Great diving in the Andaman Sea

Rated amongst the world’s top dive sites, the Similan and Surin Islands offer an escape from the overcrowded beaches of Phuket.  Both groups of islands are part of a large archipelago about 90 km west of the mainland in the middle of the Andaman Sea extending north into Myanmar.

The Similan Islands are comprised of nine distinct islands all within close range of each other, and another island, Koh Bon that lies 17 nautical miles north of the main cluster. The entire area is protected under the Similan National Park.  The islands are  easily accessible by speed boat from Khao Lak.

The Surin Islands are further north and are comprised of five distinct islands.  Protected under the Mu Ko Surin National Park, these islands are also a popular destination for divers and snorkellers often travelling by boat from Khao Lak.  The closest town from which to reach the islands is Khuraburi, a tiny fishing port that has not yet been hit by the tourism bug.  The park is home to one of the most famous dive sites in the world, Richelieu Rock.

While it is possible to visit these islands on a day trip, live-aboard tours are very popular.  I was somewhat reluctant to do a live-aboard because I am prone to sea sickness; just the idea of being trapped on a boat for more than a day made me queasy.  Finally I agreed to a 2 day, 1 night diving excursion with six dives included.  We were staying at the Poseidon Bungalows and they kindly arranged the tour for us with Similan Seven Sea Club.  We had no idea what to expect but felt some reassurance by the good reviews this company received on Trip Advisor.

A speedboat took us from Khao Lak to Koh Bon, the site for our first two dives.  The waters were pretty rough and I was surprised that Chris was suffering from some mild sea sickness while my stomach was fine.  At Koh Bon, we transferred to the main boat which would be home for the next 36 hours.  The boat was anchored in a sheltered bay, but it still pitched rather wrecklessly to and fro.  Chris’ seasickness worsened, and for some reason I continued to be immune to the restless sea.

Once on the main boat, we got kitted up with our gear.  I was surprised that everything fit perfectly even though we hadn’t tried anything on ahead of time and the equipment was of very good quality.  Even though there was a large group of divers on board, we were organized into small groups of four to a dive master.  We did two dives at Koh Bon each of which had a lot of current that prevented us from fully exploring the site.  We didn’t see the infamous manta rays that frequent this area nor did we see any sharks.  But there were lots of beautiful coral and smaller fish to keep us entertained.  Our final dive of the day was at Hin Yao on Island #8.  Again we faced tremendous current that formed a wall around us, limiting where we could go.  In the fading afternoon light, we didn’t see anything remarkable on that dive.

Day and night, there was no respite from the heaving and  pitching of the boat.  Even within the protection of the bay, we were tossed around a lot. In between dives, I found refuge on the top deck where I lay on a mat, with my eyes closed, rocking side to side with the rhythm of the boat. Remarkably, I didn’t feel any seasickness during the entire time on board.  Chris was mildly seasick, but nothing that hampered his fun.  As a precaution, we both took gravol before going to bed and slept like babies all through the night.

The food on board was typical Thai food, cooked to perfection.  We ate well for every meal and snack in between dives.  There were three bathrooms with showers on board, sufficient for the size of the group.  Our room was very tiny, with two sets of bunk beds.  I can’t imagine four people sharing the room, we found it squishy for just the two of us.  But the beds were comfortable, the linensclean and cozy.

On the second day, we dove at Beacon Reef  (Island #8), Christmas Point (Island #9) and Breakfast Bend (Island #8).  Chris considered Christmas Point to be one of his most favourite dive sites of all time.  The site was comprised of huge rocks covered in colorful coral.  Large schools of fish were everywhere.  Sunlight filtered through the water casting beautiful light on the rocks.  It was a very unusual site and simply stunning in its natural beauty.

All too quickly our tour was over and we were whisked back to shore by speed boat.  This was the first time I really enjoyed diving and  I think it was because I was feeling so well.  What a difference it makes when you aren’t throwing up, or dealing with a throbbing headache.

Scorpion Fish – well camouflaged amidst the rocks!

Lots of clown fish (Little Nemo) clean themselves amongst the anemone.

Sunrise at the Similan Islands.

Two days later, we travelled by bus from Khao Lak to Khuraburi where we launched our second diving excursion – 2 days / 1 night at the Surin Islands, with Blue Guru Diving.  This time we would sleep in a bungalow on one of the islands rather than on board.  Little did we know how thankful we would be for that arrangement.  I was in really good spirits for this trip after such an enjoyable and successful diving trip earlier in the week.  Such enthusiasm was short-lived.

Right from the start, things seemed to go wrong on this trip.  From the low tide that delayed us almost an hour when some debris got tangled in the propellor, to the violent seas that wreaked havoc on board.  There were several near misses when the hot water container came crashing down just inches from one of the dive master’s head, Chris was thrown from his seat on a large cooler as both Chris and the cooler were pitched across the deck when one wave hit particularly hard.  During our first briefing, I was literally knocked to the ground when the boat jerked wildly in the pitching sea.  I was okay all the way out to the dive site, keeping my eyes focused on the distant horizon, and almost willing my stomach into submission.  But everything changed when we stopped at Richelieu Rocks, our first dive site.

As we got kitted up at the back of the boat, it was hard to maintain your balance, the seas were so rough and turbulent.  We were all stumbling around trying to get our gear on.  All of a sudden I broke out in a sweat, overcome with a powerful wave of nausea.  I knew as soon as we got underwater, it would be better, I just had to keep it together for a little while longer.  But it was taking everyone a while to get themselves organized – it was the first dive of the day, with unfamiliar equipment, and under strenuous conditions.  To make matters worse, we had to swim to a buoy where we would descend following a line because the current was strong at this site.  I must admit I was a little fearful about jumping into such large waves – I’ve never seen such waves before – and then having to swim against surge and waves and current.  But there was no turning back, in I jumped, and just focused on getting myself to the buoy which was actually a lot easier than expected.  But once at the buoy, we again had to wait for everyone to get there before descending. My stomach was turning violently as the waves crashed over me and tossed me around mercilessly,  I hung onto that rope like my life depended on it.

Finally we descended and I felt almost immediate relief as the waters calmed down around me.  But my stomach didn’t settle and within minutes I started to vomit into my regulator, and vomit, and vomit.  We had just started the dive and I didn’t want to ruin it for everybody by ending it prematurely, so I just coped the best I could, clearing my reg every now and then.  To add to my discomfort, we faced very strong current to the point that we were pinned against the rock, unable to go around at either end because of the fierce current.  So we simply went back and forth at different depths exploring the one side of the rock.  At one time, I’m sure this experience would have totally freaked me out….I was amazed at how calm I was and how I handled all these obstacles during that dive.   I was relieved when the dive was over, but reluctant to ascend to the stormy waters above.

Sure enough, as soon as I got on board, I continued to vomit. To my surprise, Chris was vomiting when he got on board too.  What a pair we were, lying on the benches, with a garbage bin between us.  No one else was suffering like us, but the dive masters acknowledged these were the worst seas of the season.  We were rendered immobile for a few hours and had to forfeit the next dive which was also at Richelieu Rocks.  Turns out that dive had no current and was the best dive of the day.  Figures.  By the end of the day, we headed to Pad Haad just off the coast of the Surin Islands for our last dive.   By then, the seas had calmed down and we were feeling well enough to dive again.  We enjoyed a very relaxing dive with very little current along a beautiful coral reef.

Chris and I were so glad we were staying on shore that night in a very comfortable wooden bungalow with private bath, but no hot water.  Food was served in a large dining area.  We were starving at this point as we had both missed lunch and hadn’t eaten since breakfast many hours earlier.  The food was adequate, but nothing really great.  It was an early night for us as we were both exhausted.

We opted to pay a little more to stay in a bungalow, rather than a tent.  A wise decision!

The next day gave us grey skies but calm seas, such a difference from the day before.  After one dive off the coast of the Surin Island, we went back to Richelieu Rocks where we enjoyed two beautiful dives in calm waters with very little current.  We couldn’t believe this was the same site where we had been incapacitated just 24 hours earlier.  Aside from the the few hours of severe seasickness, we ended up having a great time doing the rest of our dives.  Richelieu Rock is truly a spectacular dive site with the most beautiful soft purple coral imaginable.

When I think back to the difficulties I faced getting my open water certification before the start of our trip – the two rounds of  swimming lessons I took in advance to help me overcome my fear of and anxiety in the water, the failure on my first attempt at the course, the difficulties I had mastering some of the basic skills – I find it hard to believe that I have completed 33 dives at some of the most amazing dive sites in the world.   Even after I was certified, it took a lot of persistence and determination to conquer my fears, to control my anxiety and to cope with the physical discomforts that plagued me in the sea.  I feel particularly proud of this accomplishment and while I know I will never be more than a recreational diver, I am confident that there are many more dives ahead of me in the years to come.

Note:  We did not have an underwater camera during these diving excursions.  The underwater photos in this post were generously provided by fellow divers.  Thanks!

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2 Responses
  1. Neil & Michelle says:

    Hey you two! So sorry that it has been so long. Thank you for all the work you put in this blog. We often fall behind in our reading but always enjoy your adventures and the beautiful pictures when we catch-up. I was out snowshoeing on Sunday morning, thought of you and decided that Valentine’s Day would be the perfect time to let our good friends know that they are not forgotten (although we are terrible at writing to you). We think of you often, miss you and look forward to seeing in a few months. Take care and enjoy the last leg of this amazing adventure.
    Happy Valentine’s Day,
    Michelle & Neil

  2. chris says:

    Hey you two back! It’s nice to know that the folks back home check in on occasion… it truly is a lot of work to provide our friends and family with quality, family friendly entertainment… glad you are enjoying the fruits of our labour! Looking forward to seeing you guys upon our return from our grand adventure!

    Chris and Christina