THIS MAY COME AS A SHOCK to many of you but you don’t have to dive every time you go away! I know it’s easy for me to say, because I get to travel, dive and get paid for it. But sometimes just being away and knowing you’re not going to dive every day is a nice feeling.
Saying that, I still keep my D6 on my wrist, mask packed in my case, certification cards in my wallet and, of course, a housing for whichever camera I have with me (just for messing around on the beach, you understand).
On a recent holiday I had a chance to use all these. How many times do we hear the dreaded words: “You should have been here last week”? Well, while staying on Koh Lanta, Thailand I had a message from Paul Lees, a good friend and creator of the DIVE Thailand app. Paul lives on the neighbouring island of Phuket, and his first word was “mantas”.
“Get yourself to Hin Daeng and Hin Muang,” he said. It seems that every trip that week had encountered large groups of mantas on these deepwater reefs.

HAVING HEARD THIS SORT of thing many times before, I wasn’t in any kind of rush. Paul then explained that he had arranged for one of the dive centres on the island to pick us up the next day and take us out.
Knowing that this meant a five-hour boat trip out and a five-hour boat trip back, just to hear those famous lines “Sorry you didn’t see any, but yesterday we had 12 around the boat”, I wasn’t over the moon about the early start.
Surely this would ruin my day, a day I had already planned to spend eating and drinking on the beach – which, after all, was why we were there!
After a quick chat with my partner Lou, we decided that it would be nice to go out for the day, and she had never seen a manta ray. So it would be a great experience if we should chance on any.
At 5.30am the next day we were picked up and delivered to the Lanta Diver office, where we showed our cards, filled in the usual paperwork and were fitted for our dive gear.
These days I tend to hire kit when away, and using dive-centre equipment is never a worry because the good ones tend to service it far more often than most divers do their own. The gear we were handed looked very new, anyway.
A short walk from the office was the boat, our base for the long day ahead.
It was a very comfortable vessel and, as with many day-boats around the world, it was originally built as a liveaboard, then completely redesigned and rebuilt for day-diving.
This large boat, one of three in the fleet, took up to 38 divers and had a large dive-deck, adequate seating inside and plenty of room outside. As we were there at the end of the season it was about half-full, with lots of small groups gathered together with their own dive-guide.
With a ratio of four divers to one dive-master, it was almost like paying for a private guide. Fabian was assigned just for the two of us. He was young and enthusiastic and this was his last trip with Lanta Divers, but he was reputed to be the most successful guide with manta encounters, so we were hoping for good things.
Not long after we sailed we were served a large cooked breakfast, just what we needed to kick-start the day. Everyone soon split up from their groups and started chatting to each other, getting excited about the day ahead.
Still wary of later disappointment, I just smiled and carried on eating, knowing full well that our chances were not good at all.
We were soon being asked to get kitted up. It’s funny how quickly five hours passes when you’re sitting in the sun and chatting. As soon as we had tied up, one of the guides jumped in to test the current. “Mantas!” she shouted. “I just jumped on a manta!”
Everyone rushed over, and we could see large shadows moving just below the surface. It seemed I was wrong to doubt Paul – we were there at the right time.

ARMED WITH MY IPHONE and Sony compact, both in Nauticam housings, I jumped in. There below me were indeed mantas, two of them from what I could see. Lou and Fabian soon joined me, and we did out final checks and started our dive.
This first dive was on Hin Muang, which translates as Purple Rock. As with most locations at which I have seen mantas the visibility wasn’t great, perhaps 10-15m, and there were a couple of other boats’ worth of divers already in the water.
The extra bubbles didn’t make the visibility any better as we descended. Slowly more mantas came into sight – three more with the two at the surface, then another and another.
Soon we had eight or nine rays swimming around us.
We quickly realised that it would be difficult to follow the detailed dive plan that Fabian had given us, so we made it clear to each other that we were OK to hang around next to the reef and just watch as each manta swam past.
Even though we were in the company of two other boat-loads of divers, perhaps 20 people, it really was a lovely sight. Time was soon up, and we had to ascend to our safety stop.
Back on the boat, everyone was in high spirits. Well, you would be having spent an hour with those huge rays, wouldn’t you?
One thing I love about Thailand is that surface intervals are always accompanied by amazing food. No warm sandwiches here, it’s lovely tasty curries all the way.
Anyone who knows me will know that this was almost as exciting as the diving, I really love my food, and Thailand is a foodie’s dream.
Once again Lanta Diver came up trumps, with food as good as I have had in any Thai beach-front restaurant, but this one had the best of all views – mantas splashing about all around us.
While we were eating the boat moved the short distance over to our next site – Hin Daeng, or Red Rock. It was soon time to get back in the water.

LUCKILY, ONLY ONE other small boat had joined us, but it had already been decided that we would try to enter the water on our own and pick a time when the other boats were getting out.
In the back of your mind is always the thought that the mantas will leave and we won’t get to see any on the next dive. This idea soon disappeared as we all peered over the side and saw several manta-shaped shadows just under the surface.
Perhaps it was the lack of bubbles from the other divers, but the water seemed clearer. These mantas seemed bigger than those on the last dive – some of them could have been the same but some were notably different, with two very white and some very large dark rays splashing around at the surface.
The three of us spent our dive only a few metres down, because there was no need to go very deep – the action seemed to be happening near the surface.
This dive was even better than the last, with rays buzzing all around us, looping the loop and splashing at the surface.
It was hard to count them – we reckoned the numbers were much the same as on the previous dive – but it’s not the quantity that matters, it’s the experience, and this was a great one.
Soon it was time to surface and end our day’s diving. Having not been very deep we didn’t really need a safety stop, but any chance to spend some extra time in the water was fine by me, and as it happens hanging around at 3m beneath a DSMB was just as wonderful as the rest of the dive.
As if to say goodbye, these wonderful fish swam past one by one, waving their wings.
I’ve often been accused of not living in the moment, and being too wrapped up in taking photos. Well, not having my large DSLR rig I wasn’t as interested in the photography that day and I had hardly snapped a shot – it was just a great experience.
The photos I took are not going to win any awards but they will remind me of an amazing unexpected dive.
I was impressed by the Lanta Diver set-up. We were well looked after by experienced and friendly staff who treated us to one of the best day’s diving we’ve had on a non-diving holiday!
The moral of the story is that sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time, and even if you don’t expect to go diving it’s always worth keeping your certification card in your wallet. You never know when you might need it.

Lanta Diver is a PADI 5* IDC Centre. A two-dive day costs 2900 baht (about £58). www.lantadiver.com