Trip Report: Surin & Similan Islands Liveaboard, January 2019

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Ironborn

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Location
Miami, Florida
# of dives
500 - 999
Summary

The quality of the underwater environment in Thailand's Surin and Similan National Parks exceeded my expectations and fueled my further interest in diving on pinnacles and in a liveaboard trip to the Mergui Archipelago of neighboring Myanmar. Highlights of this trip included Richelieu Rock, the Boonsung wreck, and the high coral and fish density and distinctive topography of many sites. I nonetheless found the Similan Explorer liveaboard unsatisfactory in many ways, including its facilities and dive operation, but in all fairness they provided a good itinerary and showed us many good things.

Why I Went There

My original interest in Thailand was as a topside vacation destination. I nonetheless decided to add a diving leg to my trip, given the popularity of Thailand as a diving destination and the fact that topside leg of my trip required only one week; coming all the way from New York to Southeast Asia, I need a two-week trip to justify the cost and length of my flights. I decided on an Andaman Sea liveaboard for the diving leg of my trip, given the prevailing view that such trips provide better diving than the Gulf of Thailand and my interest in more and different liveaboard experiences beyond my prior experiences with Aggressor Fleet in the Caribbean. I ruled out terrestrial dive operations on the Andaman coast of Thailand due to the lengthy boat rides and other downsides that they probably would have involved.

My research on Andaman Sea liveaboards yielded two boats that struck me as particularly appealing: the Junk and the Giamani. Unfortunately, their itineraries simply would not fit with my topside itinerary; I waited for over a year for the stars to align and for their dates to fit my potential itineraries, but it just would not work out and I gave up. In retrospect, I wish that I had either modified my topside itinerary to fit those boats or waited for the stars to align at another time. I had read and heard many mixed and downright negative reviews of the local underwater environment, some of which suggested that it was sub-par or mediocre by Indo-Pacific standards. The topside leg of my trip thus remained a higher priority, but I would have changed my priorities if I had known what the diving would be like.

The liveaboards that best fit my itinerary were the Similan Explorer and one of the Manta Queen boats. The Manta Queen fleet did not respond to my inquiry, so I went with the Similan Explorer. I should emphasize that I did not choose them because of their low prices; I would have been comfortable with the medium prices of the Junk and the higher prices of the Giamani. With that said, my previous experiences with Caribbean Aggressors suggested to me that I could do without some of their unnecessary luxuries, such as jacuzzis, alcohol, and big televisions, so I liked the idea of a budget liveaboard as a way to save money by cutting back on frills that I do not need. The Similan Explorer and its sister boat, the Dolphin Queen, seemed to have good reputations among budget liveaboards.

Where We Went

The Similan Explorer had a good itinerary for this 5-day trip that exposed us to a wide range of environments and many of the area's highlights in a relatively short period of time. We spent the first day and did the first dive of the second day in the Surin Islands, which had a fairly typical coral reef environment. It was a good enough place for our check-out dive and to familiarize ourselves with the environment. It was enjoyable, but it was also probably the least remarkable part of the trip.

Richelieu Rock was the highlight of the trip. Indeed, the three dives that we did there were among the best in my diving experience thus far. I knew that Richelieu Rock was popular, but I did not know why until I saw it. I had thought that it might be overrated and the subject of hype, but I would say that it may actually be underrated. This pinnacle had what may have been the richest coral and other reef growth and the highest fish density that I have ever seen, exceeding those of the Sahaung pinnacle off Bankga Island in Indonesia. The reef growth and schools of fish were occasionally so dense that they obstructed views of other things. I had heard of “fish soup” conditions obstructing visibility, but I had not seen it until now. Other places that we visited on this trip also had high fish density, but not as much as Richelieu Rock. Richelieu Rock also had a wide range of other, more noteworthy macro and medium-sized creatures. I had heard and read many unfavorable comments about excessive numbers of divers at this site. We may have been lucky that day, as there were “only” seven other boats there; the presence of other divers did not directly detract from the quality of my experience.

We spent the next day at Koh Tachai and Koh Bon, inside the Similan National Park. Koh Tachai was an interesting introduction to the area's distinctive granite boulder topography, which I appreciated more than I would have expected, even if only for its novelty to me. It also had some very impressive sea fans. Unfortunately, we encountered what the guides described as “the Green Monster” - strong current, low visibility and sharp thermoclines with unexpectedly cold water; the British divers on the boat joked that the conditions reminded them of their home waters. We thus did only one dive there before moving to Koh Bon, which was somewhat less impressive from a topographical perspective but was more comfortable and had a better array of macro and other creatures to see than Koh Tachai.

We only spent one day in the actual nine Similan Islands, which offered an even more impressive example of the area's granite boulder topography. Some of the unfavorable reviews of the Similans that I had read suggested that they were just “a pile of rocks,” but I found the topography quite impressive – and keep in mind that my level of interest in marine topography is usually lower than that of many other divers. The boulders had a striking, austere sort of beauty to them, if that makes any sense. The coral and other reef growth here was sparser than that of the other areas, but in a way that almost made it more striking, as it stood out more clearly. The visibility here was excellent, better than anywhere else that we visited and rivaling that of popular Caribbean destinations. While I appreciated its distinctive merits and its novelty to me, I could see why it might become tedious if one spent more time here, and perhaps that is the source of some of the unfavorable reviews that I had heard and read.

We did the last two dives on the last day at the Boonsung wreck, on the way back to Khao Lak. These were clearly the best two dives of the trip after Richelieu Rock. The original plan had been to do one dive here and another dive at another nearby wreck. The crew nonetheless decided to do the second dive here too because the conditions were unusually good (by the standards of that site – visibility was low compared to other places that we visited) and we had seen so much on the first dive. This broken-up wreck is of interest not so much as a wreck per se but for the abundant marine life that it attracts – more than anywhere else that we visited, other than Richelieu Rock. Indeed, the “fish soup” conditions here impeded visibility to the point that one of the guides temporarily lost his group of divers. Beyond the high fish density, the wreck was also home to a wide array of other, more noteworthy individual creatures, including macro critters and a large population of honeycomb moray eels.

(to be continued in the next post on this thread)
 
OP
Ironborn

Ironborn

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What We Saw

From a photographic perspective, these islands are more suitable for wide-angle photography. The dense reef growth of Richelieu Rock, the striking boulders and sea fans of the Similans and Koh Tachai, the “fish soup” of Richelieu Rock and the Boonsung wreck, and parts of that wreck were great subjects for shots of the underwater landscape. In retrospect, I wish that I had a fisheye lens.

Paul on Instagram: “The Boonsung shipwreck, Khao Lak, Thailand. #scubadiving #scuba #diving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #sealife…”

Paul on Instagram: “Sunburst behind the Boonsung shipwreck, Khao Lak, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography…”

Paul on Instagram: “The Boonsung shipwreck, Khao Lak, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #wideangle…”

Paul on Instagram: “The Boonsung shipwreck, Khao Lak, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #wideangle #wideanglelens…”

Paul on Instagram: “Seafan with fish, Koh Bon, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #wideangle #wideanglephotography…”

Paul on Instagram: “Seafans, Koh Tachai, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #wideangle…”

Paul on Instagram: “Seafan amidst fish, Koh Tachai, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #wideangle…”

Paul on Instagram: “Richelieu Rock, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #wideangle #wideanglephotography…”

Paul on Instagram: “Richelieu Rock, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #wideangle #wideanglephotography…”

Paul on Instagram: “Richelieu Rock, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #wideangle #wideanglephotography…”

Paul on Instagram: “Richelieu Rock, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #wideangle #wideanglephotography…”

Paul on Instagram: “Richelieu Rock, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #wideangle #wideanglephotography…”

Paul on Instagram: “Richelieu Rock, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #wideangle #wideanglephotography…”

Paul on Instagram: “Richelieu Rock, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #wideangle #wideanglephotography…”

Paul on Instagram: “Sunburst in the Similan Islands, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #wideangle…”

Paul on Instagram: “Between underwater boulders in the Similan Islands, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography…”

Paul on Instagram: “Seafans, Similan Islands, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #wideangle…”

Paul on Instagram: “Crinoids on a seafan, Similan Islands, Thailand. #scuba #scubadiving #diving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #wideangle…”

Noteworthy animal sightings included multiple species of moray eels, as well as turtles, octopuses, numerous tassled scorpionfish (a personal favorite of mine), stingrays, and a pink lobster. Various pufferfish species were also common sights, as were crown-of-thorns starfish. The only disappointment was that we did not see any whale sharks or manta rays; the guides said that such big animal sightings have become increasingly rare recently, and one would have to be very lucky to see them. The first turtle below came up to the rear of our boat during lunch, so I jumped in the water to snorkel with it.

Paul on Instagram: “Sea turtle near the surface, Similan Islands, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #snorkeling #photography #underwaterphotography…”

Paul on Instagram: “Sea turtle, Surin Islands, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #wideangle…”

Paul on Instagram: “Yellow-edged moray eel on the Boonsung shipwreck, Khao Lak, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography…”

Paul on Instagram: “Lobster, Richelieu Rock, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #sealife #marinelife…”

Paul on Instagram: “Octopus, Koh Bon, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #sealife #marinelife #wildlife…”

Paul on Instagram: “Pufferfish hiding on the Boonsung shipwreck, Khao Lak, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography…”

Paul on Instagram: “Pufferfish in perspective, Richelieu Rock, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography…”

Paul on Instagram: “Tassled scorpionfish, Richelieu Rock, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #wideangle…”

Paul on Instagram: “Scorpionfish, Richelieu Rock, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #wideangle…”

Paul on Instagram: “Tassled scorpionfish, Richelieu Rock. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #sealife #marinelife…”

Paul on Instagram: “Tassled scorpionfish, Koh Bon, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #sealife…”

Paul on Instagram: “Tassled scorpionfish on the Boonsung shipwreck, Khao Lak, Thailand. Which angle do you prefer: the side or the front? #scuba #diving…”

Paul on Instagram: “Crown of thorns starfish, Similan Islands, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography…”

Paul on Instagram: “Stingray, Surin Islands, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #wideangle…”

Giant morays were the most common morays in the islands, but the Boonsung had a large population of honeycomb morays, which I found the most visually striking and were a personal favorite of mine.

Paul on Instagram: “A pair of honeycomb moray eels on the Boonsung shipwreck, Khao Lak, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography…”

Paul on Instagram: “Honeycomb moray eel in portrait format on the Boonsung shipwreck, Khao Lak, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography…”

Paul on Instagram: “Honeycomb moray eel on the Boonsung shipwreck, Khao Lak, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography…”

Paul on Instagram: “Honeycomb moray eel on the Boonsung shipwreck, Khao Lak, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography…”

Paul on Instagram: “Honeycomb moray eel on the Boonsung shipwreck, Khao Lak, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography…”
Paul on Instagram: “Honeycomb moray eel on the Boonsung shipwreck, Khao Lak, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography…”

Paul on Instagram: “Giant moray eel, Surin Islands, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #wideangle…”

Paul on Instagram: “Giant moray eel, Koh Bon, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #wideangle…”

(to be continued in the next post on this thread)
 
OP
Ironborn

Ironborn

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We saw three octopuses on Richelieu Rock, two of them in close proximity to each other on the same dive. Two of them were right out in the open in broad daylight, which I had not seen before in a reef environment, but only in the muck diving sites of Indonesia and the Philippines.

Paul on Instagram: “Octopus in portrait format, Richelieu Rock, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography…”

Paul on Instagram: “Octopus, Richelieu Rock, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #sealife #marinelife…”

Paul on Instagram: “Octopus, Richelieu Rock, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #sealife #marinelife…”

There was a good selection of macro subjects, but they were not the main attraction, even for someone with a special interest in macro like me. Nudibranchs were the most common macro subjects. Other highlights included a seahorse and a pipefish (not pictured below), a pair of harlequin shrimp eating the severed limb of a starfish, a ribbon eel, and a mantis shrimp. This was my first sighting of a velvet snail, which I would not have even recognized as a mobile animal if the guide had not pointed it out.

Paul on Instagram: “Velvet snail, Koh Bon, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #macro #macrophotography…”

Paul on Instagram: “Ribbon eel, Richelieu Rock, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #macro…”

Paul on Instagram: “Flatworm, Koh Bon, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #macro #macrophotography #uwmacro…”

Paul on Instagram: “Doriprismatica nudibranch on the Boonsung shipwreck, Khao Lak, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography…”

Paul on Instagram: “Goniobranchus nudibranch, Surin Islands, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography #macro…”

Paul on Instagram: “A pair of goniobranchus nudibranchs mating on the Boonsung shipwreck, Khao Lak, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography…”

Paul on Instagram: “A trio of phyllidiella nudibranchs, Koh Bon, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography #underwaterphotography #uwphotography…”

Paul on Instagram: “Tassled scorpionfish on the Boonsung shipwreck, Khao Lak, Thailand. Which angle do you prefer: the side or the front? #scuba #diving…”

Paul on Instagram: “A pair of harlequin shrimp eating the severed limb of a starfish, Richelieu Rock, Thailand. #scuba #diving #scubadiving #photography…”

(to be continued in the next post on this thread)
 
OP
Ironborn

Ironborn

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What the Boat Was Like

I knew that the Similan Explorer was a budget liveaboard when I chose it. I thought that a budget liveaboard would just mean the sacrifice of unnecessary frills that are not essential to the “eat, sleep, and dive” experience, such as alcohol, jacuzzis, and massages (which, if I am not mistaken, increase the risk of DCS). I did not realize the extent to which the boat would be unsatisfactory in other, more fundamental ways that affect the core elements of one's diving experience. Multiple aspects of the boat and its dive operation that I found inadequate I would attribute simply to a general shoddiness, rather than specifically cost-saving measures that enable them to pass on their savings to their customers.

Getting a good night's sleep is important in order to be well-rested for a full day of diving. Getting a good night's sleep on this boat was difficult due to the cabins and their bunk beds. I had a berth in a quad cabin that would have been full if one of the guests, a younger female, had not decided to sleep in a crew cabin when she learned that she would be sharing one of these very cramped cabins with three younger male guests; she had evidently been unaware of the boat's “co-ed” cabin policy. I had no problem with co-ed cabins, but I imagine that many female divers might be uncomfortable with them.

The best way to describe the bunks in these cabins is coffin-like, as they are roughly the same size and shape as a coffin. I am 6'3” (190 cm), and my feet were hanging out of the end of them. As I tall person, I am somewhat used to that from traveling, so it was less of a problem for me than the width. The bunks are so narrow that there is practically no room for tossing and turning, which I usually do before falling asleep, or to sleep in any position other than flat on one's back. There is also so little room between bunks that, if you are in the bottom bunk (as I was), even a person of average height will have to curl into the fetal position to roll out of them in order to avoid hitting one's head on the top bunk. The “mattresses” are not really mattresses but more like those rubber mats that I remember from high school gym classes. They were probably the hardest surfaces on which I have ever tried to sleep and were quite uncomfortable, even for someone who normally prefers firm mattresses, like me.

Two of the boat's three marine heads were unusable for me whenever I needed to sit on the toilet, as there was not enough room between the wall and the rear of the toilet seat for my legs. I understand that space is limited on liveaboards, but they could have designed those heads much better, as there would have been plenty of room for my legs if they had just faced the toilets in another direction. Only one of the boat's three heads had a toilet on which I could actually sit, and I usually had to wait for it.

The quality of the food varied, usually over the course of the day. Breakfast, which we had to pre-order the day before, was usually the least satisfying, as the supposedly cooked items were often cold. Lunch was usually better, and dinners were usually the best, especially the Thai cuisine.

The boat's schedule was another obstacle to diving in good physical condition. The crew would wake us up at 6:30am for a 7:00am dive and only serve breakfast after the first dive. I do not know why we needed to start so early, or why breakfast needed to wait until after the first dive. The combination of waking up at such an ungodly hour, having so little time to awaken my brain fully for the first dive, and not having any breakfast before the first dive left me and others in rather poor shape for the first dive. The first dives of the day usually had the least marine life, to the point that I wondered if our first dives were so early that the fish or other animals had not even woken up yet. I understand that this was a budget liveaboard, but does it cost more to let us sleep later or to serve breakfast before the first dive?

The boat had no designated space for cameras or other electronics, except a post-dive rinse bucket. I was fortunate that the female diver assigned to my cabin had decided to sleep elsewhere, otherwise I would have had no space in which to charge or work with my camera or store my few other items. I remember that Aggressor Fleet crews had told us to limit our charging of electronics to the camera table on the dive deck and warned us against charging electronics in our cabins as a fire hazard. Again, I understand that it was a budget liveaboard, but it just kind of galled me that they had room for unnecessary alcohol but did not have a designated safe space for cameras and other electronics.

It would appear that only four crew members, the foreigners who served as dive guides, spoke English; the remaining Thai crew, including the captain, gave no sign of speaking any English. I have no idea how the four foreigners communicated with the Thai crew. I try not to be one of those stereotypical Americans that expect everyone around the world to speak English, but it would have helped if at least the three deckhands could have learned at least a few key words in English, such as “fins” or “camera.” They instead communicated with a combination of hand gestures and primordial grunts. Again, I understand that it was a budget liveaboard, but even those working in relatively modest businesses in Thailand's topside tourism industry seemed to know at least a few key words in English.

I had read beforehand that this boat divides its divers into two jump groups for water entries and exits. I had thought that the goal of this practice was to reduce overcrowding underwater. Now I realize that the reason for this practice is that the dive deck is so ridiculously small for the large number of guests on the boat (18), and even dividing that number of divers into two jump groups still left the dive deck very cramped when gearing up or entering or exiting the water. The benches on which they stored our gear were so cramped and crowded that it was often hard to get full access to one's gear with everyone else's gear in the way, even if no other divers were around at the same time, which was rare.

The water entry and exit practices further complicated things. There are moorings in these national parks that liveaboards can use, as the crew did moor the boat at night. The boat nonetheless rarely used moorings during the day because there are so many liveaboards in the area that one would have to be extremely lucky to find a free one. We thus had to do live jumps off the back of the boat, waddling like seals from the miniscule dive deck to the dive platform with our fins on and jumping in very quickly like lemmings as the engine was still running. The raging torrent at the stern quickly carried one away from the boat like a conveyor belt. The only way to stay close to the stern so that the deck hands could pass cameras to divers was to wrap a line around one's arm, which, depending on the strength of the raging torrent at the stern, might be a good way to pull one's arm out of one's socket. Exiting the water was even more complicated, as the liveaboard would come pick us up. We had to swim towards it at a right angle as it was moving and time it right so that we would reach the stern in time, where grabbing a line was the only way to prevent the raging torrent at the stern from sweeping us away as the engine was still running. Given the frequent lack of unoccupied moorings, perhaps I would have been more comfortable diving off of zodiacs or tenders. This boat did have one inflatable dinghy, but it was evidently for emergencies or other non-diving purposes. That dinghy might have been too small for a jump group, and I do not know if the liveaboard would have had enough room for a second dinghy.

This water entry method poses the additional risk of missing the dive site, which happened to us one time. The captain dropped us over an empty sandy area instead of the reef, and we had to fin against strong current in order to reach the reef, by which point much of our limited bottom time was up. This incident prompted another guest to point out that the captain was sleeping on top of the boat's beer supply – I do not know if the other guest meant this comment as a joke or as an explanation.

Another problem was that the tank fills and Nitrox blends were usually inaccurate. Most of my tank fills were 2800 or 2900 PSI; I might have gotten one or two tanks that actually had a full 3000 PSI. Even worse were the Nitrox blends, which were always lower on oxygen than they should have been, occasionally by as much as 5%. I complained about these problems, but they persisted. This persistent problem, in conjunction with the below bottom time limits, led me to the conclusion that these incomplete and inaccurate fills were a deliberate way of shortening dives. Again, I understand that this was a budget liveaboard, but does it cost more to fill a tank completely and accurately?

The boat's dive guides imposed a draconian 50-minute limitation on dive times and also required an idiosyncratic 5-minute safety stop. This policy reminded me more of terrestrial Caribbean dive operations that cater to the cruise ship crowd and was not what I would have expected from a Southeast Asian liveaboard. The guides claimed that this policy was a conservative safety measure due to the remoteness of where we were diving. Given the broader context, however, I suspect that they simply did not want to spend more time underwater. If they were so concerned about safety, perhaps they could have filled my tanks completely and accurately, enabled us to dive from tenders, or given us a designated safe place for the charging of electronics. Again, I understand that this was a budget liveaboard, but would it have cost more for the guides to give us an extra 10 minutes underwater?

(to be continued in the next post on this thread)
 
OP
Ironborn

Ironborn

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The draconian limits on bottom time were the most egregious example of what I would describe as a more general “nanny state” or “scuba police” mentality in this dive operation – quite the opposite of what I had found elsewhere in Southeast Asia, e.g. Indonesia and the Philippines, perhaps in part because the guides were foreigners instead of locals. Much of this “scuba police” behavior had nothing to do with safety but was more along the lines of general nitpicking, which I found ironic in light of the crew's evident inability or unwillingness to fill my tanks completely and accurately. The first guide to which I had been assigned was an instructor, as this person liked to remind us on a regular basis, and appeared to have forgotten the difference between course dives and fun dives. I requested reassignment to another group, which the head guide arranged, for which I was grateful. I got passed around from one group to another before finally settling down with a guide who was not a regular crew member, which may be why his more relaxed attitude worked better for me.

Despite the many issues above, the crew succeeded in its efforts to show us a lot of good things in a relatively short amount of time. They put together an itinerary that may have been more appealing than some of the other trips about which I had read, some of which painted a rather unflattering portrait of the area. They also demonstrated solid wildlife spotting skills and knowledge of the environment.

Conclusion

This trip was a rewarding and enjoyable experience, despite the many inadequacies of this liveaboard. What I saw underwater there fueled my interest in a longer and more ambitious liveaboard trip to the Mergui Archipelago of Myanmar, which I might do on the Junk, the Giamani, or another non-budget liveaboard in the future. My remarkable experience at Richelieu Rock, in conjunction with my experience at the Sahaung pinnacle in Indonesia last year, further persuaded me to make diving more pinnacles a higher priority for future trips, such as Saba in the Dutch Caribbean.

This trip also taught me what to look for and what to avoid in the selection of future liveaboards. I had hoped that this boat would be a good alternative to the unnecessary luxuries and relatively unstructured dive operations of relatively expensive Caribbean Aggressors. In retrospect, I think that this budget boat went too far in the opposite direction, and I now have a greater appreciation for at least the relative comfort and freedom of Aggressor boats. In the future, I would hope to find boats that offer a happy medium between these two extremes. I also learned the hard way to scrutinize a liveaboard for specifics like bunk sizes, camera tables, and the use of tenders in certain environments.

Here are a few questions for further discussion:
  • How does the underwater environment of the Mergui Archipelago differ from that of the Thai islands that we covered in this trip?

  • What if any places around the world, other than Saba, would you recommend for diving on pinnacles?

  • What if any other Andaman Sea liveaboards would you recommend, other than the Junk and the Giamani, given my assessment of the Similan Explorer?

  • In what if any other destinations is it common to do live jumps from a liveaboard, rather than tenders?

  • Would you agree or disagree with the Similar Explorer guides that whale sharks and manta rays are now rare sights around these Thai islands?

  • Other than the Boonsung wreck, where have you seen many honeycomb moray eels?
 

Buadhai

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I'll probably regret responding to this post. I did read the whole thing and looked at some, but not all of the photos. We live in an age of short attention spans, so a lengthy report probably should just be summarized on a forum like this with a link to the full text and photos on a blog.

I first dove in Thailand as a visitor in the late 80s. I started doing a couple of liveaboards per year here in the mid 90s, including a few trips to Burma. I moved to Thailand when I retired in 2005 and have done several live abroad trips per year since then. Before retiring I lived on Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands for 26 years, so I know what non-touristy independent diving is like.

My wife (who is Thai) started diving about five years ago. Since then, most of our trips have been on boats that cater to Thai divers. You probably didn't encounter any of these vessels when doing your research. I've posted in a separate thread our dive plans for 2019.

Anyway, I'm glad you (mostly) enjoyed your trip. As to the conditions on the boat, I guess you get what you pay for. I've been on my share of crappy boats, but at this age (I'm almost 70) I'm happy to pony up a few extra thousand baht for a good-sized cabin, excellent food and a commodious dive deck.

The boat we like best just now, the Tapana Catamaran, offers a light meal (toast, pastries, fruit, espresso-based coffee drinks and fruit juice) before the first dive. Breakfast is after the first dive with lunch after the second dive. A substantial snack is served after the third dive with the evening meal served after the last (night/sunset) dive. So, plenty of good food with something to get you moving before the first dive.

Our next dive on the Tapana Catamaran will be in the Gulf starting in Songkhla and finishing in Chumphon with diving at Losin, Koh Kra, Koh Tao and Chumphon Pinnacle. The cost is just over US$1000 for five nights on the boat and four days of diving. (They let you stay on the boat the last night so you don't need to get a hotel room.) I have no idea how this compares price-wise with other boats.

As for the "ungodly" wake up hour, I think this is a good idea. If the crew plan well you can get in two dives early, before the day trip boats arrive, chill out mid-day and then get a couple more dives in after the day trippers depart. Unfortunately, I've never been on a Thai boat that manages this. Most Thais don't seem to care much about beating the crowds and they certainly are not interested in getting up very early. As for me, I'm usually up at 4:00 AM to gaze at the night sky without light pollution and to enjoy what is usually a spectacular sunrise.

I've never been on a boat where any of the Thai crew are able to speak much English. At the same time, I've never noticed that communication was much of a problem. One boat that I was on the Thai crew would chant "My Group, My Group, My Group", just as we were about to jump in. I finally figured out that they were mimicking the dive guides. I thought it was kind of charming.

I've never experienced a problem with short tank fills. But, I do agree that the 50 minute bottom time limit is unfortunate. I really hate coming up with over half a tank of air. This is where sticking with the same boats and dive guides has some value. They know us and are happy to let my wife and I dive an extra 20 or 30 minutes when the rest of the group is already low on air and ready to surface. My wife and I are just about equal on air consumption so that works out well for us.

I really hate diving from a dinghy. Modern boats are so maneuverable that a decent captain can drop you right over the dive site with considerable precision and then pick you up without any need for hauling yourself up into a Zodiac. If the distances are too great, a good dinghy handler can drive in reverse and tow everyone back to the boat. The Tapana Catamaran has a lift which makes entry and exit really easy; especially when you're old like me and have knees that aren't what they used to be.

As for other pinnacles, Thailand has: Torinla Pinnacle, Koh Tachai Pinnacle, Koh Bon Pinnacle, Hin Daeng, Hin Muang, Hin Khao, Losin, Koh Krah, Hin Bai (Sail Rock), Chumphon Pinnacle, etc. I've had good dives on all of them.

My wife follows a number of divers and dive companies on FB. It seems that Whale Shark and/or Manta sightings are a near daily occurrence. We saw a Whale Shark on our last trip which was in September last year at Losin. I dove Thailand for 20 years before I saw either a Manta or a Whale Shark. Now I've seen lots. There are other things that I'd rather see.

This is too long already, so I'll stop here.
 

Sharkbait07

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That was a well-written and extremely detailed review, thank you for sharing it. Regarding service on the boats, it seems like there is a fair amount of variance there. I was in the Simlians on the MV Pawara with West Coat Divers about the same time you were there and didn't really have any issues. The food was excellent and plentiful, my tanks were consistently charged above 200 bars with a proper nitrox mix and the captain managed to put us in the water where we needed to be on every occasion. We were broken down into two waves and it was occasionally a little crowded on the dive deck, but it didn't seem that bad to me. I don't recall us being moored for our drop offs or pick ups, but I can say that the captain turned the engines off when we were entering and leaving the water, so we didn't get beat up in the chop.

As a bonus, we did also manage to see a whale shark, which I was hoping for, but not expecting.
 

stevenl

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I just don't log dives
"The boat we like best just now, the Tapana Catamaran, offers a light meal (toast, pastries, fruit, espresso-based coffee drinks and fruit juice) before the first dive. Breakfast is after the first dive with lunch after the second dive. A substantial snack is served after the third dive with the evening meal served after the last (night/sunset) dive. So, plenty of good food with something to get you moving before the first dive."
All boats do that, including Dolphin Queen and Similan Explorer.

"I really hate diving from a dinghy. Modern boats are so maneuverable that a decent captain can drop you right over the dive site with considerable precision and then pick you up without any need for hauling yourself up into a Zodiac. If the distances are too great, a good dinghy handler can drive in reverse and tow everyone back to the boat."
Totally agree with this.

I also don't think the number of whale shark and manta ray sightings is down.

"I don't recall us being moored for our drop offs or pick ups, but I can say that the captain turned the engines off when we were entering and leaving the water,"
Yes, would be unusual since at Similans and Surin the mooring are at nearly all sites not on the divesite itself but close by.
Highly unlikely he turned of the engines, but the props should be set to neutral.

First dive of the day, preferably start 06.30, is IMO the best, with the reefs waking up, lots of action going on.
 

Sharkbait07

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Correction: The props were indeed set to neutral. Also, agreed about getting that early dive in; it's one of the best times to dive.
 

Centrals

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Early birds get the worm.
06:30 dive is late when compare with the dive at Malapascua to see thresher shark!
Animals have their own routines and we have to adapt to their NOT our.
50 mins bottom time is indeed really short but I don't see any reason to call 5mins safety stop as idiosyncratic!
 
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