Thailand - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 255 (65)

Similan Islands

Thursday 18th November

Due to popular consent, the air-conditioning in the cabin deck was turned down a few degrees last night and I didn’t wake up freezing this morning like I did yesterday. The Mariner-1 is a marvellous boat to dive from but there does always seem to be a smell of diesel fumes along the cabin deck. You get used to it after a few minutes but it always hits you when you go down there after being outside on one of the upper decks for a while.

During the initial boat briefing from the other day, the dive co-ordinator pointed out the very well stocked medical kit. All sorts of things to aid the determined diver can be found here from seasick tablets to decongestants. Since I woke up this morning with a bit of a stuffed nose, I decided to take a couple of the Actifed decongestants. Without the ability to equalise, because you are all stuffed up, there would be no question of not being able to dive and a diving live-aboard is certainly not the best time to be afflicted by this. The Actifed tablets work wonders when taken about forty-minutes before diving. There is a potential problem with this quick fix remedy, however. Depending on the length of the dive, there is the possibility of the decongestant wearing off once you are at depth. If your nasal passages block up again during the dive, you can get what is called a reverse block – the inability to allow the compressed air to escape again from the air spaces behind your ears. Since you have to surface when you run out of air whether or not you can equalise, the worst-case scenario would be that you could burst your eardrum. Essentially, then, in this scenario you are trading your ears for your life. This is only real problem in extreme cases and you’d be pretty daft to want to dive with such a severe case of congestion to begin with anyway.

It wasn’t until I took the Actifed tablets this morning that we both realised we’d forgotten, again I might add, to take the Doxycycline anti-malaria tablets last night. I asked the dive co-ordinator whether there was any malaria present around the Similan Islands and he assured me there wasn’t. This is now the second time we’ve forgotten to take our prophylaxis since we’ve been on the Doxycycline regimen.

Preparation is key to diving and we are usually very prepared for any given dive but every now and then we do manage to miss something or other. Yesterday there was a last minute problem with the underwater camera housing and this morning I couldn’t find my body suit. My all-encompassing, thin, Lycra body suit makes getting into the wetsuit very much easier. It also prevents the wetsuit from clinging to my body and this allows for just a little extra flexibility in my limbs as I’m diving. When we get out of the water, there is nothing we need to do other than remove our fins, sit down and guide our tanks into the racks, un-strap ourselves from the BCD and move onto the upper deck out of the way of the other divers exiting the water. After the final dive of the day yesterday, I can’t remember what I did with my body suit after I took it off. Ordinarily, I keep it on during the day. It’s a hassle taking it off and putting it on after every dive and keeping it on allows me to stay out in the sun without the need for suntan lotion, which I hate using to begin with. Whatever happened to it was a mystery for now so I donned my wetsuit without it for the first dive today.

Ever since we started diving, we’ve been looking forward to encounters with sharks. The Holy Grail would be a sighting of a whale shark but any shark will do. Since we arrived in Thailand, we’ve come very close to seeing sharks, being on dives where they have been spotted by others, but are still yet to see one for ourselves. This morning’s dive would turn out to be a real thrill for us. Leopard sharks are known to be common in these waters and we finally spotted one today. As advanced open water divers, we are allowed to go down to a maximum of thirty-meters. We had pretty much descended all the way to this depth when our eagle-eyed dive master suddenly turned and gave us the shark sign and motioned for us to come over to where he was floating. Sure enough, large as life, a beautiful leopard shark was just lying there majestically on the seabed. It was about three meters below us and I slowly edged towards it trying to get the very best photo I could. The visibility here in the Similan Islands is much better than at previous dive locations around Thailand. Consequently, I’ve had to fiddle with the strobe intensity to get the best exposures. Whilst I was fiddling, I drifted closer to the shark than I had intended and I tried to steady myself in the water. Unfortunately, in doing so I disturbed some of the sediment on the seabed and the current drifted this towards my leopard shark. It wasn’t a lot of disturbance but it was either this or my proximity to the shark that caused it to rise slightly off the seabed and swim gracefully away. Leopard sharks have an extended top portion to their tail, which almost makes it an extension to its body. As it sways from side to side, this huge tail gives it the most streamlined and graceful movement you can imagine. It didn’t swim very far and I hovered for a moment thinking it might double back but Panya tapped on the side of his tank to grab my attention and motioned for me to ascend a little. I looked at my gauge and was surprised to see I was at a depth of thirty-two and a half meters already – oops!

You use up more air the deeper you go but even with my slightly over the allowed limit maximum depth I was much better with my air today and managed to return to the boat with forty-bar of air. I deliberately undertook to not go waltzing around shooting photos of anything and everything during this dive. This calmer approach seems to have helped greatly with my air consumption.

Apparently, whilst we were at our safety stop, the woman from New York that is in our dive group saw what she later described as a massive black-tipped reef shark swimming off to the side of us. Judging by her description, it was too far to snap a photo of it but it would have been nice to see nevertheless.

Breakfast this morning was another round of chips, sausages, bacon and this time scrambled eggs. Again it was delicious and I snuck a few slices of my own white bread that we brought aboard with us too to round off what for me was pretty much the ideal meal. I have to say that other than the undercooked potatoes from yesterday, I really haven’t been able to find anything to fault the cooks on yet. It’s been a very pleasant surprise.

After breakfast, a few of us noticed what looked like a safety sausage floating by the boat about twenty meters away. It was just a bit too far away to make out precisely but if it was a safety sausage, somebody has either lost it or there might possibly have been a diver at some point that was in distress. Always looking for an excuse to jump into the water, I volunteered to don my fins and swim out to investigate. It turned out to be a strip of orange canvas so I collected it and also picked up several floating pieces of plastic bag and other debris along the way. Plastic cannot be digested by the marine life and could very kill a turtle, for example, so I couldn’t pass by without picking it up.

During breakfast, the boat moored once again in a secluded bay but this time a few hundred meters from one of the islands. I asked the dive co-ordinator if I could go snorkelling again and he arrange to have the launch take us the couple of hundred yards over to the shallows. The launch is a small boat with an outboard motor that is towed behind us wherever we go. It’s used to transport people to the island beaches and back between dives. Once word got out that the boat was taking our snorkelers, several more divers decided to join in the fun. I took the camera with me but offered it to one of the other divers to play with. Whilst snorkelling in this little bay, I was stunned at the amount of floating plastic rubbish that kept drifting in front of me and I did my best to stuff my small pockets with as much of it as I could. The next opportunity I get, I’m going to buy a small mesh bag just for the purpose of collecting any rubbish that I find when either diving or snorkelling. I don’t know why the dive co-ordinators on the numerous live-aboard companies that operate the Similan Islands don’t actively encourage their guests to collect any rubbish they find. Surely if all the divers picked up just one piece of debris during each dive, it wouldn’t take long to rid this precious marine environment of this scourge.

The second dive of the day was turnkey and otherwise quite uneventful. We did see a turtle, however, and the dive itself was interesting enough but more of the same of what we’ve already seen. Sandy had the camera a lot more during this dive although we swapped it a couple of times throughout. Who gets the camera seems to be a bit of contention at times but we’ve both mutually agreed that if there is a shark or anything else particularly spectacular to be seen, I will take the camera since I have a little bit better buoyancy control and can get right up close to things usually without too much of a problem. Having said that, however, Sandy’s has taken some truly fantastic photos.

After this dive, I rested for a while on the sun deck. I almost fell completely asleep when the dive co-ordinator popped his head up at the start of dinner to ask me if I was coming down to eat. I was a bit dazed from having almost dosed off and Guy, the dive co-ordinator, seemed to be quite worried that I might have suffered from a heat stroke or something from having sat in the full sun in my black body suit. It took me a while to convince him that I was okay. I was quite lethargic so he may very well have been onto something with being worried about me to begin with.

I didn’t much fancy the look of what was being served for dinner and never really had any appetite at that moment anyway so I skipped it in favour of another forty winks – this time in the air-conditioned cabin on the main deck.

After dinner, we were all just lounging around when someone spotted some smoke coming from a speed boat near one of the islands about half a Kilometre or so from where we were moored. It looked very much like the engine was smoking and there was black fumes coming from within the vessel. They were trying to put the fire out by the looks of the white smoke that we next saw but to everybody’s amazement, the few people on the boat must have abandoned ship as the smoke steadily intensified and eventually developed into an extremely intense, raging fire. Along with all the other live-aboard boats in the area, we sat helplessly and watched this small vessel deteriorate as it was slowly eaten away by the now completely out of control raging inferno. It must have been a diving launch as we saw several large plumes of bellowing fire where the tanks had one by one failed and let off their compressed contents in violent eruptions that looked very much like a flame thrower. After about an hour, all that remained from the stricken vessel was the empty carcass of the lower part of the beached hull. Guy and one of the boat boys later took the launch out to get a closer look and told of an oil slick that was now emanating from the burnt out remains. This was not only a disaster for the owners and operators of the boat, although, thankfully, nobody was hurt, but it was also a disaster with regards to the damage that was now done to this pristine national park area – bad news all around, then.

The third dive of the day was also an uneventful one. Sandy had told me that I should breathe some of her air once I reached my minimum threshold of fifty bar so we did this and managed to squeeze a couple of extra minutes out of the dive. Two people stuck to the same tank in this way, however, makes photography pretty much impossible so there was little to be gained in doing this. Still, it’s a useful option for future reference.

The diving staff had organised a barbeque for us all this evening and the Thai staff did a fantastic job preparing a range of barbequed fish, squid, and meat and potatoes for us all. We all hung out on the top deck and had a generally good time all around. It was a nice rounding off to the day but exhaustion slowly strengthened its grip on me and I snuck down below to our cabin for an early start to what would hopefully be a good, long sleep. Before getting into bed, however, I realised that the camera still needed to be serviced so I spent a half hour tending this necessary evil pretty much on autopilot before creeping into my bunk and swiftly slipping into a deep sleep.