well I just got back and I’m still wrestling with the jetlag, so I thought I’d tell y’all a little about my recent diving trip to Thailand…
I set off on Tuesday 1st of November – I decided to have dinner with my dad and then drive through the night to get to Coventry at 3am. When I got there, my friends Marie and Neil were just getting up, so I stopped off to have a cup of tea and then jumped into their car, headed for Gatwick. Three flights (Gatwick to Doha, Doha to Bangkok, Bangkok to Phuket) later and we were in Phuket and ready to meet up with the rest of the divers.
I only knew one other person at first – Emma, who’s been going out with my mate Pete for as long as I can remember. The others were: Mike, an older Clint Eastwood looky-likey with a strong West Country accent; John, Scottish ex-Hells Angel and all round nice bloke; Emma’s mates, Rachel and Josie, the secret doctor; Paul from DiveMonkeys, who organised the trip, and his girlfriend, Sharon. At the time I didn’t know them at all and didn’t know if we’d all get on that well but we’ve had such a good trip that we’ve all come away as friends.
We jumped into a minivan and headed out for the port where our home for the next 10 days, the Sampai Jumpa, was moored. I’ve got to tell you that it’s one hell of a boat – 69 foot, 2 masted, wooden sailing boat, with heaps of room for accommodation, fresh water maker and proper flushing toilets. What’s more, she’s a beautiful boat to look at. Sampai Jumpa is Thai for “See you again” and I think that’s a pretty good choice of name.
We were introduced to the crew: Frank and Freddy, the dive masters, one Dutch and one Swedish; Een the engineer (think Thai version of Scotty from Star Trek); Ying the ship’s cook – she worked in a 6 foot by 6 foot galley and managed to feed 12 people three or four times a day – we want to get a copy of her cookbook, because the food was delicious; and Pyong the skipper (all Thai boats have to have a Thai skipper by law). We got to know Frank really well over the course of the week – he’s a very charismatic guy with loads of good stories from his adventures diving, trucking and motorbiking across the world.
Something we found out pretty quickly was that this crew had been out diving when the Tsunami struck on boxing day this year. In fact they feature in a Discovery Channel programme all about the Tsunami. I asked Frank about it and he told me that they were diving that day with some Hard of Hearing people (they do a lot of work with deaf and Hard of Hearing divers) and a guy in a wheelchair, when they noticed something odd was happening: within a couple of minutes, the visibility in the water dropped from 30 metres to 30 centimetres, then they were all thrown around like they were in some kind of washing machine. Frank looked at his dive computer and the depth kept changing from 17 metres to 2 metres. And then it was all over. The boat was fine because it was out at sea, the divers a little shaken but unharmed. The first thing they knew that something really big had happened was when they were making their way back to base and saw a Thai Navy ship stuck halfway up an island!
The diving – I came with a little experience: I had qualified for my Open Water and Advanced in Egypt in 2000, had done 2 more dives in Hurghada a couple of years later, then picked up a refresher course and another 2 wreck dives in New Zealand this year. I felt I was ready. I was wrong! Most of the other people there had clocked up between 70 and 250 dives (I had done 30), with the instructors having around 10,000 dives apiece. I ended up doing another 23 dives, filling my log book, and learning more in those few dives than I had learned in the previous 5 years.
The divers were split into two groups: Freddy’s group were mainly photographers, that wanted long dives to catch pictures of sea life. Frank’s group were into doing deeper dives with a few more challenges, although I think that was more Frank than the group that made that decision. Bet you can’t guess which group I ended up in…
So, after doing my first 40 metre deep dive, with a swim through a small undersea corridor, using up most of my air and spending the last ten minutes hanging off Frank’s “Octopus” (shared air supply) and earning myself the nickname “Ocky” I really felt like I was beginning to learn something.
Diving is not a sport for neurotics: there’s far too many things to worry about – don’t break the coral, don’t touch that stonefish, watch the depth, are my ears equalising properly, is that a boat above me, how much air have I got, where is everybody?! And I have to admit that when I’m hanging around at 25 metres I *do* start worrying a little bit. Well I did. What I have got from this trip is an essential sense of calm now. Nothing goes wrong – there’s just different stuff to deal with. The worst thing you can do underwater is start to panic. Even being on the shared air supply (and that happened more than once) was good because I could hear how Frank was breathing and as a result I learned to breathe underwater properly – rather than gasping for air and then blowing it all out straight away.
The sea life was magnificent – there’s been a lot of stuff on the telly about how damaged Thailand was by the Tsunami. Don’t believe it! The coral was beautiful and very much alive, there were fish everywhere. We saw jackfish, tuna, barracuda, scorpionfish, stonefish, lionfish, boxing manta shrimp (they can smash your mask if you get too close!), stingrays, white-tipped reef sharks, dolphins, turtles, angel fish, pipefish, fighting trigger fish, you name it, it was all there. The only stuff we didn’t get to see were the really big guys: the Whale Shark and the Manta Ray. What I would do to swim with either of these monsters…
My personal favourite sights were: a four-inch yellow seahorse we found (so cute), numerous Leopard Sharks, that swim off in the most graceful way if you get too close, a giant hawksbill turtle, that we fed bananas to, and a Moray Eel, living in a vase on the sea bed that looked for all the world like a snake in a basket that would be at home with an Indian snake charmer.
The scenery was fantastic – all lovely sandy beaches and unpopulated islands. In our off time – with four dives a day, we had to take long breaks between them – we would kayak out to the beach and go exploring the islands. The Similan Islands all have romantic sounding Thai names, like Koh Tachai, Koh Bon – which roughly translated mean “Island Number 4″ and “Island Number 2″. The funniest Thai translation was for a reef, which they call “The one were you run out of film” on account of it being so pretty and so full of life.
Underwater was even better, ranging from reefs to isolated pinnacles in the middle of the sea, shallow dives to deep in the azure blue (when you don’t know which way is up….), big boulder cities that look like maybe Atlantis once did. It was amazing. We did 3 dives at a lonely pinnacle near the Surin Islands, called Richelieu Rock and it was just beautiful.
The scariest things for me were: the first time my air went below 50 bar; being caught in a strong current and having to (literally) rock-climb my way back to the others; and this weird “dooooo duh-duh-duh” sound which turned out to be dynamite fishing, taking place in Burma Myanmar hundreds of miles away.
Relaxing on the boat
The boat was very well stocked with beer (thankfully), so in the evenings we would kick back and have a few beers, listen to music and watch the sun go down. Frank would tell us stories and we’d all get to know each other better. There was a bit of a late night drinkers clique: me, Neil, Mike and Frank & Freddy, who would usually be the people that had the shortest first dive the next morning. Who said drinking and diving don’t mix? The evening would usually start with Frank saying “today is …day. And that means it’s party day”…
The last night on the boat, we managed to get everyone to join in and it was great. I spent the night carving beer tins up to make awards for Josie: 250 dives, and Emma: 150 dives. Emma made me an award for 50 dives completed. We had real laugh and Frank tried to convince us he was a viagra smuggler… hmmm… and teasing Josie about going out dancing in Phuket. We packed in at 3am and were back up at 7 for the final dive of the holiday. Which was hard. Everyone was really hungover – and it wasn’t even an easy dive – lots of current and hard finning. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, though.
The Last Night in Phuket
We said goodbye to the boat and headed to our hotel in Phuket (20 quid a night, large twin bedrooms, air-con, swimming pools), where we all chilled out for a bit. There was some talk of going on an elephant safari but we were all so knackered / hungover that it didn’t manage to come together. We had arranged to meet up with Frank and Freddy (our “PADI brothers”) later at a bar in town, so we had the afternoon to chill out. I had a doze and a bath – wow – like I hadn’t spent enough time in the water already.
I headed down to reception but got there early and caught up with Mike, who’s daughter Sophie was travelling in Thailand and had come to meet up with him – to pick up some hair straighteners of all things. We had a drink together and then I realised that they weren’t coming to the bar straight away and that I’d missed my rendezvous with the others. I grabbed a cab and luckily, they hadn’t had that many fares from large groups of divers going to Irish bars, so they knew where everyone else had gone to.
The Irish bar was called Molly Malone’s and was located on Patong Beach – deep in the heart of the seedy part of Phuket. Just walking down the road to the bar was a bit of an eye-opener… but I’ll save that for another time. I arrived at the bar and was treated to a rousing cheer which was great – everyone thought that I had passed out in my hotel room, or gone on a solo adventure into Patong… The drinks flowed freely – lots of Chang beer, and Sambuca and Russian Vodka, and I had a great night. I ended up chatting with Frank’s friends who had come along: a lovely deaf diving instructor called Naomi and Frank’s German girlfriend Inke. Well until the band came on, then I went dancing and managed to get all the girls in our group on the dance floor with me. It was a scream and a really good way to end the holiday.
I’ve got to say that it was the very best diving trip I’ve ever been on. Really good fun, right from the get-go. And when one of the team suggested going again in 2007, it took me less than 2 seconds to say a very definite YES!
If you want to see some more pics, go to