunately fishermen would be worse off if they substituted their fishing boats for diving or some other tourist-related enterprise. Formerly, there used to be mammoth use of dynamite fishing (now banned), but thankfully there are few reminders of this permanently destructive and unsustainable practice when you are swimming amongst the reefs
Despite the reefs remaining largely untouched my mankind, they are not immune from nature's carnage. Just as mainland Thailand was ravaged by the tsunami of 2004, the reefs of the Similans were greatly impacted by the seismic shock waves underwater. Many coral have been turned completely upside down and regional ecosystems knocked out of balance. While there is not catastrophic damage, it is incredible to see entire reefs flipped around and impacted, despite being 15m or more beneath the surface of the water. Thankfully, there is still plenty of beautiful coral and aquatic life to view, including the elusive manta rays.
Manta Ray Day
South Siam Divers runs two trips a week, Wednesdays and Sundays, away from the Similan Islands to the island of Koh Bon
Diving for manta rays is entirely different than a usual dive. Usually, you get as close to the bottom and coral as possible and slowly snoop around. With manta rays, every single dive team was suspended at mid-depths, with the bottom 10m below us, simply spinning around in circles with cameras ready, looking for this stealthy creatures. There were octopus and banded sea snakes on the bottom, very interesting fish on a normal dive, but none of the divers could be bothered looking at these creatures as we were on the prowl for manta rays.
All of a sudden, the bluish hue of the well-lit water turns into a dark black color, as if a German U-Boat were entering our view. Manta rays are big. Crazy big. Reaching 4-6m wide, they are larger than any fish I've ever seen and dominate the water. Moving like a war machine through the water, they emit no sound at all, so there is the odd effect of watching this mammoth and graceful fish swimming by without any sounds in your ear other than the air you are breathing through your regulator
It was awesome. At one point, there were three or four mantas in view at the same time sweeping by us. Everyone remained remarkably still, not spooking the fish, and the manta rays were putting on a show for us with flyover after flyover. If you move slowly, you can swim alongside the mantas as they swim by and our DM, Stefanie, was basically side swiped by one as she was filming video. The dream is to have one fly straight over your head, creating an eclipse as it completely blocks the sunlight coming in through the surface of the water. I was fortunate enough to be swimming in the right place and followed a manta directly 1m above my head. It was one of the greatest moments of elation I've ever felt. There's a great video of this happening to me and I immediately look up at Mary with a massive grin beneath my regulator and give an emphatic okay signal. Mary just nods and gives me a round of applause. My god, manta rays are incredible creatures and we were truly blessed this day at Koh Bon.
We wound down our remaining day or so on the boat with another few momentous dives. The only awful dive occurred during this time on our morning dive on the fifth day. The dive site was called Boulder City, because a sequence of massive boulders is arranged naturally in such a fashion as to emulate rows of skyscrapers along city blocks
However, apart from the massive current dive, our experience in the Similan Islands was legend. It was one of the best collection of five days that I've spent in my entire life. The underwater world is mesmerizing and during our time here we saw colorful coral, fish, turtles, sharks and manta rays. For the first time in 19 years (since I moved to the US), I missed the Super Bowl (and arguably the greatest one ever) and the epic Australian Open final (Yeah Rafa!) also occurred while we were away. I really couldn't have cared less. There was no where else on the planet I would have rather been.
Mary and I returned to Phuket late in the afternoon on February 2. I rented a motorbike and flew across the island to the camera repair shop an hour away. My camera was fixed and once again worked perfectly and it cost me $3! Mary and I would continue to travel together as Sarah was making her way through Malaysia and Java in Indonesia. We arranged our bus travel to Singapore and left Thailand on Feb 3. I had initially planned on spending 15 days in the country and moving onwards. I ended up staying 29 days, leaving one day before my 2nd Thai visa had expired. I look forward to returning to this wonderful part of the world where what lies beneath the water far outweighs what is above and I could not wait to splash again in Indonesia.