Diving in Phi Phi
One of the many attractions Phuket has to offer is its range of excellent scuba diving sites. I am a casual scuba diving enthusiast making just one or two trips a year. I guess I am typical of many ex-pat residents here in Phuket in that after a while you start taking for granted some of the local attractions that tourists are willing to travel thousands of miles to see. Without realizing it, I had just not bothered diving for a while.
So when a friend of mine contacted me to say he was visiting Phuket and was keen to learn how to scuba it sounded like the perfect opportunity to get back in the water. A quick check of my dive log delivered the shocking news that it was almost 3-years since my last dive.
When Joel arrived I led him to a local dive shop I know (Dive the World in Patong) and we booked him on to the PADI Open Water course (this is the basic scuba diving qualification). Just 3-days later Joel was a qualified diver and we were ready to book ourselves on to one of the local day-trips. So where would be good for a newly qualified diver and an out-of-practice diver? The helpful staff at Dive the World recommended diving at the Phi Phi islands. Nice easy diving, good visibility and they assured us there would be plenty to see. It sounded good so we booked on the trip.
It would be a 2-dive trip. It is a long 3-hour haul for a dive boat out to the Phi Phi islands but the sea was flat and the sun was out so this was a nice opportunity to just relax and enjoy the ride. The boat was not too busy with just 12 divers on board. Diving tends to be a social activity with plenty of time to chat to your fellow divers. It wasn't long before we knew Sandra from Singapore, Dida from Germany, Bob from the US and even the 3 Russian guys. We were introduced to our dive guide, Alan from Denmark. He was relaxed and easy-going - it was going to be a relaxing day.
The first dive would be at Koh Bida Nok. This is one of two small islets at the south of the Phi Phi islands that are renowned for having some of the best diving in the area. It was time to set up our equipment. It had been 3-years since I had last done this and I wondered if I would remember what to do - I needn't have worried, it all came back just like riding a bike. Anyway, the dive guides were there to help out anyone who needed help.
Then you have those few awkward clumsy steps across the boat with all your dive gear on before you can make that final big step into the sea. We were in the water and ready to descend. Alan our guide signalled us and down we went. The first couple of minutes felt a little uncomfortable as I equalized my ears, found my neutral buoyancy and my breathing pattern. Then it all came back. Fantastic - that feeling of just floating. The gentle sound of your breathing bubbles floating away and of course all around - fish.
Alan led us across coral gardens and along the rocky wall. There is something so relaxing about watching fish. They seem so unconcerned by the noisy bubble making divers who have come to see them. They just go about their business totally confident in their ability to avoid these clumsy interlopers. They swim right across you within easy reach but if you reach out to touch them, they effortlessly slip out of reach.
There were so many colours and patterns, so many species. Every now and then Alan would use his little stick to point out something of interest. A banded sea snake weaved across the seabed. A mantis prawn between the rocks or a moray eel poking its head out of a crevice. We swam over fan corals and around anemones. Little clown fish darted in and out of the anemones looking every bit the part of Nemo and Marlin.
We never went below 20-meters. We really did not need to. There was so much to see anyway. Then we were ascending to the shallow coral gardens for our safety stop. Had 50-minutes really passed already? It really had.
Back on the boat and it was time for a hearty lunch. Everyone was chatting enthusiastically about what a good dive it had been. Great visibility, lots of fish, everyone was happy. Joel and I had thoroughly enjoyed the dive. Little did we know that this was only the curtain raiser for the dive that was to follow.
The second dive would be along the wall of Koh Phi Phi Lay, just north of Maya Bay. We did the usual pre-dive routine and then Alan, Joel and I descended.
Almost instantly Alan's sharp eyes spotted something on the sea floor. A leopard shark was resting there almost directly below the boat. Leopard sharks are such beautiful fish with their dappled patterns and long sweeping tail. This 2-meter specimen rested on the seabed so we could have a good long look. Lying closely nestled up to the shark was a companion remora fish. These little guys like to tag along with big fish for the ride.
After a good look, we moved on and it wasn't long before Alan was pointing out something else. Paddling through the water was a large turtle. Its shape and beating fins beautifully silhouetted by the sun as it swam above us. These fellas are deceptively fast swimmers and soon he was gone.
Wow, what a good start. A shark and a turtle. Then we saw an octopus. It scurried across the floor clearly a little alarmed by our presence. Including its tentacles, it was more than a meter across. In its alarm, it changed through a variety of colours right before our eyes before settling on a rock, changing to black, pulling its tentacles in and pretending to also be a rock. It was a good disguise apart from the big blinking eye looking up at us. Octopuses are clever creatures and you could sense the intelligence in that eye as it checked us out.
We moved away and it was not long before Alan put his open hand above his head in the signal that represents 'shark'. Joel and I searched through the distant haze still unable to see anything. Suddenly we saw them. First 2 black tips darted into viewing range, then another, and then another. These are smaller sharks, only 4 to 5 feet long. The 4 sharks darted energetically and quickly through the water. First, they were 20 meters in front of us. Just a second later and they were 20 meters behind us, seemingly playing together over the rocks and corals. They weaved around each other and then swept passed us again. We followed them for a while but they were quickly gone again. Sharks are such an adrenaline pumping sight.
We weren't bored for long. Just a couple of minutes later and another shark swept into view. It was another leopard shark. The first one had been a beautiful sight resting on the sand but this one sweeping through the water was a majestic sight. At least 2-meters long, you could sense the sheer power that drove it through the water with long effortless sweeps of its tail.
This was just a crazy dive. It went on like this. We saw the black tips again, lobsters, a large moray eel. It was as if we were getting 10 dives in 1. When we finally broke the surface, even our dive guide Alan who is in the water almost everyday gasped and said wow what a dive.
Back on the boat and everyone was very excited about the dive. Everyone had seen some of the things we had seen but nobody else had seen all of them. We had been the luckiest group. Everyone joked that they must dive with Joel next time. It was his first qualified dive and he had seen so much. How could his next dive trip possibly live up to expectations? Well he is planning a liveaboard to the Similans so he might be all right.
Sometimes you need to remind yourself of some of the great benefits of living in Phuket. It definitely will not be another 3-years before I get the scuba gear back on.
If you want to visit some of the great diving sites around Phuket then you should check what Dive the World Thailand have to offer. You can book online at their website or visit their shop in Soi Hat Patong. There is no guarantee you will be as lucky as Joel and I were but you are sure to see plenty of fish.