Diving with Sharks in the Similan Islands – Thailand, Asia

Our oceanic adventure began on May 24th when we caught a plane to Phuket in southern Thailand with a few fellow divers. Upon arriving we were taken to the local port where our live-aboard boat was waiting to whisk us away into the Andaman Sea. I hoped we would witness the wonders of unspoilt reefs, underwater colour palettes, multitudes of sharks – beyond my widest imaginings.

Our destination was a group of fairly spread out islands called The Similans. The boat travelled through the first night to deliver us to our first dive site. Upon awaking at 6:30 a.m., I was greeted by a beautiful sunny morning; glorious golden sunlight rippled blindingly along the surface of the vibrant blue water. Last night had been a little rough; I had been rolling around in bed with the swell of the waves. I went upstairs to the middle deck and had a cup of tea with the other divers. I was still half asleep. Minutes later I plodded downstairs to the wet deck and peeled myself yawningly into my wetsuit. I managed to attach my weight belt without dropping it on my toe, and got upright wearing my BCD and tank without falling over. So far so good. Although my giant stride entry into the sea was more of a lazy roll, in the moment of hitting that gorgeously refreshing water, my senses were on full alert. I floated on the surface, blinking at my surroundings like a new born child.

A spiritual experience
My dive buddy smiled, “Look down.” I dunked my mask into the water, and immediately choked on a mouthful of seawater as I gasped in awe at the scene below me. Letting out an excited shriek, half bubbles half sound, I turned back to my buddy with a huge grin. "Oh my god! Have you seen that – I can’t believe!" I took a second look below, and came back up grinning. "Wow. That’s amazing, seriously, wow!”

He signalled to descend. "Shall we?" I deflated my BCD, placed my regulator into position and slipped below the surface. The scene below me was laid out like something from a dream. As if looking through glass, I could see directly to the bottom, about 33 metres deep. Large shoals of tiny silvery fish swam through mid-water; brighter species were further down, darting in between rocks and hiding in soft coral beds.

Looking up at the surface, the sunlight appeared to explode on the surface, so bright that I had to look away, but the clear water allowed the light to reflect straight down to the white sand bottom with illumination that clarified every detail of the marine life surrounding me. Tiny shrimp no bigger than my finger could be seen scuttling around on hard coral. Majestically coloured angelfish swam around in pairs as if involved in some ritual of courtship; striped squirrel fish kept close together under a rock, wide-eyed and swimming frantically but, (comically) going nowhere.

We even saw a number of prickly-looking lionfish, displaying a multitude of fins, that look like black, red and white butterfly wings – extremely venomous. Needless to say, we kept a polite distance from those particular residents. As we moved through the site, some divers gathered around a rock set apart from the rest, I swam over and saw a giant moray eel gaping out from his cave. Head stuck up, eyes roving round, and displaying his razor sharp teeth every few seconds, this was not one of the friendlier locals. I could see that the length of his body coiled through the entire rock; at a guess he was well over a metre long! We took photos and then left him to his breakfast hunting.

Upon surfacing 47 minutes later, we were all chattering in delight. I practically leapt out of the water, feeling energised and impatient for the next dive. I followed my nose upstairs and saw breakfast laid out: eggs, sausages, toast and fruit. Having worked up such an appetite with my early exercise, I tucked in and spent the next couple of hours relaxing with a book, before suiting up and entering the water again for our next dive.

The first dive of the following day (Elephant Head Rock) was the peak of my entire adventure. I was following our dive leader through a system of swim-throughs (areas where rocks had fallen or hollowed out to create short tunnels). As I swam out of one tunnel formation, the dive leader turned around to get my attention, giving the underwater sign for "shark". My heart immediately started beating more rapidly; I finned faster to catch up with him in case the shark disappeared. I came to the edge of a large, flat granite rock, peeked around the wall to my left, when I caught my first glimpse of the creature that I have dreamed of seeing in the wild since I was a child.

It was a white tip reef shark, approximately two metres in length. It was swimming just a few metres away from me. I was struck by how fluid and graceful it was: lead grey in colour, tight, sleek and muscular, with a flat hard line for a mouth like a grimace, and an almost two-dimensional cold dead stare, giving it a look of being in a bad temper. Paradoxically I have never seen any creature look so grumpy, yet so beautiful.

We saw three more white tip reef sharks on that dive. I was heartbroken when it was time to head back to the boat. During our ascent, I watched them circling amongst the reef outcrops far below; I was already dreaming of our next shark encounter. The days on board meandered along in a relaxed manner: four dives a day, meals in-between, nights spent at leisure, listening to music, drinking beer, playing cards, late night guitar sessions on the upper-deck under the infinite starry sky. It was an incredibly spiritual experience: sitting beneath the heavens, knowing we were somewhere in the middle of the ocean, miles away from any civilisation, surrounded by pristine reefs and their mysterious and beautiful inhabitants. I was planning my next shark encounter in Malaysia.

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