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Similan Islands: Diving the Sea of a Million Stars

Similan
Marco Polo in the Similan Islands
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STUART PHILPOTT had had his eye on the world-renowned Richelieu Rock dive-site in Thai waters for many years, so he was thrilled to finally get the chance to dive it – but had he chosen the best time to go?

After a few days’ R&R at 5* Anantara resorts based at Layan and Mai Khao, I headed south by taxi towards Chalong on Phuket, where the Sea Bees main office resides. It had been great to catch up with some old friends and, as a special treat, I had even got to play with the golden gun originally used by hitman Scaramanga in the mid-’70s James Bond movie. 

The local traffic was much heavier than I had expected – this was a popular place, and a torrential downpour hadn’t helped matters. Rain before a scuba diving trip has always been a bad omen for me. Fingers crossed, this would be the exception. 

Away with Marco Polo

For many years I had been trying to organise a trip to one of Thailand’s ultimate scuba diving sites, Richelieu Rock. I had heard so many first-hand reports of whale sharks circling its submerged pinnacles and could hardly believe that after all this time I was actually going to visit.

Phil North, manager at Dive Worldwide, had introduced me to German-owned Sea Bees, which offered a variety of liveaboard options to explore the Similan and Surin Islands in the Andaman Sea off the west coast of southern Thailand. Sea Bees Diving is one of the country’s more established diving outfits, and has been operating there for more than 20 years. 

A Splendid view
Arriving in the Similan Islands

I wanted to spend as much time as possible diving and taking photographs, so opted for the full six-day liveaboard expedition running on mv Marco Polo. As you can see from the photos, the boat’s bright yellow paint-job is very hard to miss! It departs from Chalong Pier and travels 190km north to the Similan Islands (an eight to 10-hour voyage) then carries on to Koh Bon, Koh Tachai and ends up at Richelieu Rock. 

This route is then retraced back to Phuket, where guests spend their last night at Sea Bees’ Palm Garden Resort before flying home the next day. Another option is to take a day-boat or three-day liveaboard from Khao Lak further up the coast, reducing journey times by a good few hours.

The Similan and Surin Islands have been designated as Marine National Park areas, though by the end of my trip I wasn’t quite sure what that status actually signified. I had seen fishing boats moored up and, on some occasions, seen them actively fishing. There didn’t seem to be any policing of any kind. 

Time of the season

Fortunately, the Mu Koh Similan Marine National Park is closed every year from mid-May to mid-October (the rainy season) so scuba diving is allowed only from November through April, which gives the fragile ecosystem a good six months to recover.

I had assumed by visiting just after the park had re-opened that there would be a much better chance of seeing big pelagic marine life, especially mantas and whale sharks, but when I spoke to the dive-guides and the boat skipper I was told that November was not the best time. Apparently, there is a far better chance of encountering the bigger species in February and March. I wish I’d thought to check this before I booked!

Some explicit marine life
Ribbon eel

We were bussed for the short journey from the dive-centre to the pier in darkness. I dodged the puddles and jumped aboard Marco Polo, my home for the next six days. Most of my own liveaboard experience had been based around Red Sea and Caribbean excursions, and using this standard as a benchmark, I would describe Marco Polo’s facilities as relatively basic, but perfectively adequate for the job in hand.

My shared cabin was on the smaller side, which meant less storage space, but there were a couple of sockets available for recharging batteries, phones, tablets and so on. 

Every cabin is equipped with either A/C or a fan (I had the latter), though I realised that the best way to get some kind of airflow was to leave the cabin door open at night. There are no en suites available, but there are three toilet, regularly checked and kept clean all day. To be fair, Phil had said that the boat was not advertised as a “luxury” liveaboard and was competitively priced accordingly. 

Similan
Pink anemonefish

It was a German-owned company, so I was expecting to meet a fair proportion of Germans on board. Of 14 guests there was one other Brit, who had arrived at the last minute, and a couple from California, so I would say around German occupancy was about 80%. 

At dinner on the first evening, everyone was mixed up on different tables. By day two, the Germans were all shoehorned together on the starboard tables and we four non-Germans had all the port-side tables to ourselves!

There was always conversation flowing but, naturally enough, everyone seemed more comfortable speaking in their own language. Phil said Dive Worldwide would have had no prior knowledge of the nationalities booked on the boat from one week to the next, as on any Thai-based liveaboard, so it’s lucky dip unless the whole boat is chartered by a single group.

Under water

Some more sea life
Moray eel being cleaned

The Swiss dive-guide couple seemed to know their stuff and organised everybody into groups based on experience levels. There were a couple of Germans with fewer than 10 dives each, but overall the standard was pretty high.

Another German girl had joined us as a dive-guide, so our group sizes were small and intimate. I was loosely buddied up with the Brit and the Californian couple. When I’m taking photographs, I like to “float” around the pack and not be paired with anybody in particular, unless I’m working with a model. On average, underwater visibility over the six days maxed out at 15-20m.

The Similans consist of nine islands, numbered from south to north. Islands 1, 2 and 3 were closed to divers so our dives were focused around 5, 7, 8 and 9 (not much happens around 4).

The reefs and coral beds
Seafans on the reef

My first dive at Island 5 was called the Hideaway. We made our way along the boulder-strewn reef-edge littered with seafans, soft corals and some hard corals. Shoals of yellow-striped grunt, butterflyfish, surgeons, grouper and glassfish were on show.

I tried to keep up with a huge shoal of trevally and hawkfish foraging along the seabed, but they were moving too fast for me. With limited sunshine the scenery looked a bit dark and dismal through my viewfinder, but my strobe lighting managed to highlight the surroundings. 

We completed 13 dives in the Similans at eight sites, including Navy Bay, Saam Tonn, Whale Back Rock, Eagle Rock, the Bommies and Elephant Head Rock. My favourite site, with its canyons, walls and giant boulders covered in soft corals and seafans, was called West of Eden.

An Amazing underwater capture
Anemones and glassfish

After a couple of days we upped anchor and headed north to Koh Bon and then Koh Tachai. We visited most of the popular sites at Koh Bon twice over, including West Ridge, the Pinnacle and the Bay. 

There was plenty of marine-life activity at West Ridge and the Pinnacle, with shoals of grunt and sweetlips regularly sighted. Now and again I saw a passing tuna or trevally, but no sharks apart from a solitary leopard at the Pinnacle.

I tried to get close for a picture but the whole group of divers were so excited that the shark was scared away. Everywhere we went there were huge shoals of glassfish. When my flashguns fired, the silvery reflections reminded me of millions upon millions of glittering stars.     

Group of soldier fish
Group of soldierfish beneath the boat

Further north Tachai Pinnacle, aka Twin Peaks, had a lot of potential. The current was running incredibly fast on our descent and visibility was a milky 5-8m. There seemed to be one massive boulder sitting at a depth of 12m surrounded by smaller boulders.

We circumnavigated this and then skirted around the periphery. Huge gorgonian seafans and colourful soft corals colonised a number of the rock faces. I stopped to take a shot of a chilled-out puffer, but after a few seconds had to move on, otherwise I would have lost contact with the group.

A pair of eagle rays, rarely seen in these waters, watched over us for several moments and then disappeared into the haze. We stayed low, trying to avoid the current. We managed to do two dives at this site, which was probably the highlight of the trip – I can only imagine what it’s like in amazing vis! 

Diver with coral grouper
Diver with blue-spotted puffer

My doubts about the weather were confirmed when the skipper and the dive-guides decided to abandon our journey further north and return to the better-protected waters around the Similans. The highlight and main purpose of my trip, diving Richelieu Rock, had unfortunately been cancelled.

On our way back, we managed to stop off and explore Island 8, where there is a visitor’s centre and camping facilities. The beautiful white sandy beach is a popular tourist attraction, and on our last day the sun decided to make an appearance, bringing several speedboats filled with tourists looking to soak up the rays.

At Donald Duck Bay, I found plenty of macro subjects to shoot. There were even a few swim-throughs, stuffed with trevally and soldierfish. I enjoyed flitting around the rocks finding morays, coral grouper, angelfish, ghost pipefish, clowns, puffers and many more species. Just to round out my contentment, we bumped into a small friendly hawksbill.

Some more surprises!
Divers and gorgonians

Our penultimate dive at Elephant Head Rock was a step up from our previous dive, with bigger and better swim-throughs, overhangs thriving with smaller fish, and breath-taking scenery. I scouted ahead and found an abundance of seafans and soft corals. With a few divers silhouetted in the background, my pictures looked very atmospheric. 

A memorable trip
Marco Polo guests at the end of the trip

Moral of the story

Unfortunately, on this occasion, the weather had beaten me. I’m old and ugly enough to understand that s*** happens, and the safety of the guests and crew is paramount. 

Even so, I remained bitterly disappointed to miss out on Richelieu Rock. I can only report on my findings as they unfolded during the week, which totalled 22 dives, including night dives.

Tachai Pinnacle and Koh Bon Pinnacle were the main attractions for me, with their interesting seascapes of big boulders, dramatic walls and a number of swim-throughs to explore, and there were good amounts of small-to-medium fish, perfect for macro photo lovers.

However, I had come to the Similans for big pelagic sightings, and my tally for the week was disappointing. The moral of this story? If you have a particular objective, make sure you travel at the most appropriate time of year!

LET’S KEEP IN TOUCH!

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