|A LITTLE WAY OFFSHORE AT PATONG IN PHUKET, there runs a coral reef of extraordinary colour and complexity. A bewildering number of species is packed into this narrow fringe, each fighting for its survival in a viciously competitive environment.
Here, the ugly vies incessantly with the beautiful. Like an alternating current, the atmosphere of the reef flickers between urgent desire and cold, murderous cupidity.
A few yards behind the shoreline, there lies a reef even more vividly colourful, and infinitely more diverse. Here, too, a bewildering number of species is packed into a tiny area, each fighting for its survival in a viciously competitive environment.
Drama is seldom more than an arms length away. Male great whites, cruising in from Europe and Australia, snap up the exotic little creatures who seem almost to hurl themselves into the jaws of their predators.
Smaller, younger specimens swim in the wake of these great whites, hoping to pick up discarded morsels - but, being inexperienced, they quickly get into deep water.
Sadly, little is being done to protect this fragile environment and its vulnerable inhabitants. Already, most of the morals are damaged or dead.
Nevertheless, to the diver, it still affords a fascinating glimpse of another world - a world so incredibly shallow that it is difficult to surface without at least a hundred bars.
So there we were, 30 miles off the mainland and 30m off one of the densely wooded islands that pepper the Andaman Sea. l was the sad old gooseberry in a group of love-struck couples, so it fell to me to dive with Jerome, our guide.
We were surrounded by clouds of tiny reef fish when we came across a brace of leopard sharks lying prone on the sandy seabed. They resembled nothing more than a pair of strange and exotic stringed instruments that might have been jettisoned by the members of a private slave orchestra when the pleasure barge of a fabulously wealthy oriental potentate was boarded by swarthy, cutlass-wielding pirates, and the entire ships complement slaughtered like pigs.
In addition, I couldnt help noticing that the fish were very similar in shade and pattern to a thong worn by Kylie Minogue in a recent photo session for Loaded.
Jerome poked and pestered them until they rose grudgingly from the bottom and swam slowly away - but not before I noticed a long piece of fishing line trailing from the mouth of the larger specimen.
I pointed this out to Jerome, who finned smartly after them and grabbed the line. I fully expected him to lose his fingers - the fish was a good 2m long, and gloves are banned on The Junk. But, inexorably, he reeled it in, thrashing and squirming. Then, to my horror, he threw his arms about it in a passionate embrace.
I stared, transfixed, as he grappled with the shark, finally wrenching it onto its back and grabbing its exposed fins with both hands. It lapsed instantly into a state of docile acquiescence. My heart rate was already pushing 180. But now Jerome nodded frantically at me and I realised that he wanted me to remove the hook from the fishs lip.
This proved difficult: the hook was big and rusty, and shark lip has roughly the same consistency as Kevlar.
Eventually, however, I prised it out and Jerome released his captive, who righted himself and swam tetchily away without so much as a thank-you.
Later, back on The Junk, I asked him how long it had taken him to master the art of subduing huge fish with his bare hands.
Hmm he replied absently. Actually, Ive never tried it before. I once saw someone do it on the telly.
The ornate bronze bell in The Junks saloon was rung to announce mealtimes and dive briefings. In practice, this meant that it sounded once every 10 minutes. The food was big, beautiful and frequent. First Breakfast at 7am consisted chiefly of toast and coffee. But Second Breakfast (which awaited us on our return from the First Dive) was a tour de force of eggs, crispy bacon, sausage, pancakes and syrup, fruit and yoghurt.
During the brief interval between lunch and dinner, each a mouth-watering, sometimes mouth-scorching, buffet of Thai specialities, we were bombarded with banana cake and biscuits. It lent a whole new meaning to the term junk food.
Be warned - you could become seriously obese on this boat. In the list of emergency contact numbers on the saloon bulkhead, Weightwatchers came second only to the Patong recompression facility.
The briefings were thorough and intelligent. Jerome put each dive in the context of a lovingly drawn plan of the island in question and its reef system, outlining the topography and the currents, often strong, that we were likely to encounter.
Then he would describe the resident fauna, illustrating each species from the boats exhaustive library of reference books on local marine ecology. Look out for the Fat-Arsed Grumble. The juveniles devour their parents immediately after hatching and the adults have been known to swap dorsal fins to confuse predators.
Then we would try to kit up before the piratical-looking but infinitely-obliging crew did it for us. As we sat on the tubes of the little inflatable, the intricately tattooed coxn would run through his check list: Fins! Weighbelt! Camela!
And then we were off. I discovered early on that my air consumption was appalling. I cant imagine why. I had just completed a 180-mile ultra-marathon and was as fit as Paula Radcliffes whippet. Nevertheless, I regularly had to come up a good 10 minutes before even the most hard-smoking, jittery novice.
It was humiliating at first, but I soon discovered the upside. Hanging on a buoy line during a 6m safety stop, I suddenly found myself at the centre of a shoal of around 200 chevron barracuda. They ignored me. I affected the sort of nonchalance cultivated by bomb disposal experts in the line of duty.
The Similan Islands are a designated national park, which means that fishing is prohibited within their waters. Designating, of course, is one thing - policing another. But although we met a number of squid boats just hanging, er, innocently around, the situation on the islands is apparently improving.
Three years ago, the government appointed a new chief ranger. Until then, the park had fallen under the jurisdiction of the Forestry Department. The new bloke is a passionate diver and marine biologist. He fired all the existing rangers - they were taking bribes from fishermen - and for his troubles, someone tried to shoot him. But he persevered and personally trained up his new recruits to Dive Master standard.
As a result, the turtles are back. We came across a group of three hawksbills - never seen that before - not to mention dozens of individuals.
The reef fish are clearly prospering. The caves in the granite cliffs were teeming with fry and there were times when I couldnt see my buddy through clouds of fusiliers, grunts and snappers.
Jerome turned out to be a splendid guide. He was incredibly knowledgeable and possessed the eyes of an eagle. He would point out a whitetip reef shark, then abruptly shift his attention to some tiny worm-like thing, wriggling about on a coral head, and frantically scribble out on his slate: juvenile harlequin ghost pipefish!
The islands attract big pelagic visitors. Mantas and whale sharks are relatively common during their respective seasons - which, needless to say, didnt coincide with my own trip. But the sheer quantity and variety of the local fauna was breath-taking (not literally, of course; that would be dangerous).
Frank de Groot taught English in Taiwan before he was seized by the absurd notion of restoring a near-derelict Chinese junk and turning it into a dive boat.
Everything was wrong with her. Her keel was broken and her previous owner had added a lot of green wood to the superstructure, which had swiftly turned to cheese in the relentless heat and humidity of the Andaman Sea.
The good news was, shed carried cargoes of charcoal and salt. The charcoal had kept the hull dry and the salt had petrified it. You had to drill a hole to get a nail into her.
Frank paid just $10,000 for this hulk, and actually considered sawing up the timber and selling it to furniture manufacturers. She was made of takien tong - a local wood that is heavier than water and, fortunately for Frank and his shipwrights, poisonous to insects. Instead, he invested a further $500,000 and transformed her into one of the finest vessels on the coast.
An ancient Chinaman came out of retirement to supervise the renovation. He accepted just $2 a day more than the other workers. Except for electric tools, he used only traditional techniques. There were no drawings, other than a few lines in the sand.
When it came to working out the optimum space between decks, they told me: Bring your tall friend along tomorrow. He was the closest thing we had to a tape measure.
The crew-members are Buddhists and extremely respectful of the spirit of the boat. Every sailing is accompanied by firecrackers, and gifts of food and drink are offered at a shrine in the saloon.
They say she has a bad temper and can make people sick if she doesnt receive the proper obeisance. On the other hand, all the carpenters working on the boat enjoyed amazing success in the National Lottery.
Chin (he of the head-to-foot tattoo) had been a crew-member since the boat was completed, and had special responsibility for observing religious rites and for appeasing Macha Poh, the goddess of the sea.
On the trip back to Patong we were press-ganged into raising the sails. Junks are notoriously slow, and with only the mildest of zephyrs ruffling the canvas, the more energetic passengers were able to swim a complete circuit of the ship without being left behind.
I turned in early to my air-conditioned, en-suite cabin in the bows and slept like a baby (I woke up every hour and cried).
It was dawn as we chugged into port, and I was faced with the pleasant prospect of a day in town before my flight to Bangkok.
Patong, in a weird way, is a highly advanced society. Its where the world is heading. Anything is possible, everything is available - right now.
Some of its real, most of its counterfeit. Pirate CDs, real gold, fools gold, fake Tag Heuers, pretend love, real affection, Armani suits in 24 hours, false leers, heartfelt smiles. Dont like the price Here, take my calculator - tell me how much you want to pay!
Its chaos, a cataract of instant gratification, the logical and unavoidable consequence of the digital revolution. This is a society in which intellectual property is theft. Where anything goes, the only alien concept is that of royalties.
Is the three-quid DVD the real thing Is it a high-quality copy Or a rough knock-off, grabbed off a cinema screen with a hand-held camera
Is the pretty bar girl really a bloke You wont know until you get them home.
|A hawksbill turtle |
|A shoal of chevron barracuda |
|the retreating form of a reclusive leopard shark |
GETTING THERE: Andy Blackford flew to Phuket from Heathrow with Thai Airways.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: The Junk, www.thejunk.com, 0066 76342186.
WHEN TO GO : November through to April is the dive season on the west coast (Andaman Sea) side of Thailand.
COST: Kuoni Travel (01306 747006 or www.kuoni.co.uk/dive) offers from seven nights in Phuket, with two nights B&B at the Rydges Beach Resort and five nights aboard The Junk on a full-board basis, including three dives a day (excluding arrival/departure day), and return flights and transfers from£933 per person, based on two sharing.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Thailand tourist information 020 74997679, or visit www.tat.or.th.
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