Sawasdee carp, greetings from the Surin and Similan Islands! Little islands dotted around the Andaman Sea that are rich with abundant marine life and amazing water clarity. As a marine-biologist-wannabe, I was in heaven!
Surin Island tranquility
As we arrived into Tranquil Bay in the Surin Islands [bold] we picked up one of the numerous Government mooring balls that have been emplaced to reduce coral damage (there’s no anchoring allowed anymore in most parts of the national parks). The water was so clear that although we were in 8 metres of water, we could clearly see the bright coral underneath us. Even with that much water in between, it’s still a bit unnerving parking over visible coral, so I jumped in to check there weren’t any shallower bommies lurking nearby and was greeted by a large octopus sitting atop a coralhead! I knew by this welcome party we were in for some good diving and snorkelling.
Early the next morning the tranquility of the so-named bay was temporarily shattered when an entire armada of local fishing boats came steaming in with much noise and yahooing. They rafted up, played music and let off a series of firecrackers, then promptly steamed off again to go and catch more fish. It was all a bit bewildering until we realised it was a Chinese New Year celebration.
Early one morning we headed off on the 8 NM excursion to Richelieu Rock, a small bunch of rocky pinnacles in the otherwise deep Andaman Sea. It’s touted as one of the top 10 dive sites in the world, and Thailand’s best chance of spotting the elusive whale shark. We knew it wasn’t possible to anchor, so we had our fingers crossed that we would jag one of the small number of mooring balls. And with gusts up to 20 knots on the nose, I started to get very nervous about the surface conditions.
As we got closer, the silhouettes of several large dive boats jockeying around further dimmed our hopes and piqued the nerves and for a short time I thought we were going to have to abandon our plan. But luck was on our side and just as we arrived at the site, a boat vacated its mooring and we swooped onto it. It was too rough for Irie to raft up to us, so Wayne stayed onboard and hovered while Andy delivered Debi and I to the entry point in our dinghy. There was a strong current as we entered the water, but it receded as we started to descend, along with my anxiety.
Magic! Immediately there were thousands of fish of all shapes and sizes swarming around the rock. Tiny fish like shards of broken glass being chased by large pelagics like giant trevally. All congregated around the only food source in the area. The biggest highlight was an immense school of yellow stripeys. The school ebbed and flowed in the gullies between rocks like a bright yellow river.
Unfortunately no whale sharks were in sight, but it was still a fantastic dive. The surface conditions were too hectic for Andy and Wayne to dive so we headed back to the shelter of Koh Surin Tai for a more leisurely dive along the southern reef wall.
Dolphins on the bow!
We decided to break up the 45NM transit to the Similan Islands with a quick stop at Koh Tachai, another spot where manta rays and whale sharks apparently hang out. Our pilot guide indicated that the National Parks had closed the island, and that turned out to be correct, but we were able to have a quick snorkel along the southern end. There was a cheekly little reef shark swimming around, but once again no whale sharks (so that remains the top item on my bucket list). Instead we were treated to a playful pod of dolphins riding our bow waves!
Joining the throng in Similan Islands
The crystal clear water stretches down to the Similan Islands, but these islands seem to be a big collection of granite boulders, so the landscape above and below the water is very different. Lots of places around the islands are named for the shapes and faces you can see in the rocks: donald duck, turtle rock, elephant head, and the famous sail rock which is a great viewpoint.
It’s a much busier national park due to its relative proximity to Phuket, and each day at about 10am an armada of speed boats arrive delivering hundreds of tourists onto its scant beaches. We joined the throng ashore in search of a restaurant and luckily bumped into some people we met on the mainland that work for one of the tourist operations, Wow Andaman. Shout out to our new Thai buddies Arty, Jessica, Not, Wanruedee and all the gang for looking after us (and helping us out on our quest to find food)!
Arty previously worked as a divemaster and he gave us some great tips about his favourite dive spots around the island. At one of his recommendations, nicknamed “West Eden” (west of island #7), we had just descended and found the gorgonian-fan-covered boulders surrounded by lots of soft corals and all sorts of marine fauna, when a very cold and cloudy current came up from the deep and enveloped us. It was like an underwater sandstorm! It was too cold and murky to swim through, and too big to swim around, so we had to cut the dive short, which was a shame because the rocky gullies looked like great places to nudi-hunt. Back on the surface while we were enjoying Margret’s freshly made brownies and a hot brew, a cheeky little turtle came to say hi!
It was our last day with our cruising friends Niels and Margret from SV UnWind who we part ways with as they head west to eventually cross the Indian Ocean back to South Africa where they operate a nature lodge: Lilypond Country Lodge (It’s looks amazing and I’ve already started planning a visit!) But in the meantime, we wish them fair winds and following seas for their passage west.
Anyway, here’s a quick snapshot of all the cool marine life we encountered during our sojourn in the Andaman Sea: