Similans 1996by Neil Hambleton
In January 1996 2 of us set off for Thailand. First port of call, Phuket. I was expecting a fairly commercialized version of paradise, and was severely disappointed. It was commercialized all right, but unless your idea of paradise contains a large quantity of drunken gweilos with bright red suntans driving around on motorbikes, the paradise part of the equation seemed to be a bit missing. We stayed on Kata beach as it sounded as though it would be fairly quiet. Quiet is not really a word I would associate with Phuket, every man and his dog owns a motorbike, and every tourist and his dog hires one. Consequently the air is filled with the dulcet tones of lawnmower engines. The beaches were pleasant enough, but were busier than I’d expected. Prices were higher than I’d expected. Still the sea food was good and we ate well, including a pair of tiger prawns, who looked quite capable of taking on your average tiger.
After a couple of days of eating we stocked up on crackers, biscuits, ginger and sea sick tablets ready for the boat trip. This was on M/V Fantasea, which is a 100 ft former North Sea Patrol boat. We’d chosen this because it was the most substantial liveaboard available. Since Louisa is not the world’s greatest sailor, we decided big is beautiful. The boat takes 15 divers which worried me a bit. Having dived at resorts where you all get in the water and follow the divemaster around, I was not looking forward to diving in traffic. However there was no problem. There were 2 divemasters, Mark Strickland and Nigel Something, who were available to lead guided tours if you wanted. But it was all very informal, you could leave their tours at any time you wanted, or not join them at all. We were organized in buddy pairs, and there was only one dive where we all dived together. The divemasters were easy to recognize underwater - Mark’s fins were taller than Louisa, and Nigel’s wetsuit was in far worse condition than the off-the-shoulder little number that Suzi Beach used to wear. The diving was very well organized, and safety was emphasized. Everyone was issued with safety sausages, as there was current at most of the dive sites. Mark Strickland, the ‘Cruise Director’, recommended 5 minute safety stops at 5m. after every dive.
The first night the boat headed out of Phuket and towards the Similans, arriving at around 4:30 am. Unfortunately the cabins smelt of diesel, and this combined with the motion was not good news. Louisa spent the night under a table on the dining deck, and neither of us slept well. Since both of us were just getting over colds we were a bit worried that we were going to spend an awful lot of money on a snorkelling trip. After the first dive Mark reluctantly suggested that we try Actifed. Some people managed 5 dives the first day. We did 3, because we were asleep during the rest. Louisa in particular had great problems keeping her eyes open. The following day I asked what was the difference between Actifed and Sudafed. It turns out that sudafed is not available in Thailand. This is because it acts as a mild stimulant, and the Thai truck drivers had been using it to keep themselves up all night (as it were). After a large number of late night accidents, the Thai Government had opted to ban it. Actifed uses the same active ingredient, but also contains something to counteract this stimulant effect. Unfortunately for some people this means it can induce drowsiness. Since we still had the ear problems, we switched to sudafed, as I had brought most of Hong Kong’s stock along. After that we had no more trouble - except I couldn’t sleep. I am not recommending that people take decongestants and if you do, be aware of the risks, one of which is Reverse Ear. So be careful with decongestants, and if Actifed does trigger drowsiness don’t take it before a dive, unless in true Mafia style you want to sleep with the fishes.
First dive was at Similan number 9. Nigel checked everyone’s buoyancy at the start of the dive, which was on a gently sloping reef bordered by a sandy bottom. On the bottom was a field of garden eels. We also saw a large moray being cleaned by some shrimps. lots of fish and a large octopus. Second dive was on the western side of the Similans. This side is rockier, and gets more current. Loads to see again, including a juvenile black ribbon eel, and a nudibranch and its eggs. Third dive was a night dive with lots of sleeping parrotfish, plus an eel swimming around looking for his dinner.
After a couple of days of excellent diving in the Similans we headed north towards the Burma border. We stopped at Ko Tachai for a pre-breakfast dive. This was my favourite dive site. As we went down we were surrounded by thousands of silversides. They were being harassed by dozens of trumpet fish, who, unlike us, were not postponing their breakfast. It was spectacular. We dropped down the mooring line. There was quite a lot of current, so we headed into it first. We swam over a ridge, and there on the bottom was a 4 ft leopard shark. We dropped down to within 4 feet of it, before it lifted up and swam off. Ten minutes later we came across another on a different part of the reef, and were able to sit next to it for ages. Fish life was very prolific, wherever you looked were Moorish Idols, Bannerfish, Jacks, Triggerfish, Lionfish, Parrotfish, Filefish, Scorpion fish, Surgeons, Groupers, Boxfish, Butterfly and Angel fish, Batfish, often with cleaner wrasse. We came back up the mooring line past the dining trumpet fish again. Next dive was at Richelieu Rock. This is a pinnacle that sticks up from the sea bed at 35 metres, and comes within a metre of the surface. There was even more life here. Our first dive here ended watching 2 pairs of courting cuttlefish. They were changing colours, and had a brilliant electric blue border. We also bumped into a large moray. This thing was huge. Its body was about the same width as my thighs - both of them. We did 4 dives here as it is a popular site for whale sharks - but we didn’t see any. We saw similar things to Ko Tachai, but there were far more Scorpion fish, and we always saw cuttlefish.
Day 4 was one of those days that just got better as the day went on. That was just as well, as it got off to a pretty poor start. First dive before breakfast was at Richelieu Rock - not much to see, and the current was starting to get stronger. Second dive was at the same site. Because of my ears it took us a long time to get down. Consequently we missed the rock. We hit bottom at 35 metres, but fortunately I’d taken a bearing so we tried to head towards it. Mark had told us that the bottom gently shelved up towards the rock, so how difficult could it be? Well it took us 10 minutes to get from 35 metres to 34.4 metres, against the current, by which time we were both knackered. I was starting to have trouble focusing, so we headed up. We saw a school of barracuda, and a jelly fish. When we got up, we were so far from the boat that 2 other boats came to get us. Next we headed back to Ko Tachai. First dive there we had a lot of current. Someone was pinging away with a tank banger for a while. Louisa was keen to find out why, and I was keen to keep us out of the current. I won. It was an OK dive, until the last few minutes when we saw a Marbled Stingray. It had a 8 ft. wingspan, and Mark later told us that he hadn’t seen one that big for 4 years. It looked so graceful gliding slowly over the reef. This was not enough to cheer up Louisa, who had found out what the banging was about. We had missed a whale shark, needless to say I wasn’t too popular. Well back on board we had a vote - we decided to sacrifice the night dive and stay at Ko Tachai on the offchance that the whale shark was still there. Mark and Nigel led us to where Mark had seen the whale shark. It just seemed to appear out of the gloom. As we got closer we could see the spotted skin more clearly. It turned gradually and headed off into the current. Louisa waved it goodbye, but then it turned around and came back. When it got within touching distance Louisa’s eyes seemed to be bigger than her mask. It swam straight towards us, with the rest of the group trailing along behind it. It swam just above us and headed to the surface. We went up with it. Then it turned again and ducked down below us. We swam over the top of it for a bit longer, before it got too deep for my ears and we had to let it go. We were with it for about 10 minutes and saw it from almost every angle. Without a doubt this was the highlight of the trip.
The following day we were back at the Similans - we dived at Elephant Rock. We saw 2 white tip reef sharks. Their second dorsal fin is almost as big as the first, and they are slim and rather wimpy looking sharks. Later we dived along at East of Eden, a reef, with quite a steep drop-off. We went down to the bottom to see a long-nosed hawkfish on some black coral. Near the reef top we saw a large lobster. A bit later we came across a banded sea snake. This was quite a small one, and very cute. Sea snakes are very poisonous, but also very placid. Mark described seeing someone trying to get a good photo of one, by grabbing it in the middle and holding it at arm’s length in front of his camera. Since these things are air breathing animals, this was a bit daft. Later at another site we saw another leopard shark and tons of ‘small’ fish. In addition there were some Crown of Thorns starfish. These were very colourful - they looked purple and black, but in torchlight became more red. Within a couple of metres I counted 15 lionfish of 2 different types.
Day 6 we did 2 dives at Hin Muang and Hin Daeng. These were a little disappointing. We did see a school of 30-40 barracuda, a large school of rainbow runners, along with some red fire gobies. There were loads of anemones and one very big puffer fish in a cave. The rest of the day was spent drying the gear out, and there was a party in the evening as we headed back to Phuket.
We certainly overcatered on the food front as the food on board was brilliant. Given that the kitchen (galley for those who like to show off their nautical knowledge) was tucked in at the front of the dive deck, and was no bigger than mine in Shatin, the chef was a bit of a miracle worker. In fact all of the boat crew were excellent, they were all very helpful and friendly. The dive team were also excellent.