5 Days in Khao Lak and Similan Islands, Thailand

November 21-25, 2016

Khao Lak

Getting to Khao Lak

After being picked up and dropped off at the bus station I still had 3 hours to kill.  I met a very friendly Australian couple.  It's weird to interest with people now that I'm traveling solo.  I said my goodbyes and loaded up on some food before my 12-hour bus ride to Khao Lak.  The bus was VIP and very lovely--best one I've seen in Thailand.  As usual we stopped at midnight for a free dinner.

VIP Bus Direct from Bangkok to Khao Lak, Thailand

I checked in and walked around the small town.  It reminded me a little of Lombok since most places were open-air without air conditioning.  There really wasn't much happening in the town.  There was a few bars that were a bit far from my hotel that were open past sunset.  Other than that it was just the beach, restaurants, dive shops, and tour agencies.  There were not many people walking around either.  I guess people are out during the day and don't spend much time in the area of Khao Lak.  It is a stop-over for diving around the Similan Islands.

Beach

I walked a 3km stretch of beach a couple of times.

Beach in Khao Lak, Thailand

Beach in Khao Lak, Thailand

Local Fisherman at the Beach in Khao Lak, Thailand

..and enjoying a beautiful sunset.

Watching Sunset in Khao Lak, Thailand

Beach at Khao Lak, Thailand (click to view)

 I got fitted for my SCUBA diving equipment and started reading the training manual for my Deep Diving certification course.  I need to be certified for up to 3o or 40 meters (130 feet).  My current certification is only up to 19 meters (60 ft).

Liveaboard SCUBA Diving Trip

Meeting the Dive Group

We are 10 in total—8 divers with 2 dive masters.  Half of us already have the proper certification for deep dives while the other half will be working on the certification during the first dive.

Diving Buddies on the Liveaboard in Similan Islands, Thailand

5 Americans (myself included), a South African, a Dutch, and a Singaporean make up the divers.  I guess you can say that being on a boat for 3 days with 4 other Americans is an ‘immersion exercise”.  However they are all very friendly.  After a short taxi ride we arrived at the dock around 7:30am.  We initially thought our boat was huge but it was just because we had to pass through another boat to get to ours.  Finally we arrived on our tiny little boat and set into the sea at 8am.  After a brief introduction we enjoyed a breakfast feast of soup, toast, eggs, bacon, crisps, and vegetables.  We have 4-5 hours before we arrive at our first dive stop.

On our Liveaboard at the Similan Islands, Thailand (click to view)

First Dive – 30 meters (99 ft) / 48 minutes

Dives #1 & #2

Dives #1 & #2

Jumping into the Water for our First Dive at the Similan Islands, Thailand

We broke off into two groups of 4, each group having its own dive master.  My group worked on the deep dive certification first thing.  We dove down to nearly 30 meters (100 ft) and worked on attaining neutral buoyancy.  Then we looked at a color wheel to see how various colors appeared at depth.  Reds no longer looked red—they were closer to a dark brown/grey.  This is due to various wavelengths in the visible spectrum being absorbed at different amounts by the water.  We performed a few simple tasks as our dive master kept a close watch.  She was trying to observe if any of us suffered from nitrogen narcosis—an intoxicating effect caused by dissolved gasses (think laughing gas).  My dive buddy, the South African, became disoriented and couldn’t answer simple questions about his air levels and depth when asked by our dive master.  We ascended to just under 20 meters and continued the dive.  We saw many types of fish—even a very large Napoleon fish.

Back on the Boat

We cleaned our gear and sat for a feast—green curry, tom yum, vegetables, and rice.  There was more than enough for a boat three times our size.  The Americans talked up a storm while the 3 non-Americans sat quietly.  I excused myself and sat upstairs.  Everyone onboard is extremely friendly.

Second Dive – 28 meters (92 ft) / 50 minutes

Saw more fish, a giant octopus, stonefish, lionfish, trumpet fish, moray eels, hard, and soft corals.  I began to get more comfortable with my gear but my goggles are not keeping the water out.

Enjoying the Sun Between Drive

Third Dive (Night) – 13 meters (43 ft) / 45 minutes

Dive #3

The last dive of our first day took place well after the sun set.  It was pitch black--no moon was visible.  We had a briefing to go over what to do if we got separated, our torch broke, and other issues that could occur.  I was a little ‘scared’ since this was my first night dive.

I suited up and fastened by BCD.  I tied the torch to my right hand so that I wouldn’t loose it.  I put on my flippers, my goggles, performed a buddy check, and got ready to enter the water.  I moved to the edge of the boat and with my right hand, flashlight dangling; I held my regulator and goggles to my face.  My left hand was placed over my waist protecting the lead weights.  I took one giant step forward and splashed into the black liquid below.  My vest was filled with air so I quickly surfaced.

Getting Ready for our Night Dive

Our group met at the surface and when we were all ready we descended slowly to our diving depth. It was still worse than at the surface and all one could see were general shapes.  Despite being pitch black I was surprised by how much I could actually see underwater with my torch.  I tried to stay extra close to the group for safety reasons.  For the previous two dives we were permitted to dive to a maximum of 30 meters (99 ft) and for a duration of up to 50 minutes or when our air dropped to 5 bars.  However on the night dive we were only permitted to drive down to 18 meters(59 ft) and for a duration of up to 45 minutes or when our air dropped to 7 bar.  Furthermore, unlike in the previous dives, we were responsible for monitoring our air and notifying our dive master when our tank was nearing empty.

I tried putting my hair up in a ponytail but my goggles still seemed to be letting in water.  I am very certain that my stubble is not permitting a good seal.  Several of the other guys on the boat purposefully shaved for that reason.  Swimming around 50 miles off the coast of Thailand 40 feet under water while in the bitch black was a remarkable experience.  I felt like a futuristic astronaut exploring the depths of zero-g space.  The absence of sound, except for the rhythmic patterns of the breathing through my regulator reminded me of the famous multi-minute scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

My goggles filled with water and I couldn’t see.  40+ feet underwater, no ability to signal for help, no sight, no ability to tell up from down, fear of loosing the group, fear of smacking into coral or a venomous fish, eyes stinging from abrasive salt water.  What would you be thinking?  I was remarkably calm.  I have learned a great deal while traveling but a major lesson I’ve learned is that stress and panic are destructive processes.  No matter the outcome it’s best to only suffer once.  (I just heard this quote and found is relevant).  Panic and anxiety cloud a person’s judgment and I’ve spent the last 15 months in a high-stress environment.  Eventually I have come to terms with the notion that certain things are unavoidable but our reactions to them are within our control.  With panic tossed out the window I went through my choices.  Although I could have surfaced without doing a safety stop I knew I had a better choice.  I remembered what I had learned during my Open Water Training.  While ensuring I was neutrally buoyant I removed my goggles and tightened the straps.  I put them back on and performed a purging maneuver to clear the water from the mask.  It did the trick, at least for the time being.

During the dive I saw some octopuses, enormous lobsters, dancing shrimps, and bioluminescent microbes.  The night dive was really quite fantastic and I learned a great deal a bout myself.  Through diving I have learned how to slow down, think through problems, and avoid panic.

My Diving Group

Fourth Dive – 29 meters (96 ft) / 40 minutes

Dive #4

Dive #4

Getting Ready to Dive

Waiting to Descend

Our wakeup call came at 6:30 giving us just enough time to use the restroom and have a quick cup of tea.  We were in the water before 7am for our first of 4 dives this day.  Besides a large barracuda swimming by we saw more of the same.  The topography of the dive site was breathtaking.  We dove through underground tunnels, arches, and valleys.  It was a good test of my diving skills not to smack into the rocks surrounding me.  In one particular place, on the bottom side of an underground tunnel, exhaled air from SCUBA divers accumulated.  We had to look up to see it but it was an astonishing site.  We were looking at the bottom side of a very large air bubble.  It shone like bright silver and moved with such fluidity that reminded me of mercury.

Breakfast was waiting for us when we returned back to the boat—fried eggs, crisps, vegetables, toast, and bacon.  Every meal we’ve had has been way too much.  It’s upsetting to see so much food go to waste.  I find it quite hypocritical that the staff continues to waste so much food dispute being overly concerned about protecting the ecosystem in the reefs.  I would argue that killing 5 chickens that will go to waste is more harmful than taking a piece of dead coral 100 feet below the surface of the water.

After each dive the compressor gets to work refilling all of our tanks.  We are by far the smallest liveaboard here at the Similan Islands.  I’m sure most of the other boats have several tanks and a much larger compressor.  The constant drone of the engine and compressor is quite taxing.  The word ‘Similan’ comes from a Malay word, meaning ‘Nine’ as there are 9 islands.  However I recently read that 2 more islands have been added to the group.

We stopped on beach for an hour and I hiked up to a lookout point.  The view was stunning and it really made me sad that my sweet Sylvie couldn’t be there to share in all the beauty.  It overlooked the bay of a tiny Similan Island.  The picture-perfect white sand slowly merged to a vibrant green where it met the perfectly calm ocean water.  The emerald water seemed to go on forever before eventually fading to a darker turquoise, indicating the deeper water.  Along the top of the lookout point there were large granite boulders that seemed to have been placed in their current position.  Tourists had placed supportive sticks underneath the boulders…simply a sign of good humor

Fifth Dive – 28 meters (92 ft) / 45 minutes

Dive #5

During our second dive of the day we saw some pretty remarkable creatures.  We were lucky enough to find a rather large sea turtle eating on the ocean floor.  We also found a sea cucumber that must have been at least 4 feet long and 35 inches around covered in King Koopah spikes. 

We’ve encountered strong drift currents on both dives today.  It took extra attention to remain in a group during our descent.  We had to keep our wits as the current would oftentimes change directions and if we weren’t paying attention we would find ourselves being slammed into a rocky granite structure.  The formations yesterday were limestone and today they are granite.

Lunch was served and again such waste.

Sixth Dive – 25 meters (82 ft) / 45 minutes

This is my favorite dive in the Similans yet.  We came across a couple enormous moray eels—as thick as my torso.  We swam through an underground structure where we were encased by granite rocks and when we emerged through the other side there were schools of various fish all around us.  If there had been a sunken treasure I would have thought I had been transported into an exotic aquarium.  We tracked a cuttlefish for a while…it was my first time seeing a cuttlefish in nature.  We caught a close-up of a rare clown triggerfish.  I rather enjoy watching our dive master sign to us when she finds something.  She points to the fish and pulls a trigger.

Seventh Dive (sunset) – 19 meters (63 ft) / 39 minutes

Dive #7

When we descended to depth we were not by any submerged structures to reference.  It was a bit disorienting but thankfully the dive outfit provided us all with dive computers—a handy wristwatch the monitors depth, ascent/descent rate, water temperature, dive time, and the no decompression limit.  The no decompression limit is the length of time remaining, at the current depth that you can continue diving without requiring an extensive decompression stop.  A decompression stop is when a diver remains under pressure for a while and vents off some of the dissolved nitrogen in their tissue.  Without the required decompression stop the divers is at an elevated risk for developing decompression sickness (DCS), also known as “the bends”.

We didn’t see too much during this dive but we did see a very large triggerfish aggressively protecting its meter wide nest.  Later at dinner I heard stories of the same type of fish attacking divers who had gotten too close to the nest.  The fish had attacked the diver’s face requiring the diver to make an emergency ascent and seek immediate medical care.

Watching the Sun Set Over the Similan Islands, Thailand

Eighth Dive – 29 meters (96 ft) / 49 minutes

We dove by a ship wreck but it was at 40 meters (132 ft), a bit deeper than our dive plan called for so we just passed by atop it.

Ninth Dive – 28 meters (93 ft) / 45 minutes

Dive #9

Saw an amazing octopus hiding within the coral, very long but skinny eels snaking in and out of large holes in the ground, and a 5-6 feet moray eel staking its ground.

It was sad to finish the last dive but the last 3 days has been an amazing adventure.  I’ve met amazing people and now I am excited to get my advanced certification next time I go SCUBA diving—I’m thinking Philippines in 2019.  I feel so much confidence while diving and I’ve only been on 17 dives.

Goodbye Message from Dive Masters

Scuba Friends

One American couple, originally from south Florida, lies in the Bay Area, CA and is among the most adventurist couple I’ve meet during my travels.  They met while rock climbing one year ago and are now in Thailand climbing in Railey, the world’s top climbing destination.  They both go skydiving regularly and he’s a Dive Master while she just finished up her advanced SCUBA certification.  It was really a joy getting to know them.  They don’t drink and are vegans and seemed to have a really good sense of how their actions impact the world in which we all live.  I’ve always known that Californians are progressive but it’s nice to be reminded once in a while.

My dive buddy was a South African who is currently living in Australia and is moving to Prague in a short while for a new job.  He was nice enough to take some photos of me during our dives with his GoPro.