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My heart seemed to be thumping at 100mph. In front of me was a huge leopard shark, and just behind it my wife! She had quite brilliantly crept up on the magnificent creature from behind and was now so close she could have kissed it. I was impressed, as she is not exactly the boldest of divers.
This was a great photo opportunity, however, and leopard sharks, despite their fearsome name, are not dangerous.
We were diving at a spot some 18 miles east of Thailands largest and most popular island, Koh Phuket. Our site, Hin Musang, also known as Shark Point, was made up of three pinnacles, the largest of which came right to the surface. These pinnacles were covered in soft corals and teeming with colourful tropical fish, but its the sharks that steal the show here.
Leopard sharks usually hunt in among their jungle of undersea corals and seafans, but the most likely place to spot them is resting on the sand, where they like to spend much of their day just snoozing! If you are slow and patient it is possible to get quite near to them, and this was certainly the closest either of us had been to a shark in a long time.

CHICKEN HAIR TO DONALD DUCK
Unfortunately, all the sites close to Phuket have been badly affected by tin-dredging operations, so the day-boats head for offshore islands and pinnacles such as the spot we were exploring, where the marine life is still healthy and the visibility usually not too bad.
Shark Point and the neighbouring site known as Anemone Reef are considered to be the premier dive sites and day-boats take a couple of hours to reach them from Chalong Bay.
Anemone Reef consists of an anemone-covered plateau in 5 or 6m, with resident anemonefish and porcelain crabs. The plateau makes a great place to offload ones nitrogen at the end of a dive. The reef itself drops down to 25m or more and is home to a wide variety of colourful marine life, from seafans and soft corals to moray eels, groupers, lionfish and, on the sand, occasional stingrays.
We had planned a 10-day holiday in the resort of Phuket. Koh Phuket is Thailands largest island and its lush green hills, palm-fringed beaches and warm water make it a great place to get away from it all. However, as keen divers, we had a yearning to explore a little further than the Phuket area.
So, after a days sightseeing at Phang Nga Bay, where the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed, we headed north-west on a live-aboard, the Fantasea.
We made first for the Similans, a group of nine amazingly formed granite islands some 55 miles north-west of Koh Phuket. Huge, rounded boulders surround much of the islands, broken by the occasional sandy beach and sheltered bay.
The boulders continue under the water, creating some fascinating dive sites such as Elephant Head, Breakfast Bend, Donald Duck and Chicken Hair Reef! Needless to say, the names vary according to which dive boat you happen to be on. Chicken Hair Reef, for example, is known as Fantasea Reef if you happen to be diving with Fantasea Divers.
Whatever the name, youll find some great scenery here, with caves, archways, tunnels and swim-throughs to explore.

SHRIMP ON SHRIMP
The Similans have more than just scenic diving to offer. The marine life here is fascinating, with dazzling soft corals, beautiful seafans, colourful sponges, splendid nudibranchs and some rather unusual creatures too. At Fantasea, we noticed a giant mantis shrimp in a large beautifully rounded hole, the sort of hole youd see on a golf course. The shrimps huge eyes rotated through almost 180 as we moved in for a closer look!
A whole bunch of little popcorn shrimps, completely dwarfed by the mantis, were dancing all over the monsters eyes and mouthparts! They seemed to be in cleaner mode, but who knows - Ive never come across such a relationship between shrimps!
At the same site we saw a pair of purple flame gobies, a fantastic blue-ribbon eel, clown triggerfish and a beautifully striped surgeonfish.
We spent a day or so in the Similans before heading 40 miles further north to the Surin Islands and one of my favourite places off the Thailand coast, Richelieu Rock.

EYEBALL TO EYEBALL
Situated some 10 miles south-east of Koh Surin Tai, the second largest of the Surins, Richelieu Rock is unique. Its a massive underwater pinnacle that comes right up to the surface, but for a photographer it can be difficult to decide just what lens to take in with you on a dive here.
Manta rays, whale sharks and many pelagic species can show up and there are always blue-lined grouper, baramundi cod and smaller, fascinating creatures such as seahorses and cleaner shrimps to watch.
On one dive we had been photographing some harlequin shrimps devouring a starfish when a whale shark passed above us! All I could do was take a picture of its eye. Such is life - a picture of a whale sharks eyeball is better than no picture at all!
While Thailand remains a relatively cheap destination, and a place of endless diversions in its own right, it is well worth considering the opportunity of diving off its west coast. Phuket is a fascinating place and has some reasonable diving within fairly easy reach - beginners and recently qualified divers will be well satisfied by the sites just offshore. However, for more experienced divers, at least a few days spent on a live-aboard visiting the far better preserved islands further north is likely to be richly rewarded.




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FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Thai Airways and Malaysian Airways offer good fares to Phuket through Bangkok.
DIVING DETAILS:Many dive centres offer day trips to Shark Point, Anemone Reef and other offshore pinnacles/islands. Phuket is a good place to learn to dive. Three- or four-day live-aboard trips to the Similan Islands and week-long trips often take in the Surin Islands and Richelieu and perhaps Burmese waters. Some will transfer you from Phuket to Thap Lamu further north and closer to the Similans. Check out live-aboards carefully - some are more comfortable than others and you usually get what you pay for! Centres include Fantasea (076 340088), SE Asia Liveaboards (076 340406), Santana Diving (076 340360), Warm Water Divers (076 294 150), Dive Inn (076 342186) and Kon-Tiki (076 294 150).
ACCOMMODATION :Hotels are very cheap and even the more luxurious ones are still affordable. Gavin Anderson booked through Trailfinders (0171 938 3939). Agents such as Explorers Tours (01753 681 999), Divequest (01254 826 322), Oonasdivers (01323 648 924) and Kuoni (01306 474 001) can arrange packages.
LANGUAGE: English widely spoken.
MONEY:The baht is the local currency.
FOR NON-DIVERS:Plenty to do, including sunbathing on any of a string of beaches. Sea canoeing is popular, as are waterfall tours and shopping for imitation Rolex watches. Most popular day trip is to Phang Nga Bay.
BEST TIME TO GO:Between November and early May.
WATER TEMPERATURE:23-27°C. Diving Suitable For: Beginners to experienced.
COST: Flights start as low as£399 off-season. A double room at the luxurious Amari Coral Beach costs around £50 a night but good accommodation is available for as little as£10 per night. A days two-tan k dive trip costs £35-40.
PROS: Airline fares are reasonable and accommodation cheap, making this one of the more affordable choices for a tropical dive holiday, while theres plenty to do on land in beautiful surroundings.
CONS: The standard of live-aboards can vary and may not be quite what youre used to. Sites close to Phuket have been spoilt, so be prepared to venture further out for the most rewarding dives.
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