Histoire et Photographies par
A Thai Feast
The beauty and proliferation of sea life in Thailand
make it a must for the diver, explains Mark Strickland
of Thailand often inspire images of rice paddies and steamy
jungles. Although both do exist here in ample proportions,
the South East Asian kingdom has a great deal more to offer,
including breathtaking scenery, fascinating culture and an
exotic ambiance that has few rivals. One of the most exotic
features though has to be the diving.
The resort island of Phuket on Thailand's southwest
coast is the departure point for an area considered to be
among the world's best diving locations - the islands and
reefs of the Andaman Sea. Probably the best known of these
are the Similan Islands, located about fifty nautical miles
northwest of Phuket. Designated as a national park, the Similans
consist of nine islands, the majority of which are uninhabited.
This is an area blessed with outstanding natural beauty,
both above and below the surface. Surrounded by clear blue
waters, the islands themselves present a rocky, rugged landscape,
most of which is covered with dense, green tropical foliage.
Although much of the shoreline is rocky, these islands boast
some of the most scenic white sand beach to be found anywhere.
Below the waterline, the Similans are no less spectacular,
combining dramatic topography, generally excellent conditions
and a rich, diverse population of marine life.
One of the most striking features of the Similan Islands
is the great variation of underwater terrain. Diving on the
east-facing shores is characterised by gently sloping, predominantly
hard coral reefs, inhabited by a seemingly endless variety
of colourful reef fish. Currents here are normally slight
and depths moderate at around 6 - 27 metres, providing conditions
appropriate for divers of all experience levels.
The west-facing dive sites, only a mile or two distant,
are so different that you can feel as though you are diving
in another part of the world. Huge granite boulders are stacked
on top of one another in gigantic piles, resulting in networks
of caverns, archways and tunnels. Depths usually range from
15 - 40 metres plus. Many rockfaces plunge beyond the depths
recommended for recreational divers. Prevailing currents are
often brisk, providing a plentiful food supply for lush growths
of sea fans, gorgonians and crinoids, as well as dense forests
of multi-coloured soft corals. Macro photographers will find
plenty of subjects, most of the vertical rock surfaces are
covered with a wide variety of sponges, tube corals and tunicates,
which in turn support a multitude of shrimp, crabs and nudibranchs.
these west-side reefs are teeming with smaller reef fish,
the big attraction for many divers is the prospect of encounters
with larger pelagic creatures. Tuna, jacks and mackerel are
often seen, as are turtles and stingrays. Other fairly common
sights include eagle and manta rays, as well as occasional
visits by the largest fish in the seas - the whale shark.
In fact the Similans feature dozens of dive sites - too many
to recount. The following are just a few of the most popular.
Rocky Point is located just off the southern tip of
Koh Huyong (Island Number One), the southern most of the Similan
Islands. This reef is primarily a rock formation, yet it supports
many varieties of coral and related organisms. A narrow, sandy
channel separates the rocky reef from the island. It is here
at depths of 21 - 30 metres that divers often encounter large
stingrays, as well as shy, docile leopard (zebra) sharks.
Primarily nocturnal feeders, these gentle creatures usually
spend daylight hours resting on sandy bottoms near the edge
of reefs. Normally they are quite approachable, and provide
excellent photo opportunities. However, do bear in mind that
passive interaction is best. Just like humans these animals
need their rest. Frequent disturbances by over zealous divers
could stress them to the point of driving them away from their
habitat and threatening their survival.
Coral Gardens is situated on the east side of Koh
Huyong, this is a typical 'east-side' dive site - a sloping,
hard coral reef, featuring many huge heads of star coral,
as well as staghorns and other branching corals.
Frequently clustering around the corals are dense
schools of damselfish, venturing several feet up into the
water column to feed on passing plankton, until alerted to
some possible danger (often a diver's noisy exhaust bubbles).
In an instant the entire school vanishes into the coral branches,
tucked safely away until danger has passed. In a similar fashion,
garden eels which reside in holes in the sandy bottom, retract
in unison into their homes at the first sign of approaching
danger, appearing very much like a field of grass somehow
receding into the ground until they disappear from view.
Sharkfin Reef is a long, narrow ridge of rock which
lies partially exposed at low tide, when it is purported to
look like a shark's dorsal fin. While not everyone agrees
on this resemblance, nearly all who have dived her do agree
on the quality of the diving - it is excellent. Located between
Boulder City and Island Number Three, this site is a combination
of east and west-side in appearance, and shares some features
from both areas.
While the seascape is dominated by large boulders,
there are also vast fields of staghorn corals, along with
sloping, sandy bottom in some areas. A perfect multi-level
dive, Sharkfin offers outstanding scenery at nearly any depth.
At the deeper areas, huge rock formations create a number
of caverns and tunnels, most of which are brimming with sea
As you move gradually towards the shallows, the terrain
becomes somewhat lower in profile, with a greater abundance
of hard corals and schooling reef fish. Even the very shallow
depths are scenic here. At 15 feet nearly every rocky crevice
is bristling with life - brilliant orange tube corals extend
their tentacles to feed, while sturdy gorgonias sway to and
fro in the surge. All the while scores of dazzling reef fish
parade about in these sun dappled shallows, creating a living
kaleidoscope of colour.
Reef which is located just west of Island Number Eight probably
has the friendliest fish life of all, and ranks among the
favourite dives of people who have been there. Immediately
upon entering the water, the diver is surrounded by curious
surgeonfish, triggerfish and chubs. As you approach the bottom,
an assortment of reef fish come into view, seemingly endless
varieties of butterflyfish, angelfish, parrotfish and countless
others meander amongst the reef, delighting photographers
and fish watchers alike. Among the most photogenic residents
are several surprisingly bold blue spotted rock cod and they
actually seem to enjoy posing for pictures. Many of the other
fish are experienced underwater 'models' as well, including
several large morays, colourful bannerfish and lots of lionfish.
Another star attraction is the pair of ribbon eels which inhabit
adjacent holes at the reef's edge. Both sport brilliant yellow
dorsal fins and bizarre, dragon-like facial features, but
one's colouration is jet black while the other is electric
neon blue. Fantasea Reef is also a natural attraction for
semi-pelagic creatures, including many predatory fish. Schools
of marauding jacks and mackerel patrol the reef, tearing through
dense clouds of silversides and fusiliers. Husky dog-toothed
tuna, often reaching weights of 25 kilos or more, are also
commonly seen. Sailfish can be spotted with fair regularity,
though they are usually seen only from the surface. Huge graceful
manta rays make occasional visits here as well, sometimes
hanging around for days at a time.
Because the dive sites mentioned are generally located
in areas at least partially open to wind and sea, most boats
do not attempt to stay overnight at these spots. Instead,
they usually drift or temporarily moor while divers explore
a particular reef. After everyone is back aboard, the boats
head to permanent moorings in more sheltered areas. These
protected anchorages, while perhaps not as spectacular as
the feature dive sites, do offer some excellent diving opportunities.
A surprising assortment of creatures thrive here, including
a wide variety of fish and invertebrates. At one popular bay,
three different species of clownfish can be found within a
boat's length of the mooring.
Depths are moderate and currents minimal, permitting
lots of bottom time and virtually effortless diving. Night
dives are especially popular in these places, allowing the
diver a glimpse of a completely different world. As the sun
sets, a 'changing of the guard' takes place. The fish and
other creatures which are normally active during daylight
hours tuck themselves into nooks and crannies in the reef
to rest, while an entirely different group are just coming
out to feed. Animals seldom seen during the day can now be
observed in the open. Octopuses range far beyond their dens
and moray eels prowl among the corals, even usually timid
lobsters travel boldly across the reef. Viewed under the diver's
artificial light, the hidden colours of the reef's inhabitants
take on a new intensity. Soft corals which appeared grey a
few hours earlier now show up as vivid pink and seemingly
drab brown sponges turn out to be scarlet red, indeed the
entire reef seems to explode in a riot of colour.
the Similans are the mainstay of dive activities in this area,
there are several other exciting destinations to be considered
as well. North of the Similans lie the islands of Koh Bon
and Koh Tachai. Both are tall, rocky islands, and offer varied
and beautiful underwater scenery. Tachai is generally considered
to be the more attractive of the two, featuring a pair of
coral-encrusted pinnacles which are connected by a long, rocky
ridge. This area is swept by currents which are extremely
rich in nutrients and plankton, resulting in outstanding growths
of sea fans, soft corals and gorgonians, as well as lots of
Below the waterline, a number of sites provide excellent
diving. Without question the best of these is a rocky outcropping
known as Richelieu Rock. This site is situated nearly ten
miles east of the Surins, and is regarded by many to be among
the best dives in the world. Although visibility is often
limited, the abundance and variety of marine life is truly
astounding. For starters, Richelieu offers some of the best
soft coral growth around, with 'trees' growing over knee-high.
It's also one of the few places where you are likely to encounter
shy and rarely seen shovelnose ray. Also known as the guitar
shark, these animals appear to have the head of a stingray,
combined with the body of a shark. Growing to lengths of over
three metres, they are completely harmless. Other creatures
seen here include both octopus and cuttlefish, the latter
of which are often observed mating and laying eggs among the
rocky ledges. Nearly every imaginable variety of bony fish
is found here as well, from anemone fish and lionfish to schools
of barracuda and trevally. Another attraction to Richelieu
Rock is the incidence of whale shark sightings, according
to one recent study, these animals were seen on over 50% of
visits to this site.
The Phuket resort area has much to offer in addition
to diving, in fact there is so much to do that it would be
impossible to take it all in on a single trip. However, of
all the attributes Thailand has to offer, possibly the greatest
is the Thai people themselves. Courtesy and friendliness seem
to be national traits. It is rare to meet anyone who does
not respond with a ready smile and warm greeting. Whether
ordering a meal, asking directions, or bargaining with a street
vendor, the experience is nearly always an enjoyable one for
all concerned. The visitor will quickly see why Thailand is
known as 'The Land of a Thousand Smiles'. So if spectacular
and diverse diving, congenial people and a relaxed tropical
atmosphere sound appealing, you are sure to enjoy Thailand.
Don't wait too long though - the hoards will soon start arriving.
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