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Similan Island and Richelieu Rock (February/March 2004)

This was our first time diving in Thailand and after recent disappointments in the Caribbean it was great to find a place that’s still abundant with underwater life and pristine corals.

The Similan Island and other nearby dive sites are best reached from Khao Lak, approx. 100 km north of Phuket airport. Livaboards reach the main sites in 3.5 – 4 hours from Thap Lamu Pier (just south of Khao Lak), from Phuket it takes 5-6 hours. Phuket is apparently now heavily developed and built-up and if you appreciate a more laid back atmosphere Khao Lak is definitely a much better option.

There are numerous dive outlets, offering training, day and liveaboard trips – most of them can be found on the Web. We booked through Sunrise Divers (www.sunrise-divers.com) who provided us with a list of dive boats, once we gave them our possible travel dates. The boats are described in great detail and graded (from five stars to one star for the budget conscious traveller) and eventually we settled for the Queen Scuba (definitely a 4-5 star operation). The boat has been in service since 2003 with a huge master cabin, two VIP and six standard cabins, all with private head, shower and air conditioning and she is operated by Coral Grand Divers (www.coralgranddivers.com or www.similandivers.com). A ‘typical’ 14-dive itinerary (departing Monday evening, returning Friday mid afternoon) would include eight or nine dives at various sites in the Similan Islands Marine Park, two dives at Richelieu Rock, two dives at Ko Tachai and a final wreck dive on the Bonsoon at Friday lunchtime. The total cost came to £450/€650 per person –and that was for the Master Cabin, standard cabins are approx. 20% less. Daily charges for equipment rental range from £1.75/€2.50 for individual items (including BCD and Computer) to £18/€25 for a digital camera. The Queen Scuba does not offer E6 processing facilities.

Some boats offer trips further north into the Burma Banks (min. six days) but these excursions often mean a lot of hassle and red tape. Furthermore these trips take you well outside of the Similan Marine Park area and for many years dynamite fishing was the method of choice for Burmese fishermen, causing great damage to the local reefs.

For those in a hurry, most dive operators also offer day trips from Khao Lak or Phuket, using speedboats to the Islands. For around £55/€80 you get two dives and a 3-4 hour boat ride in what looked to us like fairly cramped conditions.

On our trip we had a truly ‘global village’ feel on board. The crew came from Thailand, Australia, Japan, Germany, Belgium and the UK; the 16 divers carried passports from Australia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Sweden, Austria, Germany, Brazil, The Netherlands, the UK and the USA. Clearly xenophobes should go some place else.

The diving around the Similans and Richelieu Rock is extremely good, with an interesting underwater topography of huge bommies, boulders and swim-throughs. It may not be ideal for absolute novice divers, due to potentially strong currents at many of the dive sites. Visibility is generally very good (20+ meters) but due to the currents we experienced some colder water swelling up from the Andaman Sea causing a drop in visibility on a few occasions. The last dive (Bonsoon Wreck) has very poor (2-3m) viz.; that’s because the Wreck sits on a large sandbank that stretches for miles. The wreck itself is rather non-descript but is teaming with fish life, moray eels of every size, leopard sharks, lots of puffer fish, tiny (and large) box fish, and crocodile fish. Further out on the Islands you get the same variety of life and huge brittle stars, starfish, feather stars, sea slugs, cuddle fish, lion fish, turtles, more sharks, including the rather peculiarly shaped guitar shark, sting rays and huge ‘fields’ of colourful anemones. Undoubtedly one of the highlights of our trip were the five huge manta rays which we sighted in about 15-20m depth on the west ridge of Ko Bon.

The dive season along the Andaman coast runs from November to April. After May 1 Khao Lak and the Similans pretty much shut down. Here the rainy season can mean 24-hour downpours, often for 10 or more days without break, and heavy seas prevent any regular boat trips to the Islands. During our visit (last week of February and first week of March) the air temperature was around 34 degrees, the water temperature because of the cold swells ‘only’ 28 degrees. Beat that, my friends…
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