Thailand - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 254 (64)

Similan Islands

Wednesday 17th November

Our first night aboard the Mariner-1 was not a restful one. For starters, the air conditioning was quite powerful and we received little relief from the small blankets in the cabins. As the boat rocked and swayed in the water, the seals on the windows kept squeaking. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a single spot to wedge something into to try to minimise the noise. There is only one window in the cabin, next to the top bunk where I slept, so Sandy was spared that little annoyance for the most part. She did, however, have to bend down to get into her bunk at floor level and managed to either hit her head or scrape her back at least a couple of times whilst getting in and out. I swear she’s becoming more and more accident-prone. If she isn’t slipping on something, she’s banging her head or knocking herself against something. I’m starting to think she’s got a screw loose somewhere. Well, she did marry me after all.

With the excitement of the next three days of intense diving to look forward to, we probably wouldn’t have gotten any real rest even if we were sleeping in the soft and motionless bed of a luxury hotel. Sleep deprivation aside, we were up and ready fairly early for what for me at least would be the first of four dives of the day. Sandy plans on skipping the night dive. All the divers on the boat are separated into small dive groups of two to four people with a dive master assigned to each group. The dive coordinator decides who will dive with whom based on everybody’s experience and purpose on the boat. Learner divers, or divers on a course, are put together whilst other divers are joined up with people of similar dive experience. With the exception of our Thai dive master, all of the dive staff on the boat are Europeans. Panya, our assigned dive master, is a very happy chap but doesn’t speak a lot of English – or anything else for that matter. He seems to understand everything we say to him, although I’m not entirely convinced of this, but always seems to want to respond using smiles and hand gestures.

Before our first dive, everybody assembled on the main deck again, where the dive co-ordinator gave a dive briefing. He went over the layout of the dive site, the various depths and the planned dive profiles as well as which groups were assigned to which dive masters. There isn’t enough room on the lower deck for everybody to kit up all at the same time, so each of the five groups of divers was assigned a number from one to five, which indicated the order that they were to go below to gear up and get in. These numbers are to rotate throughout the next few days to allow everybody a chance to be the first group into the water.

I had prepped the underwater camera equipment last night before nodding off so all I had to do this morning was to dip the whole thing into the dunk tank to make sure that it wasn’t leaking. This is all but a formality since there are two O-rings with the underwater camera housing and it would have to be a pretty catastrophic failure for them both to fail. It’s a necessary evil nevertheless and I like to be doubly sure about these things. There are some small air spaces around the various buttons around the camera housing and whenever I dunk the camera in water, I always get nervous watching these bubbles slowly escape. I watched these bubbles float away this time also but they continued to escape after about two seconds and this seemed a bit odd so I pulled the whole thing out of the dunk tank and, sure enough, to my horror, there was a leak. About a centimetre of water was now already inside the housing. I swiftly whipped the housing open to remove the camera as fast as I could. The camera did get slightly wet but not for long enough for water to seep inside. It seems my prudence paid off as a couple of seconds more and enough water would have flooded the housing to cause serious if not permanent damage to the camera. By now, everyone else in our group was about to jump into the water and there wasn’t time to sort out the problem with the leak so I decided to leave it until I could sort it out after the dive. My first Similan Islands dive would be sans camera and I pondered for a moment whether or not I would now be very lucky or unlucky to see something particularly interesting such as a whale shark or leopard shark.

This first dive was a fair bit deeper than we normally go but the visibility was stunning with a good thirty meters or more of all round view. When diving at Koh Tao, we had to stay relatively close to the dive master to avoid losing him but here, however, I could hang around for a good length of time and still maintain good visual contact with all the other divers around us. There were quite a bit less soft corals that with the previous dive sites we’ve visited here in Thailand with a lot more soft corals and plenty of rocks and sand banks. All in all, it was a very successful dive and I managed to come up with fifty bar of air pressure. As a typically heavy breather, I usually come up with less than that. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending how you look at it, we never saw and sharks or anything particularly spectacular.

I think we were the first group back on the boat after completing our mandatory safety stop and I was quickly drooling over the extremely tasty smell of breakfast coming from the galley. I sneaked a quick look at what was cooking and was completely delighted to see, amongst other things, sausages, bacon, fried eggs and chips all being prepared - yummy.

Breakfast was absolutely scrumptious and I managed a good, two, hearty helpings of everything. I told myself that it would be good to have a sizeable breakfast just in case the rest of the meals were not to my liking. I find that I can quite easily delude myself like this.

After polishing off a couple of plates full of food and signalling my extreme satisfaction to the Thai cooks accordingly, I went back to the cabin to see what the problem was with the underwater housing. Once again, I had to completely strip the whole thing down, dry it off, remove and re-grease the O-rings. The problem turned out not to be with the O-rings as I had earlier feared but with how the camera housing was mounted to the strobe arm assembly. It was screwed into place in such a way as to prevent the two halves of the casing from being able to completely close with enough pressure for the O-rings to be able to work correctly. Once I figure this out, I adjusted the mounting bracket to prevent this adverse pressure from being applied and was able to get the whole thing to close correctly again. I quick trip to the dunk tank was enough to verify this and I was again satisfied that everything was ship-shape and Bristol-fashion.

During breakfast, the captain moored the boat in a secluded bay and it looked like a good snorkelling spot so I asked the dive co-ordinator if it was okay for me to get in. This wasn’t a problem and I wasted no time in donning my fins, mask and snorkel. With camera in hand, off I swam towards the shallows to see what I could see. I spent about forty-five minutes swimming around aimlessly and saw quite a few interesting things, including a small turtle, although the turtle was too deep for me to get close enough to get a really good shot of it. Somewhat exhausted after nearly an hour, I made my way back to the boat where we were soon thereafter set off to our next dive site.

The second dive of the day proved to be much more successful than the first as far as what we saw and I was particularly glad to have a fully functioning camera with me this time. The next dive briefing was given by one of the dive masters as opposed to the dive co-ordinator – they rotate the dive briefings between all the dive staff. One of the things they tell us during the dive briefing is what we should look out for or expect to see. At this particular dive site, there is a resident moray eel called Emma that can usually be found at a specific spot, just beneath a sea fan. We reached our dive depth not far from where Emma lived and I was completely stunned at what we saw. Moray eels are ordinarily quite reclusive and you are usually lucky to see little more than their head sticking out of their hide but in this case, the near see-through sea fan resting just above the surface of the sandy sea bed was the only form of cover Emma had and we could see here entire length quite clearly. She must have been at least two meters or more in length with a circumference similar to a watermelon. Naturally, I couldn’t pass up such a stunning opportunity to take snap some clear shots of a completely exposed, fully grown moray eel and slowly moved in with the camera held out in front of me. Moray eels have very sharp teeth and can be aggressive so I made sure to keep a respectable distance but I was completely unprepared for what happened next. Although there were several divers in the area, Emma looked straight at my camera and slowly came out from under her sea fan towards me. She kept on coming and I was suddenly and acutely anxious that she might be on the offensive. Other than the sea fan under which she lived, there was little else but the sandy seabed for a radius of several meters around and I was instinctively trying to prevent my fins from trying to disturb the bottom composition as I tried to move away. Unfortunately, this meant that I was more clumsy in the water than was Emma and she came completely out into the open with her full length undulating towards me. Once I managed to gain a bit of height, I managed to turn and head off out of her way but I was convinced in my own mind that I was in danger of being attacked had I stayed there any longer. It was an extremely tense and thrilling experience but I managed to keep enough of my exposure to take a few really good shots of her. I later learned that videographers are known to visit Emma with a piece of chicken stuck to their camera housings – not to feed her but to entice her out from under her sea fan so as to get better close ups of her. One of the dive masters told me that she probably associated my camera with a potential food source and that this was more than likely the explanation for why she came after me and me alone. I think this practice of baiting is completely deplorable.

Emma was not the only thrill for us on this dive. We saw a very nice sea snake with black and white stripes undulating through the water shortly thereafter. It was about one centimetre in diameter and about sixty centimetres or so long. I tried my best to get some good shots but the camera had a lot of difficulty in locking focus on the continually moving and very slender shape. I was so thrilled about the sea snake that I tried to get as close to it as I could. I later learned that this particular sea snake is ten times more venomous than the most venomous land snake and had I been bitten by it, I would probably have been dead within a couple of minutes. The head and jaw of this snake is so small, however, that the only place on your body that it could possibly sink its teeth into would be the small webs of skin between your fingers. One of the dive masters later told me that all you have to do to protect yourself from an attack from one of these snakes is to clench your fingers into a fist so that there is no way for them to bite you. In fact it’s extremely unlikely for one of these gentle beast to want to bite you to begin with and divers are known to actually pick them up without perturbing them even.

As if the huge moray eel and sea snake weren’t enough excitement for one dive, we next stumbled into the largest lobster I’ve yet seen either in water or on land. It was sitting under a rock, as they normally are, with only its huge, white tentacles and legs initially in view. I was able to get the camera into a good enough angle to get a nice shot of just enough of the front of it to suggest its size. This photo ended up coming out particularly well but I was glad it didn’t decide to come and snap at me.

At fifty bar or pressure on my gauge, I signalled Panya, our dive master, and he motioned for me to ascend to the safety stop level. On the way there, I passed another huge pinnacle of coral and noticed another photo opportunity so I moved in to take a couple of shots. I must have gotten carried away here without realising it, as the next time I checked my gauge it read just ten bar of pressure. This was dangerously low so I made my way to Panya and motioned that I was nearly out of air and asked to buddy breathe from his spare octopus. He checked my pressure gauge and I noted a distinctly alarmed look of surprise on his face as he thrust his spare octopus into my mouth.

After breathing from Panya’s tank for the remainder of the safety stop, I switched back to my own regulator, slowly surfaced and we all got back onto the boat. So let’s see then: I nearly narrowly escaped attack by a huge, toothy, moray eel, got rather close to a snake whose venous is strong enough to kill me outright within a couple of minutes, managed to get my hands close enough to a lobster large enough to bite clean through one of my fingers and, to top it all off, nearly ran out of air. If nothing else, this was a very interesting dive.

Lunch was served shortly after the rest of the divers made it safely back to the boat. Sandy and I join Panya in our dive group with two New Yorkers, one of which is a vary large man with huge lungs and he goes through air just as quickly as do I, although the main reason for my high rate of air consumption, other than the angst generated by all these near death experiences, is my constant swimming around from one photo opportunity to another. As a result of us two ‘breathers’, we are usually up and back on board before everybody else  - even if we aren’t the first into the water.

When we arrived in Khao Lak yesterday afternoon, we completed various forms and one of these was specific to any food allergies, likes or dislikes that we have. For the most part, the main meals on board are to be Thai food and this means rice. I mentioned on my form that I was not keen on rice and asked if they could load a few more potatoes instead. This they obligingly did and I was pleasantly surprised to see that in addition to the rice that was being dished out, there were two, large, potatoes to one side that had been sliced in two and dressed with herbs and garlic. When I passed through the line with my plate, I was told that these were for me and, once again, motioned my gratitude to the Thai cooking staff. When I sat down to eat them, however, it became abundantly clear that the cooks were not that used to dealing with potatoes and these that I had been given could not have been boiled for more than a couple of minutes as they were rock hard. I couldn’t really eat them but to leave them on my plate seemed like it was showing disrespect since they had gone to all the trouble to begin with. When the coast was clear, I surreptitiously threw first one half and then the other overboard. Nobody needed to know.

I doubted very much that the third dive of the day was going to be anywhere near as eventful, not to mention life threatening, as the second and, sure enough, this turned out to be the case. With a higher concentration of hard corals compared to soft and with a lot more rock and sand around, the photo opportunities here do seem to be a little less prevalent that was the case in, say, Koh Lanta. Having said that, however, we have already seen several things here that we’ve not seen anywhere else. It isn’t that the diving here is any less interesting than anywhere else, it’s just that it’s taking more and more to pique our interest now that we are gaining more and more experience as divers.

Fresh sandwiches were served as a snack after the third dive but I contented myself with a few pieces of fruit that are always available for all the guests. The one and only night dive that is scheduled for this trip will also take place at this dive location so the boat will remain here for the next few hours. Amongst other things, the dive co-ordinator keeps a very good track of surface intervals not only for the guest divers but also for the dive masters who come out on these live-aboard trips week after week.

I’m now getting very good at eating bananas. What they also tend to do after each dive is to lay out a few bowls of pineapple and melon slices to help with removing the taste of salt water from your mouth.

Not everybody participated in the night dive. For one things, many of the guests were by now quite exhausted. As a result, the dive groups were split up a bit and we found ourselves in another group with another dive master. Other than a small lobster that was slinging to the side of a huge rock face, there really wasn’t very much to see during the night dive. We were diving in and around several huge boulders and the current was washing through and pushing us around in various directions so I found it difficult to keep the camera in one spot for very long.

At the end of every dive, when we all surface to the five-meter safety stop level, the dive master inflates a bright orange safety sausage with a weight on the end of a long piece of string tethered to it. Once inflated, the sausage shoots to the surface to alert the boat of the location of the divers. At the end our the night dive, the dive master must have lost his grip on the sausage tether and ended up having to snorkel around looking for it when we had all got back onto the boat. He found it in the end.

Dinner was meatballs and what looked like shrimp soup with various other soups and what have you. With the last dive of the day now behind us, I cracked open the underwater camera housing to offload the pictures and re-load the batteries. I showed a slideshow of the photos we collected today and everybody seemed impressed – particularly of the very nice shots I got of Emma charging me.

It wasn’t very long after that that I crept into my bunk and fell fast asleep within a couple of minutes. What an action packed day this first day of the live-aboard has been so far.