With the threat of terrorism and the SARS outbreak dissuading many people from travelling I thought this might be an opportunistic time to travel. But where to go? There were so many places being offered at discount prices. I finally settle on Phuket, Thailand, the diving Mecca of the region. I knew I was taking a risk going on a dive holiday here at the start of the monsoon season, but I had heard reports that it can have its rewards at this time of year and most dive operators were still running. The next problem was were to dive? There are numerous day trips from wrecks to exotic islands and live aboard diving offering some of the best sights in the region if not the world. After checking the prices and availability via the internet, I decided to arrange everything once we arrived. After a six hour flight, my son and I arrived at Phuket to sunny skies and warm weather! What more could we ask for? The airport was void of the porters I had been cautioned about; only essential staff seemed to be present. Terrorist threats and SARS had definitely taken it toll. The journey to our hotel at Patong beach provided us with extremes of weather I had not witnessed before. From hot and sunny one minute to pouring with rain the next. The rain was so heavy rivers of water two feet deep were rushing down the road forcing cars to pull over and stop. I wondered if I had made the right destination choice and if we would even get to do any diving.
The shopping areas in Phuket are similar to Bali but on a larger scale with more variety and a nightlife buzzes. Pubs are everywhere and so are the girls who want you to sit with them! The shopping areas seem to stay open well into the night, selling cheap imitations of everything you can think of. Tuk Tuk (taxi) operators are never more than a meter or two away so finding a lift back to the hotel was never a problem. Once again the rain was bucketing down but never for much longer than about 20 minutes and then the sun would come out and do it’s best to burn any exposed portions of skin you may have neglected to cover. But this was the tropics and we were there on the edge of the monsoon season.
Finding a dive store to take you to one of the numerous dive sites is not challenging as there are hundreds of them. After getting the blessing from my lovely generous and most gorgeous wife, I decided to spend the extra money and catch a live aboard to the Similian Island up the west coast of Thailand. There had been numerous reports of whale sharks in the area and Manta’s are practically guaranteed, so with much anticipation a 3-night, 4-day trip was booked. We had the choice to leave on any day as they had a high-speed boat that takes you to the live-aboard already at the islands. We booked on the first one available!
After an early pickup of 6:30am to ensure we arrived just after breakfast, we only missed the first of the five dives for the day. The trip over was a comfortable ride on tranquil water that allowed most passengers to catch up on some sleep and make up for the early start. Ninety minutes later we arrived at the live-aboard. Crystal clear water with a turquoise blue colour to match pictures in any travel brochure greeted us. We arrived just in time for the briefing of dive two. Our first dive was to be at East of Eden, this site is used to advertise the Similan’s due to it magnificent corals. Having only bought my lycra suit I was hoping it wouldn’t be to cold. We were assigned an equipment area, which would remain ours for the duration of our stay, as a measure so equipment would not be mixed up. A guide was offered and we would be in a small group of four, but being the only photographer on board I did not want to hold the others up while they waited while I took pictures. After a quick word to the guide explaining my qualifications it was decided I was to go my own way with my son. I could not get in the water quick enough and I was not disappointed. With the water temperature at 30oC and visibility around 30 meters we dived amongst coral formations so impressive that a picture could not do it justice. One huge formation in the middle of the site was covered in every sort of coral you could imagine. This is what the guide had described in the briefing and I could see why this is used to advertise the islands. Upon surfacing the boat would retrieve you from wherever you managed to end up, a safety sausage is a necessity here or you could end up a dot in the sea with a boat desperately trying to find you.
We completed three more dives that day including a night dive. Most of the sites were coral covered granite boulders some more than twenty meters high forming swim-throughs and walls in every direction. The coral’s were healthy and abundant at all the sites with baitfish and coral fish everywhere! But I wanted to know were where the big pelagic? We had not come across any! Others had mentioned seeing a white tip or Leopard shark but they had eluded us.
The next morning began with another early start. Breakfast was served at 7am so our first dive could commence at 8am. This dive was at North Point Pinnacle on the open sea side of island number 9. It wasn’t long into this dive that we sighted a large school of big barracuda, two leopard sharks and some turtles. This combined with the coral formations and granite boulder structures made for an unforgettable dive! But hey could it get any better? The next dive was eagerly awaited and after a sensible three hour surface interval in which most of those on board went snorkelling it commenced. Christmas Point, was the name of this site and it wasn’t long before more barracuda and leopard sharks were spotted. Engrossed in picture taking I almost missed a large Manta Ray which had come up behind us. Luckily my son was keeping watch and quickly alerted me to its presence. It swam with ease and grace and with hardly an effort disappeared into the distance. Unfortunately this was to be the only manta siting during our trip. That evening we sat on the deck of the boat and enjoyed the splendour of Mother Nature as she put on a wonderful show of lightning from a storm in the distance. But this also saw a change in weather conditions and with that a drop in visibility to about 15m. Over the next few days we visited every open site on the islands and each was just as good as the next. With more barracuda, leopard sharks and turtles to accompany the garden eels, large numbers of moray eels, white tip and grey reef sharks, blue spotted rays, trevally, giant trevally and a school of about 30 large parrot fish in a feeding frenzy no more than a few feet away from us just to name a few. Alas our trip came to an end and it was with great sadness that we boarded the afternoon speedboat back to the mainland. Even though we had picked the cheapest live-aboard we could find, South-Siam Divers, it was well run. The guides knew the sites well and the food and accommodation were excellent.
Upon returning back to our hotel in Phuket, we headed straight out to see what day trip diving was available. It is possible to go to any of the local sites, as all the dive stores seem to work together following different schedules so as not to crowd the sites. We found one that would take us to three of the most commonly dived day sites; King Cruiser Wreck, Koh Doc Mai and Shark Point. Once again an early pick up at 7am and we were taken to the port in Phuket City on the other side of the island. Our first stop was the King Cruiser Wreck, a passenger ferry that had hit the reef and sunk to the bottom at 32m approximately 6 years ago. The fish life had well and truly moved in and occupied every part of the wreck. A large contingent of Lionfish lived here. The visibility was only 7m and entering the wreck would have been very unwise as the silt that sat in the water didn’t allow torch penetration of more than a meter or two. The wreck was quite large; 83m in length, and just navigating around the outside warranted a whole dive. It was then onto Shark Point, so named for the amount of Leopard shark that live there. But they eluded us however and we spent the entire dive mesmerised by the large amount of anemones that seemed to cover the ocean floor. There were hundreds of them, most playing host to clown fish. But the best site was left to last! Koh Doc Mai is a large rock that sits out of the water half way between Phuket and the Phi Phi Islands. The sides of this rock drop straight down to the ocean floor over 30m. This creates a wall of corals and fish life, lionfish and moray eels are in abundance. I even managed to get a baby moray eel to snuggle up to my hand, an experience I will never forget. We swam along this wall carried by a slight current for 45 minutes before surfacing. This was to be the end of our diving in Thailand, a truly excellent dive holiday location that caters to all levels of diver and importantly my sound judgement on holiday destination choice remained intact. Next stop the Solomon Islands.