Dodging the Weather
When its high season in western Thailand, its low season in the east, so in theory you should always find somewhere decent to dive. If youre lucky, you might even find low-season prices combined with high-season weather. Zac Macaulay hopes for the best Divernet

The phrase in Thai is mai pen rai, or dont worry. It applied neatly to the diving in Thailand over 10 days I spent based in Phuket.
     The island has a bustling air. Its a colourful, cosmopolitan shopping centre with loud, exciting bars tempting you to go where perhaps you shouldnt.
     An evening out can be a very cheap affair indeed, starting with a moped taxi to town, some (naturally responsible) imbibingin one of many exotic drinking establishments, where girls are employed literally to drag you inside, followed by a traditional meal in one of the many streetside restaurants.
     Its impossible to separate a diving trip to Phuket from the rich experience this small, humming city offers, especially for a first-timer like me.

The plan was to report on what is technically low-season diving in Phuket, on Thailands west coast. I was there at the end of September, towards the end of the low season, and the premise seemed to be a bit of a fraud from the off, as I was experiencing possibly the finest weather the area had known for quite a while.
     In September there are no liveaboards sailing out to popular sites such as the Similan Islands and diving is in the more sheltered sites.
     Scuba Cat is one of the bigger, more established diving operations and, as its owner Mike Stark explained, the problem with the green or low-season diving is the unpredictability of the weather. He therefore offers an a la carte menu of dives from which you can pick, with day, overnight or multi-day trips and various dive training programmes, depending on the time you have available.
     My first diving experience was off the small island of Ko Racha Noi, due south of Phuket. Descending for the first time, I encountered a thermocline so intense that I thought something was wrong with my eyes. The sea was a sultry 30C and I spared a sympathetic thought for loved ones dealing with the onset of winter back in England. But not for long. Visibility was excellent; probably 30-40m, and the current, apparently typical, was strong enough to make things interesting.
     Soft corals, particularly seafans, were scattered over the seabed, and triggerfish, wrasse and plenty of barracuda were in evidence.
     A short trip north to the larger Ko Racha Yai revealed a similar scene but murkier visibility Ð a feature of that low-season unpredictability. We spent one evening on this island, which proved to be sparsely populated, with only a couple of villages.
     Trekking from the east to the west coast took only half an hour across jungle paths, past fields of palm trees and water buffalo. We reached Sayam Bay, where beer in a twinkling bar and a sunset to die for appeared right on cue.
     This island and others like it may be idyllic in low season, but remember that in high season tourists pack them out.
     An overnight on Scuba Cat, one of Mikes liveaboards, was a treat. Mike believes in taking a relaxed approach to the diving experience.
     Enjoy the scenery, chill out and have an early dive, but only if you want to, he said. Mai pen rai.
     However, next morning I did prepare for an early dive on a wreck affectionately called Marlas Mystery. This is the hull of an ex-smuggling vessel lying at 30m and sunk for divers by Mike himself. It is not a pretty wreck but its nefarious history makes it intriguing.
     A cloud of brightly coloured baitfish, dense enough to make visual reference difficult, encircled me almost as soon as I made my descent.

A far more engaging wreck was the King Cruiser near Phang Nga Bay, far to the east of Phuket. This car ferry sank in what were rather odd circumstances.
     The story goes that this vessel had been insured only around its 30th birthday. Near the end of that year, it ran aground with very few crew aboard, on a reef between Krabi and Phuket. No one was hurt. The insurance company is still apparently arguing it out with the ships owners.
     This wreck is huge. It sits on the seabed at 32m, rising to 10m. The current is nearly always strong, so viz can suffer.
     Entering through the holds, you are confronted by the possibility of miles of decks, walkways and passages. One of the dive guides described the experience as like diving inside a church.
     The highlight for me was to stand in the wheelhouse, which is easily accessible through the doorways on either side.
     There were abundant shoals of yellowtails and baby barracuda around the wreck and I saw a small number of lionfish. This is a wreck for the more experienced diver, especially if you want to penetrate it. Try to visit at a quiet time of day, as it can get mighty crowded.
     Every so often you do a dive that lodges in your memory. Shark Point, just south of the King Cruiser, was one of those. Imagine the biggest fan corals you can, some of them blossoming from rocky outcrops, others on the seabed, and soft coral as far as you can see, with bubble coral and 3m table corals, all multi-coloured.
     A 2m lemon shark lay motionless on the bottom, allowing me to fill my camera frame and my boots. Large shoals of yellowfin goatfish obligingly flowed to and fro over the reef for my camera, and there were titan triggerfish and scorpionfish aplenty. About eight cuttlefish swam overhead and that feeling of pleasure that you get only from those special dives welled up inside me.

Koh Dok Mai, or Flower Island, rises high and magnificently out of the water to give you one of those James Bond moments Ð which is apt, as this area has been used for movie-making for a long time. Birds nests are cultivated for soup here, and you can see primitive bamboo ladders leading from the waters edge up high to where the nest farmers climb to claim their prizes.
     This island and others like it offer wall dives. Fan corals cling to rocks heavily populated by moray eels. The highlight for me was a series of caverns which can be exciting to explore for the experienced diver, but visibility was too down to get far inside.
     Diving in Phuket is not particularly expensive, but compared to my next destination it was positively exclusive.
     The high-speed Lomprayah catamaran whizzes you in air-conditioned comfort from Koh Samui to Koh Tao on the east side of Thailand in one and a half hours and, rather curiously, shows a full-length feature film on both the outward and return trips which lasts precisely 15 minutes longer than the trip itself!
     Koh Taos high season still seemed to be underway. My first impression was of a busy, rather disordered place with unsightly piles of this and that dumped left and right. This impression does it an injustice. It is essentially a place for young people, and they arrive in huge numbers. Diving, bars and food are very cheap here and the facilities reflect this.
     It should have been low season by now but the weather was hot, the skies blue and the seas calm. Carlos, one of the managers of the Big Blue Dive Centre, reckoned that the low and high seasons had merged into a decent weather block over the recent years.
     This is a diving-school island, with some 35 operations divided between British and Scandinavian ownership certifying around 4500 divers a year. There is a separate centre for the many Japanese divers.
     The diving was variable. Visibility was often down but there was a lot of choice. The diving was geared for high volumes of divers, so this was hardly valet diving, but most dives were of reasonable quality.
     Champhorn Pinnacle and White Rock to the west provide a series of underwater rock formations and swim-throughs guarded by shoals of barracuda. This is a popular place and is used for the training of many student divers. Squadrons of formation divers swimming closely together like B52s slightly dulled what had been a rather good first impression.

Southwest Pinnacle caught my attention far more effectively. Vast arrays of anemones cling to the rock while their faithful clownfish weave in and out. Damselfish in their tens of thousands hug the sides of the rocks, and titan triggerfish guard their nests from photographers who venture too close. Football fields of sea urchins form up with symmetrical precision along the 25 or so pinnacles, giving the whole dive an immense scale.
     A sort of psychosis took over the resort as word spread that a whale shark and its offspring had arrived at Champhorn Pinnacle. Soon, Normandy-invasion quantities of dive boats were converging from all directions.
     It is a testament to the skill and seamanship of the local Thai captains that there were no collisions, but 150-plus divers descended into open blue water and soon hundreds of exhaust bubble trails were rising from the deep.
     I hung, just waiting like everybody else, and amused myself watching dozens of divers finning quickly from one area to another, as the false alarms of sightings started to rack up.
     This whole procedure lasted a few days, but naturally the whale sharks waited until a few days after I had left Koh Tao before arriving in force. Typical.
     Finally, I enjoyed a little site called Laem Thain, a series of underwater caves with tight swimthroughs at about 14m and one of the loveliest dives I have done in years. We descended at about 4.30pm, with the sun quite low. Consequently the light had a magical quality to it as it shone through the tops of the caves downwards. Large shoals of barracuda, wrasse and cute harlequin sweetlips greeted us as we emerged.
     I know that again I was lucky with the weather and conditions for the time of year, and Michael Spjuth, the owner of The Big Blue in Koh Tao, stressed that that was the case. However, quite a few other people confirmed that kinder weather had been extending the traditional season.
     Visibility was certainly variable while I was there, and there is no real wreck-diving in Koh Tao, but it is a wonderful place for a holiday, with eclectic, economical diving and good cheap food, drink and air-conditioned lodgings.



Cave
Cave at Laern Thain, Koh Tao
A
A happy band of divers in Koh Tao
Barracuda
Barracuda at Chumphor Pinnacle
fan
fan coral at Ko Racha Noi
light
light relief on the wreck Marlas Mystery
Big
Big Blues diveboat in Koh Tao
South-west
South-west Pinnacle in Koh Tao
moray
moray eel in comfortable lodgings
Mike
Mike Stark at Kohn Dok Mai - Flower island
on
on the King Cruiser
Soft
Soft coral at Ko Racha Noi

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Fly to Phuket via Bangkok with Thai Air, Singapore Airlines or Bangkok Airways.
DIVING: Scuba Cat Diving, Phuket, 0066 076 293121, www. scubacat.com. Big Blue Diving, Koh Tao, 0066 077 456050, www.big bluediving.com
CURRENCY: Thai baht, credit cards.
WHEN TO GO: Year-round, as long as you switch coasts to avoid the worst monsoon weather. High season on the western side is November-April, on the eastern side May to October.
COSTS: Symbiosis Expedition Planning (0845 1232844, www.symbiosis-travel.com) can organise trips to Phuket, Koh Tao or both. A 10-day trip (excluding flying time) including all flights and transfers, with four nights 2-star half-board beach cottage accommodation and breakfast in Koh Tao and full diving programme with Big Blue Diving; and four nights full board and diving with Scuba Cat Diving in September would cost from£1075. A month later diving starts again in the Andaman Sea and prices then start from£1275.
FURTHER INFORMATION: 020 7499 7679, www.tat.or.th


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