Author: Gary Howard, Chairman of BSAC High Wycombe, February 2009
My wife, Milly, and I split our holidays each year to do some pure diving and some beach/diving combinations. As I had a break in projects at work we booked a "last minute" holiday to Phuket. We knew there was diving available in the area so we crammed our wetsuits and my camera into our bags. Our intention was to do two or three days diving during our ten day stay with a local British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC) resort in Phuket called Sharkey Scuba.
Our dive guide for the day was Max (an ex-member of our BSAC Club) who was probably the most enthusiastic dive guide we have ever dived with. This trip was out to Koh Phi Phi and we were to dive the two Islands just to the South of Phi Phi Ley. Iain, the company owner, was also on the boat, diving with another English couple who were back for their third visit.
After a briefing explaining where we were going to dive we dropped in on the East side of this small Island. We took it slowly and after the first few minutes only occasionally saw other divers. First we were shown the resident Seahorses (unfortunately not easy to photograph without disturbing them or the fauna). We also saw swarms of fish, nudibranchs, sea snakes, three types of clown fish and masses of soft corals. A cold current came up to about 15 metres and as it was loaded with sediment so we stayed relatively shallow. In one of the anemones I was lucky enough to spot an anemone crab.
The second dive followed yet another thorough briefing. This time we dropped onto the West Side of the Island. This dive was as good as the first with yet more shoals of fish. We were also fortunate to see a juvenile oriental sweet lips. This fish would put a professional belly dancer to shame and hence all my shots were slightly blurred (must remember video mode!). We saw a number of nudibranchs.
On this trip we were guided by Oui (Iain's) wife. I had an attack of conjunctivitis so didn't enjoy it as much as I would otherwise have done. On this trip our party numbered four with our new friends from the first day.
This dive was mostly on a sandy bottom, although there were a number of strange box girders. However, there were some truly awesome critters. We saw a seagrass ghost pipe fish, some lovely nudibranchs and a very shy peacock mantis shrimp. Having a good spotter as your guide on this dive was essential!
This one had a bit of a current 0.2 to 0.3 Knots. There were a number of reefs interspersed with sand. About half way through the dive the current dropped off and we were able to delve into the rocks and reefs. As with all the other dives there were large shoals of fish and interesting nudibranchs and sessile life to gander at.
Probably my favorite dive of the day. This site consisted of long stretches of reef including staghorn coral separated by swathes of sand. We saw a large nudibranch on the sand. Yet again loads and loads of fish. Morays, Remora, Barracuda and Anthias by the bucket. A very chilled dive progressing along at a gentle amble, fabulous!!
Our last days diving and we had both recovered from our conjunctivitis. Today we had Iain as our guide and were diving with three other divers.
This ferry used run out to Phi Phi but managed to hit a reef and sink several years back. It is now swarming with life and is pretty much a haven for all kinds of fish. We had the "new visitors" tour - down through the very open below decks and then up onto the superstructure. You have to be careful not to put your hands anywhere near the scorpion or lion fish. On top of the wreck it is plastered with fish: huge shoals of snappers swirl around you as they try to avoid the barracuda and rainbow runners. If you look closely there are dancing shrimps and yet more nudibranchs.
This reef has a small beacon on top of the main pinnacle. We dropped onto a shot on the number 2 pinnacle and then worked our way over to the main site. This site had huge numbers of large gorgonian sea fans. On the main pinnacle there was a small cleft with dozens of morays, feeding on the glass fish. At the bottom of the cleft there was a lovely ornate ghost pipe fish. As we came up to do our safety stop there were a multitude of anemones with mostly skunk clown fish.
This Island is typical of many in the area with imposing limestone cliffs. The cliffs continue underwater and we worked our way slowly around the south east cliff. On this dive I managed to slowly approach a white banded sea snake and got a reasonable snap. You do have to be careful as these have about 15 ml of toxin and 1.5 ml will kill an adult although it is extremely rare for one to bite.
The Monsoon season in Phuket is between May and September. We went at the beginning of April which is just before the beginning of the rainy season. We were lucky and the little rain was in short bursts mostly at night or late afternoon.
There are an awful lot of scuba diving companies in Phuket providing day boat diving out of Chalong Bay so the trick is finding one that provides what you want. Normally we would just go with the dive centre attached to our hotel, although this can sometimes be a bit unpredictable. Last time we went to Hurghada, Egypt we did one day on a day boat and the guide was so awful we never bothered going back. I was given the contact details of an old BSAC Club member who had moved out to Phuket to work as a dive guide. Max now works for a company called Sharkey Scuba, a PADI and BSAC dive centre in Phuket.
I dropped them an e-mail and they gave me a number to call when we got to Phuket, Thailand. After a day on the beach I was getting twitchy so I gave Iain at Sharkey a call and explained what we were thinking about doing. He explained that they could tailor the diving so we could avoid dives with trainees and do optimum dives for our experience level. He also offered to drive over to our hotel the next day (they'll visit anywhere in Phuket) and go through the options available on the day boats and which would allow us the best diving. So the next afternoon we had a chat with him by our hotel pool and sorted out three days diving on different day trips from Phuket.
A day boat out of Chalong Bay costs between 3,000 and 3,800 Baht (£60 and £75) a day per person. If you are staying on the West Coast (Kata, Karon, Patong) transfer from your Hotel is included. We were staying right on the South East tip and we paid between 800 and 1,000 Baht (£12 to £15) in total per day for transfers. We also hired a BCD and regulator set for about £8 per person per day. We were able to pay in sterling at an agreed exchange rate which saved us the 3.75% that most credit cards add to foreign transactions.
We did three days diving, with between two and three other customers and a dedicated dive guide from Sharkey Scuba. We used three different boats to get to the places we wanted to go to on the selected day of choice. All the boats have tea, coffee, water and lunch included in the trip price. Some have full breakfast, all had beer and soft drinks for a small charge (one had free soft drinks). They all had a toilet, dry cabin, covered sun deck, dive platform and an area to sunbath (important for my wife).
We had no preconceptions of the diving in Thailand. I'm happy to say both of us thoroughly enjoyed the diving around Phuket. We were fortunate in the diving centre we picked and they provided us with the best of the available sites on offer. We learned a valuable lesson and in the future I will always look to use a dive centre that provides me with the diving I want rather than what the majority of their customers are capable of. Sharkey Scuba in Karon certainly provided us with what we wanted. I would recommend them to anyone visiting Phuket or wanting to try a bit of diving on the west coast of Thailand including the Similans islands. They can also arrange accommodation on the west side of Phuket island (closer to Chalong Bay). I am currently considering a liveaboard to the Similan Islands and would definitely arrange through the folk at Sharkey Scuba.
N.B. all photos taken by Gary/Milly during their trip to Phuket.
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