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Live-aboard Diveboat in Thailand

LIVE-ABOARD DIVEBOAT IN THAILAND

By Diana McLeod

The current was too strong for me. I was never going to be able to reach the buoy in time! I was being swept far away from our dive boat, in between the two islands, heading for the open ocean. In a panic, I looked around for an alternative….

We were on a five day adventure diving cruise in Thailand. Our diveboat “JAZZ” was a massive power cruiser, with capacity for twenty divers and a staff of ten. It was comfortable enough, with tiny private cabins for sleeping quarters, but it certainly was not the “Love Boat”. There was an open- air sitting/dining area on the back upper deck, a communal livingroom below decks, and that was about it. The rest of the boat was devoted to diving. The equipment deck took up a whole level of the boat.

Dave and I were a bit nervous about being out on a boat for five days with a group of people we didn'’t know. What if nobody spoke English? What if the other divers were not friendly?

Our fears almost came true. Most of the divers on the boat were Bulgarians. They were in a big group, and they kept to themselves, although they were not unfriendly people. The Bulgarians were a contradiction in terms. On land, they lived a boisterously unhealthy lifestyle, drinking vodka to excess, overeating, and constantly smoking tobacco from an Egyptian hookah they had brought with them. Most of them were senior citizens who were seriously overweight. In the water, they were different. They were all expert divers. One was a world famous underwater photographer. They reminded me of a seal colony. On land, they were ungainly and loud, but in the water they were agile and highly skilled. In their wetsuits, they even looked like seals.

Luckily for us, there were a few other people on board. Our next door cabin neighbors were from Sweden. They were a very charming young couple, and their English was excellent. They were our favorite companions on the cruise. A young Hungarian bartender also joined our little group. His English was passable enough. We five were a dive team, with our own dive master. The Bulgarians were above our level.

As the divemasters put it, "“This is a dive boat. Our day will be about like this: eat, dive, eat, dive. eat dive.”" He was right. It was an intense schedule. Even though the dives themselves were short (35 to 45 minutes each), each dive took almost thirty minutes before and after, for equipment checks and maintenance. We also had meetings, during which the divemaster would explain to each group where we were going, how each dive would proceed, and what we might encounter on our way.

It took us about five hours to get out to the Similan Islands, which are about 60 miles off the coast of Thailand. We spent four days anchored out there, far from the mainland. We left from Khao Lak, which is a fishing village to the north of Phuket. The Similan Islands are a world famous dive site, because they are an isolated ecosystem, well protected from standard tourism.

The Similans were formed by glaciers. (Yes, glaciers!) Apparently, during the height of the ice age, glaciers reached all the way down to Thailand. The massive sheets of ice were like a titanic bulldozer, pushing rocks south, like a giant shovel. The Similans mark the spot where one glacier stopped. It dumped a huge pile of gigantic boulders in a heap, and then the glacier retreated. The Similans are like piles of building blocks, dumped in a heap by a petulant child.

The boulders make the Similans very special. Underwater, the gigantic boulders are a perfect environment for corals and other undersea life. There are plenty of crevices and mini-caves for fish and other sea life to hide in. There is even one long “hole” through the stack of boulders that we were able to dive right through. Sponges and corals have plenty of places to cling to and lots of plankton to eat. Rock gardens blooming with spectacular sunlit beauty adorn the boulders. The underwater oasis has become a prime breeding ground for clouds of colorful fish.

Striped and painted coral browsers flitted past, harried by schools of predator fish. We saw moray eels, and giant clams and big rays (blue spotted and spotted eagle ray), pipefish, and a thousand other species. Lionfish lurked in the shadows.We did not see any sharks, which saddened us. Asians have decimated most of their shark species in the quest for sharkfins for Chinese sharkfin soup. They cut the fins off, and throw the rest away. What a waste! We have yet to see these magnificent creatures while diving, even though we have been to some of Asia’'s best dive sites.

For me, the Similans were beautiful but scary, because of sudden strong ocean currents. The ocean can change suddenly and unexpectedly, and they can be too powerful for anyone to fight for long.

The first encounter with the current was at the surface. We were told to jump in and swim for a buoy, to grab the rope, and descend by holding the line. We were told that the current would lessen as we went down. When I got in the water, an extra strong current simply grabbed me. In a flash, I realized that the buoy was out of my reach. I was being swept away from the boat very quickly. I looked around, and saw another dive boat moored nearby. I began to swim at cross angles to the current, as I had been taught. At first, I thought I would easily get to the second dive boat, since it was almost in my path, but the current seemed to accelerate, and I was rapidly becoming very tired. I was going to miss!

Luckily, both divers and crew on the second boat saw me in the water. I had to signal the “Help” signal, and they threw me a line. The current was so strong that it was all I could do to hang onto the line. I had to be hauled out of the water by three strong crewmembers of the second boat! A bunch of excited Japanese divers helped me struggle out of my gear. I felt like a pathetic helpless old lady, until I realized that a second line was being thrown. The young Hungarian guy was also being rescued. That made me feel a whole lot better, since he was thirty years younger than me, with an athletic build, and he had much better fins than mine.

The second encounter with a sudden fierce current left me breathless and exhausted at twenty meters down!!! At that depth, you should never simply bolt to the surface. I was not drawing enough air from my gear to regain my breath. I realized, to my horror, that I had no dive signal for this problem! I needed to go up at least 10 meters, so that the air in my lungs would expand enough for me to relax and slow my breathing rate. I finally convinced the divemaster to let me go up. He signaled for Dave to buddy up with me, and take me to the surface, after a five minute safety stop at five meters. I had a rough time, but gradually my breathing slowed.

I felt even more “wimpy” when I realized that my beautiful young Swedish friend was actually a one-armed diver! She was wearing a plastic prosthetic arm! She kept the joint hidden when she was out of the water, and she wore a wetsuit while diving, so it took me a couple of days to spot the socket above her elbow. It was amazing to watch her haul herself out of the water, one armed, while battling waves and current, and while wearing more than fifty pounds of equipment.

We did one night dive on the reef. A night dive is quite eerie, since you can only really see what is in your light beam. The water feels black and oily, and the experience is quite different from a day dive. But a dive group from another boat was close on our fins. Their lights combined with ours, to make the dive more of a “twilight” dive than a “night” dive. The night dive was shallow and current-free (which made me very happy), and it was fascinating to see the corals come alive after dark. Creatures which are shy or sleeping during the day emerge at night. The reef is quite a different place when the “night shift” takes over. Our lights turned up sleeping fish, brilliantly colored nudibranchs (snails without shells) and night prowlers like octopus, spiny lobsters, and moray eels.

I love the underwater world. It is worth braving the unpredictable sea to experience firsthand the wonders below. If you ever have the chance to go snorkeling in a coral reef, by all means try it (after a few lessons in water safety, of course). And if you want to go deeper, try the Open Water Diver course from PADI. They will teach you safe diving techniques. Anybody can learn how to do it, even if you’'re not especially physically fit. If those Bulgarians can do it, then so can you…!

Thanks for reading! Diana


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