A Few Days in Paradise, Part 1

March 30, 2014

This post written from my live-aboard dive boat in the Similan Islands, Andaman Sea, Thailand, on March 27, 2014.

Similan Island Map

Hello Similan IslandsMy departure for the Similan Islands started early – 5:45 in the morning. I was picked up by a fourteen-person van before the sun had risen and was driven with thirteen other passengers 2 1/2 hours north to Phang Nga. It was there we were whisked across the Andaman Sea on a one hour trip through sapphire-colored waters to the live-aboard dive boat that was moored in the Similan Islands. There I’d stay three short days and two nights eating, sleeping, diving, playing, sunbathing, meditating.

The Similan’s are a chain of approximately twelve islands off the west coast of Thailand in the Andaman sea. They’ve been set aside as National Park, mostly uninhabited and protected both above and below the water.

Upon arrival at the pier I was dropped among a noisy crowd of about 100 farang (foreign) tourists who were mostly going on a day trip to snorkel in the islands. I was placed on a high speed boat with about two dozen other passengers. Our boat ripped past some fishing vessels returning to port in the opposite direction. But soon I started counting one speed boat after another passing us and then disappearing into the distance. With the islands now in sight some miles ahead of us, suddenly our motors sputtered and finally gave out. Our boat floated hopelessly as the crew fiddled with the engines and fuel lines while the captain tried fruitlessly to re-start the engines. When I heard him talking on the radio and recognized the word “may-day” – obviously there’s no translation for it in Thai – I thought to myself, “Just my luck!” I’m not a believer in “luck”; I always ask myself why I use that phrase when I utter it. Luck had nothing to do with it – it just “was”. I sat quietly and hoped we’d get to our destination, now just out of sight, without wasting the day afloat and stranded in paradise.

The boat’s engines suddenly came to life fifteen minutes later.  In another fifteen minutes seven passengers from our boat were off-loaded onto a dive boat moored in pristine waters where schools of fish could be seen from the surface and an emerald green virgin island stood like a sentinel.

Offloading

Tropical Waters

Our boat came fully equipped with its own compressor to refill the tanks, eight private cabins with bunk beds, a full kitchen with our own cook, a second floor open-air dining room, an open sunbathing deck on the third floor roof, a captain, staff to assist with our equipment, and two certified dive masters to lead our sub-surface explorations. The Eagle had landed!

Diver Center

Dining Area

View from the boat

 This is what I had waited for after nearly three stressful months of leading a humanitarian response program in Rakhine State, Myanmar (see previous posts The Best Laid Plans and Articles on the Recent Ethnic Violence in Rakhine).

What I Had Waited For

More of What I Had Waited For

The Similan Marine National Park is spotted by at least a dozen islands and approximately twenty well-known dive sites. One island has rustic cabins that I believe are permitted through a concession with the Thai government. Access is only by motorboat. All other islands are not only uninhabited, no humans are permitted to step foot on land other than Thai government officials who patrol their shores. Anyone who dares to set foot takes the chance of being fined 2,000 baht (approximately $68 at the current exchange rate). It’s not a hefty fine, but it appears to be high enough to deter trespassers. In college one of my fraternity brothers was infamous for coining phrases. He used to say when he’d walk back to the fraternity drunk with a road sign trophy in his arms to hang in his room, “The penalty’s not for the crime, it’s for getting caught.” Yes, George, indeed you’re correct.

The Beach

This was the start of three days and two nights of three dives during the day and one at night. My first dive was just me and my instructor – a refresher: shallow, with thorough checks of my equipment and instructions to remind me of the underwater sign language used to communicate commands and replies like ‘ok’, ‘go up’, ‘go down’, ‘problem’, ‘what type of fish’, etc. My last dive had been nearly three years earlier in Roatan, Honduras, an area where I saw more lion fish and turtles than I had seen anywhere.

The five dives I’ve taken so far have been anywhere from average to remarkable. The seven divers on the boat were split into two groups led by a certified dive master. Some of the unique characteristics of the Similan’s have included large underwater boulders covered in various corals and falling off into reefs of staghorn, brain and various soft corals I can’t put names to. From the surface of our boat I’ve seen large schools of small jellyfish and one jellyfish so large I leapt from the boat with my underwater camera and swam to it to take a picture.

Massive Jellyfish

My leap from the boat with my underwater camera to photograph the jellyfish inspired me to climb to the upper deck and do more jumps to cool off while we were moored in various coves.  

The Climb  Assessment  The Countdown

Set  Go!  No Turning Back

Marking Form  On Target  Bingo!

Success!

Here’s the video of it from my perspective

The reefs in certain areas abounded with large schools of blue-dash and black-tipped fusilier, smaller schools of banner fish, couples of angel fish, grazing parrot fish and peacock groupers scooting for protection between holes in the coral. A grazing sea turtle could have cared less that we hovered about a foot from its side as it grazed on sea grass and coral. I cursed myself for not having my camera with me on that dive. We saw one graceful stingray glide underneath us while another buried itself in perfect camouflage on the sandy bottom. We passed through some large boulders that gave the impression of a cave while fan coral waved slowly, as if imitating the Queen waving to the plebeian throngs from her palace window. Passing slowly over corals that looked like water wells, we noticed a grey and white image that caught our attention. We turned deeper, approached the hole and to our surprise a white-tipped shark lay resting. Startled by our sudden appearance, it bolted from the hole and gave us a start. It fled in the opposite direction.

White Tip Reef Shark

Away from the Shark

We were pleased to see this one solitary reef shark. It was the only one we’d see the entire trip. I recalled to my dive mates and dive master how I used to see white and black-tipped sharks all the time when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Republic of Kiribati and the Solomon Islands. Spear fishing was my primary source of protein at that time. The sharks left us alone for the most part if we used good judgment in immediately placing our speared fish in the boat rather than keeping them close to our side. Reef sharks are a sign of a healthy reef, healthy waters. Both my dive mates and the dive masters commented that they shared the same concern over the lack of reef sharks.

The night dive delivered some wonderful surprises. Moray eels slither from their crevasses at night to hunt. Two, at least six feet in length and larger than my thigh, snaked their way across the sea floor, disappearing into some coral and then re-emerging wide-mouthed with their needle teeth warning us of getting too friendly. Our underwater torches discovered a red crab with powerful pincers nestled on a small coral ledge. It lifted its claws in self-defense as it inched back into its hole. Man’s footprint even made an impression under the light of our torches. A concrete or stone naked water nymph covered in red, orange, yellow, blue and purple encrusting coral lay splayed on the ocean floor, her hands tossed back over head to pull her flowing hair from her face. Her full breasts invited me to linger until my air was exhausted and I came gasping to the surface full of nitrogen in my veins – yet another diver caught in her spell.

Here are a couple of pictures taken at night. I’ll save more for the next post, as well as some short video.

Giant Clam

A massive clam – I could have fit my entire hand inside

Clown Fish

Clown Stare

Clown fish and sea anemone – the perfect symbiotic relationship

I could also linger on these pages telling more tales of underwater and above-water adventure, bliss and solitude. Time for dinner and then a peaceful, quiet sunset. My spirit’s feeling refreshed from the sound of the waves, the taste of the salt breeze on my lips and the warmth of my red skin under the tropical sun. Off in the distance two boats sit moored in a cove protected by the large boulders and silent trees of a nearby island. The sun has disappeared behind the island where we’re moored for the night. Our boat rocks gently as the waves lap at its haul. The sky is turning shades of orange and yellow.

Sunset over the Similan's

The cook just brought dinner to the dining room where I sit and type. He’s an adorable Ladyboy who I think’s been flirting with me. Why is it always the boys who flirt with me?!?!?  Wait, he’s a girl too.  No, he’s a boy. Um, he’s a girl, a boy, a girl, a boy.  Ach!  We took pictures of each other last night at sunset. He’s a sweetheart, and a great cook!

Photo Mar 26, 18 40 08

Contemplating Life

It’s another day in paradise. I’ll leave you with a few more pictures so you can hopefully enjoy this as much virtually as I’ve been enjoying this very necessary quieting of my soul…

Following the Island

Moored Cat

Sunset Over the Similan's

I promise the next post – A Few Days in Paradise, Part II – will be few words. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

 

Blessings, Steve

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All content Copyrighted © Stephen Tavella

 

 

 

 

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