While we could have gone diving with any number of liveaboard operators when we were there the first time, we decided to wait for an opening with Wicked Diving, as our research indicated that they are the most environmentally and socially responsible option with a stellar reputation. Before the boat's evening departure, we took advantage of the opportunity to do a local dive trip to the Boonsung Wreck. After loading up a little long tail boat with the day's scuba gear and packed rice dish lunches, we motored out to the scuttled ship now serving as an artificial reef and magnet for oodles of fish. The wreck was dynamic and so fun to explore with surprises around every bend and angle, from honeycomb moray eels poking out from cracks in the walls, to pufferfish chillin', and small schools of lion fish strutting their fanciness about. It was a great way to kick off the dive experience here and heightened our anticipation of the liveaboard.
Soon enough, we were settling in to our home on a boat for the next three nights. We couldn't help but compare our initial experience to being a participant in a NatureBridge program, the residential environmental education organization where we previously worked. After a thorough orientation, we found out our dive groups and assigned guides, and then moved in to our bunk bed cabins on the lower deck. We excitedly explored the rest of boat before getting to know our boatmates over a delicious dinner, then relaxed on bean bags and hammocks on the top deck under a starry sky. An early bedtime was easy with the gentle swells rocking us to sleep, only waking up briefly with a start a few hours later when the boat arrived to our first destination and loudly positioned itself to drop anchor.
What a way to start the day by waking up and looking out the cabin window at the very waters you will soon be breathing underneath! After a dive briefing of Koh Bon--and equally importantly--a couple of cups of coffee, we awkwardly suited up on the crowded dive deck, making it a relief to take a giant stride off the back and hit the surface of the water. On this first dive, we got the thrill of feeling what is nicknamed "the green monster," a surge of cold nutrient-rich water upwelling from the deep ocean surrounding the little island. The second dive of the morning illustrated the decimation of the 2004 tsunami as we swam over intermittent swaths of fractured dead coral with new growth just beginning the long process of establishment on such unstable substrate. Life was still abundant in the area though, and a bit feisty I might add after getting nipped by a bold cleaner wrasse a couple of times.
After a leisurely lunch, we completed our third dive of the day on Koh Tachai reef where the big excitement was spotting a leopard shark resting on the bottom. In the late afternoon, the zodiac navigated narrow channels through the coral to drop the group off at a lovely white sand beach. While quietly strolling on a short nature trail inland, Matt and I watched a couple of dinosaur-like Bengal monitor lizards amble by. Even more exciting was observing a tree full of flying foxes waking up for the night; they were the largest bats we had ever seen! Back on the beach, it took next to no time to collect a bag full of plastic debris. With the remainder of our island excursion we "bowled" using a hard plastic fishing float the size of a bowling ball and drink bottles for pins. The evening was consumed with showering, eating, chatting, filling in the details of our dive logbook, checking out our underwater GoPro photos and looking up species sighted that day while the boat motored over to the next day's location.
The second full day on the boat was a big one, filled with four dives and a snorkel. Our first dive off of South Surin Island hit us with some strong current that caught us off guard and took some getting used to. We wished we were anchored to the rock like the bright yellow and jet black feather stars whose long arms gracefully whipped back and forth. We got a bit of relief from the current on the second dive in the more sheltered bay of Ao Pakad, but Matt got a welt from a mean little blue jelly right on the surface. Our third dive was a rough one back in strong current. Apparently, we flew by an area in ten minutes that usually takes forty-five to explore, all while kicking in to the current to slow down. When Emma and Wayne, an Australian couple in our dive group, got a bit too far behind, we had to kick hard against it to regroup. The exertion made it hard to catch our breath for a while and induced a panicky feeling that the current only made worse.
After a rest back on the boat, we used our free time to take a snorkel in a sheltered bay. After so many dives in a row with the process of gearing up, adjusting buoyancy, checking depth and air consumption, and keeping constant tabs on the group, the simplicity of a snorkel was so peaceful and refreshing. Just the two of us headed close to shore without a plan and tracked down two black-tipped reef sharks and a shy hawksbill sea turtle. On our way back, we snagged a plastic bag floating on the surface and sadly filled it with other garbage by the time we reached the boat. A last look before climbing up the ladder revealed some squidlets hanging out by the mooring line; seeing them was a nice contrast to the usual nighttime ocean horizon of endless glaring lights attracting squid to the surface for harvest. With Thailand being the world's leading exporter of squid and cuttlefish, the concentration of illuminated fishing vessels in the gulf can is even visible from space! While squid are one of the faster growing and reproducing seafood favorites, it seems that Thailand's squiding industry has no enforced regulations. As with nearly all fisheries in the world, concerned experts predict it is only a matter time "before it's crashed."
Shortly after sunset, we all gathered for a night dive briefing followed by a fascinating TED talk by marine biologist Edith Widder about one of my favorite subjects: bioluminescence. This really made the NatureBridge parallel complete, given that we frequently taught a short lesson about it before leading our group on a night hike to the beach to see the glowing plankton washed up in the wet sand. On our night dive, we had a similar experience to our students as we hid our dive lights and waved our arms about to activate the "sea sparkles." With only comparatively minor current to contend with, we could even go slowly enough to observe the polyps in the coral extending their delicate tentacles to feed in the night.
The last morning was the occasion everyone had been waiting for, two dives at the famous Richelieu Rock. It is an isolated pinnacle rising from deep waters that attracts big pelagic life, such as the largest living fish species in the world--the filter-feeding whale shark. I, on the other hand, awoke groggy and out of sorts, but did my best to be excited despite this. Our boat joined at least five others already at the dive site, and word spread like wildfire that luck was with us that day. There was a whale shark circling the rock, which we spied passing by above us shortly after descending. It was a small one as they go, but made all the more impressive with its entourage of remoras and other fish surrounding it like body guards on all sides. Unfortunately, the presence of this species tends to bring out the worst in divers. During our second slightly longer sighting, Matt got kicked in the head a couple of times by people around him jostling for position. Others were completely oblivious to the coral they were drifting into. Then one guy with a video camera decided that he should have the privilege of joining the whale shark's entourage and tried to swim with it, of course scaring it off for the other twenty folks properly keeping their distance.
Annoyed by the mania, I tried to focus instead on the technicolor beauty of the crazy corals and anemones on rock wall we were swimming along. This worked well until we came up to a vertical ridge and faced a strong current. We exerted hard to get through the worst of it, quickly lowering our air supplies. After a third brief sighting of the all-important whale shark, we had drifted a little bit away from the rock, so our dive master decided we should just head up. Luckily, we had a second dive left to explore more of the amazing pinnacle itself. During the surface interval, everyone swapped essentially the same whale shark story with each other, and in keeping with a proper fish story, greatly exaggerated its estimated size.
For our final dive, we were again blessed with a fleeting glimpse of the whale shark just after descending, which sent us along the exact same route along the outer wall as our first dive. We hit the same crazy current along the same vertical ridge as before, and again our dive master had us push through it. Only this time, as soon as we sucked down most of our air to get over it, she signaled us to turn around, and ended our dive shortly thereafter. We could not understand her decision to push us over the ridge when she already knew the conditions from the first dive. At this point, our suppressed frustration that had been building over the last few days really came to a head. While the other dive masters on the boat had years of experience, ours was fresh out of dive master training. Realizing from our own experiences as educators and outdoor guides that every newbie has to start somewhere, we tried our best to stay patient and positive. For example, her lack of detail in pointing out the unique aspects of each dive site was an opportunity for us to improve our own skills in searching out the less obvious critters.
However, it does seem to be our unlucky curse that whenever we exceed our usual travel budget for a special one-shot deal, we get less than we paid for in skills and service. It happened in Tibet, it happened with this liveaboard, it happened with overhauling our bicycles in Bangkok. Even our trip to Bhutan tested the limits of our travel flexibility. Each time had unexpected or unusual circumstances that contributed to our unfortunate situation, but we'll take it as a sign that we should just stick to simple low-budget cycle touring from here on out. Besides, we can't really afford any more splurges anyway!
While our last dives did not feel like the grand finale we had hoped for, we were indeed grateful to see the hysteria-inducing whale shark. And while some of our time spent underwater was more stressful than it should have been, overall we really enjoyed life on the boat. We had good company, delicious food, and beautiful surroundings in a National Marine Park for three luxurious days. We were impressed with Wicked Diving's overall high standard of operation. Even with our refined greenwashing detectors turned on, we were convinced that they walk their talk with responsible practices, such as using refillable water bottles, composting, providing biodegradable soaps, no-touch diving, as well as litter collection and shark bio-monitoring, among other cool community initiatives as well.