Why do you travel?
Perhaps to chase wild animals, spot rare birds, or admire old castles? Quite a few of us travel to explore the well hidden, but colorful underwater world. Personally, I fell for it a long time ago after seeing my first Jacques Cousteau movie. While I can hardly be called a diving fanatic, whenever and wherever I can, I do it.
After receiving a gift of a GoPro mini camera from one of our diving daughters some three years ago, I am better able to share my diving experience. Like this video, my first ever, shot in the Lintah Strait off the coast of Komodo, the famous dragon island. Just playing that video, makes me feel very proud of myself, as I bang my chest in disbelief “Was it really me who shot THIS?”
Yes, I am a simple man…
Unfortunately, my favorite mini GoPro was later borrowed by aforementioned daughter, who went chasing after orcas and ended up lost in 500m/1,650ft depth of Norwegian Sea. (The GoPro, not the daughter). It was miraculously retrieved many months later in the net of a Norwegian fisherman, who also moonlights as a detective, because he managed to trace us down and send the retrieved intact memory card from the damaged hardware back to us. Quite a wonderful story of the kindness of strangers that was written up nicely in the fishing town’s local newspaper.
Without my Go Pro the gorgeous underwater photos gracing this post are on borrow from Franck Fogarolo, our chief dive master and underwater photographer. Our current travel style does not allow for bulky under or above water cameras. Neither, as many hard core divers, do we drag any diving equipment with us, except for a pair of swimming suites and our personal masks with prescription lenses, so we can see under water. While you can rent everything else from a dive suit to flippers and diving tanks, you would not find a place where you could rent two masks addressing the vision deficiencies this mature couple has. With our best diving years quickly receding in the past, I stubbornly still keep a bucket list of places to dive before I die. One quite close to the top has always been a place with a magical sound to my ear – Mergui Archipelago in southern Myanmar, a place populated by Sea Gypsies, a tribe living on their boats. We heard about it for the first time during our first trip to Burma almost fifteen years ago. A special permit then was impossible to get, but now things have started opening up.
As our diving daughter was close by finishing a business trip to Hong Kong, we made a quick decision: “It is either Now or Never!” Let us meet in Thailand close to Myanmar’s maritime border and enjoy a few days of diving family style. Unfortunately with all scheduled diving trips to Mergui Islands completely sold out, we had to settle for a trip to a group of the islands immediately south of the Mergui with a stop for a day in the famous dive site called Richelieu Rock.After endless internet research we chose a French owned outfit “The Smiling Seahorse”, this had everything we could hope for, with a brand new boat, qualified experienced crew and air-conditioned cabins! In our age we need both, comfort and good sleep.
Not knowing exactly how many of the followers of this blog can be considered divers or even diving fanatics I would like to, for the benefit of all others, share with you how a typical day on the boat like ours looked like. Only then you, our reader, can make an informed decision if this type of activity is really for you and any pain (physical and financial) related to this sport is actually bearable.
There were 13 diving customers on our boat. 2 British couples, 1 German and 1 French single guys, 1 Swiss and 1 French ladies, a father/daughter pair from Singapore, and our family of 3 – husband/wife/daughter. There were 2 French instructors (Sophie and Bertrand) and one Dane (Tom) who has been living in Thailand since he was five and never wanted to return to Copenhagen. “Crazy cold and damp”, he told me after finishing his second après- nightdive drink. The glue holding it all together was Franck, company owner/dive master/photographer/father of 2 and natural leader all in one, originally a horseman living and training in the Persian Gulf. A lean machine, he had an incredible capability to do anything expertly, be it with people, machines, fish and before horses.
Let’s not forget the seven Thai guys from the local crew, all quick on their feet, and absolutely dedicated to their customers, be it cooking or taking care of the diving equipment, all spiced up with much joking and laughter.
Out of those thirteen divers, we were divided into four smaller groups, each led under water by a diving instructor. During the regular diving day there were 4 dives. At 7am, 11am, 3pm and a night dive at 7pm. Does it sound like vacation? For some, maybe not. For those magnificent seven, oops thirteen, certainly!Frequently for some of them not enough and with too much energy to spare they happily join the extra so called sunset dive at about 5pm.After the last night dive at seven, any reasonable person under 25 should be tired. Those in the senior category of 50+ should be expected to suffer from serious bodily exposure. Me and others in 70+ box should be dead by dinner bell!
Before each dive there is a detailed briefing on the site location/expected maximum depth/direction and speed of currents/sea creatures to be seen. Then each group goes down to lower deck to get properly equipped with diving gear and the diving buddies mutually safety check each other’s gear. Hand signals are used for clear communication. On the diving platform the divers wait for the captain’s all clear horn signal, while silently praying, before jumping into the clear water of the Andaman Sea. And after all groups are finally in the water our local crew can relax and enjoy a few minutes of peace before the first divers show up on the surface again in dire need of help to get back to the boat!
If you dive as infrequently as I do the first few dives come with a little bit of anxiety and plenty of butterflies in your stomach. As you go under you forget the butterflies, as other more important issues prevail, such as what the hell happened to my ears! You better take care of this pain pretty fast by equalizing external air pressure with pressure in your inner ears to prevent your head from exploding. And as you are slowly submerging into the magic world of Big Blue Silence you better clear your mask if it gets foggy or remove the water if there is a leak.
To ensure a tight fit of my mask I usually shave my mustache a day before the trip causing some problems with my passport presentation at police check points on the way to the pier and a significant consternation with a lot of jokes from my kids on Face Time of the sort: “What happened to your stiff upper lip, dad?” No matter how much they make fun of my “naked lip”, nothing is more annoying than spending precious time under water clearing your mask repeatedly, and still not seeing much. The amount of light drops significantly as you get deeper and you better do everything you can to see the stuff around you! Especially if it is playing peek a boo in the swaying sea anemones! Our dives lasted about 45 to 60 minutes before we got back to the mother ship. It is surprising how hungry one is after the dive, so each dive is followed by a variety of food prepared by the kitchen/mechanical/everything you can think of crew. All meals are served in the dining area on the upper deck. No alcohol is allowed until dinner meal, unless you are willing to forego diving that day. Food and soft drinks are served in quantity you like with the exception of alcohol – beer/wine/hard drinks, which you have to pay extra. After the meal and/or before next dive, people spent their time by napping, chatting, shell arranging or studying for the PADI exam to upgrade their diving resume. There is a recycling plan for the ship allowing for separate collection of plastic and metal materials, food leftovers and general waste and you are instructed all the time that toilet paper cannot be flushed into OUR ocean!
Unfortunately, not everyone is so aware and considerate, and irresponsible mass tourism has had a big negative impact on Thai beaches. Consider the fact that famous Maya Beach on Koh Phi Phi Leh had to be closed for months in a bid to halt environmental damage caused by the onslaught of boats and thousands of tourists.
As we were moving away from the Burmese border south to Similan islands there were more diving and snorkeling boats we had to contend with. Some were dropping 15-25 divers en masse, making diving a very social experience and waters extremely crowded. Luckily our dedicated crew swapped schedules and drove in predawn hours to find more peaceful spots to spend our time enjoyably. Some of our close expedition members looked for the solitude kayaking to the beach shore for moments spent in privacy, rather than looking with admiration at their life time partners. Others observed what is going on around them like this hugemarlin jumping above the water a quarter mile away!
And what do you get out of this? Do not despair, it is not just pain in your ears or salt water in your eyes. First of all, on this trip I got the chance to buddy up with my youngest DAUGHTER!
I enjoyed every minute of our time spent together tremendously. She is a busy lady on the upward trajectory in her life while we, older empty-nesters, are busy in our new role of retired “professional” travelers. There are not many places where members of these two groups can cross their paths, outside of a regular family Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner or under the Christmas Tree photo op. So I was extremely grateful for those four days.
The best unforgettable shared experience came on the last day.
We were lucky to quite unexpectedly encounter a whale shark. We stared in amazement as the huge creature swam above us. My daughter turned to me and offered her hand to shake on this special encounter. While the dance of the colorful fish in the corals are a joy to behold, it is the BIG ones in the ocean that are awe inspiring and worth every effort and every penny. And if you are lucky and willing to pay the price (as my grandpa used to tell me: “Mirek, you know. No pain, no gain!”) you will meet one of those big ones flying effortlessly just next to you.