Khao Lak

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Khao Lak

August 31, 2014 - 12:55

My dive buddy, Kate, is trying to get a shot of a purple sea fan but she’s having trouble with her strobes and my ADD is kicking in. This happens occasionally. I try to be a good buddy, I really do, but there’s just so damn much to see underwater and I get antsy if we stop too long for a photograph.

Diver over technicolor soft coral, Koh Bon Pinnacle, Khao Lak, Similan Islands National Park. Photo by Kate Clark.

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This is the conversation I’m having with myself when I feel something tickle the back of my neck. It’s not physical—it’s more like a soft breath against my brain, a whispering ghost of premonition. I look up and my eyes widen as my heart begins to pound involuntarily. My mind goes quiet and time seems to slow down.

Khao Lak

I wasn’t even supposed to be in Thailand. Kate and I had just finished a two-week diving assignment in Indonesia and my flight back to the United States was already booked. My wife’s birthday was only a few days away and I needed to get home. But, as sometimes happens, fate intervened.

Just before leaving, Joquim Hedelin, a Swedish transplant and owner of Liquid Adventures, invited our team to tag along on a four-day liveaboard safari around the Similan Islands. Now you tell me, just how exactly does an avid diver say no to something like that?

So, that night I called my amazing wife and with her blessing (“You’d be silly to pass this up!” she said. “We can celebrate my birthday when you get back.”) I was flying with Kate to Thailand the next evening.

An hour-long taxi ride north of Phuket International Airport brought us to the bustling beachside village of Khao Lak. Since our boat didn’t leave for two days, we had plenty of time to take a look around and soak up the culture. Thailand is unique and captivating—a mash-up of third and first world cultures.

Scooters and overfilled tuk tuks weave precariously among high-end SUVs and Mercedes sedans on the same highways. IPods and blue-ray discs sit incongruously next to fly-riddled pig skins and barbequed crickets at the same outdoor markets. It’s a land of elephants and monkeys, jungles and temples, where the heat saps the life out of you and the natural beauty fills you up again.

But it’s the people that truly make Thailand so endearing. Thai folk are friendly and warm, shy but curious. Invite them into conversation and they respond with polite affection and ready humor. Each and every local I met I liked immediately and they seemed genuinely interested in the happiness of others.

After the devastation of the tsunami that wiped out the entire village in 2004, I had fully prepared myself for locals still mired in the suffering and pain of so much dissolution. But what I found were people smiling and living their lives with resilience and a seemingly unbreakable sprit.

Welcome aboard

It was to be my first trip on a liveaboard and I was feeling the anxious butterflies of anticipation. The boat crew, lithe men with quick movements, loaded our gear while the kitchen ladies welcomed us with friendly Thai greetings and broad smiles. After a quick tour of our new home, our group gathered on the foredeck for the departing ceremony.

Our captain and his family, who live on Liquid’s 26-meter dive boat for six months a year, set out food and gift offerings to Buddha on the bow and then asked for safe travels. Fireworks concluded the prayers, frightening away any evil spirits that may have been trying to stow away, and soon we were slipping out into the black night towards the Similan Islands.

The next morning, our little group of seven gulped down steaming mugs of coffee before hurrying to the stern to gear up, some of us with toast still in our mouths. For several of the guests, it was going to be the first dive in months and their excitement was infectious. One couple, who hadn’t been in the water for a year, couldn’t stop laughing while they raced to see who got ready the quickest.

Kate smiled at me while turning on my tank valve, “This is gonna be awesome.”

Similan Islands

The waters around the Similans are prolific and abounding. So much so, the Liquid crew aptly calls one dive site “Fish Soup,” an area so packed with massing snapper and juvenile barracuda that you literally get lost in the twisting swarms of sea life.

Our first site, Christmas Point, was surrounded by vast granite monoliths that towered over the sand and coral floor. Several groups of imposing trevally passed us as we finned among the giant boulders, eyeing us suspiciously like sentinels on patrol while a school of large sweetlips tried to hide under a rocky overhang.

Centuries of swift current and erosion have carved out numerous archways and long, cave-like swim throughs. Kate found one with a sizeable air pocket acting as a natural ceiling mirror and had me take a closer look while she readied her camera.

This is gonna be awesome.

I marvel at Kate in these situations. All I have to do is swim where she directs me and smile on cue. She, on the other hand, has a much more arduous task. Capturing a magazine-quality underwater image isn’t just difficult, it’s damned near impossible. That may sound far-fetched, loyal reader, but let me assure you it isn’t. Next time you’re diving, try the following and see how you do:

While holding a 30-pound camera, maintain perfect buoyancy even in swift current; direct your buddy with hand signals to get them into position and make sure the fish around you don’t move; manually adjust your flash strobes into the correct position and check that they will fire with just enough light. Now, look through your leaky mask, through the tiny, foggy housing and focus your camera perfectly (remember if you get this step or any of these steps wrong, your picture will be worthless). Now, simply hold your breath so your bubbles don’t get in the shot, conscientiously remembering to use only your fins to stay in exactly the same place without bumping into any coral around you and take the shot of a lifetime. (...)

Originally published

on page 24

X-Ray Mag #62

August 31, 2014 - 13:49

Diving Thailand's Similan Islands at Khao Lak; Papua New Guinea's Kimbe Bay; Malapascua Island's Thresher Sharks in the Philippines; The Coral Triangle's Biodiversity; Spain's España Wreck; HTMS Sattakut Wreck at Koh Tao Island; Just Culture; Scuba Confidential; Diving Solo; Freediving for Underwater Photographers; Evie Dudas profile; Interview with artist Jason deCaires Taylor; Plus news and discoveries, equipment and training news, books and media, underwater photo and video equipment, shark tales, whale tales and much more...