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Diving around Koh Lanta

18 April 2012

As part of our travels in South East Asia we wanted to go to the islands in Thailand. Originally, the plan had been for Anna to learn to dive there but instead she learned during a fortuitous stay in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.  So we could do a couple of fun dives and I was excited about starting to dive regularly with a new buddy rather than random strangers.

Fortunately, I had some Sheraton points held over from a previous experience and managed to trade these in for four nights at the Sheraton Krabi Beach Resort.  Even better, this timing coincided with Valentine’s Day.  The Sheraton was really plush but, on a rate only deal, the prices for activities within the hotel were a bit of a shock – $20 for breakfast was more than we had been spending on an entire board and lodging!  They had diving available from the resort but this was more expensive than the options in the islands themselves and so we opted to wait until we got off the mainland.

We had originally wanted to go to Koh Lipe, but this involves an expensive six hour ferry or combination of minibus and speed boat, so we changed the plan to four nights in Koh Lanta followed by two nights in Koh Phi Phi and perhaps a little diving in each.

On arrival in Koh Lanta it became obvious that there was a lot of choice in dive companies and there were several within a stone’s throw of our beachside accommodation “Best House” (recommended as large and clean rooms with a nice common area but slightly expensive in relation to the bungalows).  We ultimately opted against heading onto Koh Phi Phi and so ended up doing an incredibly relaxed six nights in Koh Lanta and sampling two different dive companies.

Wandering down the beach on the first evening, we got chatting to Palm Beach Divers, a five star PADI centre, who were putting a trip out to Koh Ha the next day for about £75 with a third dive at £30 if enough people (apparently a minimum of 2) wanted to do it.  Koh Ha is about an hour and a half South West of Koh Lanta and reportedly had fewer boats than the sites closer to Koh Phi Phi.  There was apparently a particularly good chance of seeing Whale Sharks – it seems to be a feature of dive centres in Thailand that they try to sell dives principally on the promise of Whale Sharks, which I am sure would be amazing but is still a very slim chance and somewhat overlooks all the other good things that could be seen.  Although Anna was keen to start with a day of rest, she agreed to come on the trip and have her first taste of being my dive buddy, although I had to agree not to hire a camera and focus on her for these first couple of dives.

A Ray

We left at 7:30 and were treated to a decent breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast on-board with endless coffee and soft drinks.  Anna and I were teamed up with a Swedish couple of similar standards (the boyfriend Advanced like me and the girlfriend Open Water with limited dives like Anna) and opted to stay in our couples.  Our Dive Master was called Simon and we were also given a local Dive Master in training to follow us (Huan). As the girls were only Open Water the dive would be limited to 18m.

Simon gave us a decent briefing, chatting through the area we would swim, the types of things he hoped to see and checking that we all remembered our symbols, reiterating that the girls should not go lower than 18m (telling them simply to stay above him and Huan who would monitor the depth on their dive computers) and offering the boys the chance to buddy up to go deeper.  I was happy staying with Anna for her comfort as my long term aim was to get her to love diving…

This was my first time buddying with Anna in what would hopefully become a long history of buddying and it was fun doing the rather staid buddy checks (Burger With Relish And Fries) with her rather than someone I had only just met and was struggling to remember the name of!

Cuttlefish

Anna was a bit nervous of her first dive only her boyfriend and not a dive instructor as her buddy but was comforted by the presence of two dive masters and descended without minimal fuss.  As I had hoped, the visibility was more than twice as good as in Cambodia and I could see her showing an interest in the fish life (we had been geared up to anticipate a shark) as we began swimming along the wall and getting deeper.  Simon lead the dive and Huan swam around pointing out different things with his torch, although he did not really seem conscious of the depth restrictions as at one point he tried to call Anna down to see something at 22m but we had noticed the depth and I swam down alone to see if it was really worth the interest – in truth I couldn’t really tell what he was pointing at but there was an abundance of colourful coral and fish.  Our first dive was cut a bit short as Anna lost control of her buoyancy as we ascended to around six metres to admire some shallower coral and ended up bobbing on the surface at which point Simon and I surfaced to see if all was ok.  It was fine, but Anna wasn’t carrying enough weight for the increasing buoyancy of an emptying tank.

We enjoyed a delicious, if slightly early, lunch at 11am and asked Simon if a third dive was possible as the first dive had only been around 45 minutes.  He checked and said that there were no third dives today, a bit disappointing as I had convinced Anna to join me to satisfy the apparent minimum of two.  However, there were about twenty people on the boat doing a mixture of Advanced OW, OW, fun dives and snorkelling so it was the plan of the majority that had to be followed.  Our second dive was great, an abundance of fish life and great visibility again, without the interminable current that plagued us in Sihanoukville.  We saw plenty of colourful sea life but no sharks, and came back satisfied and with Anna having enjoyed her dives.

On the way back from the dive site, our Dive Master raved about the Bida islands, on the South West tip of Koh Phi Phi, again a good chance of seeing Whale Sharks but you would also have to be very unlucky not to see any sharks at all.  There was the added bonus that boats from Koh Lanta stopped at a third spot on the way back, that the Koh Phi Phi dive boats did not visit.  Slightly frustrated by the lack of a third dive, I was easily sold on this but Anna really wanted a day of rest and so I agreed not to push this for fear of killing her enthusiasm too soon.

Mantis Shrimp

Unfortunately, Palm Beach Divers were not running another trip to the Bida islands while we were in Koh Lanta, but I had got into my head that I wanted to dive there so we decided to look at some other dive centres.  While riding around on a rental moped admiring the views of Lanta, we came across an office of Lanta Divers (there was also an office on the beach not far from Best House).  They were running a trip to the Bida Islands the next day, for around £70 and a third dive on the way back for about £30.  We were wary that cheaper is rarely better but the salesgirl seemed to know her stuff and so we decided to take a punt.  Without mentioning it to Anna, I also ticked the box for Camera rental, wanting to get some pictures in this better visibility.

We were picked up in a truck and driven to the main office in Saladan Pier and introduced to our Dive Master, a local called Klai, and teamed up with a Swedish fun diver and a Dive Master from California who was coming along to learn the dive sites.  Both the Palm Beach Divers and Lanta Divers have a maximum Dive Master to fun diver ratio of four and, although we had also had Huan at the Palm Beach Divers, he hadn’t really earned my faith by constantly trying to encourage Anna to go past the 18m mark. Klai took us out to the boat and showed us the equipment, making sure that everything was comfortable and then leaving us to breakfast while he prepared the equipment.  Now, the Palm Beach dive boat had seemed very nice, but the Lanta Diver boat that we went on seemed like a whole new world.  Padded seats and separate tables for each dive group on a spacious deck with a buffet breakfast including eggs, bacon and sausage.  And this for a cheaper price!

The Dive briefing

After a really pleasant breakfast and introductory chat with our dive group (the girlfriend of the Swedish guy was doing her Open Water on the boat), Klai came along to give us a briefing.  Now, I was unfairly a little concerned about this, because Anna is not very good at accents, and Klai had a strong Thai accent and that tendency of the Thais to giggle occasionally at strange point in a sentence.  However, Klai’s dive briefing was by far the most professional briefing I have ever had, including on my Open Water and Advanced dives.  He went through a thorough routine of what we should do for a buddy check, safe descent, signals, when he would check for air, how we should ascend, then showed us a map of his planned dive together with what he hoped to see in each place and the options for what we may do.  I later took a photo of his whiteboard which is attached.  The basic plan of the dive was that there was known to be a black-tip reef shark that had a basic swim pattern.  We would follow this in the hope of seeing him.  I can’t stress how impressed I was with Klai’s dive briefing and think it is the perfect standard that would put any diver, from nervous novice to experienced repeat diver at their ease!  My only criticism of the dive briefing  was that Klai pretty much gave me an expectation of seeing the shark, rather than playing this down and perhaps managing my expectations, but I was pretty excited all the same!

Apparently a cuttlefish

The dive went to plan and, having seen the map drawn out I was able to follow the plan in a way that I had not really appreciated before.  Visibility was great and I enjoyed swimming around trying to get more challenging photos including of a cuttlefish that acted remarkably like a squid and giving Anna a bit more space to enjoy her dive.  We even did a gentle swim through.  Unfortunately, we did not catch site of the shark and then we were back on the boat enjoying coffee and a fresh muffin provided by the crew.  Despite the failure to spot the shark, Klai’s plan got me to thinking of how endangered sharks can be by following a predictable pattern.  We have since spent time in Hong Kong and it seems that every restaurant has shark fin soup on the menu, it seems no wonder that it is hard for us divers to spot them.  We saw several cuttlefish, very similar to squid, and lots of Clown fish, snappers, puffers and Lion fish.

A Ray and his buddy

After another great briefing, we were down, this time enjoying sea fan coral, hoping for a turtle and swimming across an expanse of sand littered by shrimp hiding in holes guarded by Gobi fish.  We were lucky to see a couple of rays and enjoyed a short swim through of a canyon and did our safety stop in the company of a vicious looking moray eel. 

A protective clownfish, can you see his family? (hint one to the left and one to the right)

It was during this dive, while playing with the camera that I came to see first hand that the bravery of the clown fish in Finding Nemo is actually quite accurate – I had been taking pictures of a large (one to two inches) Clown Fish, peeking out of his coral and then drifted on, checking the pictures to see if I should circle to take some more.  Before I realised, there was something butting into my chest and around my mask.  It was the clown-fish, hitting out at something over a hundred times its size.  Paying attention back to my surroundings and not to the camera, I realised that there were two other clown fish hiding in the coral, one of which was quite small, so the father was protecting its family against the looming dark shape of a human shark!

Moray Eel, they're not keen on you doing a safety stop on top of them...

The visibility had been so good, with an abundance of sea life and coral that we all jumped at the chance for a third dive on the way back to Koh Lanta, at Him Bida.  I was particularly excited because Klai said that this dive spot had a regular Leopard Shark and that it was known to rest in several different spots that he would lead us to so that we could say “mission accomplished” (accompanied by a cheerful giggle) by the end of the day.  Klai also warned us that there were jellyfish in the area, that these were generally not the dangerous box jellyfish but that we should perhaps try to swim around any longer tentacles but that there was vinegar on the boat if we did get stung.  That warning in mind, we entered the water, me hoping to finally get photographic evidence of a shark encounter.

Now, when Klai gave us the jellyfish warning it should perhaps have taken precedence in my mind over the shark, but I’ll admit it didn’t and I had thought it only to refer to a remote possibility, that in my head seemed less likely than seeing the shark…

However, there were (literally) millions of them!  We descended through a massive cloud of jellyfish.  They were tiny, about 5-10mm in size, but perfectly formed and closely packed.  I descended more quickly than usual to get through them, noting that Anna was also coming down more quickly than she usually did, and almost missed the mating cuttlefish on the bottom.  Fortunately, at about 14m the jellyfish cloud was above us but we kept swimming through patches.  Wearing goggles and a wetsuit provides a strange feeling of detachment from the world around you, combined with the silence and regular Darth Vader sound of the regulator it often feels like watching a relaxing episode of television.  As we swam towards the Shark “haunt” through a thick mist of jellyfish I felt rather like this, noting with a certain detachment that Anna was holding her hand over her face.  With a sudden jerk I felt a sharp pinprick on my lips from a sting that shook me from my reverie and back into the present – all of my skin was tingling from their passage but this was my first sting and made me realise that this was not the most comfortable dive I had done for a while.

Lion Fish

Klai picked up on the general discomfort of the group and deviated from the plan to find another spot, occasionally swimming up or around other swarms.  We saw another ray, a lot of barracuda and an abundance of other fish but sadly the Leopard Shark evaded us, perhaps protected by the jellyfish or off visiting another spot for the day.  As we waited for our safety stop we noticed the jellyfish drifting by overhead – Anna said it was the first time she had really fancied staying down at the end of the dive, and it took control to make a steady, SAFE ascent!

Anna said that if she had known what it was going to be like she would probably not have done the third dive but I think that the promise (again, I think Klai was perhaps a bit too eager in an otherwise brilliant briefing) of a Leopard Shark would probably have still got me down and swimming through those clouds was a unique (hopefully!) diving experience that I won’t forget in a hurry.  I only felt one proper sting (on my lip) which was more of a shock than painful and I think the general tingling was more from brushing past them than stinging.

I had thoroughly enjoyed my day with Palm Beach Divers and would definitely have done the Bida trip with them if it had been one day later.  However, having now experienced the set-up of the Lanta Divers I would probably choose to go with them in future (particularly as they were cheaper) although I think we were incredibly lucky with our Dive Master, the overall experience had an edge and all of the Dive Masters seemed to be getting whiteboards and markers out for their briefings.

I think this is a trigger fish but need to work on my fish recognition!

From → Diving, Travel

4 Comments
  1. Great post and great pics! The ray you have pictured is a Blue-spotted Stingray, if you get a bit closer, your flash will light up the spots to a bright blue. The last guy is a trigger fish of some sort, I’ll check my Indo-Pacific books to see if I can ID him for you!

    Take care and keep it coming!

    • Great, thanks for the tips, I haven’t experimented much with flash because it was a basic camera flash and my previous photos had shown up too much sediment, but it’s on my list of to-dos on upcoming dives. Thanks for the comments!

  2. I think you’re right about the trigger fish – but I’m also no expert. Great photos though, esp. of the cuttle fish. I love those but haven’t seen so many yet while diving! Wish you had a pic of the jelly fish too – sounds amazing!

    • Thanks! Yes, the Cuttle fish are really ephereal to watch. I have a video of the jellyfish swarm, they were so tiny, they wouldn’t really show up in a picture, would just look like murky water! Thanks

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