Instead of a Blackberry, I touched barracudas. Instead of cable TV, I gawked at a leopard shark.
Instead of monitoring breaking news on the hour every hour, scuba diving four times a day - diving and eating, eating and diving. Instead of politicians and publicity hounds, giant manta rays posing for our cameras and plenty of sea turtles performing for our amusement. Instead of sitting in gridlock traffic twice a day, I lived on a boat amid vast expanses of open sea, swam in indigo blue water and watched sunsets that took my breath away. And instead of staring at a laptop all day, I strapped a dive computer to my wrist and headed out for the Andaman Sea off Thailand's southern coast to explore its underwater beauty.
As November ticked over into December, I switched my daily routine in the city for five days of boat life in the Similan Islands, a chain of nine islands off Phang Nga Province covered by tropical jungle that make up a nature reserve and can be reached by a short speedboat ride from Phuket or Khao Lak. Living aboard the MV Koon, a boat catering to dive customers that jaunts from island to island, I discovered another world, not just the one under the sea, but one away from civilization, away from hordes of tourists, a world of adventure, wonder and stillness.
Considered one of the best diving spots in the world, the Similans are closed to tourists during the rainy season from June to November. But from mid-November until May, when the weather is balmy, the sea calm and visibility excellent, the islands burst alive with hundreds of divers exploring their rich underwater ecosystem.
Before I could partake in the fun dives, I had to complete my PADI open water and advanced open water dive courses. My dive instructor, a man called Mambo (whose deserves a book all on his own) from Thai Scuba Divers in Koh Samui, took me on board the Koon operated by the Flying Fish dive company. Based in Khao Lak, Flying Fish is but one of dozens of dive companies offering live-aboard vacations setting off from this quiet Thai coastal town, where in season you're just as likely to hear German and Swedish as Thai spoken on the main street. We got our gear together, headed to the pier, climbed onto a speedboat and bolted for the Similans, a chain of uninhabited white coral sand beaches sitting on top of indigo blue water. Paradise at sea, and paradise underneath the sea.
As soon as we boarded the Koon, our home on the water for the next five days, we were shown to our cabins and given a boat briefing. And as soon as the formalities were over, the diving began. For three days Mambo took me through my paces in an environment that most beginners can only dream of learning in. In five days I dived 20 times in places of breathtaking beauty and with names to match: East of Eden, Elephant's Head Rock, Breakfast Bend, Stonehenge, Sharkfin Reef, Snapper Alley, Honeymoon Bay, Princess Bay, Christmas Point, Donald Duck Bay and Hideaway Island. I learned navigation, buoyancy, multilevel diving, using a dive computer, night diving and, of course, deep diving. At 30 meters for the first time, the deepest I had ever been, I felt high as a kite - the result of creeping nitrogen narcosis.
On subsequent dives I saw a leopard shark, graceful and menacing at the same time. Stepping off the boat, the captain had dropped us literally on top of him. We descended right into his bedroom and woke him up. But instead of being angry, the two-meter shark merely woke up grudgingly, moved himself some 30 meters away from us, and fell gracefully back into slumber again. I saw mantas, turtles, barracudas, parrot fish, orange spine unicorns, Durban dancing shrimps, multitudes of tuna and snapper (the checkered snapper looks like it has an American flag plastered on it), fusiliers, eels, lionfish, stingrays, boxfish and so many other species.
My dive buddy was attacked by a triggerfish which head-butted his fins and also tried to knock his goggles off. These nasty, tough and street-smart fish are some of the toughest kids on the underwater block, especially for divers hovering above their offspring's nests. While the female looks after the eggs and young ones, the male patrols the area around the reef. Anyone and anything coming too close is immediately and aggressively attacked, regardless of your place in the food chain. You can tell when a triggerfish has you in his sights - a trigger-like protrusion on his back shoots up and you know he's on the warpath. Mercifully, the triggerfish correctly interpreted our frantic escape for what it truly was, and left us alone. On this trip, I've heard stories of triggerfish knocking divers out cold by head-butting them with their rock-solid teeth, and I've heard stories of divemasters in knife fights with these animals.
Next to a massive coral teeming with life, I had my ears cleaned by wrasses - tiny fish that pop into the mouths of larger fish to pick debris out of them, like autonomous, living toothpicks. When divers are near them, they dash into your ears and look for something to pick out. The whole thing lasts only a fraction of a second, but you'll never forget the feeling - I was convinced the little bugger had shot into my ear and decided to stay there, swimming around my brain, as if he was the one discovering a strange new world.
Underwater, you learn that the more colorful and attractive something is, the more you have to be cautious around it. Take for examples slugs: They are brilliantly colored and dazzle in front of your eyes. But these animals eat off the corals where there is a lot of poisonous and toxic material, so they are poisonous, and are decked out in bright colors to attract prey and ward off predators. As the saying goes, not everything that glitters is gold.
Another story from under the sea is the butterfly fish: They mate for life, and when one dies, the remaining one, even if it is in perfect health, will kill itself, because of a broken heart. The remaining butterfly fish will either swim somewhere where it can jump out of the water and asphyxiate, or it will find some other way to kill itself.
Life on the boat has its own rhythm focused around dive times and the meals that follow them. Morning activity usually starts at 7:30 on the deck with coffee, tea, some fruit and toast, and a dive briefing. The briefing is delivered by the senior dive master on board who details the upcoming dive - where we go in, where the currents are, what we can expect to see, where and how we ascend and where the end point is. The dive master also goes through some of the general safety issues, as well as any site-specific scenarios that may come up, such as strong currents, difficult swim through boulders and low visibility.
Once the briefings are over, the divers head down to the back of the boat where their wetsuits, fins, masks and BCDs (buoyancy control devices) are stored. The helpful Thai crew services all the equipment and makes sure the gas canisters are all filled with the right amount of air. They help you into your fins and BCDs, drive you in dinghies to dive sites and pick you (unless you jump straight off the boat), cook your meals and generally look after you, so that you feel like you are at a five-star resort in the middle of the ocean.
All dives last a maximum of 60 minutes. The more experienced divers use less air than novices, and there is always interest to see who has come up with the most air at the end. The secret to happy diving is to do everything really slowly, so as to conserve energy and air. Deep, slow and controlled breathing is mandatory, and you must never hold your breath. Correct breathing gives scuba diving a meditative quality and adds to the fun of the activity.
Add to that the wonder of underwater life, and you quickly understand why scuba diving has captured the imagination of so many throughout the world. It is a great hobby to travel with and can take you to amazing places.
The morning dive is followed by a scrumptious breakfast of eggs, bacon or chicken, shrimp, stir-fried vegetables and lots of fruit. The rest of the day's food is a variation on traditional Thai dishes, with stir fry, soup, prawns and many fresh vegetables. Divers must wait several hours, depending on their previous dives and which pressure group they are in, before heading back into the water. So in this time, they fill in their log books with everything they saw on their previous dives, share experiences with each other or chill on the top deck basking in the sun. Reading is a bit difficult, as the boat rocks gently from side to side.
But out here in the middle of the sea, the need for distraction quickly dissipates, and just being present in the moment, appreciating the wonderful setting, can make the time fly by. There are usually two or three more dives during the day at different islands, followed by scrumptious food, and one night dive, which is an enthralling experience.
Diving in almost total darkness can be scary and disorienting, but with experienced dive buddies leading the way, and strong torches, you discover a world that comes alive when most other sea creatures go to sleep. And talking about sleep, seeing sleeping fish, suspended in the water as if by magic, is quite a sight.
On night dives you may run into sleeping turtles, and you should really avoid shining your torch into them, as turtles slow down their heartbeats when they go to sleep. If a turtle is startled awake, its heart rate jumps up, it is disoriented, doesn't know which way is up, quickly runs out of oxygen and can die. They are truly beautiful and playful creatures, but irresponsible diving can harm them, and other sea life.
After a long day of diving, you can really feel zonked, ready for a good dinner, a beer or two and sleep. We spent our nights eating, drinking and telling stories from our lives. Exhausted but exhilarated, we would slump into our bunk beds, while others slept on the deck under the stars.
While not as strenuous as running, biking or climbing, diving can be totally exhausting, as small body movements at 20 and 30 meters under the water take a lot of effort from your muscles, even if you don't feel it while you're actually down there. That's why it's best to do everything really slowly: breathe slowly, move around slowly, take it all in. The more I dived, the more comfortable I became in my new surroundings, and the less I exerted myself.
My dives got longer in duration and were more enjoyable. It is a relaxing sport - after just the first two days I felt more relaxed and I was able to expend less air. The great thing about diving in the Similans is you get to swim along, under, through and over their huge boulders, with their many nooks and crannies. With huge rocky drop-offs on the western side, long coral reefs on the east side and a colorful underwater world to explore, no wonder the Similans are considered one of the world's top 10 dive destinations.
When the speedboat came to pick us up from the MV Koon after the end of the fifth day, I bade farewell to my home on the water, to its fabulous, professional and caring crew, and to the isolated islands that had been my gracious hosts that week. My dive buddies and I will remain friends for life, and who knows, we might all meet again out here in the middle of Andaman Sea one day.
For more information, check out http://www.tourismthailand.org/
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