Surin Islands SCUBA live-aboard trip- Thailand 9Jan14 – 12Jan14

I’m not sure where to begin describing the awesomeness of our diving experience onboard the Andaman for the last three days and three nights. Wow! Let me start by saying I wish we had planned to do a seven day live aboard trip instead!

This was the first time Nick and I have spent more than one night on a dive boat. The live-aboard situation is superior to day trips because it’s much more relaxed. The diving starts early, but the surface interval time between dives is about three hours. Long enough for food, a nap, socializing, reading, whatever. On a day trip you get out of the water, eat, and get back in fairly quickly; it’s very tiring. At the end of each day on the live aboard I didn’t feel nearly as beat up as I thought I would.

There was no rushing around on this trip. Nick completed all nine dives, even though he originally thought he would only have energy to do six or so. He even got to nap on one of the ships three hammocks between pretty much every dive.

We finished our PADI Advanced Diver SCUBA course by completing the last two dives: a deep dive to 30 meters and a fish identification dive. I’m happy it’s done. It was not hard or even challenging, but I’m proud to have done it and I’m proud that Nick could keep up too. As an advanced diver we can legally go to 30 meters and do wrecks. Being told we can’t dive because we are not “advanced” is one technicality we will never face again. Yay.

We finished the course with a lovely Swiss woman called Rebekka. She was not only our instructor, but our personal guide and helper for the entire three days. She was assigned specifically to me and Nick. She set up and switched all of our equipment after each dive, she briefed us on the dives, and guided us through each site. It was so nice to be guaranteed a small group with an attentive guide who was there to assist Nick if he needed help getting through currents or back on the boat. She was so friendly and helpful and funny and personable. We had a really great time with her.

The diving in general was amazing. We dove the Surin Islands. They are the northern most islands off the west coast of Thailand just before entering the seas of Burma. In the SCUBA world this area is typically famous for the Similan Islands, but our schedule wouldn’t get us there, only to the Surins. I’m so grateful. Everyone we’ve talked to likes the Surin area much more than the Similans. It’s more colorful, less crowded, has a few unique species that aren’t found at the Similans (shark fin guitar fish, for example, spotted by another group on the second day), and one of the dives Richilieu Rock is routinely voted one of the best dive sites in the world.

Our last two dives were at Richilieu Rock, and even though the visibility was uncharacteristically shit, it was still an absolutely incredible dive. The plant life alone is enough to keep your eyes completely happy on a fifty minute dive. The soft coral came in colors and shapes I’ve never seen before: greens and purples, clusters and table-top fans.

We did a night dive the first night. The visibility was great, and they provided high quality flashlights. I’ve only done one other night dive, at a site called Shark Alley in Belize where it was surgy and scary and unorganized and crowded. This was not the case diving with Sea Dragon. They run a class act operation. A tight ship. Literally. We got a thorough briefing before the dive and they took us to a great location. This dive turned both our negative feelings about night dives around. What a relaxed experience. We played with a lot of shrimp. Apparently there is a particularly tiny species here that is strong enough to break glass with it’s punch. We were told stories of these shrimp breaking diving masks. Their little arms aren’t actually cracking the glass, I guess it’s the force their punch creates in the water, and that’s what can break the glass. Kind of like how a high pitched sound can do the same. I don’t know how true it is, but I saw those little dudes and they packed a mean punch when I put my GoPro up to them. We also played with Cleaner Shrimp. They like to climb on things and clean them, like the mouths and eyes of moray eels, and human finger nails, etc.

Over the nine dives we saw barracuda, bright little shrimps, big schools of big tuna, puffer fish, tons of colorful butterfly fish and parrotfish, big and small eels, many colorful and strange sea cucumbers and slugs, squids, and even octopus.

The sea cucumbers alone were something to write home about…
“Dear Dad, today I dove in Thailand and stuck my finger in a sea cucumbers butt looking for the crab that lives there.” I couldn’t help myself. Their butt sphincters were opening and closing and I could see inside. Apparently one species of little crab likes to make shelter inside of the sea cucumbers ass. What a life.

And the squid (AKA cuttlefish)! They were big and translucent and had peering eyes. They were also having sex (cuttle-fucking perhaps…) while a third one was acting as a body guard. He swam over to me when I got a little too close with the camera, letting me know to back off.

On the second day, they took us to a beautiful white sand beach on Koh Surin where we could relax and explore for an hour. Nick stayed on the boat and napped in a hammock. I checked out the beach. Absolute paradise.

On the second to last dive, Nick made a painful mistake and accidentally set his hand on a lion fish. The irony is that he warned me on the first day not to touch them when he saw me reach out for one. They are poisonous, but insanely beautiful, graceful creatures. They are slow to move away when humans approach, unafraid because most people know not to touch, so I’m guessing they don’t feel threatened. Nick accidentally put his hand down on one, thinking it was just a rock and got a stinger in the thumb. He said it felt like a bee sting. He made it through the remainder of the dive and then soaked his thumb in hot water during breakfast. It’s swollen and purple, but I think he has managed to escape a third amputation.

My favorite moment of the dive trip was finding a very long, snake/worm/cucumber thing. I have officially named it the Human Touch Induced Self Retracting Sea Snake Cucumber Worm. It was stretched out about three feet long, maybe an inch in diameter. Undulating to move forward, little flower-shaped sucking tentacle-thingies guiding it’s way along the ocean floor. It’s long, soft body was white and grey and black at 75 feet, which could mean it’s beautiful shades of red for all I know; our eyes can’t filter or see all the colors at that depth.
I turned on the GoPro and touched the Sea Worm (I love touching everything, sorry if that offends any uptight divers out there). It went into defensive mode, immediately retracting it’s entire body back into itself, starting with the tentacles and working it’s way backward until it became a solid hard lump, like a sea cucumber. I’ve never seen anything like it. Our guide Rebekkah was completely enthralled. She had never seen that before either. Maybe she’s seen the “snake” but never touched it to see what would happen. I saw two more on that dive and then never again. The underwater world is such a weird place!

So, in total, we made twelve dives this week. That’s twice as many as Nick had previously done in the time since his accident. His confidence has gone through the roof and he’s got a good gearing-up, foot-switching, and cleaning-up system going now to make each dive run smoothly. We will DEFINITELY be doing another live-aboard dive trip again in the future. Only question is where…?

We couldn’t be happier returning to Khao Lak for one night to relax and get used to being back on land before flying out tomorrow night to Chiang Mai. Only one week left in Thailand. Wow!
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All aboard the Andaman!

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Dive briefings with hand drawn maps before every dive.

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Only an hour on a beautiful beach.

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Random shots from the boat.

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Nick and Rebekkah

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A beautiful sunrise looking out from our cabin window.

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Asleep on the taxi back to the dive shop. A trip worth taking again!

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Thailand Day 29- Advanced SCUBA course in Khao Lak- Jan7 2014

Now here’s something different and unexpected. Nick and I are getting our PADI Advanced Open Water Diver certification here in Khao Lak. We didn’t actually want to, but due to technicalities, rules, and safety, in order to do a live-aboard dive trip we need to take this course. It’s only five dives over two days.

We did the first three dives at a shallow, sandy, local site today, and will do the remaining two dives on Friday at the start of our three day live-aboard trip. SCUBA certs are significantly cheaper here in Thailand. It’s big business, both here in Khao Lak and in Koh Tao. People from all over the world come here to get their Dive Master or Instructor training and then begin work right away. Sounds like fun! That’s what Angie did, and after taking this Advanced course I can see the possibility of a DM training in my future as well. Who knows!

Sea Dragon dive shop is Scandinavian owned, our instructor is from a tiny island country off the coast of eastern Africa, and the two other girls in our class were from France and Sweden.

The first dive focused on peak performance buoyancy and we learned a few cool tricks to help us control our buoyancy under various circumstances. Nick is a buoyancy master and really shined during this dive. We used our breath to control our above ground hovering as the instructor handed us weights. We picked up weights and swam through hoops but weren’t allowed to touch our BCD. Nick did the best of all of us, even swimming through the hoops upside down. He may be clumsy on land, but he had amazing control underwater today.

Next we learned underwater navigation with a compass. This dive was a shit show all the way around. Actually the two girls were a shit show on all the dives, with poor body control in general. Nick and I had a communication mishap underwater when trying to navigate a 30 meter square. We couldn’t decipher each others hand signals so he ended up completing the task on his own. And then we lost Nick all together because he couldn’t keep up with us when following the two girls who were totally screwing up their navigation and swimming too fast in the complete wrong direction. Nick is no longer a strong swimmer because the kicking really irritates his stumps. This was the first time he’s attempted wearing regular fins underwater. They were fine, but he still has to swim primary with his arms, which means he just can’t keep up with people kicking with fins. We have to stay very aware of this any time we’re diving in a group. The less people the better.

The third dive we learned search and recovery techniques. We navigated underwater in a certain pattern, combing the ground for a “lost” weight belt, and then had to attach it to a special lift bag and get it out of the water. They taught us a few knots as well, and I got the complicated one on the first try underwater. Nick and I both did well on this dive.

The whole experience was such a confidence booster for me. It had been a year and a half since my last dives and I always get a little nervous before diving anyway, let alone when I’m so uncurrent. I am stoked to be doing this together. I love the learning environment in any sport or hobby, and I am so so grateful that Nick is capable of doing this as well.

It really felt good to be “doing something,” to be participating in a hobby we love. For the last four weeks we’ve spent most of our vacation just hangin out with each other. I love it too, and have been calling it living Thai life. It’s been such a unique experience just living each day together, doing normal life stuff, but in a new, completely foreign and unfamiliar place.

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And finally, sketchy Thailand plumbing. Nick is always so quick to point it out.

Thailand Day 28- hangin in Khao Lak- Jan6 2014

We had two early mornings in a row, we have one tomorrow, and will have four more after that this weekend. So we slept in today. Might as well enjoy this amazing room a little. Today was errand day and relax day.

Seriously, we ate, booked a flight, scheduled our visa run to Burma in two days, studied our scuba manual, and took a nap, and ate some more.

I took a long walk down the beach while Nick was napping. I’ve been so inactive the last few weeks, it felt good to move. I did a few handstands along the way, and just had an amazing time walking along all the fancy resorts. I even came across what appeared to be a little Tsunami memorial. I’m not sure how hard Khao Lak was hit, but I’m guessing a lot of people died and the area had to be rebuilt; like a couple of the areas we’ve already visited. There’s even a Tsunami museum here in town. We plan to go at some point before we leave.

Just as we were leaving the beach, it began to DUMP on us. I guess monsoon season is never really “over” here in Thailand. Warm rain is still a new concept for me. It wasn’t bad, but we just weren’t prepared, so we hopped on the bike and found a little restaurant to duck into for an early dinner. Somehow, someway, they made Nick a terrible plate of pad thai (how does that happen?).

We headed back to the bungalow to watch the last few episodes of Breaking Bad (we only have seasons 1 and 2, and two episodes of season 3). We blasted through it when we were stuck in our bungalow on Tonsai.

So, since we were left with such a Breaking Bad cliffhanger, we opted for a real lesson in Thai culture by watching some Thai TV.
We found the most hilarious game show called Killer Karaoke. They made contestants sing karaoke to a live audience, all the while completely fucking with them.
The first girl was singing and totally enjoying herself, when they came up behind her and blew trumpets in her ear, then they put a back pack on her back that had a trail of fire crackers hanging from it. They lit the fuse and as the firecrackers were firing at her back she was jumping all around trying to keep singing, but every few words she sang must’ve been curse words because she was getting bleeped a lot!

The second contestant was another absolutely gorgeous young Thai girl who they put on a wooden swing and hoisted her above a water tank for her karaoke. She began singing and they lowered her down and dunked her. Her reactions were so funny. Her voice would get so high pitched everytime they put her a little deeper.
Then out of nowhere a dude dumped about a hundred 1-to-2-foot long lizards in the tank and they climbed all over her. She was screaming and cussing but still kept singing. And then they poured about 15 giant snakes in the water and dunked her further. She was wailing with terror as two slithered across her thighs. She was so scared, I can’t believe they took it even further!
She was still singing, just barely, and they threw in 3 fucking alligators! Seriously! The girl with the trumpets got off so easy compared to this girl. And when the song was over, they kept her in the water and I could tell she was just begging to be taken out, the whole time a lizard was crawling up through her hair and on top of her head!
The audience voted, and thankfully, the lizard chick advanced to the finals. I want to see what the finals look like!

And then we watched Thailands version of MTV. I don’t watch MTV in the US, but found it very curious to see what the pop culture is all about here. The hot music videos reminded me of MTV in The States in the late 90’s. I think the Thais are about 15-20 years behind us as far as pop culture goes. But really, I don’t know, I don’t keep up anymore myself, so for all I know, I am the one who’s 15 years behind.

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Thailand Day 27 -Traveling to Khao Lak Jan5 2014

Just another day of travel that really shouldn’t have been a big deal. Here’s what I love about traveling here: you go see a guy and pay one price for a joint ticket and it takes all the guess work, leg work, haggling, and stress out of it. You may need to take a train to a bus to a van to a boat to get where you want to go. No problem, just see a guy and it’s handled. This was our guy for the trip to Khao Lak and the snorkeling tour as well.

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Boy did he make the air-con van sound comfortable and luxurious. And quick. I don’t think he factored in “Thai time.”
The air-con van conveniently picked us up at our hotel at 7am (7:25 actually, which should’ve been our first clue), and only had four people in it. The first ferry to get off the island departs at 8am, so we had plenty of time. And then we stopped 4 more times and picked up 8 more people! Not only was it well past 8, but we were well past capacity. There were bags in the aisles blocking us all in.

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We got the two ferries to the mainland finally. I don’t remember timing because I was in and out of sleep and didn’t care much about anything. I know we were significantly behind schedule because several people onboard were going to the airport and running close to missing their flights.

I thought we were going straight to Khao Lak on that air-con van but of course I was wrong. We got dropped off at some tour station in Krabi town and waited for another air-con van and used a pretty sketch toilet.

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This time instead of 12 people and a driver, there were 14 people plus the driver! The luggage was piled high in the rows, and one poor girl in the back had a crying panic attack and had to get out and go sit in the crowded front seat. I sat in a single seat behind Nick, and looked over his shoulder to watch a movie on his lap top. That helped the remaining 3 hour drive go by quickly.

The Thailand guide book says Khao Lak is a one trick pony, and it was obvious the moment we entered town. This town thrives on scuba diving. I mean, that’s why we’re here, otherwise we’d have never come to this little town. The main strip reminds me of Vegas. It’s a busy street with tons of tourist shops and restaurants. There are a number of high end resorts along the beach, and a dive shop on every corner.

We got dropped off with no accommodations booked. I had the names of two possibilities, but had good reason to believe they were full. Nick decided he wanted to find us a place to stay, so I sat in a restaurant and waited while he went out and got a motorbike and looked around town. He stopped and looked at about 5 different places before he found the perfect place for us to stay for the next 4 nights. I’m so proud of him.

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This is by far THE best place we’ve stayed at so far, and it’s also the cheapest.

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It’s a large bungalow-style room on a private lot with a sweeping view of the land and mountains. It’s brand new, and very western, complete with air-con with remote, mini fridge(!!), desk, flat screen tv, bedside light with dimmer switch, dual flush toilet, properly sloping bathroom floor, and an assortment of complimentary toiletries such as soap, toothbrush, q-tips, shower cap, and condoms. Oh, and they clean our room daily (unheard of), for only 500 baht a night. That’s $15.62.
It’s beautiful and I’m super happy. We wouldn’t have paid any extra for the air-con, but having it is soooo nice because it’s so f-ing hot here! It feels significantly hotter than the islands.

By the time we got settled and ready to go, we had time for dinner and to handle our big to-do for the day: visit Sea Dragon dive shop and get our diving sorted out. I randomly found Sea Dragon online, and it turns out it’s the biggest, most reputable shop in town. Good. Cause we are some high maintenance customers.

Sea Dragon has already impressed me with their communication and large facilities. We booked a live-aboard dive trip for three days and three nights to the Surin Islands, and a three-tank dive a few days before to begin the process of getting our PADI Advanced Open Water Diver Certification.

Now this wasn’t in our plans at all. Angie has been telling us to get our Advanced Cert for weeks now but it didn’t interest us. Until now. In order to do any of the live-aboards in this area, you have to be certified to dive to 100 feet, but technically we’re only certified to go down to 60 feet (don’t show PADI my scuba log book!). So, here we are, getting our Advanced Cert in order to do a special trip. And then we’ll never have to deal with this hiccup again.
We’ll be doing five specialty skill dives for our Advanced Cert: peak performance buoyancy, search and recovery, underwater navigation, deep dive, and (likely) fish identification.
Now that we’ve signed up and started studying the manual, I’m excited. I’ve done a lot of random scuba dives and have never worked on skills or technique past my original Open Water course. This will be fun, and may spark a new passion for diving for us. Who knows!