At Tap Lamu harbor, a dive boat sits in the mud decomposing, her rear deck collapsed and her hull twisted and broken. Five years ago the owner ‘took a runner’, leaving his ship run aground and abandoned in the harbor. He tried to sell her, but she was a plywood boat, cheaply made and quick to decompose in the tropical humidity, and there were no buyers willing to pay the high asking price.
We roll our luggage along the road to the harbor passing street food stands and seedy bars. It’s Sunday afternoon, and the squid fishermen have come in from the night’s work. 1 They watch us from the shade, the strange farang providing a diversion from their talk of fishing and women. 2
The Diva Andaman is sitting at anchor out in the harbor, an ironwood schooner 150’ from bow to stern and 22’ across her beam. She has two tall wooden masts and enough rigging to make a pirate re-enactor dance a merry jig. From her mainmast fly two flags, the flag of Thailand, and the Jolly Roger.
We wave our arms in the air and an inflatable dinghy detaches itself from the ship and sputters to the pier. We climb down unsteadily onto the rocking rubber raft, and a few minutes later we are being welcomed onto the ship by a young woman bearing a tray of cold mint water.
The Andaman is our first ‘live-aboard’ dive boat, and it will be our home for the next week. Our cabin is a cozy 12 sq. meter space containing a queen-sized bed below and a twin above. Like the rest of the ship it’s a entirely defined by dark brown ironwood and lit with recessed LEDs and a few portholes. There is a closet and a desk, as well as an en-suite toilet and shower. It’s a comfortable space… spartan, masculine, and comfortable.
Throughout the afternoon more passengers arrive, a diverse group from the Netherlands, Switzerland, Finland, a family of four from Norway, a gay couple from Indiana, and a straight couple from San José, California. There are 15 of us on this cruise. We all eat dinner together in the salon, the first of many delicious Thai meals that ship’s cook Noy and her staff will prepare for us while we’re aboard.
That night we go to bed early, and the ship sails out into the Andaman Sea. We motor through the night, our bunks rolling and the hull creaking. I toss and turn and manage to get a little sleep before a pounding at our cabin door indicates that it’s 7am, and time for our first dive.
We put on our bathing suits, climb the ladder to the salon, and gather around the table for First Breakfast, consisting of yoghurt, honey, fruit, and espresso. While we eat we are told we’re at Similan Island #5, at a site called “Anita’s Reef”, named after a turtle who used to live here. We are moored a few hundred feet from the island, a pile of huge granite boulders rising improbably from the sea.
After we’re briefed on the site, we prepare our gear, suit up, and climb down into the rubber dinghy for a short ride to the reef. On a count of three we roll backwards into the sea. There is a splash, my mask shows churning water and bubbles, and then my inflated buoyancy compensation device (BCD) pops me up to the surface. The other divers are floating there as well. A round of “OK” signals, then a round of thumbs-down (“descend”), and we deflate our BCDs, floating down onto Anita’s Reef.
The round granite boulders at the surface continue underwater, but now they’re covered with corals both hard and soft in shades of black, white, lavender, yellow, and red. Clownfish dance in anemones, and small transparent fish form drifting clouds of silver snowflakes. Lionfish glide over the rocks dressed in their finest feathered capes, so many Liberace’s parading across a stage. There is an astounding array of life, in a billion color combinations, designs that would make Giorgio Armani weep and find another career.
(Special thanks to dive master Armin Medic for the wonderful underwater photos and video.)
We do dives like this four times the first day, and four times every day afterwards. The day consists of an Early Breakfast followed by a dive. We come back from diving to enjoy Late Breakfast, consisting of noodles, rice porridge, eggs, bacon & ham. There are amazing slides of mango, pineapple, and watermelon, all tasting better than anything I’ve ever had in the States. There are also fresh-baked baguettes with rich farm butter and an assortment of homemade jams.
The jams are amazing, and we find ourselves coveting our favorite jars and demanding tribute from others in exchange for a taste. There is an amazing ginger marmalade, a thick pineapple/brown sugar jam, a passionfruit spread, and a sweetened coconut spread. We start stacking them, putting butter and two jams together on a slice of baguette, and finally stopping when we collapse onto the warm wooden deck in a coma.
After an hour’s nap, we suit up again for our second dive, followed by a lunch of pad thai chicken and shrimp, more noodles, and some salad greens. Then it’s time to relax again, usually napping, or perhaps reading a book in a deck chair beneath a canvas umbrella.
On a few of the islands we go ashore, enjoying beaches so beautiful that they become surreal, or hunting for monstrous coconut crabs or monitor lizards.
Then there is a third dive, followed by a rich home-cooked dinner. An hour after dinner we have a night dive, a descent into the dark ocean, creatures looking startled when they appear in our flashlights, only to shoot away again into the dark. Night diving is an entirely different experience. The day shift has gone to sleep, and creatures of the night are out hunting.
This is the pattern of our lives on the boat. Eat, dive, sleep, repeat. Those who don’t nap talk about what they saw on the last dive, and tell stories of their travels. The days pass quickly, and we live in a state of sleepy comfort.
On the second day I’m climbing from the dinghy to the ship in rough seas. I step onto the ship’s ladder and a wave slams the dinghy into the back of the ship, pinning one of my shins against the metal step. When the wave retreats I climb the ladder, but I’ve taken damage. A swelling the size of a pack of playing cards (and about as thick) has risen on my shin. I spend the next few hours icing my leg and thinking of how much worse it could have been. I’ve got a cut and a nasty bruise, but I can still dive.
Soon it’s Christmas Eve. After the fourth dive of the day we shower and dry, and we’re told that a special dinner will be served on the roof deck. A table is set up to either side of the mainsail, tables lit by lantern light. We start with an appetizer of paté on a slice of baquette garnished with a thin sliver of cornicion. Afterwards we were served giant prawns grilled on the BBQ, with a side of pasta topped with a spicy fish sauce. The meal ended with a christmas cake, a white layer cake filled with custard, frosted with chocolate and topped with grated lime peel.
On Christmas Day we awake in the bay of Koh Bon, an island with a different topography than the rest of the Similans. Instead of granite boulders, the island is made of limestone. (It’s not considered part of the Similan chain, but is still included in Similan National Park.)
On our second dive of the day, we drop down into the bay, then rise up to the top of an underwater ridge defining the bay’s edge. A current is tearing across the top of the ridge, and we struggle to reach it. When we do, we grab on and let our bodies stream behind us. Once my grip slips and I’m swept away. I struggle to get back to the ridge and when I hook one finger around a rock, I feel sharp stings. I adjust my grip to the other hand and look at my finger, where four punctures are streaming black blood. My finger starts to hurt incredibly, and I wonder if I have accidentally grabbed a scorpion fish. I decide that I don’t want to retreat to the boat for anti-venom, so I choose to believe that I’d simply grabbed an urchin. After about 15 minutes the pain starts to subside, but I have four blue dots on my fingertip, a sea urchin tattoo.
We all wait there, lined up on the ridge like flags, the current making our fins flutter behind us. Suddenly I sense that something has changed. There is a new presence in the room. The line of divers stirs, heads swivel, and then someone points. A Manta Ray with a 14’ wingspan gently glides in out of the deep blue. Its wings gently flap up and down, then it glides directly at me.
Remember the opening of the first Star Wars movie, the introductory text crawls up the screen, and suddenly a huge starship passes directly overhead, and continues passing overhead for a long, long time? That’s what it feels like… the ray glides over me blocking out the sky. I watch as its white underside slides past, seemingly continuing forever. Then it slowly banks and then circles back, passing over me two more times before moving on.
On my last Christmas dive that day, we end the dive on the far corner of the reef. I slowly drift through the Pollockian swarms of tropical fish. I watch a large cloud of a million bright yellow fish moving in unison. Instantly, the cloud parts directly in front of me, forming a 3-foot gap between two groups of fish, the edges of the gap perfectly flat and straight as a garden wall. Along the new corridor swim three yellowfin tuna. They’re bad-asses, and if they had fingers they’re be snapping them as they swam, singing “When you’re a Jet you’re a Jet all the way…”
I turn to our dive guide to point out this wonderful behavior, and he’s pointing in an entirely different direction. Coming towards us is a large Manta, its wings barely moving as it glides in our direction. It swims right by me, and I extend my arms in welcome, feeling a need to worship this beautiful creature.
For the next 20 minutes it dances with us, our small group of 6 divers. I spend some time swimming alongside it, our brown eyes meeting. I know it is curious about us, because it swims slowly and watches us carefully, because it allows me to swim at its wingtip. If I wanted, I could have reached out and stroked its beautiful back, perfectly patterned in dark gray with white wingtips and epaulets. A single minute swimming together feels like the greatest gift in the world, and the Manta spends twenty of them with us.
Bobby and I reluctantly ascend, and watch the Manta continue to swim with Dan and the other divers below us, slow gentle circles, wings moving with subtlety not expected from a 3,000 pound dancer.
Merry Christmas, Manta. Merry Christmas, world.
Absolutely don’t miss…
Operator of the Diva Andaman, with week-long live-aboard cruises to the Similan Islands and Myanmar. You can book with them directly, or through your favorite dive travel agent.
The boats attract squid to their nets at night via incredibly bright fields of spotlights pointed down the water. A squid boat looks like a small football stadium on the water, except the spectators have more tentacles.↩
Farang (ฝรั่ง) is a generic Thai word for someone of European ancestry, no matter where they may come from. The Royal Institute Dictionary 1999, the official dictionary of Thai words, defines the word as “a person of white race”.↩