(Sketchy notes are taking longer to fill out than expected. hopefully I can get them down before I forget everything…)
11/16 (Saturday) Well, we’re off to the Similans…It’s rather a nice boat, 36 meters long, with an upper deck (kitchen, food, lounge) and a lower one (cabins, dive deck, saloon/TV room). By some miracle, I’ve been assigned the only single–everyone else is sharing. I’m glad I have it; me and one other person in a 30-sq-ft space might very well result in a single by the time I got back. (In fact I suspect they put me in it because I’m the only novice on the dive, so they decided to spare the more experienced divers from rooming with me. Or maybe I just got lucky.)
Nothing much to report, except that the showers are lukewarm (but not cold!). Trying to read the screen with the ship moving is giving me a headache, so I think I’ll quit now.
Jesus. The Similans are Paradise. It’s amazing.
Where to start? Well, the diving–it’s hard to describe the diving. Take your National Geographic photos and double the amount of sea life. (Rob: forget the Antarctic trip, and come dive here; you’ll flip over it. Promise.) I’ve been “stuck” at 12 meter depth since I’m not certified for open water yet–but this is hardly suffering: the reefs are fantastic. Giant sea fans (three or four kinds at least–some three meters across), corals in all shapes/colors, baroquely tasseled purple sea cucumbers a foot and a half long, tubeworms that look just like little purple flowers blossoming on coral, until they vanish, yanked back into holes in the rock. Giant purple-and-black crown-of-thorns starfish, shaped like an eight-armed starfish with sea urchin spines. Sea cushions, starfish shaped like pentagonal cushions.
And the fish! They’re everywhere. Flocks of bright orange fish, the size of three fingers, flutter about, punctuated by slim black-and-turquoise cleaner fish; clouds of minnows school about the coral. First in shapeless clouds of brown fish; then a bigger fish frightens them, and the cloud instantly snaps into a school, swimming away in perfect formation. It looks almost like rain, the way they fall away in silver sheets.
Bigger fish, too: gaudy parrotfish, green, blue, and orange, nipping at coral with their hard beaks; lumpy boxfish, brown and white; graceful triggerfish, black and turquoise ovals rippling through the water, swimming with their dorsal fins.
A giant napoleon lurks closer, a dark shadow with a distinctively humpbacked head, visible only in five-foot profile. A gorgeous lionfish, zebra-striped, all fluttery fins and long, graceful spines. Clownfish, orange, black and white, hiding in anemones; and a big clown triggerfish, with giant head and mouth, impossibly striking, like an abstract artists’ piece.
That really doesn’t capture it; it’s impossible to capture in words. At any given point, there were several hundred fish in sight, and usually at least fifteen or sixteen species; I gave up counting, I couldn’t keep track of them. I wish I knew more about maritime ecology; the only fish book on board is in German, so all I can get from it is their common names, not habitat or any deeper understanding of what they’re about.
And the landscape! The Similans are known for their reefs, but famous (says our divemaster) for the rocks: giant smooth boulders, jutting out of the floor like a tumbled-over Stonehenge, 40, 50 meters or more. They’re visible on top of the islands as well; I’ll try to take a picture abovewater, but it won’t give you the seascape. Unfortunately I missed most of the good seascape; it’s mostly at depths of 25-30 meters, and I’m “stuck” at 12. Still, I’m not complaining.
I forgot to mention a really cool starfish I saw. Actually, I’m not sure “starfish” is the right descriptor: it looks like a cross between a sea urchin and a starfish gone mad, 18″ across, with eight or nine or ten purple arms studded with sharp, dark-purple sea-urchin spines. It’s called a crown-of-thorns starfish, and feeds on coral. I really wondered if I wasn’t hallucinating when I saw it, but it’s very, very cool.
So anyway, that’s a brief description of the reef diving. But you really need to be there, to really appreciate it; words can only go so far. I really wish I had a camera.
Above water, on the other hand, it’s delightful as well. The water is sapphire–and I *mean* sapphire; not the dirty sea-green you get in California. I hadn’t realized water actually came that blue; photos in Hawaii are obviously taken with filters to make the water *look* blue, but this really *is* the shade you see in travel brochures. Even the water off Ko Chang wasn’t this nice. I wonder what makes it like that? At any rate, it’s gorgeous.
The sand is white and powdery (apparently common to coral beaches); the perfect sand for walking, it starts out smooth and untouched, flat and pristine, then molds itself to your feet as you walk. No abrasion; it’s soft, not sandy. Just enough support that your feet don’t sink in, and no gritty feel. I *love* the beaches. If the diving weren’t so spectacular, I’d spend entire days just walking up and down the beach, especially with the startlingly turquoise shallows. Tiny white ghost crabs run up and down the white sand; move slowly enough, and you can walk right up to them. Hermit crabs, too; and some very pretty spiral snails in the crevices of the rock.
In the interior of the island we stopped on, there’s some sort of rainforest, with flying foxes, giant land crabs, and about a million different species of plants. I didn’t see the foxes, but I did spot a two-foot monitor lizard, brownish-gray, with the waddling gait and side-to-side neck movements distinctive to monitors. I wish I’d kept that field guide to Thai reptiles; maybe I’ll buy another one. I tried getting up for a closer look, but it climbed a tree, then ran off. Anyway, it was neat getting to look at a monitor in the wild.
I did watch for snakes, but (alas) didn’t see any. it’s possible they haven’t made it out from the mainland, it’s 40 km or so away. Mike (my instructor) says there are sea snakes in the water, and we’ll probably see one–I hope so, they’re very beautiful. (Also highly neurotoxic, but what are you doing messing with one, anyway?)
I think, though, that on the whole the best part so far was the lionfish. It was gorgeous–white-and-black feathery plumes everywhere. I could have watched it for hours.
Dive-wise, we did three dives today. The first was on a coral reef; everyone else went down to 26 meters, but Mike and I stayed at 12 meters and did some confined-water exercises before cruising around the reef. Almost no current, beautiful view. I had some trouble breathing initially, but eventually settled down.
Second dive was mostly a rock-landscape dive, so I missed that part (too deep for me); there was a strong current, too, which we could have avoided by going to the bottom, but I couldn’t go that deep, so we simply hung onto the mooring line at 12 meters for twenty minutes or so, looking at the nearby coral and watching the fish schooling. Oddly enough I wasn’t bored; there was plenty of action to watch on the corals, with little fish darting in and out, flurries of “minnows” forming and exploding, and the odd sea cucumber/sea fan to investigate.
The third dive was a reef dive; the others went around the north and south side of the reef, but we stayed on the reef, at 12-14 meters. This is where I saw the lionfish, and the clown triggerfish; it’s also where I spotted the napoleon, a giant fish way bigger than me (!). It feeds on invertebrates mostly, and its meat is very highly prized, apparently fetching over $100/lb in Hong Kong (!). The lips of the napoleon are considered an aphrodesiac and fetch very high prices in Southeast Asia. All of which is a real pity, because it was a very beautiful and impressive giant fish. Fortunately the Similans are a maritime preserve, so fishing et al is illegal here. (The restrictions may even be enforced, which is (unfortunately) rare in Thailand.)
There are supposed to be leopard sharks here too, but I haven’t seen any.
I should also mention that the two-legged scenery doesn’t suck, either. There are fourteen other passengers on the boat, and four or five instructors/staff, most of whom are quite enjoyable to look at. In fact, when I get back, I’m going to write a book titled “All I Need To Know About Ogling Men I Learned From My AIDS Lifecycle Tentmate.” (Hey, if you’re going to learn about these things, learn from a pro. 😉 )
At any rate, despite all that, the real beauty is under the water.
Anyway, it’s getting late, and tomorrow we start diving again at 8am. Good night.