The sound of short, quick bursts of noise come from the front of the boat, like mini-explosions. BANG! POP! CRACK!
After almost a decade in Europe, I was excited to be starting a new chapter of my life in Kuala Lumpur. It was 2017, and the thought of moving to Malaysia evoked memories of my childhood growing up in Asia.
The food, the weather, the food, the culture, the food, the energy! (Did I mention the food?) But scuba diving was not something that I was excited about. Islands and beach holidays, yes! Diving, no. It seemed scary, dangerous and uncomfortable.
Now, barely two years later, I was PADI AOW certified and about to end 2019 with a diving adventure in Thailand – my first liveaboard trip!
But, what was all that noise? Was there a problem with the boat? Were we even going to make it away from the jetty?
“It’s alright, it’s just the firecrackers,” explained one of the Dive Masters. “The Thai crew set off firecrackers as we leave the jetty, to scare away the sea demons so that we will have a good voyage!”
With the firecrackers lit and the bow of the boat adorned with orchids and marigolds, we were on our way! 14 dives in 4 days around the Similan Islands and Richelieu Rock!
Home for the next four days, and may she keep us safe from the sea demons!
6 am. It’s our first full day onboard the Dolphin Queen, and we’ve been sailing through the night to arrive here at our first dive site – Hideaway, located not far from Islands 4 (Koh Miang) and 5 (Ko Ha) of the Similan Islands Archipelago.
I’m surprised by how cool it is on the deck, as I warm my hands around my mug of hot Milo. The wind wakes me up, and the excitement starts building as the trip leader begins to brief us about our first dive. By the time she’s finished talking the sun is up, and so is the mood of all the divers. It’s time to get into the water!
Me and my dive buddy, Cat, gear up and go through our pre-dive checks and then… That calmness that can only come from being underwater envelops me.
I take slow, steady breaths and descend deeper and deeper into the Andaman Sea. I was a bit nervous at the thought of doing four dives in one day, but after that first morning dive I can’t wait to get back into the water!
The dives just keep getting better and better as well! Visibility is great, and I get excited seeing red tooth triggerfish, colourful clown triggerfish, huge batfish, map pufferfish, a shy octopus, blacktip reef sharks, schools of fusiliers and so many blue-spotted ribbontail stingrays one after another, their striking blue pattern making them stand out as they glide by.
Even out of the water, there is excitement between dives, as a beautiful chilled out green turtle swims around our boat.
Excitement below and above the surface!
But there is still time to squeeze in one more dive before the day is over!
This will only be my second night dive to date, so I’m a little bit hesitant because voluntarily submerging myself into the dark depths of the ocean feels very different to diving into clear turquoise waters, but I don’t want to miss anything!
So at 7 pm I gear up and attach a torch around my wrist.
Anybody who has been on a night dive will tell you that it is a completely different underwater experience to diving during the day. The ocean doesn’t sleep! Well, it does, and I see a sleepy fish seemingly suspended in mid-swim, but I also spot different shrimp and crabs, a squid squirting ink as it escapes a predator beyond the reach of my torch, and the cutest, minuscule pygmy squid. Our group also has an unexpected extra member for this dive, as a crafty fusilier follows us, so it can use our lights for hunting.
Safe to say, I slept well that night!
The next morning, 18 bleary-eyed divers make our way to the dining area for our morning dive briefing. We all perk up when we hear that we’re on the lookout for manta rays and leopard sharks today!
We’re unlucky on both counts but, if you listen in on the happy conversations between dives, nobody is disappointed as divers compare dive notes (“We saw a trumpetfish!” “Did you see the school of tuna?!” “What about the scorpionfish!”), fill in their logbooks and show their underwater photos.
My mind keeps drifting back to the colours of the first dive of that day, where we swam through channels of healthy, vibrant coral at Elephant Head Rock.
The middle deck of the Dolphin Queen is where we came together for dive briefings, logbook writing, meals and countless refills of water and rehydration salts. In my case, I also spent time here drawing in my sketchbook. Sketch by @whatriasees
The reason why the coral is so stunning here, and why there is such an abundance of different species of marine life, is because the Similan Islands are part of the Mu Ko Similan National Park, which is protected by the Thai Government.
The Similan Archipelago is part of the province of Phang Nga and is made up of 11 islands located approximately 70 km from the mainland.
Even though there are officially 11 islands, the name Similan comes from the Malay word ‘sembilan’, which means ‘nine’.
According to one of the Dive Masters on our boat, this is because the first people to regularly visit the islands were probably fishermen from the areas surrounding the Thai-Malaysian border, rather than Thailand itself.
The islands each have their own Thai names but are usually referred to by numbers, starting in the south of the chain with Island 1 (except for Koh Bon & Koh Tachai at the northern tip of the Archipelago, which are known by their full names).
The warm sea temperature, clear visibility and rich biodiversity make the Similan Islands a diver’s dream when the National Park is open for visitors between October-May.
Divers are spoilt for choice with the possibility of drift diving, wreck diving and deep diving, as well as reef diving, from numerous dive sites around the islands promising each dive to be memorable.
Perched at the top of Sail Rock to take in the “picture-perfect island paradise” of Island 8, Koh Similan, the biggest of the 11 islands.
Most of the islands are strictly off-limits to visitors, as they are the sites of critical conservation projects. For example, Island 1 is the breeding site of the endangered green sea turtle. However, visitors are allowed to step ashore Islands 4 (Koh Miang) and 8 (Koh Similan), and you will find yourself using every cliché to describe the ‘pristine powdery sand’ and ‘sparkling crystal clear waters’.
We dived twice around Koh Bon hoping to catch sight of a manta ray, but unfortunately, it didn’t happen. Sketch by @whatriasees
Day 3 sees us waking up at the “top end” of the Similan Archipelago, with our first two dives planned around Koh Tachai.
Our group drifts along with the current, taking in the magnificent colours and life of the happy reef, signalling and pointing out nudibranchs, a dancing shrimp, lionfish, a cuttlefish, a school of emperor long nose fish and then, all of a sudden we become aware that our Dive Master is acting…strange.
She’s making gestures and making odd noises. It takes a few seconds but then, one by one, we finally see what she’s (we now realise) excited about – three huge fish lie in the sand. It’s hard to tell from where we watch, controlling our buoyancy and staying as still as possible, but the biggest one looks to be about 3m long.
What is this creature? I’ll have to wait until we surface to find out!
The beautiful animals, very kindly, linger and let us take in their sleek bodies, dotted markings and triangular-shaped fins for several minutes before gracefully swimming away.
We carry on with the dive, pointing out more amazing things like unicorn fish and a school of bluefin trevally, but as soon as we come up to the surface we bombard our Dive Master with questions, “what were they?!”
Our group very quickly becomes the envy of all the other divers when she reveals that we had just seen three gorgeous guitar sharks!
“Whaaaaaaat?!” exclaims one German guy. “I don’t even know what that is, but I’m so jealous!”
“Don’t worry!” his Dive Master tries to reassure him. “We still have time to see more cool things, because our next stop is Richelieu Rock!”
Cat and I cannot stop grinning at each other. We’ve had the most incredible start to the day, and now we’re on our way to Richelieu Rock! Regularly cited as one of the top 10 best dive sites in the world, PADI describes Richelieu Rock as “the jewel of the Andaman Sea” and “a one of a kind dive experience”.
Sketching between dives. Our gear is all set up and ready for our next dive...we’re on our way to Richelieu Rock! Sketch by @whatriasees
Located approximately 40km north of the Similan Islands, Richelieu Rock is a submerged, horse-shoe shaped formation (not an island), which is protected within the boundaries of the Mu Ko Surin National Park.
I described the Similan Archipelago as a diver’s dream. By comparison, that would make Richelieu Rock a diver’s paradise. The isolated location of this reef means it is completely unspoilt and truly magical, and I am grinning into my regulator the three times we dive here as I realise my Dive Master is right – I am swimming with about 80% of the fish ID book!
When I see seahorses, an enormous Jenkins’ whipray, an emperor long nose changing colour, and a female octopus guarding eggs, I feel a happiness and sense of awe that I only get from diving. What a privilege to see this underwater richness!
Suffice to say, Richelieu Rock deserves its top 10 spot!
Add Richelieu Rock to your diving bucket list!
After a sunrise dive at Richelieu Rock the Dolphin Queen makes her way back to the mainland, stopping on the way at Boonsung Wreck (an old tin dredger) because there is always time to squeeze in one final dive! As we gather on the middle deck to fill in our last logbook entries, the staff and crew ask if we’ve had a good time. The divers use every superlative in the dictionary to describe the amazingness of our trip.
“If only we had seen a whale shark, then it would have been perfectly perfect!” sighs Cat. “Oh well, I’ll just come back again!” she adds with a grin.
At that moment, one of the boat boys runs into the middle deck where we are all gathered, speaking in a quick burst of excited Thai. “The captain thinks he might have seen a whale shark!”
We all rush to the sides of the boat and look out into the water, watching and hoping. But the ocean is teasing us. There is no whale shark…this time.
One last sketchbook spread.
This incredible liveaboard experience was thanks to Similan Diving Safaris. The staff and crew were friendly, knowledgeable and professional throughout the whole trip, and everything was well organised.
Special mention to the ship’s cook, who fed us so well! Once Covid-19 travel restrictions are eased, be sure to check out Similan Diving Safaris if you’re looking for a diving adventure in Thailand!
Written by Ria Bailey
Ria Bailey discovered diving in Malaysia, where she lives and works as a primary school teacher. She can’t wait to get back into the ocean once travel restrictions are lifted!
Ria regularly posts sketches of her daily life and travels on Instagram, and is currently painting 100 different nudibranchs. You can check out more of her artwork at @whatriasees
Underwater Photo Credits
Richard Whitcombe (@whitcombeRD)