Red
Red soft corals at Hin Daeng, which means Red Rock


I always enjoy looking for something other than the well-known and the obvious. For divers based in Phuket in Thailand, the Similan and Surin islands have always been popular, as have the Burma Banks further north. These tend to overshadow dive sites south of Phuket, and particular unfairly neglected are an exposed pair of reefs called Hin Daeng and Hin Muang.

I join Santana Divings liveaboard mv Discovery for a southern trip. Departure is from Chalong Bay at the southern end of Phuket. A pair of longtail water taxis ferry divers, kit and the last of the supplies out to the mooring. Boatmen, crew and some of the divers form a chain to get everything aboard and stowed to cabins and hold.

The sea is oily-smooth as we leave the harbour and head south in the afternoon sun. Everyone heads for the cooler box and cracks open bottles of soft drink. Premium spots on deck are those beneath the shade, but still in the refreshing breeze caused by the boats motion.

The regular Phuket dayboats are between dives at Anemone Reef and Shark Point when we stop off for a warm-up dive.

I have dived both places before and dont know of a pair of more misnamed dive sites. I like both of them, but the names are the wrong way round. The top of Shark Point is covered in anemones and I have seen only sharks at Anemone Reef!

This time we dive Shark Point and I cruise round the walls of gorgonians and sponges, then chill out among the endless carpets of green anemones on top of the rock.
As soon as the last diver is up we are heading south again, watching over the stern as dayboats jostle for position for their second dives. Divers disperse about the boat, toasting on the sun deck, snoozing in the shade, chatting to the crew as they fish off the stern with handlines.
We pass Phi Phi island off to the east, humps of jungle-covered rock, the beaches and resorts hidden below the hazy horizon.

The sun is low when we arrive at Koh Bida Noi for our second dive. Its a dayboat site from Phi Phi island, though late in the afternoon we get the site to ourselves. Current is visibly rippling between the two islands of Bida Noi and Bida Nok as we drop into the shelter of Bida Noi and head out across a plane of sponges to a rocky reef.

In less than ideal visibility I find plenty of macro life, from shrimps to nudibranchs. Above the rock, a shoal of juvenile barracuda emulate adults on a smaller scale, but somehow they just look cute, without the evil toothy grin of a full-grown grand-daddy.

Its getting dusky as we surface and it isnt long before its as black as only a night at sea with no moon can be. The stars are out in all their splendour, largely ignored as dinner is served. Occasional lights in the distance are small fishing boats at work.

By the time we find a mooring at Koh Ha and tie up for the night, some of the divers have already gone to bed. The rest of us follow soon afterwards. Its a still, humid night with no wind. Many choose to sleep on deck.

The morning starts early with a before-breakfast dive in a cave at Koh Ha Yai. Unlike yesterday, visibility is excellent. Clouds of glassfish and upside-down fish inhabit shaded corners.

Surfacing in a flat pool, light filters up from the entrance. Facing west, I muse that it would be nice to repeat the dive in the afternoon when the sun shines directly into the cave.

Discovery heads about 18 miles out to the open sea and Hin Daeng. Its a roughly triangular reef, about 60m on each side, marked by a group of three small rocks just breaking the surface.

Under water, its easy to see why its called Red Rock. On the west side the shallow part of the wall is covered with clumps of tiny red cup corals, with red and purple soft corals taking over beneath overhangs and in deeper water. The water is beautifully clear, without a hint of green in the background.

I stretch my air to the limit circling the reef. Each side has its own characteristic topography and marine life. To the west is a steep wall to past 50m with soft coral, gorgonians and black coral. The north-east is a sheltered plateau at 15m with a coral slope, and the south side slopes at about 45Â, breaking into a finger of reef which trails off to the south-east.

Along this finger a few whitetip sharks lead me towards the depths. Wise to the folly, I soon turn back.
Over lunch, one of the dive guides remarks that this is the only place where he has seen five different types of shark on one dive, including a whale shark.

An overloaded speedboat bounces in from the mainland, allows its occupants a quick dive and then screams back the way it came.
I allow myself to feel smug about being on a liveaboard.

A short distance to the north-east, we dive Hin Muang, a knife-edge ridge not quite breaking the surface and vertical on both sides. With a similar profusion of red and purple soft corals, Hin Muang translates to Purple Rock, though the two sites could just as accurately have been named the other way round.

Among the many reef fish are a profusion of lionfish and scorpionfish. A small shoal of barracuda patrol a saddle in the ridge, but there are not the enormous shoals of barracuda or trevally to be found at Richelieu Rock.

I keep half an eye on the blue. Its early-season, but you never know, a manta or whale shark could pass by.

The weather co-operates and we continue diving Hin Daeng and Hin Muang, heading straight out in the morning and packing in as much as we can. Its easy to see why these are rated the best southern dive sites.



Honeycomb
Honeycomb grouper resting in a barrel sponge
Tasselled
Tasselled scorpionfish
Black
Black corals on the wall at Hin Muang
lionfish
lionfish
soft
soft corals of all colours on the wall outside the cave at Koh Ha Yai
sunset
sunset off the bow at Koh Ha

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Book a charter flight from the UK to Phuket or scheduled flights via Bangkok with Thai Airlines or via Singapore with Singapore Airlines. Visas for less than 30 days stay can be bought on arrival.
DIVING : Santana Diving (www.santanaphuket.com) has now cut this route from its schedule but UK tour operators booking boats that travel to Hin Daeng and Hin Muang include Oonasdivers (01323 648924, www.oonasdivers.com); (Tony Backhurst (0800 0728221, www.scuba.co.uk); Explorers Tours (01753 681999, explorers.co.uk); and Crusader (020 8744 0474, www.crusadertravel.com).
WHEN TO GO : Between November and April, when the monsoon is on the Gulf of Siam side of Thailand and the Andaman Sea side is mostly calm. Whale shark season is in March and April, though you could get lucky at any time of year. You will need a 3mm one-piece or shortie.
WHO WILL ENJOY THE DIVING : Dives are generally deeper than most tropical dive sites, with moderate currents. Nevertheless, newly qualified divers seemed to handle it.
COST : Packages vary from £900-1500 depending on luxury and itinerary. Booked locally, liveaboard diving costs about £60 per day peak season.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Tourism Authority of Thailand, www.tourismthailand.org. Phuket information guide, www.phuket.com