Sunday, March 31, 2013

Final thoughts on live aboard diving

Cruising back after Richelieu Rock we didn't realize it at the time but we had hung up our regulators for the last time on this trip.  In the short span of February we had racked up nearly 50 dives.  Quite a feat for new comers on the diving scene!  We had gone from inexperienced divers to more accomplished and confident divers.  Deep dives, wreck dives, strong current dives, wall dives. shallow dives and swim through dives to round out the variety.

Diving has been such a fantastic experience and hopefully a new life long hobby.  Picking up and honing new skills was such a welcome challenge and a live aboard cruise was the perfect way to take it up a notch.  Once on board it was full focus on diving with little room for anything else short of brushing up on your aquatic life knowledge and afternoon napping.

One major difference between live aboard diving and land-based day trip diving is the service.  The deck hands were amazing!  Not having to put on your fins was a real treat.  They took care of everything.

After sunset and a quick bite for dinner I'd climb up to the sun deck to relax and enjoy the peaceful surroundings.  Here the memories of the awe inspiring underwater came flooding back.  Gazing out at the twinkling stars and glowing moon off in the distance was a truly rewarding feeling of relaxation and accomplishment.  The physical exertion coupled with peaceful surroundings was a perfect combination.  Times like this happen occasionally but are too few and far between.  All was right in the world for that short spell.

One of the many things we learned is that electrolytes are a must!  On Koh Tao we didn't realize it at the time but we were run down, literally dead tired at the end of each day from lack of proper hydration.  We were only drinking filtered water so weren't getting the minerals to replenish after the days activities.  After being strongly encouraged to drink them on the live aboard we quickly found ourselves feeling more energetic and alert at the end of the day even after a 4 dive day.

However, the diving picture isn't all that pretty.  Our oceans are under threat from over fishing, pollution and sadly, tourism.  Sitting on the deck at night counting the glowing lights in the distance from the fishing boats in the area was staggering.  75+ glowing squid boats in my 360 degrees views of view.  It was no different in Koh Tao where boats were fishing the bare minimum from the dive site even while the dive boats were around.

Reflecting on it, its hard to blame the locals that are doing the fishing.  We'd probably do the same in their spot, but the overfishing is taking its toll.  The dive instructors say that the first dive of the season at Richelieu Rock is spent cutting fishing nets off the delicate corals.  The volume of fish life across the waters was also in decline according to their experience over the years.  All of the bigger predators, sharks included, have moved off the reefs which is a worrying sign for the delicate eco-systems.

As for our part, the only thing we could do was try to be responsible divers.  Look, don't touch.  Learn our buoyancy well so we're not bumping in to delicate corals.  Learn about the amazing underwater world and the challenges it faces.  And share where we can to educate others.

I remember being surprised by a sign in our bathroom in Thailand talking about looking at the ingredients of your shampoo - ingredients that are toxic to the underwater world.  Not so surprisingly, we later found an article about P&G carefully planning ingredients of products distributed in certain countries where such cleansers were likely to end up, untreated, back in the water supply.  As a company, they realized the potential harm to humans and animals alike.  Another reason travel is so eye opening...

Our live aboard experience definitely wasn't on a backpacker budget but the diving was amazing and its the only way to see some of these world class sites.  

A big thanks to our friends at Khao Lak Scuba Advenures.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Say hello to my little friends - the fish of the Andaman Sea

As I previously mentioned, the dive sites on our liveaboard trip kept getting better and better.  The variety and volume of marine life was stunning and we *tried* to capture some of that beauty by renting an underwater camera.  To save you from a detailed account of each fascinating dive I have compiled a set of photos and little stories about some of our favorite fish.  Say hello to my little friends...

Boxfish - one of our favorites...maybe because of their funny boxy shape and mis-match color patterns as babies. But don't touch, they secrete a toxic liquid that is poisonous to other fish.

Nudibranch - there were numerous varieties and colors of nudis - weird little slug-like things, but we came to love them.  And they are the size of your thumb nail! A challenge to find but rewarding!

Juvenile Angelfish - our favorite! A strikingly attractive little fish and hard to find!

Harlequin Shrimps - These shrimps are tiny, less than an inch long but AMAZING!

Octopus - this guy was hard to spot, but I happened to see him as our group went by because his color changing skin reacted as he moved to reposition on his rock.

Seahorse - these famous little guys are HARD to find.  So small and delicate.  What a treasure to see him!

Porcupine fish & Mappa Pufferfish
We saw these guys often although the shipwreck site we visited really brought them to a new level - they were all over the place and I found out they charge at paparazzi!

Stone Fish - Camouflaged and poisonous.  We steered clear.

Moray eels - Freaky - We only saw a couple of them swimming in the open. Most of the time these scary creatures were lurking in holes in the rocks.

Trigger Fish - Infamous, just look at those coral busting teeth.

Coral trout, I think - hiding where they do.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Richelieu Rock, kid-in-a-candy-store-diving

Richelieu Rock was the most famous of the dives sites on our liveaboard trip.  Jacques Cousteau discovered this horseshoe shaped reef, near the coast of Burma.  It is well known for its purple corals and incredibly diverse and abundant marine life.  Having heard all the talk leading up to our first dive here, we were unsure what to expect.  Could it really be better than what we've seen already?  What makes it so special?  Well, we were about to find out.

Josh had been joking with our dive master, Neil, that he needed to "find" us a juvenile angelfish. We were anxious to see this little beauty that carried the vibrant colors of royal blue, white and black.  Neil had been pretty good about "finding" other fish for us but he was less confident about this one - they are elusive little guys - but he said Richelieu Rock was the best chance.

We jumped in the water from the dive deck and our group made the descent into wonderland...immediately upon going under water the dive site was in view.  The visibility was spectacular and the waters were alive with movement of little creatures.  The whole site had an incredible glow of purple from the abundant amount of soft purple corals.  I think we all felt like kids in the candy store as our eyes darted around not knowing which beautiful aspect to admire first. 

As soon as we made it to the bottom Neil was already turning back to Josh and swinging his cradled arms in front of him then drawing a circle around his head - dive language for baby angelfish!  Score!  We all gathered around to look at the stunning fish about the size of your palm. 

I was so excited and immediately began trying to take pictures as he was swimming near a small patch of coral.  My first attempt at closing in on him was too fast and with everyone else around I had to go forward and come back around for another approach.  I waited for the others to have a look and then steadied my hands on the camera, breathed slowly to control my bouyancy and softly flipped my fins to approach the shy fish as he had moved over to the base of a large wall of coral.

I took several careful pictures and was admiring his beauty. I smiled mentally (cause you can't really smile with a regulator in your mouth) and turned around because I was sure Josh was relishing this little guy as much as I was.  But there was no Josh.  There was no one!

I backed away from the wall and looked around - my group was gone!  Oh crap!  Rule number 2 of diving is to always stay with your buddy (Rule number 1 is to never hold your breath, in case you're curious).  Even in our short diving careers we had already established the normal attitude of being frustrated with people who wander off from their groups - it can cause dives to end early if you can't quickly reunite.  We were at Richelieu Rock and I was lost!  Although I firmly believed that Josh had left ME, I definitely didn't want to be the reason our whole group had to surface early at such an epic dive site. 

So, I looked around in the distance.  Thanks to the brilliant visibility I spotted our group in the distance over a coral ledge.  I quickly swam across the expanse and as I neared I realized it wasn't my group.  Double crap.  I turned around and looked again.  I saw another group up to the right, but that wasn't them.  Then I saw a group from our boat.  The dive master knew what was up and made the "buddy" sign at me and I had to shrug my shoulders in reply.  She motioned for me to join her group but just then I saw our group in the distance.  I pointed and motioned I was off and she waved goodbye.

As I approched that group, again, across an expanse, again, I realized it wasn't them.  Oh no!  I just sent that other group on their way!  Just as I was about to really have to consider surfacing, standard procedure when you are lost for more than 1 minute, Neil, Josh and crew all emerged from a narrow split in the corals off to the left.  SAVED! 

Josh and I both did the "where the heck did you go?", "why the heck did you leave me" shrugs, motions and wide eyes at each other.  Neil just looked at us both and gave us the buddy sign.  Gotcha.  Won't happen again.

Come to find out Neil was racing to be the first at the sea horse hangout.

The rest of the dive was unbelievable and we all stayed together. It was the most exciting dive we had had to date and not just because I got lost!  At the end of the hour, our group surfaced all grinning ear to ear.  And off the back of the boat was Richeilieu Rock just breaking the ocean surface.  You would never know what an exciting world sat beneath that simple set of rocks!

Friday, March 8, 2013

This Dive Site Is "Challenging"

(Disclamier - no photos were taken on this dive)

"The word of the day is 'challenging'", the dive leader announced as he kicked off our dive briefing and holding up the dive board with the color dive site description.

Yes, you have my attention.  We were tied up off the tiny uninhabited island of Koh Tachai.  Below us is the infamous dive site called the Dome or as locals call it, The Dome of Doom. Even now just thinking about it gives me chills.

This site is renowned for its STRONG currents but on this day they were worse and labeled challenging. Being fairly new divers and only used to mild currents, it wasn't something we wanted to hear as we were getting ready for our last dive of the day.

On top of the currents, we would be learning a new technique called a Negative Entry.  Normally after jumping into the water you remain at the surface to make sure everybody is ready to go before heading down together.  With the negative entry you do not surface and instead descend straight down to depth.  Why do this?  Well, the currents were so strong that even taking 30 seconds on the surface would cause you to drift so far off the dive site you may not be able to swim back.  It was so bad that one of the instructors joked, if you get caught in the current the boat would be picking you up in Burma - a few miles away.

Suited up and standing on the back of the boat, we watched a group of divers from another boat start their dive.  Skipping the negative entry they instantly drifted a long way off the site. Our dive master shook his head knowing they were in for a long hard swim.  We watched nervously thinking, here we go!

The boat pulled over the dive site and sounded the horn indicating, "go, go, go".  Our team jumped into the water, one after another in hurry to not get separated. We were a group of 4 and one dive master, all heading down to the dive site as usual with our hearts pounding with a nervous energy.  I couldn't help but think, "what are we in for?"

Initially, we were drifting with the current which was at quite a pace.  You didn't really have to kick your fins because the landscape was just breezing past you.  Then the dive master started changing directions looking for some rocks to hide behind so we could actually go slower to see something instead of just watching everything zoom past in dark blue motion blur.  An important rule of diving is to go slow but in this current that proved challenging.

Hiding behind some rocks, we were able to get some shelter from the strong current.  In buddy groups of 2, the normal diving safety mechanism, we moved from rock to rock. However, as soon as you broke cover the current would hit you square in the face and to beat the current you had to all out swim, kicking as hard and aggressively as you could.  When you finally found a calmer spot you needed to catch your breath from the excessive swimming.  In all this effort, spotting underwater life was tough.  What did we see, hmmm, not much because it took so much effort and focus to avoid being picked up in Burma.

Any diver knows air consumption is crucial and that a general rule of thumb is that when you get to 50 bars of air pressure remaining you need to start making your way to the surface.  Well on this dive the limit was 70 bars.  Keep in mind you only start with 200.  This was serious.

If you can't tell already, the dive was brutal.  I spent the whole time worry about current, Burma, air, and Steph. Fish?  What fish?  I can't tell you how relieved I was to signal to the dive master that I was at 70 bar.  But it wasn't over yet.  We still had to make it to the buoy line, do a safety stop and then signal the boat to pick us up.

Finally, we made it to the buoy line.  We all grabbed on, slowly inching ourselves up to the 5 meter mark.  At that depth, the current was at its strongest and frankly unbelievable!  Hanging on to the line with both hands we were all at 90 degree angles to the line flying in the current like we were flags on a pole!  The force was incredible.  The sound of the water rushing past with bubbles hitting you in the face was absolutely unreal.  None of us dared to turn and look at one another because the current could easily rip our masks off!  The sound, pressure and out of this world feelings were something I can't do justice.

Finally, we got the all clear to surface.  Up we went and quickly enough the dingy darted over to pick us up.  After helping Steph and grabbing a hold of the small boat for a tow it was a big relief.  Climbing out of the water on to the boat, we were exhausted and still buzzing from the adrenaline rush.  I was on 20 bars of air.  Wow!

Its no surprise that back on board the other group members echoed the same sentiment   I'm glad that's over!  The dive was short which normally isn't a good thing but in this case every one was ready to be done.

Dome of Doom - a challenge for sure!  We are better divers because of it.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Similan Islands liveaboard diving

Ever since learning to dive, discussion on amazing world dive sites always brought up a place called Sipidan on Borneo.  We weren’t able to make Sipidan work for our schedule and if we could do it over we would make it happen no matter what.

So, after speaking to folks on Koh Tao everybody raved about The Similan Islands off the west coast of Thailand. Supposedly, there were more “big fish” and the visibility was stellar.  The catch?  The only way to see them is via live aboard diving boats – which are costly.

Live aboards are literally that – you live on a boat and dive multiple times a day.  Eat, sleep and dive if you will.  The idea of so much diving in a day sounded daunting since we were still relatively new divers, but to be fair we had racked up over 30 dives and were feeling proficient in the water.

Then came our inevitable discussion of budget.  It was simply way out of budget.  So, we pondered for days and when our restlessness got to be too much we just decided – we were young, we were nearby and in the grand scheme of things we’d regret passing up the opportunity more than we’d miss the extra cash in our pockets.  So we booked it!

We were fresh off one of the most "backpacker" overnight ferries you could imagine - a long narrow ferry with 60 narrow mattresses side-by-side on the floor with only a narrow walk way running down the middle.  It was shoulder to shoulder backpackers returning to mainland! Backpacks were stacked in the front of the boat with personal bags at your feet. Forget blankets, pj's, brushing your teeth, etc., it was simply lay down and snooze.  You didn't dare roll over for fear of meeting a stranger just inches from your face.

So on very little sleep, we hit the ground running as the sun came up and caught our bus across the peninsula to Khao Lak.

Dazed and groggy, we were buzzing with excitement when we arrived in Khao Lak, an unimpressive little town north of Phuket, for boarding our Similans liveaboard.  For the next 4 days and 4 nights we would complete 14 dives in some of the world’s top dive sites - Similan Islands, Koh Bon, Koh Tachai, Surin Islands and the epic Richelieu Rock.  Plus the idea of living on a boat for a few days sounded incredibly idyllic with stops at remote islands for afternoon beach time.

Our boat was the charming Manta Queen II from Khao Lak Scuba Adventures.  At the dock, instructors were holding a big plastic garbage bag at the gangway.  "Please deposit your sandals and flip flops in the bag - you won't need them for the next 4 days. Don't worry you will get them back".  Awesome.

Barefoot, we quickly started exploring our new home.  The lower deck was the dive deck, kitchen, cabins and bathrooms.  Upstairs was the "living room" - an open space with padded benches lining the perimeter, tables and a TV.  The upper deck was the sun deck, half covered and half exposed to the sun (or moon!) - it looked like a prime place to relax, err recover, between dives...

Not long after setting sail, they served a scrumptuous buffet dinner.  They had all angles covered down to fruits and jam biscuits for dessert, a beer and Coke fridge and hot/cold water cooler for unlimited coffee, tea or water.

Our energetic boat leader was Neil, an American, who had come travelling to Southeast Asia many years ago, found diving, and never left.  He was definitely not boring!  He welcomed us to the boat, outlined the schedule (basically, dive-eat-sleep-repeat) and gave us many pointers on diving so frequently back-to-back.  In one tip, he explained that the cooler water was filtered by reverse osmosis and as such, had no minerals.  Although it would wet your mouth it wouldn't provide the essential minerals needed by your body after the gruelling dive schedule.  So, they provided electrolyte packets, effectively powered Gatorade, and we were instructed to have at least two of them a day. 

Neil closed out the night by saying goodnight and to enjoy sleeping in the next 7am!  Because we'd be rising at 6am the other mornings.  Should be easy enough, right, seeing as though all we have to do is dive?

The next morning, we strangely woke up EARLY!  We went upstairs and enjoyed the peacefulness of being moored next to a remote island.  At 7am, we heard Neil come through with what would be his standard wake up call - his outrageously loud voice yelling "Waaaaake Uuuuuuup! Goooooood Mooooorning Diverssss!" Seriously!  Oh. my. gosh.  I'm awake.

Let the diving begin!

All dives went something like this.  You'd head up to the main deck and have a dive briefing to tell you all the ins and outs for the dive.  Things like dive depth, what to look out for, the dive site layout, etc.

Then you'd head down to the dive deck where it was all business.  Wetsuit on.  Wait belt on.  Turn your air supply on.  Sitting down you put your BCD and tank on like a backpack.  The deck hands then swooped in to put your fins on which after a few dives was a great luxury.  Standing up you found your buddy and performed your saftey check (Beef with Red wine and fries) BCD, Weight belt, Releases, Air, Final check.

It was dive time!  We would jump off the back of the boat and head down to wonderland.  Just don't forget to spit in your mask, first!

Afterwards it was taking off all your gear (and the deck hands would clean it all up!) then heading up to the main deck to log and discuss the dive.

And so began our schedule of dive-eat-sleep-repeat.  I won't bore you with the details but it was awesome.  Hearty meals.  Coffee anytime.  Nap anytime.  Increasingly awesome dive sites (I think they plan it this way, to build up to Richelieu Rock).  After the last dive of the day, you could have a cold beer, watch a movie, read a book, watch sunset over the ocean, stare at the stars from the sundeck or a little of all of them!  You didn't feel guilty for hitting the sack at a reasonable time - you had earned it.  It was indeed a grueling schedule, but so very rewarding!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Fire Dancer

Meet Aung Ko Lin, our nightly entertainment during our stay on Koh Tao in Thailand.  Over the course of our three weeks on the island I had the pleasure of getting to meet this man who's hobby is fire dancing.  He was a very friendly guy that by day worked in the restaurant but by night turned his hobby into entertainment as a fire dancer!

Every evening as the sun was going down he started setting up.  First he'd take a bar stool down to the water's edge then bring over all his equipment, petrol, an empty beer bottle to sustain a lit flame and his tip jar.  As everyone settled in for the evening on the mats and tables out in front of the bar and restaurant, he'd start practicing.  Twirling and twisting, he was preparing for the night's show.  Then as darkness set in he'd don his NY Yankees hat, situate it to the side, grab a fire stick, dip it in petrol before dragging it over the flame to ignite the fire and then off he went in a furry of flames and dance moves.

He hails from Burma and has moved to Thailand for work to help his family back home.  His Mom still lives in a small remote village and needs his support.  Since we stayed so long I was able to make friends and learn a little about his culture.

Getting to know him was fascinating.  Every morning we'd sit on the deck of the restaurant.  He'd bring us our food and then stay and chat.  He had just recently been able to purchase a used laptop and once he found out my profession he opened up asking me all sorts of questions.

How do you type so fast?  How do I make a title bold in Word? What is Excel?  Can you help me setup a blog so I can post about fire dancing?

In the end, I was able to give him a few pointers and lessons in Word and Excel.  We even had a short typing lesson so he could learn a few easy commands like copy and paste.

All of the staff at the restaurant were Burmese and so once I got to know one of them they all started being more friendly and keeping an eye on us.  By the end there was always a friendly face waiting to take our order each day as quite a few of them knew our dinner order by heart - two beef penang currys and two Tiger beers.

As our time ended on Koh Tao, I realized I hadn't taken any photos of his show.  So the last night I spoke to him ahead of time to let him know to go all out because I'd be more than happy to do a little photography and give him the results - which I did.

Here is a photo with my new friend on the morning we left.  Best of luck to you Aung!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Diving Koh Tao

WARNING:  This post contains discussions of a supremely awesome nature.  If you are prone to jealous tendencies regarding beach holidays we strongly advise you do not read this post.  We generally try not to boast about our travels but its impossible to blog this without sounding "boasty".

There are times when you just land in what feels like a perfect spot.  Whether it is by plan or accident, time just slows down.  Its usually a combination of all sorts of factors from people, place, time, money, weather, etc.  For us, this was one of those times.  It wasn't the most cultural experience nor did we find something unknown to the world or learn about ourselves in some magical way.  But time slowed down and we relished every moment.

Just imagine, you are on an island 9000 miles from home in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand with tropical temperatures, golden sand beaches and lush green forrest.  The only way off the island is by ferry.  You wake up 6:30am, roll out of bed, slap on some sunscreen like a 5 year old and stroll 50 paces to the open air beach front restaurant.  You plop down in a beach chair with the ocean gently rolling at your feet and enjoy a light breakfast while the dive instructor pairings are announced.  Picking up your scuba gear you eagerly wade out in teal green knee deep water to the Thai long boat for a ride to the dive boat tied up in deeper water.  As the sun finishes rising above the horizon you climb aboard, drop your gear and climb the wooden ladder noting the crystal clear water as you make your way to your spot on the sun deck for the relaxing cruise to today's dive site.  Taking a seat you dangle your feet off the side of the boat and lazily lean on the railing with the sea breeze blowing in your hair.  Hiding behind your sunglasses, you gaze at the gorgeous deep blue ocean with the sun gently glistening off the water and the island slowing moving away in the distance.  Two dives in 80 degree (28 c) water later, you return just as the harsh sun sets in to relax in the shade after a rewarding morning of diving.

Other days you sleep in and catch the afternoon dives which are timed perfectly for sunset.  After returning and logging your dives you have joyous flashbacks of the all the underwater life you just witnessed.  Did you see that?  Yeah, it was so colorful!  You quickly run back to the room to take a quick shower and head back to the beach front restaurant to order some amazing Thai food (Penang beef curry) and a couple local beers.  The beer goes straight to your head after the exertion of diving and you sit back and relax while the sun drops below the horizon. The nightly fire dancer begins his show of twirling and spinning just as your plate of hot food arrives.  Tiki torches light the beach as far as you can see, music casually plays at the bar in the background and an occasional traditional Thai sky lantern floats off into the distance.  The ocean is calm and the breeze is warm when you realize the day is gone.  But it has been tremendous.  And tomorrow you get to do it all over again!  You hit the sack after hearing the buzz of a WHALE SHARK sighting.  Oh, what tomorrow will bring, sweet dreams...I can't wait!

I can't believe it myself but we were lucky enough to do this for 22 days!  Some days were morning dive days, other were afternoon dive days and some days we did both.  Throw in a few night dives, walks into to town for laundry, supplies and some shopping and you get the picture.

Now, a little background on Koh Tao.  Here you can find some of the most reasonably priced diving in the world and its a hit with the backpacking community.  As you can imagine, its not a high end island.  No Ritz Carlton, but enough basic rooms set on the beach to feed the crowds of eager new divers.  And the best catch - lodging can be included if you go on at least one dive a day.  Fair trade, I say!

The area where all the dive operators have accommodation and depart from is Sariee Beach which is a long curved bay full of dive shops set on the lush green forrest back drop of the island.  Going inland there is a fairly vibrant scene dominated by backpacker style establishments - restaurants, shops and bars, complete with plenty of pub crawls and Thai massage.  Local transport are motor bikes, of course, which whiz around you at all times.

After picking our tour operator, Big Blue diving, we settled in for a 3 day sprint of dives to get our Advanced Open Water certification, which among other things allows a person to dive up to 30 meters (100ft).  It opens up a lot of deeper dive sites in the world along with giving you more instruction and confidence.

Once we finished our certification all we had to do was sign up at least a couple hours ahead of a dive, grab your gear and head to the boat.  It was always posted on a board outside where they’d be going for the next couple of days so you could pick and choose based on your favorite sites.  Additionally, if you wanted to go to a specific site, all you had to do was ask and they’d schedule it in.  We stayed long enough to get to know the dive masters who took turns fighting over who gets to lead us - they realized we weren't going to be trouble and were light on our air usage thus increasing their dive time under water.

On off-days or mornings we would sit around enjoying our coffee, calling the family back home and sometimes watching Kentucky play basketball on the internet.  You can see Steph below making a phone call on Skype.  Not a bad phone booth.  Then if they had posted a good dive site we’d sign up by 11am and be off for an afternoon dive at 12:30.

It was the life and we really came to enjoy the routine.  It was just one of those times when we just were content staying put. I guess you can understand why we stayed there for over 20 days, right?

Now, to the diving.  How was it?  Well, it was very exciting!  It was whale shark season and there was always the potential to see them.  However, no luck under water although in a bit of luck we were on a surface interval when one swam by the boat.  We're counting it as a sighting!  Another time, the visibility wasn’t great and a whale shark was around; a couple groups on our boat even saw it.  We’d like to think he was there beside us, just barely out of view.
The marine life was exciting to discover. Aside from the elusive whale shark and huge schools of barracuda,  Koh Tao has a fairly diverse eco system of fish and colorful corals.  One of the more eventful fish was the the Titan Triggerfish!  It was nesting season and they could get aggressive if you intruded on their space.  Couple that with big chopping teeth for eating coral and you need to be on lookout to not go in their territory.  Fortunately, they never bothered us but we kept hearing stories back at the restaurant at night of someone getting “triggered” that day!

We also did a couple night dives - it just takes diving to a whole new level of challenge and intrigue.  Dark waters, a little moon glow and you're armed with only an 8-inch flashlight.  I have to admit descending in to the darkness was surreal - nothing in your downward shining light's path except particles in the water catching the light.  Then all of a sudden coral or the sea bed would come in to view.  You then had to do the shine-the-light-in-all-directions to gain some sort of sense of spatial awareness.  And as soon as you started moving forward that sense was lost.

One of the most interesting things during the night dive was the psychedelic bio luminescent algae.  Yeah, that's a couple of big words - let me explain (we had to ask a couple times!).  Bio luminescent algae glows when its disturbed.  The psychedelic part comes in when you put your light to your chest (to block all the light) then wave your hand in the water and watch waves of glowing sparkles in front of your face.  It was especially cool when our whole group was blacked out and creating a circle of this glowing phenomenon.  Very cool. 

The area dive sites had plenty of diversity.  Some shallow, some deep while others had swim throughs.  At first the swim throughs were a challenge while we both still trying to master our buoyancy.  At the end we improved and they became so much fun. Afterwards we'd surface with huge grins on our faces, thrilled at the excitement and challenge of down, around and through rock formations.  It wasn't all fun and games as one swim through did “jump out and bite me” (Steph) – I must have kicked a little too broadly and came up with a nasty cut on my ankle.  We returned to that site a couple more times and proudly had no further rock encounters.

The diving was an exciting new challenge and we relished improving. We were always trying to hone our skills - buoyancy, control your air consumption, keep from using our hands to swim or balance, ability to get face to face with a coral to see a tiny nudibranch and then back away without touching it or stirring up sand, etc.  Slow methodical movements.  Be in control and keep your air consumption to a minimum. This did however take a lot of our daily energy so outside of diving we really took it easy and enjoyed island life. 

After many nights of beach dining we decided to change it up and went for a nice night out - the infamous steak dinner at Lung Pae.  We ordered the "E4" and it was a delicious change from the daily Thai food.  They even had a door to door truck service since they sat at the top of a remote hill.

As awesome as it was to be pseudo beach bums for almost a month, the realization set in – we were starting to get restless.  But where to next?

We shook hands and hugged the many dive instructors we had gotten to know over the weeks and set off for the other side of the Thailand peninsula via a crowded overnight ferry boat and bumpy bus ride.

Similans Islands, and live aboard diving here we come!