12 May 2012

Diving in Similans Thailand

In early March I spent 5 days on a live-aboard trip to the Similan Islands off the west coast of Thailand.  I'm not sure how I feel about the trip ... 

I had just recently joined the ranks of the unemployed and was faced with a great deal of uncertainty with regards to my future, but as I usually find dive trips very relaxing I thought that joining some friends on this trip would be a great way to give me space to wait out and see what the universe had waiting for me.  But I found the trip disappointing.
The weather didn't play ball and it was uncharacteristically wet and stormy for most of the 5 days, impacting our comfort on board the boat and the visibility and general diving conditions.  As the trip progressed I found myself getting increasingly frustrated with the lack of "interesting" sea life and the seeming inability of the guides to find it and when it was found you were in a queue with everyone on your boat along with divers from 3 or 4 other boats that were in the area to look at stuff, which frustrated me even more as I am still learning how to take pictures underwater and need time to sort out the settings and compose myself (and the picture) before rushing on.  

One of the questions I constantly asked myself during the trip was whether or not my expectations were realistic and if it was not my emotional state and the weather conditions (neither of which were the fault of the operator) that were causing me to feel disappointed or was it really just that the Similan's just were not a great dive location.  I don't think that I'm a fussy diver - expecting the world from all locations.  In fact, some of my favourite spots are scorned by others as "being too difficult to find stuff" and "too boring" as I'm happy to just poke about under every rock to see what I can find, but in a new location it is useful when the guide helps to show you the "resident" sea-life (a great deal of the macro - small - sea-life doesn't move far and you'll find them in the same neighbourhood dive after dive after dive) so you can cover more ground during the dive rather than constantly hunting.  The Similian's are also known for seeing the big-stuff - manta's and whale sharks, but I consider seeing those creatures a special treat and am content to hunt around for the small stuff (and I will admit it's because they're easier to photograph as they don't move as quickly as fish!).
Manta in the distance with divers waiting around at Manta Point
I felt more justified in my "poor guide" assessment at Manta Point on the 3rd day.  I was one of the first people to descend and arrive at Manta Point where we waited for the mantas to pass by.  Fairly shortly thereafter a manta came into view and I got the opportunity to watch as it effortlessly glided through the waters, albeit at a distance before it turned and went back out into the blue.  We waited a while and then we started to make our way back to the boat when I heard someone banging their tank furiously.  I turned in the direction of the sound and there it was effortlessly slicing through the water.  It was an amazing experience, but despite having spent 5 or so minutes with this gentle creature and all the noise the divers had made to attract the attention of others - one group on our boat didn't see it.  They said the guide "was doing something else".  We went back down for a second dive an hour or so later, but although we caught another glimpse of the gentle creature - it was nowhere near as close or intense as on the previous dive.
Manta and Jack*
But the trip did have its highlights - unexpected, which probably made them more special.  After the disappointment at Manta point we made for Koh Tachai Pinnacle where we heard there'd been a whale shark 2 days earlier.  I wasn't expecting anything and it was very dark so taking pictures was not easy.  So I was just swimming along when I heard a scream - yes, sound does carry through water - and I looked up and there it was a manta. I picked up my camera and just shot as many pictures of it as I could.  After a while it disappeared and we started ascending when it came around again.  Click, click and click until our air was running low and we had to surface.  Later, when we were back on the boat I looked at the timestamps on the pictures we had spent 8 minutes with the manta, but it seemed way longer than that.
I was still on a high from our amazing encounter with the manta the next day when we descended for the 2nd last dive of our trip at Boonsong Wreck.  The visibility was poor and I looking forward to a relaxing dive, just enjoying the sensation of floating and the heady rush of breathing Ounder pressure when after the sighting of a beautiful blackspotted moray the guide (same one who missed the manta's above) started swimming away from the wreck and beckoned for me to follow and there, a short distance away was a feeding frenzy.  A needlefish had died and fallen to the ground and the other fish were taking full advantage of this sudden windfall.  When we came down about 2 hours later for our second dive there was no sight of the fallen fish.
Reef Octopus "sunning itself" as we swam by
One of the amazing things that I noticed about the diving was how the fish life just ignored you.  There were heaps of parrot fishes and I even had the opportunity of swimming past one at a cleaning station.  Usually the sound of bubbles and the sight of a "big black" unknown thing is enough to make all the fish dash for cover, but it ignored me completely and I watched in amazement as the cleaner wrass ducked back into its gill as if I wasn't there.  In hindsight, I did get some good pictures, although in my mind nowhere near as good as those that I took in Bali or Lombok.

* Picture taken by myself with post processing by Doug Kofsky

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