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Published: December 13th 2017
The boat lurches, and bodies in front of me topple into the dark sea. Weak sunlight pales the dawn. The world through the diving mask is reduced to a smear of milky grey sky, opaque water, and 50 meters beyond the choppy sea, a tree-covered island of immense granite boulders. It’s one of the Similan Islands. Maybe number 4. Maybe number 6. They didn’t bother with names. Doesn’t matter much either way. It’s land. The place where humans belong. The Dune mantra echoes loudly in my head: “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.” But fear is also a warning that you may be about to do something really stupid. This may qualify. Through the regulator, my breathing sounds like Darth Vader – which is apparently normal, not ominous. Shuffling gigantic flippered feet, I awkwardly gangle to the deck’s edge. One hand grips the lead-weighted belt that will drag me down; the other pushes the mask and regulator tight against my face. Taking a final look, I think ‘no one dies scuba diving’ and stride off the boat. A moment later, bobbing in the water, I signal okay, though I suspect that may be inaccurate. The
dive master checks John and Sarah (the other divers in the group), turns her thumb down, and disappears. The air hisses as I deflate the vest keeping me afloat, and slowly exhaling, I sink below the waves.
Although technically I am certified to scuba dive, it’s been three long years since a weekend course in Belize. Anything that was known then has been forgotten now, and after only three dives, not much was known in the first place. Nevertheless, I decided a three-day liveaboard diving trip sounded like a good idea. Yesterday’ swimming pool refresher course in imperfect English did little to substantiate this decision. Our dive master’s patronizing condescension and obvious disdain at being stuck with the neophyte is insufferable, but she is the one who knows what she is doing. I definitely don’t, so I follow her down into the blue. Fear seems justified.
Underwater, I quickly realize again why I’m doing this. The reef is a textured garden of giant Seussian succulents, ornately detailed crusty things, and enormous boulders. Everything is vibrantly alive, pulsing and swarming with fish that are a fantastic technicolor acid dream of awesome. Bigger fish shoal within a blizzard of tiny
glass fish; each school moving together in synchronized perfection and flashing silvery in the refracted sunlight blue. Among the honeycomb of the reef, wildly colored Moorish idols, wrasses, damsels, sweetlips, fusiliers, butterflies, clown triggerfish and a thousand other unknown fish of all sizes appear and disappear. Fluorescent speckled parrot fish crunch on the coral, and just off the reef, silvery tuna, giant trevally and barracuda hunt. On the sea floor, a manta slowly vanishes into the deep; its wings flapping slowly like a bird rising in thermals. At some point, a school of something big starts eating a school of something small, and there is a chaos of death and darting.
The underwater kaleidoscope is hand-narrated by our recently certified, taking herself way too seriously, “naturally very buoyant” Ignatius J. Reilly dive master. Throughout the dives, she furiously points, signs, and points more. I don’t know diver sign language, so this effort is mostly wasted on me. Even more problematically, ‘real’ divers have apparently bored with all the pretty, plentiful, and easy to see fish, so energy and enthusiasm is poured into cracks and crevices, looking for nudibranchs, i.e. devil-horned fluorescent sea slugs that absorb and display the pigment
of their prey. While fascinating and exceptionally beautiful, they are also very very small. Soon, I quit worrying about two-inch marvels, preferring instead the big, mundane, very visible stuff swimming around. This is vindicated when a perfectly gigantic half-meter long cuttlefish, a color-changing cousin to the octopus, ripples by while the others closely examine the underside of a ledge. I hyperventilate some air trying to get the others’ attention, but underwater snapping is ineffective.
In the post-dive debriefings, our dive master whips through charts and books on fish and corals of the Andaman Sea, casting her pearls before swine. Cruel fate has thrust upon her this confederacy of dunces dive team that does not appreciate what she, in her magnanimity, has revealed. Imperiously stabbing a pudgy finger at a picture of a bluish gelatinous blob that may or may not be the same thing that was underwater, but that I didn’t see in any case, she proudly crows, “It’s a nudibranch. Adorable. We dive masters call it Spongebob. One of our favorites.” She is noticeably disappointed that we non-dive masters neither find this hilarious, seem awed by her dive mastery, nor immediately chronicle such a riveting sighting in our
dive logs. Upon realizing that none of us even has log books, her disappointment deepens. Her face cannot hide the Jobian burden of having to suffer fools gladly.
Though deeply ashamed that my inadequate middle American upbringing didn’t teach about blue blobby nudibranchs, venomous lionfish, black banded sea snakes -- “It’s a krait, not a snake, actually.” -- and moray eels, a more immediate concern is my big-bad-wolf-huffing of air. By the second day, I’m no longer hyperventilating, but I’m still gulping it down faster than John or Sarah. This makes our dives shorter, but only incrementally. They don’t seem too put out by the minutes lost to my air consumption inadequacies as any time not spent eating or sleeping is spent underwater, preparing to be underwater, or talking about being underwater. Diving is amazing, but I don’t need to do it four times a day. This is too much fun for me.
By the tenth dive, I have overcome the fear of breathing where there is no air, and an even greater fear is allayed when our dive master skips our last dive. It was to be her 100th
dive, which is traditionally celebrated by diving nude.
My gratitude at not being subjected to this is boundless. Instead of traumatizing, the world beneath the waves is beautiful and mesmerizing. Perhaps even more so because coral reefs may soon be only once-upon-a-time stories. Coral bleaching, tourism, the 2004 tsunami, and the overcast sky all made the reef look browner and more muted than it should have, but it’s nevertheless, spectacularly alive. How long it stays that way remains to be seen. We did a three-day liveaboard dive trip with Wicked Diving out of Khao Lak. Wicked runs an ecologically sustainable company that also promotes socially responsible tourism. Regardless of my unsympathetic portrayal of our dive master, the trip is highly recommended. *I took zero photos. The ones here were either taken by Seth Lieberman or scrounged off the internet. Those not linked below are Seth’s doing and may or may not have been taken in the Andaman Sea, a detail I am not terrible concerned with: Divers in the Similan Islands: https://similan-islands.com/diving/ Map of Similan Islands: https://www.activityfan.com/destination/krabi/diving-in-similan-islands-mu-koh-similan-national-park-g2769/ Fish on reef: http://divingphuket.info/live-on-board/ Cuttlefish: https://www.trover.com/d/elHN-similan-seven-sea-club-khuekkhak-thailand Wicked boat: https://expertvagabond.com/diving-similan-islands/ Clown triggerfish: http://thailandliveaboards.com/clown-triggerfish/ School of surgeonfish: http://www.dive-the-world.com/diving-sites-thailand-similan-islands.php
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