Placid by nature, whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean, seen in only a few places on the planet.
Article by Douglas Olthof, Photos courtesy of Andaman Sky Co., Ltd
Whale sharks are the true behemoths of the aquatic world: they can grow longer than a bus (up to 18 meters/59 feet in length) yet feast on the smallest of organisms, plankton. However, finding these big fish is not always easy. Only nine places in the world, all located in tropical waters, are so far known to have regular whale shark visits. Thailand is one of the few lucky countries that whale sharks predictably visit.
Situated off Thailand’s west coast to the northeast of Phuket lie Thailand’s world famous Similan Islands. These stunning granite isles, with their white sandy beaches and densely-forested, rugged interiors would be ample reason on their own account to make the overnight liveaboard boat trip from Phuket.
But what really makes these islands special are the vast and varied reefs that lie off their shores. It is below the azure blue of these rich waters that you can experience another world, one filled with creatures so colorful, so beautiful and so bizarre that they defy belief.
These crown jewels of scuba diving in Thailand are often touted as one of the top ten dive sites in the world and can be accessed by speed-boat from either Phuket or Kaow Lak, but to truly experience the Similan Islands you must experience one of the many liveaboard boats operated out of Phuket.
Our journey to the Similans began late in the evening at Ratsada pier in Phuket. As divers arrived from various locations, the friendly staff helped everyone aboard and quickly got to the task of setting up and organizing equipment.
Every diver worth his or her salt knows that you check, double-check and buddy-check your own equipment, but having the staff there to organize all that gear turned what could have been a chaotic scene – complete with wetsuits, regulators and bumping bodies – into a relaxing first evening on board.
At about 11 pm, after a delicious light meal, we got under way under the moon and stars. The crew lit firecrackers off the bow to ensure a safe journey as we motored into the night. Of course, there are those who were born to be at sea and there are those who need a bit of training. The first night was, for some, a little less than comfortable, while others, like myself, found the gentle rolling of the waves reminiscent of the cradle and were soon dreaming of underwater adventures.
When arriving in an unfamiliar place, it’s always encouraging to receive a warm welcome. It came by way of more than fifty dolphins jumping and playing in the dawn light, beckoning us forward and giving us a glimpse of the treasures we would discover around these stunning islands in Thailand’s Andaman Sea.
The sky was clear and the calm waters had taken on an almost impossibly bright and inviting shade of blue. As the divemaster briefed the divers on the first dive of the day (the “test” dive), the excitement on board became palpable. By just peering overboard, you could see that the crystal clear waters were teeming with life.
The first dive of a trip always begins with a few minutes of uncertainty as even experienced divers have to get used to the idea of being a fish again. But soon we were all back in our respective comfort zones and ready to start playing our roles as guests in an underwater utopia.
After a stunning introduction to the natural wonders that would captivate us in the days to come, we were rounded up by a crew member in a small inflatable motorboat and brought back to our temporary maritime abode where a wonderful meal awaited us on the upper deck. The trip was punctuated by one delicious meal after the next. Different boats cater to different tastes, with some serving mostly Thai fare and others catering to the western palette, but they are all Thai boats and this is a country where eating is priority number one.
The divers on board quickly fell into an idyllic routine. A stunning dive would be followed by a delicious meal. Divers would then disperse to pore over fish guidebooks, take a nap in the climate-controlled cabins or compare stories of the wonders encountered below the waves. In the first three days, we had seen several beautiful sea turtles, numerous big red octopus, bizarre frogfish, curious garden eels, befuddling ghost pipefish, lethargic leopard sharks, four massive and graceful manta rays and such an array of fish as to leave one breathless (well…not literally!).
Thailand’s Similan Island and Richelieu Rock are among the best snorkelling and scuba diving sites in the world.
But the biggest treat (quite literally!) came on the fifth and final day of our voyage. We motored north out of the Similan Islands National Park towards the famous Richelieu Rock. After listening to the divemaster’s briefing, we were donning our equipment when a diver on another boat excitedly babbled that there was a whale shark in the area. The adrenaline level onboard immediately shot through the roof. We could not wait to get into the water for the chance to witness the passage of this gentle, fragile giant — the largest of all the fishes — up close and personal.
I stood at the back of the boat with my Buoyancy Control Device and tank strapped on, chomping at the bit. Then, suddenly, right in front of me I saw a shape. A very large shape. In one motion I stripped off my BCD and was in the water. The rest of the divers followed suit and, for a few divine minutes, we swam beside one of the most beautiful products of nature’s limitless creativity.
When the gentle giant dove below, we got back on board yelping, babbling, high-fiving and smiling from ear to ear. Though I’m sure we would all have been very happy with the trip even if the whale shark had not appeared, we all knew then that this had been a special trip that we would all remember for the rest of our days. Whatever was to come of the rest of our dives that day, we were satisfied. But it wasn’t over yet.
Whale sharks eat an awful lot of plankton to grow to 18 meters or 59 feet!
We descended to Richelieu Rock and instantly knew why so many consider it to be the best dive site in Thailand. It is a massive feature that is every inch covered in life. The tiniest, most bizarre creatures such as harlequin shrimp, tiger cowries, sea horses and a multitude of beautiful nudibranches can be found alongside large dog-tooth tuna, giant trevally, cuttlefish and beautiful schools of laser-like fusiliers.
The list goes on and on. As we explored the rock, we rounded a corner and I turned around to see my dive buddy face-to-face with another whale shark. This one was much larger than the last. Followed by its attendant cobias, remoras and a small school of trevally, this enormous creature circled back and forth past us for fully half an hour!
After making our safety stop and returning to the boat, we sat speechless with transfixed smiles while the boat motored back towards Phuket. We had truly discovered treasures beneath the sea, treasures, in my opinion, more precious than gold and silver.
And as the Similan Islands became specs on the horizon, I scanned the sea for our dolphin friends in the hope of offering a little ‘thank you’ for their hospitality, but they were nowhere to be seen. Were they busy preparing to welcome their next guests to this paradise?
Andaman Sky Co., Ltd is a Thai and European-owned tour operator and in-country travel agency offering expert southern Thailand advice and travel arrangements, accommodation to suit different budgets and needs, and a wide range of soft adventures.
Island hop, snorkel, scuba dive, fish and kayak in the land of smiles. Senior-friendly and customized packages – adventure as much as you want, relax as much as you like. The author’s liveaboard dive experience in the Similan Islands was arranged by Andaman Sky Co.
Visit Tourism Authority of Thailand website, www.tourismthailand.org, for comprehensive travel information.
Douglas Olthof has logged hundreds of dives working as a Dive Master on Thailand’s Andaman coast. He has also worked as a coordinator with the South Andaman Coast Sustainable Tourism Project. He currently resides in Vancouver, Canada where he is pursuing a PhD in Southeast Asian Development. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.