Although generally not as popular or as well-known as cruises to the Similan Islands, I can strongly recommend doing a two-day dive trip to the southern sites of Phuket or, even better, combining one with a four-day trip to the north as well! I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do this trip many times over the years (at least once a year) and I can honestly say that it promises something new every time because the sites are so variable. It seems that every time I do the trip, I have a new favourite site.
The first thing to know about this trip is that there is no guarantee of what you will see. You will most likely see a leopard shark or two, some cool macro, lots of beautiful soft coral and unique landscapes topside, but the dive sites can provide very different experiences from one day to the next. Our first day of diving was a perfect example of this. The first dives were on the twin sites of Hin Muang and Hin Daeng, known for manta sightings and two potentially spectacular sites where after finding eight different kinds of morays, I stopped counting and instead focused on the different sorts of cleaner shrimp I found on them, sometimes in their pliant gaping mouths. As always, on the early morning dives, I try to remember to keep one eye on the blue in order to not miss out on the early show of jacks and trevallies feeding on the waves of glassfish and rainbow runners and sometimes much bigger creatures. I was also testing out a new camera and housing and some striking nudibranchs amidst the beautiful soft corals were perfect for trying some macro shots.
Feeling the sun’s early rays on my back as we headed towards Koh Haa, I was already quite content with my day. Yet, the next dive literally took my breath away at times. At the Chimney site, we descended on a seabed covered in two-spot and big-eye snappers with silver sides raining down, forming a wall of fish. After they moved off, I began hunting for squat shrimp since there was so much bubble coral around and I was rewarded with four different groups of the beautiful creatures. But it was the variety of marine life I found which really cheered me: star wars shrimp (my non-scientific name for this weird alien creature), huge murexes, including an orange one, peacock mantis, a granddaddy map puffer and a giant grouper. But what was just as gratifying was seeing the variety of healthy corals on display after the area was hit by coral bleaching four years before. Bushes of purple soft coral that have sprouted directly on the seabed have already reached over a metre in height, which almost made us miss the leopard shark hidden in their midst. But maybe they made him feel more secure since he allowed us to approach him (so I could see that he was definitely male) within a fin’s length. We finished off the dive with one of my favourite parts of this site: diving “up” the chimney, a beautiful space full of life such as transparent shrimp and delicate tube anemones, which opens up into an overhang of light reflecting off of hundreds of chimney sweepers. Even in the shallows, there were lots of creatures to keep us entertained such as moon wrasses flitting at my mask and a sea snake and a feather star both undulating around the reef to our group’s delight.
Our downtime after that dive consisted of snorkelling with a turtle in the calm beach bay where we had anchored surrounded by striking limestone karst formations that are typical of the area. We finished off the day’s dives at the Cathedral where we could just enjoy the fading light and the hunters darting in and out amongst the schools of smaller fish.
Our last day started off with a sunrise to rival even the most gorgeous sunsets. The first dive was at Koh Bida Nok where the visibility started off at 10m but later improved to around 25m allowing us to observe yet another sea snake bobbing around. Another advantage of doing a Thailand liveaboard in this area is that there are no other groups of divers to contend with and we were able to catch a glimpse of the famous “Beach” from the film of the same name (gorgeous) before the invasion of the hordes (hey, where’d the beach go?) – a spectacle in itself.
The visibility for the last two dives was not the best but that didn’t stop us from seeing lots of very nice stuff. At Shark Point, we started the dive at the third pinnacle where we saw a blue-spotted stingray and on the way in towards the first pinnacle, we also encountered a porcelain crab, a leopard shark, a very pretty flatworm, a tigertail seahorse – one of a pair apparently – a rock covered in at least a dozen white-eyed morays swimming in and out of crevices and, as the perfect crowning touch, around four or five huge cuttlefish that lingered with us during our safety stop. The final dive at Koh Doc Mai provided a complete change as it is a wall dive known for its macro life. In addition to lots of shrimp, mating nudibranchs, scorpionfish and more white-eyed morays, we also saw a resting bamboo shark, the cutest little yellow boxfish and an ornate ghost pipefish.
It’s only a short ride back to Chalong Pier from Koh Doc Mai but it’s really impressive how quickly and efficiently the crew took care of people’s gear for the unlucky passengers like me who had to disembark. I once read a quote from a well-known dive photographer who said: “I am most impressed when a dive team is able to foresee all possible problems and solves them without you even noticing. This allows you to forget about mundane chores, and focus solely on making beautiful images.“ I’m still working on the latter part but thanks to the crew on the Giamani for the rest!