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Phuket: Guide de la Plongée en Thailande


Histoire et Photographies par Mark Strickland.

A Thai Feast

The beauty and proliferation of sea life in Thailand make it a must for the diver, explains Mark Strickland

Oriental sweetlips swimming in the Similan IslandsThoughts 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.

The 'twin arrow' crab lives among the polyps Although 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 life.

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.

Colourful soft corals flourish on deeper Fantasea 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 distinctive moray can be found Thai watersAlthough 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 fish life.

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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