Diving Expedition

Authored By Brian

Jennifer has caught you up on where we’re at. We got into Khao Lak nice and early and checked in at Sea Dragon Dive Center to get our gear prepped for a 4 day/4 night liveaboard that would start in the Surin Islands, visit Richelieu Rock and Ko Bon and continue into the Similan Islands. These destinations are world famous for divers for the variety of life as well as the size of things that can be seen.

Compared to Pro Dive in Cairns, Sea Dragon seemed very laid back with a really nice and open format dive center and we were quickly and courteously taken care of when we signed in. The shop is majority owned by westerners with some local Thai ownership and things seem to run quite smoothly. After getting kitted, we headed out to find some grub and kill time until the 6pm meet and departure. The first night involved driving north about 90 minutes to a port and then heading the 60km off shore overnight to arrive at our first dive site for the next morning.

There seemed to be a nice mix of people in our group, loads of Germans as always, and some very experienced divers. Nobody was getting certified and in contrast to our Australian dive, there were a lot of people who had done this exact trip once, twice or even seven times prior. One guy, Mr. Yamoto, had logged over 50 trips with Sea Dragon and had dove some of the sites more than the divemasters on the boat. That’s serious diving.

Sea Dragon leads each dive with a divemaster and a group of up to 4 people. This was at times good and at other times bad. Good because we had never been to the sites and sure enough we could have missed lots of great stuff. Bad because at times it felt like we were on an aerobic workout with the amount of swimming we were doing. It was fantastic a couple of times because we dove some very advanced currents and without someone to follow, I probably would still be swimming towards India at the moment.

The boat, “The Andaman” was no Scuba Pro III but it was a solid boat with two air-conditioned cabins for guests in curtain-closed dorm style bunks and two double beds at the head of each bunk area. Jennifer and I, by checking in early, were awarded one of the doubles which seemed cool at first but turned out to be hot. Hot meaning the air-conditioning didn’t circulate to our end of the bunk very well and Jennifer had to sneak out one night and sleep in another bunk because of the temperature. I thought it was mostly OK but I sleep like a rock. Overall though, a nicely appointed boat plenty of room to move around as you desired. The bottom deck was for diving and sleeping, the middle deck was for dive briefings, meals and hanging out and the upper deck was half-covered and half-open for a combination of sunning and sleeping. It also had, what I can only describe as a “plank”, for jumping into the water between dives. Best part was soft drinks were free and they had Pepsi (not coke!) in the bottle – booyah! Now if we could have just found a super carne asada burrito to go with it, I would have felt like I was back in the Mission district in San Francisco. No luck, minus our English-style breakfasts, the rest of the food was (quality) Thai.

So maybe a little bit about the diving? I know we have a few divers who read this so I will hit the highlights. After the snorkeling I had been doing on Ko Lipe and Ko Phi Phi, the basic school of Moorish Idols or even large Parrotfish chomping on coral couldn’t really impress any longer. That stuff was everywhere. However, our group personally saw a ~3m Leopard Shark, Hawksbill Turtle, absolutely gigantic Moray Eels (free-swimming and static), big schools of Chevron and Great Barracuda, a rare Ornate Ghost Pipefish, Bearded Scorpionfish, a banded sea snake and a Giant Puffer fish.

Those are just the highlights, we saw other cool stuff like Yellow Box Fish, Oriental Sweetlips, Seal-faced pufferfish, Masked porcupinefish, white-eyed Moray Eel, Horned Bannerfish, Nudibranchs, Clown triggerfish, Titan triggerfish, Yellow-saddled Goatfish, Lionfishes, Trumpetfish, school of Giant Batfish, Napoleon Wrasse, Peacock Mantis Shrimp and loads more. There’s really too much to list. The above is just what I gleaned from my log book.

There were two night dives which I think are fun. You cover less ground so there isn’t a rush to move around so much and it’s more relaxing. Granted, you don’t see so much but what you do see tends to be either interesting or big. Case in point, Mr. Yamoto rolled with serious video equipment on every dive and on our second dive he caught on video a giant Moray Eel free-swimming and then catching and devouring another fish. Straight from the Discovery channel! We have a copy of the video that we’ll post online at some point in the future that shows the trip in an animated fashion. We also saw a giant barracuda doing some hunting in addition to all of the little stuff you see swimming around. It’s particularly cool to shine your flashlight (“torch”) into a hole and see lots of little eyes shining back. Tons of cleaner shrimps and crabs and other things are always lurking about.

Our group was four people with relatively limited experience: Wolfgang from Berlin, Jurjien from Holland and Jennifer and I. Our divemaster was James who is from England. He was a pretty serious mate and liked to get things done by the book. We felt confident diving with him.

We unfortunately missed out on two of the killer things that other groups on our boats came face to face with: A 5m whale shark and giant Manta Rays. The visibility was not so great so we didn’t luck out where those guys are known to be seen but all things considered it was still fantastic variety. I didn’t even mention the cool corals. Here’s a list of where we dove:

1. Surin Nua – Moken Bay
2. Koh Torinla – Southeast Rocks
3. Koh Surin Tai – Turtle Ledge
4. Koh Surin Tai – Turtle Ledge (night dive)
5. Richelieu Rock
6. Richelieu Rock
7. Koh Tachai – Batfish Rock
8. Koh Bon Bay – The Only Place (night dive)
9. Koh Bon Bay – The Only Place
10. Koh Bon Bay – The Only Place
11. Koh Baung (Similan Island #9) – Three Trees
12. Koh Payu (Similan Island #6) – The Wall
13. Koh Payu (Similan Island #6) – Amongst The Rocks

Jennifer and I each started with 8 dives in our log book and I finished with 21. Jennifer sat out the two night dives so she has 19. A couple of notable dives were the Batfish Rock dive which had an absolutely insane current. The beginning wasn’t so bad as we were sheltered by “batfish rock” but as we came up and over it we ran into what our divemaster called a 7/10 in terms of currents. We were paddling at an aerobic pace to just maintain position and it took serious effort to make any up-current progress. We seemed to always be diving into the current instead of drifting with it which seemed weird to me. We used a lot more oxygen that way although I am pretty good with O2 consumption; I usually came up with the most in our group and sometimes more than our divemaster, James. He joked that I didn’t breath down there. When we finally crested batfish rock and turned to go with the current, we were holding onto rocks to try and get a breather as things went flying by. This is when we saw a school of giant Batfish and about 3 feet from my head was one who was leaning into the current like it was a strong breeze. He had a cleaner wrasse going in and out of his gills giving him a once-over that I could see perfectly clearly. Holding on to stuff down there requires a careful diligence to be sure you’re grabbing rock (not coral) and you’re touching a minimum of stuff (e.g., use one finger if possible).

Speaking of holding on. At Richelieu Rock, it was like a parking lot of dive boats on the surface. I think we counted 8 boats when we jumped in the water and it looked like a shopping mall of scuba divers under water. No surprise we missed the whale shark. Someone up top said the water looked like it was boiling because of all of the bubbles coming to the surface.

In Australia, we dove chartered Pro Dive sites so we never saw anyone beside our group. On this trip, we saw lots of people. Most of the time it wasn’t a crowding issue but at Richelieu Rock it was a bit much. On top of this, the divers in the other groups are just flat-out rat bastards. Many had full-fingered gloves on and were literally grabbing coral, picking it up, dragging their gauges and fish identification cards along the bottom as well as, I kid you not, sitting on coral. Most of these idiots were doing this in their pursuit for the perfect macro picture but some of them also had metal pointer sticks that they were jabbing into dark holes and crevices. Real class-A dopes. I was shocked (but happy!) to see James grab another diver by the fin and pull him off the coral before waving his finger at him. Other divemasters on our boats told of inappropriate finger replies to their hand gesture asking the divers to come up off the ground. I was just shocked because all of these people go through the same course on ethics and etiquette and it boggles my mind that they so carelessly destroy the reef. It’s literally the case of ruining it for the next 10,000 divers. One thing I really admire about Sea Dragon is their commitment to protecting the dive sites and they have completely earned my referral and recommendation.

The other new thing was diving deep. Nearly every one of our dives was close to 30m. In Australia, most of the dive sites topped out at 20m and we only went to 30m once for our Adventure level certification. With 3+ hour surface intervals and dive computers, the rules were “don’t go deeper than your last dive” but we started in 26-30m of water on almost every dive for the first ~10 minutes. At those depths, you get a little bit of nitrogen narcosis which is like being tipsy. On one dive I dropped down to the sand to avoid the current behind James and registered 32.1m for just a moment. Since we don’t own dive computers, we rented them for $6/day and they are completely worth it. The time between dives is calculated by combining the depth of your dive with the time spent at that depth. Some people on the boat were diving without a computer and had very strict depth and time limits in order to stay into their profile and be able to dive multiple times per day. The dive computer knows that I was only at 32.1m for a very brief period and it doesn’t treat my whole dive as that depth which gives me more overall bottom time and less overall surface interval. Hooray computers!

Anyways, the last site of note was the final dive, “Amongst the Rocks”. This was on the west coast of Similan Island #6. Because the monsoons (and tsunamis occasionally) pound the west coast of these islands, most of the diving takes place on the sheltered east side. But the last dive was a “boulder dive” and we went in and amongst mini-walls, valleys and around pinnacles. It was a really beautiful dive with no current and visibility was great plus there were still loads of corals. Jennifer caught a banded sea snake that we watched for almost a minute and we came eye to eye with a giant puffer fish when trying to swim through a tight space. The puffer fish won – we waited until he passed. :)

The liveaboard experience is not just about the diving. We also had a couple of beach runs (one we saw a giant monkey and the other I vomited due to mixing malaria and seasickness pills) and we met a lot of great people. Wolfgang and Jurjien in our group were both fun (and sometimes weird, in Jurjien’s case) guys and we clicked with other divers like Jon who just moved from England to Wellington, NZ and a great couple from Sweden, Asa and Patrick. Outside of Wolfgang who had about the same dive experience as us, most of the people on the boat had more than 100 dives so we tried our hardest not to look or sound stupid. :) One other British couple on the boat was on a RTW gap year but mostly everyone else came to Thailand to dive.

The last night of the trip skips the dive in favor of a cocktail hour and top-deck BBQ. The grilled meats were so tasty and the Sea Dragon “punch” certainly had some grain alcohol in it. It was a great end to our trip, especially after two straight days of 4 dives per day. Nobody was missing a third night dive.

The final morning we dove twice more ending with the boulder dive I described above. The trusty Thai crew fixed some lingering rudder problems on the boat in time for our trip back to Khao Lak and we were back in no time. We took some nice group photos before we left the boat that we’re waiting to receive copies of and will post it soon. We all met at the Tarzan Bar that night for a post-trip drink-a-thon and final goodbyes. Can’t wait to do it again!

After diving, you aren’t supposed to fly for 24 hours as a protection against nitrogen buildup from the pressure underwater. Our original plan was to head back up to Bangkok the next day by bus but as you can tell from some of Jennifer’s posts: we’re tired. We wound up staying in Khao Lak for three days doing nothing. Check some internet, upload some pictures, eat some surprisingly fantastic Italian food right next to Sea Dragon and just chill out. Jennifer didn’t even find her way to the beach until the last morning.

Oh and check out this gross mask squeeze I got on our first dive. As I was descending, I was blowing out through my nose to equalize my mask (which sucks to your face as you go down as the pressure of the water is greater than that of the air inside your mask) and bubbles were coming out but it wasn’t loosening up. I had to finally pop it off and clear it and it broke a blood vessel in each eye. Didn’t hurt although everything looked red for a few days. ;)

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