Thailand - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 274 (84)

Khao Lak

Tuesday 7th December

This particular live-aboard covers the Surin Islands as well as the famed and much hyped Richelieu Rock. They never really know the exact schedule for the boat on any given trip until they get out into the water to see the conditions first hand. For this trip, we would end up spending the remainder of our time and our last two dives of the trip at this submerged rock out in the open ocean.

Elsewhere in Asia, a severe weather system has made itself felt here in the Andaman Sea off the West coast of Thailand by means of some choppy waters. We stayed moored up in the relatively calm waters of the Surin Islands last night and delayed our departure to Richelieu Rock until around five this morning. The hour or more ride over to where the rock lay completely submerged beneath the high tide was quite a rough and rocky one. Being completely out in the open sea, the constant rocky and swaying of the boat didn’t abate for the rest of the day and even one of the cooks succumbed to a bout of nausea as a result. I felt a little queasy myself shortly after we woke up to the morning hails of ‘good morning, wakey-wakey’ but a Cinnarizine tablet soon knocked that on the head.

I had to look twice when we arrived and was a little disturbed to see nothing but water in all directions. Apparently, the rock is slightly exposed during low tide but otherwise you would need satellite navigation to find it here in the middle of nowhere. Ordinarily, there is a buoy tethered to a buoy line but all that we found when we arrived was a floating orange ball with a length of rope dangling from it, floating in the water. The buoy had come loose from the rock and Panya, the same Thai dive master that was with us on the Mariner-1, was sent out on the launch with one of the boat boys to find the top of the rock so that a new buoy could be tethered. Just exactly how he managed this feat with nothing more than a mask and a snorkel is beyond me but he did so and returned to the boat to a rapturous sound of applause from everybody on board.

Although the seas were not calm, there was one distinct benefit of this that we were able to take advantage of and that was the absence of any other boats at the dive site. Ordinarily, there might be a dozen or more boats all bringing divers to this famed dive site. Perhaps due to the rough seas, we were the only boat here this morning and so we were able to enjoy the site all to ourselves without having to contend with other boat or dive traffic.

Loaded to the hilt with anticipation, I donned my Lycra body suit and geared up. Our photographic schedule marked me as the first into the water with the camera this morning. There was a seahorse that was known to inhabit a certain location near the base of the rock and everybody on board was eager to head straight down to the thirty-metre level to see if they could spot it, ourselves included. Including the four dive masters, there are a total of twenty divers getting into the water each time and there simply isn’t enough space on the dive platform to accommodate that many people. To prevent too many people getting in each other’s way, the dive groups gear up and enter the water in turn. We were group one into the water this morning so I had high hopes that should there be any sharks in the area, they wouldn’t be scared off by any of the other divers before we got a chance to see them. To avoid getting swept away by the open sea currents, we submerged quite quickly and went down to the base of the rock to see if we could find the seahorse. Try as we did, however, we couldn’t find the seahorse anywhere. We spent several minutes looking before I signalled to Klaus that Sandy and I would shallow up to conserve air and maximise our bottom time. I can certainly understand why the dive masters were so enthusiastic about this dive site. There was plenty to see in every direction, particularly given the exceedingly clear viz. Certainly very much more soft corals than at any other dive location we’ve been to. All the usual marine organism were there such as lionfish, giant moray eels, scorpion fish and a very nice school of barracuda hovering slightly above us and out in the open water. Although I couldn’t get a clear shot at it, I saw what I first thought was a very large sea snake. From the reef guides back on the boat, I later discovered this to be a ribbon eel – another first for us. Any dive where we spot something we’ve not yet seen is a successful one in my book and in addition to the very nice ribbon eel, I also saw several tomato anemone fish. I hovered near one particular anemone that housed several of these relatively large tomato anemone fish and one of them kept swimming out to me. I thought it was rather cute right up to the moment when it surged at my wrist and actually bit me. For some bizarre reason, the image of a nice big plate of fish ‘n’ chips came into my mind right at that moment. Despite our shallowing up, we still managed to consume more air than anyone else and once again surfaced before anyone else too.

By the time we were all back onto the boat, another live-aboard arrived. With nowhere to escape the rough seas to, we remained moored at the rock for the next few hours, whiling away the time until we could all get wet again. During this time, a couple more boats arrived. There were now four or five boats in all, including ours, but this is apparently still quite minimal for this dive location. When enough surface interval had passed, Klaus timed our re-entry to coincide with the other divers from the other boats having already spent their time at their deepest depths. The idea was that we would spend the first ten minutes of our dive profile beneath the other divers. When it would be time for us to rise up to the next level according to our planned dive profile, the other divers would also have shallowed a little. This way, the different dive groups from the different boats would all be at different depths and so would not need to interfere with each other. Between this tactic and the sheer size of the submerged little mountain, all the divers were able to enjoy the dive site without any problems.

Although we missed the seahorse on the first dive, one of the divers from one of the other dive groups from our boat did finally spot it after about ten minutes of frantic searching between them. The seahorse may not be in exactly the same location but when we got into the water for the final dive of the trip, we went back down to where it was last spotted and began our search in earnest. After about five minutes, I was all ready to give up and head out to see what else I could see when someone in our group finally spotted it sitting in the middle of a huge sea fan coral. At about fifteen centimetres tall, it was quite large for a seahorse and was a brilliant yellow. Each of us lined up to take turns having a closer look at it. Those of us with cameras spent the most time trying to get the very best possible shots with the best possible lighting. Of the dozen or so shots that Sandy and I took between us, just one came out perfect. If ever there was an example that highlights the benefit of taking as many photos as possible, this was it.

The seahorse definitely put this dive into the ‘successful’ category but this was just the beginning, not two or three meters from the seahorse, Sandy spotted an absolutely enormous potato grouper just sitting on a ledge. Its mouth must have been twenty centimetres from corner to corner with a total length of about that of a bed. It was a light grey with speckled spots and it was just sitting there breathing without being too bothered about all the divers around it making a fuss.

After enjoying the seahorse and potato grouper, I signalled to Klaus that we were going to shallow up and enjoy what the upper part of the rock had to offer. Sandy and I spent the rest of the dive at a shallower depth but still remained generally above the rest of our dive group. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I spotted yet another mantis shrimp sitting on a ledge, looking at me. I rushed over to get Sandy’s attention but by the time I did this and we both swam back to the ledge, the little critter had scurried back off to his hole, wherever that was. I had been led to believe that mantis shrimp are difficult to find but I swear we must have spotted one on almost every dive here in the Surin Islands. This colourful little fellow remains my all-time favourite sea dweller.

Even though I once again started with two hundred and twenty bar of pressure, a full 10% more than we are supposed to start with, and we spent much of the dive at a shallower depth than the rest of our group, we yet again managed to consume our air much faster than anyone else. When we reached the fifty bar mark, we reluctantly swam away from the rock to find a place to sit and wait out our three-minute safety stop. It seemed like everywhere we went, there were other divers also sitting at their safety stop. We found our bit of space and sat there with our safety sausage inflated above us. When we did surface, there were divers all around us. Boats were moving in to collect them one by one. We had to sit and wait for almost ten minutes before enough of these other divers were cleared away to allow our boat to move in to collect us.

This being the ninth and final dive of this trip, unfortunately, we removed our gear and the boat boys were dunking everything into a fresh water dunk tank, ready to be offloaded from the boat when we were back at dock. With nothing left to keep us there, we headed back just as soon as the last of our divers was back aboard. During the two-hour trip back to the mainland, everybody completed their logbooks and collected the requisite signatures and stamps from their respective dive masters. The dive crew were very busy right up to the point that the boat reached the dock. Apparently, the Koragot was to turn around again and leave for the next trip almost immediately.

Our minivans were already waiting for us to whisk us back to Khao Lak. With a minimum of fuss, we offloaded from the boat, bid our farewell to the leaning vessel that was our home for the past few days and nights and were quickly loaded into the minivans. The trip back to Khao Lak took about an hour and a half after a couple of stoppages to let some of the guests out at various points along the way.

Back at the dive centre in town, we met up with some of the other dive masters we’ve met since diving with Sea Dragon over the past couple of weeks or so. With four live-aboard boats and two long-tail boats, Sea Dragon is probably the biggest dive operator in Khao Lak with no less than eight boat departures each week. They have some forty or more dive masters on staff altogether and we’ve become good friends with many of them over the past few weeks. It has to be said that with the odd little annoyance aside (cold food and the problem of the leaning Koragot comes immediately to mind), we’ve been extremely impressed with Sea Dragon and have thoroughly enjoyed our time diving with them. We have already said that we will come back to Thailand again in the future and I will look forward to meeting some of these wonderful people again.

We spent some time back at the dive centre exchanging digital photos with some of the other divers. It’s really frustrating that our CD/DVD drive is currently defective as we could have burned a dozen or more CDs for people over the past couple of weeks. The ability to burn CDs like this is one of the reasons why we have the laptop with us to begin with.

Having said our sad farewells to all the other divers, we went out in search of that steak dinner with banana split dessert that had our name on it over at the Viking restaurant. Although the food on the Koragot was the same as that of the Mariner-1, the fact that it was mostly cold meant that I ate much less this time around and the oversized Wiener schnitzel went down a real treat. Yummy!

We found a taxi to take our luggage and us back to the Khao Lak Orchid Resortel down by the beach. Their prices have almost doubled to 2,900B (€55,77) and beyond now that it is December and officially high season. Sandy, however, managed to convince the camp hotel manager to allow us back in at the low season rate of 1,800B (€34,61) that we paid previously. This was still well outside of our budget range but we think that another couple of days in a decent hotel room is appropriate following the rigors of a tiring live-aboard. That’s what we are telling ourselves at least.

The taxi dropped us off at the hotel and several porters immediately rushed to collect our bags. The camp hotel manager and his supervisor were both there at the reception desk and the sign by the entrance read ‘Welcome Mr. Christopher Darren Morag’. Okay so they spelt my name wrong but we were made to feel very welcome nevertheless and it was nice for all our worries to be lifted from us at that moment. For the first time in a long time, we both felt like we could simply drop everything and let ourselves be swept along by events without having to constantly make decisions. Our bags were taken to our room, the same that we had the last time, and we were seated and handed a refreshing punch to drink. Next out was a tray with a couple of decoratively folded, cold and moist towels to wash our faces with. I really felt like I was being wrapped into a warm and comforting blanket and felt myself starting to physically relax. At that moment, I told myself that I was glad we made the decision to pamper ourselves a little again. I’ll try to enjoy it whilst it lasts.