>One of my main reasons, scratch that, the main reason for my returning to Thailand again so soon was my desire to take part in a diving live-aboard in the Similan and Suran Islands. The Similan National Park (whose name is derived from the Malay word, sembilan, meaning nine), are a series of nine islands that lie off the southern west coast of Thiland. This small stretch of the Andaman Sea is home to some of the ocean’s most diverse gathering of life.
Manta Ray, sea horse, nudibranch, and moray eels are all common here. As are leopard sharks and black and white tip reef sharks. The elusive whale shark is also found in this area, though sightings are rare and always seem to have happened “…last week…” just before anyone (and everyone arrived.
It was with a cautious mix of excitement and trepidation that I boarded the West Coast Cruiser, the boat that would be my home for the following four nights and four days. There were eight of us booked for passage. Myself, two Dutch girls from Amsterdam, a quiet and heavily tattooed Swede man, three older Germans, and my bunk-mate (and subsequent dive partner) Hugo, a Scottish gent who had lived for the last eight years in my native Seattle.
It’s frequently remarked on what a small world this is, but the cliche can only truly be appreciated when one experiences a coincidence such as this: to travel half-way around the world and end up sharing a cabin on a boat with with someone who lives a scant six blocks from your most recent home. It’s a small, small world indeed.
The German’s were all PADI certified dive-masters, and thus were separated into their own group, leaving the five remaining of us others to form our own enclave.
Our dive leader Andy, was a rough-humored affable young Brit whose closely cropped hair, hoop earrings, and myriad of tattoos gave him the appearance of a classic sea-faring pirate. The missing front tooth he displayed when he smiled (as he frequently did) did more to lend him character than it did to diminish his rugged good looks.
The first night aboard was spent much the same as the next three would be: drinking beer, swapping tales about diving, laughing, and watching poorly bootlegged DVDs of Will Ferrell comedies.
The sea that first night was rather rough, and our first hours aboard, heavy rain and lightening filled the night sky. I found myself retiring early that night (and indeed every night of the trip), rocked to sleep by the natural ebb and flow of the ocean.
Our first dive the next morning was at 8am, before coffee, but before breakfast. I hadn’t been diving since I’d left Egypt nearly a year and a half before, and was worried that my performance would be poor. I needn’t have worried though, as it turned out none of my colleagues had dived much more recently. We were quite literally and figuratively, all in the same boat.
By the end of the first day my air consumption was reasonable, and my buoyancy was steady. I felt confident though still a tad clumsy.
Sightings that day were good, but a tad typical. A few lion fish, puffer fish, Asian sweetlips, and ever present villainous titan trigger fish. The highlight of that first day for me however, was not biological but geological.
The unique dive site of Elephant Head Rock was an underwater labyrinth of swim throughs, and coral canyons, that delighted and staggered the senses. The number of ways in which this site could be navigated made it a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride of diving. I often found myself thinking we were headed in some new direction, only to find we had doubled back to a familiar location. This sort of dive, while loads of fun with an experienced leader, could be dangerous and bewildering without one. Thankfully Andy knew the site quite well, and was more than up to the task of leading us through it.
The third dive of that second day was memorable for a completely different reason, as it provided us with a glimpse at one of the ocean’s strangest and most extraordinary creatures: the Mata Ray.
It was nearly two in the afternoon when we dove into the murky depths of Koh Bon. Visibility was only around ten meters, and the current was quite brisk. The destination of our dive was the tip of a reef 25 meters down which we had been instructed to swim to and hold on while we awaited the possible appearance of manta ray.
“I sent an SMS to the mantas,” Andy had joked dryly before jumping into the water, “They should be around soon.”
I’m not especially fond of strong currents, and I hate touching anything underwater, so it was with great regret that I found myself pinching the edge of the reef and fighting against the flow of the water. But after several minutes our collective struggle was rewarded. I snapped my head to attention as Andy banged his metal pointer against the aluminum of his tank, and there it was.
Over ten feet wide from tip to tip, it’s wing-like fins adjusting to adapt to the flow of the current. Seeing one of these creatures in person it’s hardly a wonder that their form has so strongly influenced the design of modern stealth planes. It’s dark skin would camouflage it momentarily, and as it moved it seemed to slip in and out of existence like a desert mirage. Sometimes only the white ring of skin around it’s massive mouth would be visible, betraying it’s position to us. Then as quickly as it it had appeared it disappeared, gliding along the current, the sharp tip of its tail disappearing int the inky blackness behind us.
Mantas are oceanic nomads. Great travelers of the sea. The same ones found in these waters have often come up from as far as Australia on their long life journey, and I felt very grateful to have had even a glimpse of one.
Our third day on board brought us out to Richelieu Rock, one of the most famous dive sites in all the world. Made famous by Jacques Cousteau and the crew of his boat Calypso, the reef here was big enough that it took two dives just to circumnavigate the majority of the site. The amount of life on hand in the area was incredible. Teeming with clown fish, angel fish, trigger fish, coronet fish, eel, barracuda, and more. It was a much denser site than could possibly be absorbed. During our second dive on Richelieu I became so distracted that I nearly collided with a crown sea jelly whose head was nearly three feet across. After swimming to avoid contact I hovered in place as it drifted away, watching its translucent insides pump to propel it forward. Nothing in all my life has seemed so strange, so staggeringly alien as this mysterious creature. This was the stuff that inspires science fiction.
Our last day brought us an encounter with leopard shark. These lazy, gum mouthed, dweller of the deep are named for the the radiant, iridescent spots that cover their skin. I felt badly for this particular beast as it swam away each time we approached. Obviously shy, it valued its privacy, which I for one could understand. It seemed only to want to be left alone by these five strange fish that keep hovering around it, gawking. Though I greatly enjoyed seeing it, I felt secretly glad when it swam away from the reef where we would not follow it.
Fourteen dives in four days makes for a lot of time spent underwater, and as our boat headed back towards Khao Lak I was looking forwarding to a day off from diving. When we reached the shore I said good-bye to my new friends, and headed back towards Phuket.
When we reached the office of the dive center where this adventure had all began, I was surprised to find myself signing up for six local dives in the water around Phuket. I had only four more day in the area, and couldn’t help but spend a couple more of them in that strange and fascinating world that exists so close to us, just beneath the surface of our Earth’s sea.