Divernet

I WAKE TO A MORNING THAT IS JUST INSPIRING FOR DIVING. A perfect sky over a perfect sea, the Junk moored among other boats in a sheltered channel. The jungle-covered granite of Similan Island 4 on one side and Similans 5 and 6 on the other.
It looks no different to when I was last here seven years ago. The islands all have names, but the popular convention is to refer to them by number, starting from 1 in the south to 9 in the north.
Fifty-five miles out into the Andaman Sea, the Similans are the mainstay of diving out of Phuket in Thailand. A fleet of liveaboards run short cruises there, or longer cruises that continue to the Surins and Richelieu Rock.
Our warm-up dive is on the east side of the channel, along the gentle slope from Similan 6. The scene is of scattered patches of reef on white sand. Despite the Tsunami reducing, then raising, sea level by as much as 10m, there is no sign of damage. The sea level is back to normal and the corals are thriving, as are the many reef fish.
A week later, on a dayboat, I meet dive guide Steve, who was on a liveaboard in this channel when the Tsunami passed. The first dive had been completed and he had just dropped a family ashore to explore the beach when the currents went crazy.
The family climbed higher and higher up the rocks before things calmed down enough for Steve to collect them in the tender. News of the Tsunami came over the radio, and most boats headed for deep water to the west of the Similans to wait out the rest of the day before continuing with their planned cruises.
Its on our second dive at East of Eden, on the east tip of Similan 7, that I see just a small hint of damage. The main feature of the dive is a large coral head standing as a buttress from a moderate slope scattered with smaller corals.
At the eastern corner of the island, it stands into the current and is covered in dangling soft corals and gorgonians. Wrapping the whole scene is an enormous, dense cloak of glassfish.
We drop in a little to the south and swim onto the dive site. I notice a table coral that has broken and tipped, but it is still alive with fresh growth. Its the sort of damage a careless diver could have inflicted, so who is to say whether this was a product of the Tsunami
I hardly give it a second thought, as out in the blue a decent-sized manta ray glides past, close enough to see clearly, but out of reach for a photo. Martin, the video man, catches it nicely.
I spend most of the dive at the wonderful coral head, then head further north and west to see what else there is. Much further on, a bank of staghorn coral cascading down the slope is interrupted by a track where a boulder of stony coral has rolled. The debris is already sprouting fresh, spiky, upward-reaching twigs.
Evolved to thrive in the high energy of the shallows, getting broken and growing back from the debris is all part of the natural process for staghorn coral.
Junk dive guide Jeroen explains that the Tsunami came in from the south-west, and the reef that suffered most was that where the wave surged round the ends of the islands. A little further on from East of Eden, at the north tip of Similan 7, Deep Six was one of the few sites I saw badly damaged.

Hint of damage
The other well-known site that suffered badly was Christmas Point, west of island 9. Yet just around the corner at the Pinnacles, the granite boulders playing host to big gorgonians and branching corals show only the slightest hint of damage. Looking closely, I find a couple of gorgonians that have been splinted with sections of plastic pipe and cable ties. If I hadnt been looking for it, I wouldnt have known.
After the Tsunami, Jeroen was involved in surveying some of the sites that are normally closed. I am surprised and relieved to hear that Fantasea Reef, to the west of Similan 8 and right in the the waves path, was unscathed and thriving. It has been closed to the public for five years,
The Junk heads on to Koh Bon, returning to the Similans a few days later on the way back to Phuket. Elephant Head, south of Similan 8, would also have been in the path of the Tsunami.
I am no longer surprised to find that the big granite scenery on a humongous scale is as good as it always was. Monoliths tipped together to make swim-throughs and boulder caves are still tipped together in the patterns I remember. All the usual soft corals and gorgonians remain.
To complete the day, we follow a ridge of granite extending to the south-east of Similan 3, diving first at Sharkfin Reef, then again on the end of the ridge at Boulder City. Boulder City was always my lucky spot for leopard sharks, and I find two resting on sand patches among the granite.
Our journey north to the Surin Islands is broken by a couple of dives each at Koh Bon and Koh Tachai. On Boxing Day the Junk had been on its way to Koh Bon in deep water when the Tsunami passed. All that those aboard noticed was a depth-sounder reading of 65m when it should have been 75m, and some surprising variations in speed. Then news came over the radio and, like other boats, they stayed in deep water for the rest of the day before completing the cruise.
We start with a pinnacle off the tip of Koh Bon, a jagged peak of old limestone rock rising to 20-something metres from a seabed at 40m-plus.
Above the pinnacle, shoals of trevally and fusiliers patrol the current. Below them, a sparkling, undulating curtain of glassfish obscures the reef to the limits of the excellent visibility, parting to reveal rocks covered in small yellow soft coral.

Bats and leopards
A couple of hours later, the same is repeated on a smaller scale nearby, on the reef stretching out from the south-west tip of the island.
At Koh Tachai we are back on granite again, the reef to the south of the island rising to a series of coral-covered humps at 15m or so. At the outer hump, I descend into the shoal of batfish for which the site is famous, followed by a leopard shark which, unusually, is swimming in blue water.
Below them, the reef has all the wonderful diversity I remember from previous dives, though it doesnt seem quite the same. Small changes have accumulated to provide a subtly different scene since my last visit.
Onward to Richelieu Rock, the famed pyramid of limestone that just breaks the surface a few miles south-east of the Surins. I always wondered how it got its name. Did some 18th-century French navigator have a narrow escape and exclaim: That rock, its a right bastard, just like the cardinal!
A day diving Richelieu is everything it should be. It is splattered in colour from soft corals, anemones and gorgonians, big shoals of fish, and lots of cool critters from harlequin shrimps to ghost pipefish, seahorses and frogfish. Diving in March,
I had a distant hope of a whale shark, but I cant blame my failure to see one on the Tsunami.
The Junk enters the channel between the two main islands of the Surins so that we can put scientists Michi and Mike ashore at the national park base. They originally came to Thailand from British Columbia to investigate the carrying capacity of the Surins for diving tourism. Now the project has evolved to include the impact of the Tsunami.
They were under water surveying a reef when the Tsunami hit, getting swirled around before being recovered by the longtail boat from which they were diving. It was several hours before the sea calmed enough for them to return ashore.
Michis professional opinion is that, bar a few areas of reef that have disappeared, most dive sites have suffered far less damage than originally feared and are recovering well.
With scientific caution, she stresses that this is a preliminary observation, and that survey data still being collected will be more conclusive.
As to what to do with the disappeared areas of reef, Jeroen suggests they would make ideal locations for artificial reefs.
Back ashore in Phuket, Eurodivers hosts me for a few days on the usual dayboat sites. Staying at the Laguna Beach Resort, the only evidence of the Tsunami is a faint smell of new paint.
Eurodivers manager Alieke describes the damage suffered at Laguna as minor compared to the devastation further north at Khao Lak. The wave swept the beach into the swimming pool and gutted 14 ground-floor rooms and the dive centre. Two of the dive instructors had been washed through the kit room and out the back door, one of them suffering a broken leg.
While Eurodivers has some local diving via longtail boat to a small island a few miles off the beach, the main dayboat sites are south of Phuket, accessed by a 40-minute minibus ride to Chalong, where the larger dayboats are boarded.
South of Koh Racha Noi, we dive a slope of granite boulders reminiscent of the Similans. Regularly scoured by strong currents, I suspect that the Tsunami was just another day at the office for the marine life here.
To follow on, we dive along fields of staghorn coral at Banana Reef on the east side of Koh Racha Noi and then at Staghorn Reef on the east side of Koh Racha Yai, both well-sheltered from the wave.
On the way back to Chalong, dive guide Suwat explains that the boat was on its way to Koh Racha Yai on Boxing Day when the captain received a call to say that the Tsunami had passed. Out in the open sea, they hadnt even noticed it.
For my second day of dayboat sites, we visit two of my favourites, Anemone Reef and Shark Point. The top of Anemone Reef is covered in anemones with their resident anemone fish, while Shark Point is coated in soft corals. Both are heaving with fish. I have seen leopard sharks on both sites in the past, but not this time.
At the opposite end of the scale, Suwat introduces me to the resident tiger-tail seahorse at Shark Point, well hidden in the narrow stable of a pair of gorgonians.
I feared that, unlike the natural reefs, the nearby wreck of the King Cruiser ferry could have been torn apart. It cant be fitted into my schedule, but everyone assures me that it is undamaged.
For my final day of diving, we head further south-east to Phi Phi Island, one of the locations hit hardest by the Tsunami. I am no longer surprised when we dive at Koh Bida Nok, then Turtle Reef, to see no obvious signs of damage.

Snoozing rays
At Koh Bida Nok our dive almost circumnavigates the rock, beginning with shallow reef and a blacktip shark, past snoozing rays on the sandy seabed and on to a wall covered in clams and soft corals, and yet another dense shoal of glassfish. Apparently it is that time of year for the fusiliers, and most glassfish shoals consist of juvenile fusiliers.
In a bay beneath the towering cliffs of Phi Phi Ley, we tie up for lunch. Dayboats and speedboats from Phuket and the Phi Phi Don dive centres are moored nearby. Four of the Phi Phi Don dive centres are operational again.
Turtle Reef runs beneath the cliffs just outside the bay. I drift with the gentle current without sighting turtles, but it doesnt matter.
I am relieved to have caught up with Thailands dive sites, like catching up with old friends and family - and to find that, with a few exceptions, they are healthy and thriving. Though there were many casualties ashore on Boxing Day, as far as I know no divers under water or on boats were lost. Under water was the safest place to be.
Which brings me to how we can help as divers. Many of us have given to the relief funds, but if we really want to help, the best thing we can do is go to Thailand on holiday. Its a gift where everyone gains. Phukets tourism-based economy needs our business to survive, while we still get to experience some top-quality diving.




Eurodivers
Eurodivers longtail departs for a dive from Laguna Beach
The
The scientists head ashore with supplies for a month of field work
The
The new Chalong jetty on the left was untouched by the Tsunami. The old wooden jetty on the right was already derelict when the Tsunami finished it off
Boulder
Boulder City is always good for spotting leopard sharks
Feather
Feather stars and branching coral at Koh Racha Yai.
Glassfish
Glassfish in a boulder cave at Koh Chi
Female
Female tigertail seahorse at Richelieu Rock
Ghost
Ghost pipefish at Richelieu Rock.
Moray
Moray eel with personal grooming crew at the Channel

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: John Liddiards trip was arranged by Kuoni (01306 747008, www.kuoni.co.uk). Flights were with Evergreen Air, (www.evaair.com) and Royal Thai Airways (www.thaiair.com). Visas can be purchased on arrival unless for more than 30 days.
DIVING: Liveaboard - The Junk, (www.thejunk.com). Day boat - Eurodivers (www.euro-divers.com). Dives are generally deeper than at most tropical dive sites, with moderate currents, but newly qualified divers seem to handle it.
WHEN TO GO: Best diving conditions are generally between November and April. Both the Junk and Eurodivers operate throughout the year. You will need a 3mm one-piece or shortie.
COSTS: A 10-night package,including six nights liveaboard on the Junk and four nights at Laguna Beach, costs from£1708. Dayboat diving with Eurodivers costs 2650 Baht (about£38).
FURTHER INFORMATION: Tourism Authority of Thailand, www.tourismthailand. org. Phuket, www.phuket.com