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Adrenaline magazine - Oct 2008

A Whale of a time - Similan Islands & Richelieu Rock Liveaboard

Article by Doug Olthof


whale shark

Whale sharks are the true behemoths of the aquatic world - they can grow longer than a bus (up to 18 metres in length) yet feast on the smallest of organisms,
plankton. However, finding these big fish is not always that easy. Only 9 places in the world, all located in tropical waters, are so far known to have predictable whale shark visits. Thailand is one of the few lucky countries that whale sharks predictably visit.

When arriving in an unfamiliar place it’s always relaxing to receive a warm welcome. As our liveaboard boat approached the southernmost of the Similan Islands, that warm welcome came by way of more than fifty dolphins jumping and playing in the dawn light, beckoning us forward and giving us a glimpse of the treasures we would discover around these stunning islands in Thailand’s Andaman Sea.

Situated off Thailand’s west coast to the northeast of Phuket lie Thailand’s world famous Similan Islands. These stunning granite isles, with their white sandy beaches and densely-forested yet rugged interiors would be ample enough reason on their own account to make the overnight liveaboard boat trip from Phuket. But what really make these islands special are the vast and varied reefs that lie off their shores. It is below the azure blue of these rich waters that you can experience another world, one filled with creatures so colourful, so beautiful and so bizarre that they defy belief.






whale shark

These crown jewels of scuba diving in Thailand are often touted as one of the top ten dive sites in the world and can be accessed by speed-boat from either Phuket or Kaow Lak, but to truly experience the Similan Islands you must get aboard one of the many liveaboard boats operated out of Phuket. In this way you can take in the variety of diving experiences to be had, all the while becoming spiritually connected to the sea as your body quickly adjusts to the gentle rolling of the boat beneath your feet.

Our journey to the Similans began late in the evening at Ratsada pier in Phuket. As divers arrived to the boat from various locations, the friendly staff helped everyone aboard and quickly got to the task of setting up and
organizing equipment. Every diver worth his or her salt knows that you check, double-check and buddy-check your own equipment, but having the staff there to set up and organize all that gear turned what could have been a chaotic scene - complete with wetsuits, regulators and bumping bodies - into a relaxing first evening on board.

At about 11pm, after a delicious light meal, we got under way under the moon and stars. The crew lit firecrackers off the bow to ensure a safe journey as we motored into the night. Of course, there are those who were born to be at sea and there are those who need a bit of training. The first night was, for some, a little less than comfortable, while others, like myself, found the gentle rolling of the waves reminiscent of the cradle and were soon dreaming of underwater adventures to come. similan
whale shark

By the next morning, with the joyful sight of such a large pod of dolphins, spirits were universally high. The sky was clear and the calm waters had taken on an almost impossibly bright and inviting shade of blue. As the divemaster briefed the divers on the first dive of the day (the “test” dive) the excitement on board became palpable. By just peering overboard you could see that the crystal clear waters were teeming with life. After the briefing and a thorough check of our equipment we were in the water and ready to begin our first dive. The first dive of a trip always begins with a few minutes of uncertainty as even experienced divers have to get used to the idea of being a fish again. But soon we were all back in our respective comfort zones and ready to start playing our roles as guests in an
underwater utopia.

After a stunning introduction to the natural wonders that would captivate us for the days to come, we were rounded up by a crew member in a small inflatable motorboat and brought back to our temporary maritime abode. There we were helped out of the water, relieved of our equipment and, once dry, we found a wonderful meal waiting for us on the upper deck. The trip was punctuated by one delicious meal after the next. Different boats cater to different tastes, with some serving mostly Thai fare and others catering to the western palette, but they are all Thai boats and this is a country where eating is priority number one. This means there is never a shortage of good food on these boats; throughout the trip we were constantly and contently stuffed.


Thus the divers on board quickly fell into an idyllic routine. A stunning dive would be followed by a delicious meal. Divers would then disperse to pore over fish guide-books, take a nap in the climate-controlled cabins or compare stories of the wonders encountered below the waves. In the first three days we had seen several beautiful sea turtles, numerous big red octopus, bizarre frogfish, curious garden eels, befuddling ghost pipefish, lethargic leopard sharks, four massive and graceful manta rays and such an array of fish as to leave one breathless (well…not literally!).

But the biggest treat came for us on the final day of our voyage (and when I say biggest I mean that quite literally!)

whale shark On the morning of our fifth day at sea we motored north out of the Similan Islands National Park towards the famous Richelieu Rock. After listening to the divemaster’s
briefing we were donning our equipment when a diver on another boat excitedly babbled that there was a whale shark in the area. The adrenaline level onboard immediately shot through the roof. We could not wait to get into the water for the chance to witness the passage of this gentle, fragile giant, the largest of all the fishes - up close and personal. I stood at the back of the boat with my Buoyancy Control Device and tank strapped on, chomping at the bit. Then, suddenly, right in front of me I saw a shape. A very large shape.




W - w - w - whale shark




whale shark
similan the water. The rest of the divers followed suit and for a few divine minutes we swam beside one of the most beautiful products of nature’s limitless creativity. When the gentle giant dove below we got back on board yelping, babbling, high-fiving and smiling from ear to ear. Though I’m sure we would all have been very happy with the trip even if the whale shark had not appeared, we all knew then that this had been a special trip that we would all remember for the rest of our days. Whatever was to come of the rest of our dives that day, we were satisfied. But it wasn’t over yet.
We descended to Richelieu Rock and instantly knew why so many consider it to be the best dive site in Thailand. It is a massive feature that is every inch covered in life. The tiniest, most bizarre creatures such as harlequin shrimp, tiger cowries, sea horses and a multitude of beautiful nudibranches can be found alongside large dog-tooth tuna, giant trevally, cuttlefish and beautiful schools of laser-like fusiliers. The list goes on and on. But as we explored the rock that day we were in for yet another special treat. As we rounded a corner I turned around to see my dive buddy face-to-face with another whale shark, this one much larger than the last. Followed by its attendant cobias, remoras and a small school of trevally, this enormous creature circled back and forth past us for fully half an hour!


After making our safety stop and returning to the boat we sat speechless while the boat motored back towards Phuket. As the sun began to dip in the western sky our smiles remained fixed on our faces. We had truly discovered treasures beneath the sea. Treasures, in my opinion, more precious than gold and silver. And as the Similan Islands became specs on the horizon I scanned the sea for our dolphin friends in the hope of offering a little ‘thank you’ for their hospitality, but they were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they were busy preparing to welcome their next group of guests to what I can only describe as ‘paradise’.




For a search engine over the departures dates of all 45 boats taking divers on liveaboard trips to the Similans - click here.


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