Thailand - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 270 (80)

Khao Lak

Friday 3rd December

I remembered my mental note from yesterday about trying to perform brain surgery in a tumble dryer and made up my lunch sandwiches from the bread and boiled eggs that I ordered this morning at breakfast. On top of the eggs that I ordered to actually eat for breakfast there and then, I’m not sure what the wait staff thought of my appetite this morning.

We dropped off some laundry at the supermarket on the way to the dive centre this morning (how many people can say that?). There was a bit of a nasty surprise waiting for me when we arrive at the Sea Dragon office. That one and only pair of open-healed fins that I had once again reserved for this morning’s dives had apparently been given to someone else due to a mistake made by one of the DMTs (Dive Master in Training). One of the ‘advantages’ of being a DMT at a busy dive centre is that you get all the crappy chores such as sorting out and the cleaning of all the dive gear before and after each dive trip. One of the DMTs here at Sea Dragon is relatively new and there was apparently a bit of a mix-up with regards to who was supposed to get which equipment. The net result of all of this was that I no longer had any fins to wear. The solution for this little dilemma was for my dive master to lend me his for the day. They had already decided on this course of action before we arrived so there was never really any problem to begin with. The surprise with the open-healed fins was tempered by another surprise we received this morning. Instead the expected 1,800B (€34,61) which we each paid for yesterday’s dive, the reef dive today was to cost just 1,300B (€25). Bonus!

Although today’s boat will contain quite a group of people, I was the only paying customer going out for the fun dive at the local reef this morning. Together with Jason, the same dive master that I had the day before yesterday, we would be heading off in search of Nudibranches specifically. Jason is a big fan of Nudibranches and was enthusiastic to hear of my own interest in trying out the camera’s macro features when trying to photograph these small and colourful sea slugs. The dive site is a very shallow one and this means that we would have a very extended bottom time. Since it was also just the two of us and we both had the same goal in mind, we would both be able to concentrate purely on searching for Nudibranches and taking as much time about it as we wanted. In essence, it would be a diver’s dream dive.

Once everybody was organised, we boarded our taxi to the now familiar dock to locate our small long-tail. Other than being just a bit smaller than yesterday’s stricken vessel, the only main difference was the absence of the round guide rails that the tanks sit into. We would have to manhandle the tanks onto one of the benches across the centre of the boat to get the gear on. Alternatively, as some of the more experienced divers do, we could assemble the gear and put it into the water first before getting in and then strapping it on.

Jason and I had agreed to get the very most out of this dive by trying to maximise our bottom time. Technically, there is a Sea Dragon rule that no dive may extend beyond fifty-minutes of bottom time. Since the average depth of this reef dive is right around five meters, however, there is no physical reason why we shouldn’t extend our dive to beyond fifty minutes. Our only real restriction was our air supply. Still, it was necessary to maintain to appearance of staying within the rules for the benefit of the other divers. We kitted up and dropped in well before they did and our plan was to surface for lunch and get in again with a smaller surface interval.

Once Jason and I were in, we quickly submerged and both went straight into macro mode, moving very slowly through the water in search of all things small. The extensive surge together with the poor visibility pretty much meant that macro was the only viable form of photography that was worth doing anyway. It took me the first five minutes or so to acquaint myself with the macro setting on the camera but once I got going, I was stunningly impressed with the capabilities of this piece of equipment. With the continuing surge, I found the best results were to be had when the camera was in manual focus macro mode. In other words, I’d tell the camera at what distance I wanted the subject to be from the lens and would then try to hold the camera at that distance whilst shooting. To get the best results, I tried various distances for each subject I shot.

From a distance, it doesn’t look like there is much to photograph at all. The vast majority of corals are hard and the whole landscape looks like it consists of just rocks and boulders. There aren’t even that many fish swimming around. By moving slowly and taking a much closer look, however, a whole new world opens up. I saw miniature shrimp, tiny corals, cleaner crabs and a wealth of other interesting things. And, of course, there were dozens of tiny little Nudibranches, some not much thicker than a few human hairs and others not much longer than the width of my thumb. I counted at least a dozen different varieties and was amazed at the sheer variety of size, colour and shape of the little beasts.

Concentrating on the macro world means that you can often miss some larger things that are relatively close to you. At one point, I stuck my head up and saw a huge cuttlefish swimming quite close to me. Jason has a little shaker that he uses to attract my attention under water. Typically, he would spot something and then rattle his shaker to try to get my attention to come and have a look. At one point I heard him rattle whilst I was in the middle of shooting something particularly interesting so I raised my hand to acknowledge him and carried on doing what I was doing. He later explained that he wished he had a camera of his own right then. He said he found it particularly amusing to see me so engrossed in what I was photographing that I completely missed the turtle that swam right under my chest.

Even though I was focused on the photography, I did remember to check my air gauge at regular intervals but the level or air was just not going down very quickly. By the time we both agreed to surface, my dive computer was telling that we had no less than seventy-five minutes of bottom time. Had I had more air, I would have stayed down there another seventy-five or more. Some of the stronger surges of current at the shallow depth, however, meant that I had to grab hold of a piece of rock quite firmly just to stay in one place longer enough to get the camera into position. I had to be particularly vigilant with where I put my hand, however, as I spotted at least three scorpion fish that were extremely well camouflaged. You certainly wouldn’t want to put your hand on one of those. At times, I made sure the sandy floor beneath me was clear and completely deflated my BCD so that I could rest on the seabed to steady myself even further. The rocks and corals can be very sharp and jagged and by the end of the first dive, my hands and fingered were starting to look a bit torn and tattered.

We eventually surfaced at around the same time as the other divers and were able to at least maintain the illusion that we had stayed within the dive centre’s dive regulation of fifty-minutes of bottom time. We enjoyed swapping tales of what we saw over lunch and the fruit that is always on the boat. We waited nearly an hour before dropping back in again for another extended run at the macro world. As was the first, the second dive was spectacular from a macro photography perspective. I was by now getting much more comfortable with the camera and all its features and was also able to be more selective about the shots I took. Despite the overall uninteresting look of the reef, I’d have to say that this was the very best day of diving so far as far as the photography is concerned. If I get half the chance, I would like to repeat this experience again after the live-aboard.

Back at the dive centre, Sandy showed up with the laptop as we had earlier arranged and I offloaded the photos there and then to get a first look. Indeed there were some truly stunning shots in amongst the two hundred and eighty or so photos that I took altogether. Of this number, I’ve kept a much higher percentage compared to other dives and I’ve even inducted no less than twenty-four of today’s shots into my all-time underwater photo hall of fame – making a total of sixty-four shots in this prestigious club so far.

We made it almost all the way back to our hotel room before that rather camp yet helpful and friendly hotel manager caught Sandy’s attention and struck up a conversation with her. With my head still spinning with all the events of the day, I carried on straight up to our room. By the time sandy caught up with me several minutes later, she had already arranged for us to be able to check out late tomorrow afternoon ahead of our live-aboard departure as well as managing to get the manager to agree to us staying here for the same promotional price again for a couple of days after we return from the live-aboard. You have to admire her tenacity.

Our hotel has recently opened a new steak and seafood restaurant right here on the property and part of Sandy’s charm offensive with the hotel manager included agreeing to eat there this evening, which we did. In fact, it turned out to be a very nice meal indeed and although at 695B (€13,36) still expensive by our normal budget traveller’s standards, it was a lot cheaper than we have been eating for over the past few nights.

Once again, the drain in energy levels after a day full of diving has meant that there was precious little left for anything else other than a quick shower and straight to bed. My daily journal doesn’t write itself, however, and I just spent the past two hours writing up the entries for yesterday and today.