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Final Statistics: Alex & Maz Total distance: 93,550km
Furthest Point: Rotorua, NZ Now settled in Sydney, Australia
Final Statistics: Martin Total distance: 79,698km
Furthest Point: Hobart, Australia Now settled in Bristol, UK

Diving with Mantas

Written by Alex Towns. Uploaded 7 June 2006.

Thailand, Country 19, Diary entry 22nd-28th April 2006, Total distance in Thailand (first pass!): 4099 KM

Apologies to all for the break in transmission... the laptop dying didn't help, but a BIG thanks to Rob and my old company MRO, we are now back up and working, so normal service should be resumed..!

Arriving in Phuket we made a beeline directly to the Marriott resort on its own national park beach at the north end of the island. Previously we’d been guests there when one earnt ones Marriott points but now of course we were just looking from afar and hoping the beach at this end of the island remained undeveloped – ideal beach front camping. We were in luck and soon found a suitable spot under the shade of a few palm trees.

Relaxing courtesy of the Marriott

With the rest of the day ahead of us we decided to go for a drive around Phuket and ended up on Surin beach at a bit of a loss at what to do. This is one of the quieter beaches, but it still heaved with holiday makers, sun shades, jet skies and banana boats – not our idea of paradise. After sitting there wondering what to do next it became obvious. The only hotel on our camping beach was the Marriott and we knew they had some splendid swimming pools, everyone would simply assume that we were guests. Before long we were sat by the pool relaxing on sun loungers being served cool face towels and sipping iced water in between the occasional dip to keep cool!

We stayed until the sun slowly set over the Andaman Sea, where we’d be sailing to tomorrow evening hoping for some great diving around the Similan and Surin Islands. We opted not to dine courtesy of Mr Marriott, we couldn’t afford his prices when we were working, so slipped away, sought out a local restaurant and feasted on the sumptuous Thai cuisine. Cooled by the gentle sea breeze and lulled by the lapping of waves we were soon fast asleep, content in our own 5* tent.

Sunset over the Andaman Sea

The next day followed pretty much the same pattern, only this time we had chess to pass the time on the loungers and Maz was starting to get the hang of the game (and has since become a chess bore!). It would be easy to get used to such luxury, it almost felt as though we were on holiday! Our only agenda for the day was to get down to Patong beach and meet up with the Scuba Cat crew, who had very kindly offered to help in our charity fund raising as well as sorting out a 4 day liveaboard cruise on Scuba Adventure for the team.

We soon found the beach front shop and introduced ourselves to Pip who I’d been emailing furiously over the weeks to schedule our visit, so it was nice to finally meet in person. Scuba Cat have a great shop with a small pool right on the doorstep and literally just off the pavement so you can learn to dive all quite conveniently and pose by the pool at the same time to Joe public, before you unceremoniously execute a ‘perfect’ straddle jump and plunge into the pool and sink gracefully.

With the leave plan arranged and a safe place to store the cars organised (thanks Sarah) it was time to perform the reverse pack manoeuvre and extract every last bit of dive kit tucked away into and onto Tinfish. Had we not decided to lug our dive kit around the world I think we could have got away with just a mini! Martin arrived and unloaded his kit and we had just enough time for a take out coffee frappacino from Starbucks – ahh bliss. With kit and peeps loaded into the pickups we waved goodbye to those staying behind and headed off for the longtail boat to ferry us to Scuba Adventure, it was great to be heading offshore again, it had been awhile since our last liveaboard.

Dive briefing onboard

Onboard was a flurry of activity as kit was loaded and stashed away, the boat briefing explained to the new comers and cabins allocated. Most importantly dinner was being served upstairs and with a night voyage ahead of us before starting to dive the next day we could toast a leaving drink. As is customary with Thai boats setting to sea, before they raise anchor they have to give offerings and pray for a safe passage which accumulates with the setting off of a whole strip of Chinese crackers. As the smoke cleared the engines fired up and we slowly slipped our moorings.

With introductions made conversations sparked up until one by one people disappeared below to get some sleep as there was a nasty rumour spreading that the first dive would be at 7am..!! We appeared to be last to leave savouring the night sea air.

Scuba Adventure ploughs the waves

Snugly tucked up in our bunks, sure enough there was a knock on the door at some ridiculously early time of the day. Groans from Maz in the bunk below and I wasn’t too keen to spring into action either. About 20mins later another wake up knock and ‘Dive brief’ shouted, but we’d already decided to skip the morning dive and laze in our bunks. Truth is the first dive on most liveaboards tends to be a simple and easy ‘check out’ dive, so we were sure that we wouldn’t miss too much and with 4 dives a day offered we’d have ample opportunity to get wet over the next 4 days.

By the time we dragged ourselves out of our cabin the keen divers (ie everyone else) were just surfacing. This happened to coincide with breakfast being served upstairs – bacon and egg sandwiches, something we’d not had in a very long while! The Similians is a collection of islands and with the turquoise seas, weather smoothed rocks, patches of golden sand and lush green forests, it really is a beautiful place to be bobbing about for breakfast. Before diving we had a couple of things to sort out, so it was nice to have a leisurely start.

The Similan Islands

We’d opted to dive as much as possible on Nitrox (an oxygen rich breathing gas which allows either longer dive times than standard air or added safety as there is less nitrogen which is the bit that can cause decompression illness if dive tables are violated). This means though that the cylinder contents needs to be checked by the diver and a log signed to say they are happy with what has been mixed for them. PJ our tour leader ran through the procedure and we each checked and signed off our gas fills. I also had to do a bit of running maintenance to both our Jetstream regulators (the bit you stick in your mouth to breath from) and thanks to Keith who managed to get the necessary parts posted over to Thailand for me so that I could service them. I then just had to set the camera up and we were ready for our first dive.

By this time we’d moved over to the nearby Surin Islands as we were slowly moving towards the best dive site in the area Richelieu Rock. There was also a possibility of seeing mantas too, which we were really hoping for as we’d never seen these amazing 5m soaring giants before. The dive brief was fairly straight forward, jump in, sink, wait. We’re not normally so lucky when we dive specifically to see something, but bobbed around patiently entertaining ourselves with the other sea life around the head land amazed at just how much better the Jetstreams were breathing.

A Leopord shark

I occupied myself watching a shoal of trevally herding a school of little fish in against the rocks then darting in one at a time to feast. They were oblivious to my presence, so I managed to get right in amidst the action. PJ then pointed out a Leopard Shark lying dormant on the seabed so I got up close to take a few shots as these sharks just don’t move during the day. Then 40mins into the dive it arrived. This massive stealth bomber glided into view captivating its audience as it gently flapped its wings and circled around us. It appeared curious and came in for a closer look. Cameras were flashing from all angles as it got closer and closer before turning steeply as if to loop the loop, showing its belly and soaring just above our heads. Amazing!

The mantas arrive

It then carried on its way and just as soon as the show started it was all over leaving a group of excited divers wanting to see more. Staring intently in the direction the manta left from, suddenly everything appeared manta shape, the rock in the distance, the shoal of fish or the diver ascending. Checking time and gas left we’d need to be going up ourselves soon, just as another of these amazing creatures appeared into view and again it wasn’t shy giving the remaining divers a thorough inspection up close and personal before continuing on its way. Not a bad dive to start the trip on!

Relaxing between dives

The atmosphere onboard was electric and we all wanted to get back into the water and see more. After a sumptuous feed for lunch (the standard pattern on board was sleep-eat-dive-eat-dive-eat-dive-snack-dive-eat-sleep) and a change of film for the camera we were round the other side of the island and jumping back into the water in two groups. For some reason our group decided to swim into the current which always makes for a tiresome dive, so Maz, Martin & I soon decided to change tact and go with the flow. There wasn’t much to see here in the coral department, but we were all straining to see into the blue for our alien friends. This time after about 50mins we were rewarded by a fly by, so I managed to click through another roll of film.

A pair of butterfly fish

The talk onboard was all about mantas and although for the last dive of the day they stayed away we had a debut showing of the video PJ had captured during the day and as with all good movies we had ice-cream! The plan for the next day was Richelieu Rock, so the boat steamed into the night whilst we got on with socialising and a few cheeky beers in celebration. With the crčme de la crčme of dives scheduled for a crazy 6.30am start we rose with wary heads but soon woke up when we splashed into the water.

Our team banner

The benefit of diving so early meant that the other boats had not yet disgorged their holds full of divers into the water so we had the rock to ourselves. This site is the only rock in the middle of pretty much nowhere, so it is prolific in sea life as the nooks, crannies and currents attract every shape, size and colour of marine life. To a shout from Maz I looked round to see another flying carpet float past silently, circle then glide over to another group of divers who were busying themselves with the tiny reef fish. One happened to look up and got the fright of his life as he stared directly at the 5m, 2 tonne monster a few feet above his head. It was hilarious to watch him frantically shake his buddy who reacted in similar shock as he looked up.

Hello Mr Turtle

PJ’s group had been lucky enough to have the manta all to themselves for most of the dive and got some great video footage. With mantas in the can, we asked if PJ could show us some of the smaller critters. PJ has been onboard Scuba Adventure for about 6 years and is excited by pretty much every dive he has done in this region and his knowledge and enthusiasm is infectious. He spent 6 months scouring every inch of the reef searching out some very rare Harlequin Shrimps, so it was a date. These colourful critters live in pairs and snip off a leg from a star fish, drag it back to their lair and feast on it. The leg grows back on the star fish, so it’s a pretty efficient food supply! We were also treated to a tiny wee yellow sea horse that we’d never of had the patience to find on our own!

Yet another feast

Another great days diving and as we slowly chugged back towards the Surin Islands with one broken propeller shaft, we were escorted by a school of dolphins. After such a successful early morning dive, we all agreed that the early diver catches the manta, so it was early to bed for another early rise. The morning dive was a mound made up of a selection of rocks which fell either side to the depths.

Here's Nemo

Camera in one had the shot line in the other we descended until I could see the rocks below. Letting go of the line to sink and assemble the strobe arms ready for possible action, before we’d even reached the bottom I casually pointed towards the manta heading our way. More surprisingly it was the same manta from yesterday morning… had PJ towed him the 30km or so, or was it in fact PJ himself inside a giant rubber manta suit??

The beautiful scenery

There was a slight current flowing over the mound and the manta liked to hover over the rocks in the current and let the cleaner fish rise to attend to its needs. To say we were close was an understatement. Every now and then the manta would do a lap of the divers, either circling or coming straight towards us before rising sharply showing its belly and skimming over our heads. Torn between marvelling at the performance and taking photos, I’d sometimes be watching the action through the 15mm viewfinder of the camera, which basically is a very wide angle of coverage, so even a 5m monster needs to be very close to fill the frame. After taking the picture you’d lower the camera and be surprised just how close you actually were.

Dance of the Mantas

As if this show wasn’t amazing enough, in swooped a second manta and we were transfixed by a show of synchronised swimming as the mantas met to greet one another then peeled off circling in either direction. By now the film was well and truly used up, so we could just float watching in awe. As if things couldn’t get any better in came a third manta – breathtaking, but over an hour had now passed and running low on gas it was time to leave the magical performance and recount it over breakfast.

That was our manta allotment for the day, so we just had to contend ourselves with the shoals of barracuda and bat fish amongst the normal active reef life in the area for the rest of the day. Maz decided to go for a night dive, but I was content to stay onboard and strip down one of the strobes that had unfortunately flooded. It made quite a BANG as I opened up the battery door and 8 frazzled batteries in a gooey mess slide onto the floor. Hopefully it would be salvageable as the contacts all looked a little worse for wear!

The divers happy after a great trip

The forth and final days diving would be just two dives in the morning followed by the journey back to Phuket, however to save us all from a very long boat ride with only one prop they’d arranged to put into shore sooner and bus us back to Patong. With the early morning dives being so successful it was another early doors and we were soon jumping in with sleep in our eyes. I soon spotted PJ concentrating mid water with his video camera, which could only mean one thing… mantas..!! And what a beauty this one was, almost entirely black, if ever the prototype for the stealth fighter, this was it.

It played for awhile before another joined in. Again for the whole dive we were entertained by one manta after another coming in, circling a few times, buzzing over our heads then heading off. This is definitely one creature you could never tire diving with. Each has a personality and each is interested in finding out what these strange bubble blowing creatures are that have temporarily entered their domain. A definite diving highlight for Maz and I and one I hope we can re-visit again some day.

Perfect conditions for diving

With dive kit washed we chugged back to shore over lunch, but with the wind up and a swell running the slow motion of the boat didn’t appeal to many peoples appetites, which was a shame for them as yet again the food was sumptuous. We love Thai food and the food served all trip was exceptional. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so many prawns – yum. We decided we weren’t getting off until we’d had our daily ice-cream and weren’t disappointed.

A Harlequin Ghost Pipe fish

Back in Patong after boring those left behind with manta tales and succumbing to a rack of ribs n beer, we busied ourselves with catching up on admin and at the last minute got ourselves a room for the night as it was too late to find camp. We normally squeeze three beds into a room, but here they had a family room with the third bed in its own actual room which made a pleasant change. Scuba Cat hadn’t finished hosting us yet and we had a days charity diving planned the next day onboard their day boat, followed by a BBQ in the evening. Martin had come down with an ear infection, which made a change from it being me, so decided to give the diving a miss.

BBQ at Scuba Cat

Mike the owner of Scuba Cat joined us for the day and we started with a small wreck dive on a steel hull he’d sunk himself to make an artificial reef and named Marla’s mystery, named after his daughter. Although we’d been briefed not to go inside forward or aft, but we could look through the centre hatch, when we got down there was a bit of current flowing. So after taking a few shots of Maz at the bow, we disappeared into the first hole (as is customary) at the bow and stayed inside until emerging a whole 50ft later at the stern. At only 30m, but without Nitrox it was a stark reminder of the differences when after only 14mins the dive computers were saying time’s up! Normally with the right Nitrox we’d get double that easily, however 14mins was probably enough for this little wreck.

The party gets going

We did a second reef dive but after manta heaven, we felt it’d take a lot to top, so just relaxed and bumbled about looking forward to the evening’s festivities, after all it was my 35th birthday..!! Shower and changed, it was time for some eating and drinking both of which we had in liberal doses. PJ turned up with the finished copies of our manta experience on DVD (thanks for letting me edit a clip for the website) and put it on for all to see and get jealous. The charity donations tin behind the bar was filling up nicely and a BIG thanks goes to everyone who made a donation.

The hammer game gets intense

With the food all gone and an interview with the Phuket Post complete we said our thanks and farewells to Mike for all his help and generosity. The hardcore then headed off to brave bar street, stopping first at the local Irish bar for beers and a chorus of happy birthday sung by the local pub band.

Look at those legs go

By the time we ended up playing the nail game (everyone has a 3” nail tapped into a cross section of tree trunk and take it in turns to hammer the nail in with the thin end of a hammer… last person loses and buys the round!) it was amazing any of us could hold the hammer. Martin seemed to be on the shark, so Maz and I decide to retire in the early morning and leave him to his best moves!

A birthday drink..!

The next day wasn’t as early a leave as we’d anticipated as we made full use of the late check out and a leisurely lunch before saying our final farewells to all. A HUGE thanks goes to all at Scuba Cat who are a fantastic bunch, specifically to Mike for his amazing generosity, Pip for putting up with our constant change in plans and PJ for his infectious enthusiasm for everything living beneath the waves. We’d also like to say hi to Hamish and Kirsty (who coincidentally used to work at BP Aberdeen in the same department as where I once slaved in my old MRO days!) for their great company and Lucy for keeping Maz entertained. Last but not least PJ’s performing mantas definitely deserve a round of applause. We had a FANTASTIC time diving with all you guys and it’s one of the highlights of our continued adventure.

Many thanks to PJ for the use of the video and Rick for the underwater pictures

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