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!

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