Scuba Diving in the Andaman Sea: Thirty Meters below with Sharks, Rays, and an Octopus
Ready to leave the hustle and bustle of the Thai capital city, Alex and I boarded a night bus at 8:00 PM that brought us to Khao Lak. The 12 hour bus ride was fairly uneventful. The Thai lady, I had the pleasure of sitting next to, fell asleep on my shoulder for the majority of the ride. This confirmed my hypothesis that there is no such thing as a personal bubble in Asia. We arrived in Khao Lak around 8:00 AM the next day and wandered into 7-Eleven to nourish and enrich our bodies with their microwaveable breakfast sandwiches. The rest of the day was spent drinking mango shakes and exposing ourselves to the UV radiation of the sun on the beach.
We woke up early the next morning excited to begin our scuba adventure. Since neither Alex nor I had dove in a year, we needed to take a refresher scuba diving course in the pool to ensure we wouldn’t die thirty meters underwater. After our hour long refresher course, we prepared our goods and boarded our liveaboard boat, the Similan Explorer. The Similan Explorer was to be our home for the three day scuba diving adventure. The Similan Islands are a protected group of islands in the Andaman Sea off the west coast of Thailand. The boat was a seventy foot vessel, fully equipped with all the dive gear we needed to make our next ten dives a success. We departed the mainland and cruised into the night to our first dive location, Koh Bon. The itinerary for our first day was to dive two sites off Koh Similan (Similan No. 8) and two dives off Koh Bon. The dive schedule for our first two days were pretty similar: a dive at 7:00, another dive around 11:00, then a 3:00 dive. Our last dive the first day was a sunset dive and we ended the second day off with a night dive. The last day we only dove twice, in the morning and afternoon, at Koh Tachai. The underwater scenery the first day was amazing. However, most of the time I was focused on not kicking anyone in my dive group in the head and maintaining correct buoyancy in the water. Since all the dives were guided by dive masters, we were split up into separate groups. Alex and I were paired with a French couple and a German none of which seemed to be older than 30.
Our guide’s name was Shaun and he was from the UK. Shaun has over three thousand five hundred dives and has dove all over the world. With all that experience, I’m still not convinced he was prepared for Alex and my elementary fascination with the underwater world. There was an unspecified expectation to stay relatively close to our guide as no one in our group had over 20 dives. Alex and I did an expert job pushing the boundary of how far away we were allowed to veer away from the group. The abundance of underwater critters rocketed the ADD levels in my body to ranks I have never experienced before. I felt myself starting at everything that moved, getting as close as I possibly could and taking in every movement of the specimen that captivated my attention. Blend Alex and my exuberant, positive, and curious attitudes and Shaun’s very sarcastic and British dry sense of humor and you can begin to picture our relationship with Shaun. Every one of our ten dives would begin with me asking Shaun if he “knew what this dive was gonna be?” The correct answer was always, “the best dive ever!” Over our three days, Shaun began to get our humor and would sometimes beat me to the question, ensuring that I knew our next dive was going to be the best dive ever.
The pinnacle moment, in our new found friendship with Shaun, came when we encountered a leopard shark in the water. We witnessed the shark on our second day on a dive off Koh Tachai, an island north of Koh Bon. The shark was four to five feet long and appeared to be very calm and docile. There were about 8 divers admiring the shark as it swam around us. The shark made the mistake of swimming a bit too close to Alex. Unfortunately for Alex, our dive masters knew him well enough to be on the lookout when the shark was close to him. As the dive masters told us when we go back on the boat, they could see his hand reach out to graze the shark. Both Shaun and another guide, Josu, rushed towards Alex and grab his fin to pull him back, but they were too late. His curiosity got the best of him and he broke one of the cardinal rules of scuba diving, don’t touch the f**ing fish. Alex got a brief finger waving underwater and we continued the dive. The real discipline came when we got to the surface. The dive masters all have an inflatable tube they send to the surface to alert boats that divers are ascending. Shaun made sure to keep his tube inflated and when Alex surfaced he was met with a beating. Josu came over with his inflated tube to help beat into Alex’s head that we are not to touch sea life. After the incident happened, everyone was able to have a good laugh about it on the boat. However, we did learn from both Shaun and Josu that our oil on our hands can critically injure sea life. After we were informed of the dangers of touching sea life, Josu enthusiastically asked Alex what the shark felt like. With childlike enthusiasm, Josu confessed that all he wanted to do underwater was hug that shark. To paint a picture of Josu, he is a dreadlocked Spaniard in his mid-thirties who’s been a dive instructor for over 6 years. It is obvious he shared the same fascination with the ocean as Alex and I showed during our trip.
The most impressive dive site we visited as Richelieu Rock. We dove here twice during our second day for our morning and afternoon dives. This location is regarded as the best dive site in all of Thailand. It was the furtherest north we traveled during our whole trip. You could see islands that belonging to Myanmar from the Richelieu. Richelieu Rock is comprised of a few huge stone pillars that have sprouted up through the ocean floor, to a few meters below the surface of the water. The is only one rock visible from the surface at low tide. Less than one meter of it sticks out during this time. The natural underwater columns were coated with varieties of coral, most of which were purple. The visibility of the surface was constantly being blocked by massive and dense schools of fish passing over. The beauty of all of these sights really can’t be explained and just need to be experienced. Even the GoPro footage I recorded doesn’t do any of it justice.
Aside from the leopard shark Alex touched, another highlight from the dive was an octopus we saw. The most incredible part of the octopus was the fact that it could instantly change colors. As we swam up the to octopus it was the light gray color of the sand, once we got to close it turned a dark maroon red and began to swim off and sought the shelter of a piece of coral. We watched two holes, the octopus’ gills, open and close. The color was constantly changing with bands of white pulsating through the outer dark red skin of the octopus. This animal was the highlight of the trip. Another impressive sea creature was a barracuda that appeared to be at least 6 feet long. Shaun said it was the largest one he had ever seen, and it was by far the largest fish I have ever seen in the water.
Life on the boat was almost as fun as our dives in the water. We were surrounded by great people, some of which I plan on staying in contact with for a while. The Thai boat crew was amazing and made some of the best food I have had to date in Thailand. The food was a wide mix of noodle dishes, seafood, and curries. At the end of all our dives we would go up on the top deck of the boat with a beer and enjoy the sunset and watch lightning crack down in the far distance. During all of our dives we were blessed with perfect sunny weather although storms persisted of the horizon. Aside from diving, we were given the opportunity to walk around Koh Similan and Koh Miang. Both of these beaches didn’t feel real. The flour white sand was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. It was not only the whitest sand I had ever seen, it was also the softest. As difficult as it is for me to say, these beaches trumped any beach in Vietnam. I was in awe my entire time on the beach. Most of the time on the beaches was spent wandering exploring the islands. However, on Koh Miang, Alex and I came across some tempting coconuts. After thirty minutes of hammering and pawing, we opened the white tropical nuggets and gorged ourselves. The diving boat has been the highlight of this trip so far and will be an experience I take with me for the rest of my life. I am hooked on scuba diving and being able to do so on a life aboard is the ideal situation.