DARK STRIPES RIPPLED DOWN THE BRIGHTLY COLOURED BODY of the big male cuttlefish, as he hung just above the smaller female with several of his arms almost embracing her. Less than a metre away were three other males, all hoping to take his place and mate with the female as she laid her eggs into narrow cracks along the rocky ledge. Fantasea Divers, 00 6676 295510-1, www.fantasea.net
Time after time, one or other of the interlopers would move in to challenge the big male. Each time he would drive them off, ensuring that it was his genes, not theirs, that would be passed to another generation of cuttlefish.
All the while, I was shooting frame after frame, trying to capture some of the best cuttlefish action I had ever seen.
Only a week earlier I had been snowbound in New Hampshire in the USA. Then, on the next to the last day of February, I flew to Phuket in Thailand to dive in the Andaman Sea from the well-known Fantasea liveaboard dive-boats.
I had been on Fantasea several years before, but November was not the best time for cuttlefish. A border dispute had been smouldering between Thailand and Burma, so we had been unable to visit the Burma Banks, where Mark Strickland, Fantaseas dive director and underwater photo pro, would do shark-feeds to attract silvertips within camera range.
This time everything seemed right as I stepped from the plane into the warm sunshine of Phuket. Fifteen minutes later, my optimism was dashed. Neither of my two pieces of check-in luggage had arrived - including all my underwater photography equipment and dive gear.
Jeroen Deknatel, one of the owners of Fantasea Diving, assured me that late luggage almost always arrived the next day, and fortunately I had scheduled two days in Phuket to acclimatise. But early the next afternoon I was back in the Fantasea offices, and Jeroen looked grim.
My luggage hadnt arrived and, far more catastrophic, one of Fantaseas two engines had broken down as she was returning from the Similan Islands. She would be out of service for at least three weeks. Fantasea would before too long be superseded by a new liveaboard, Ocean Rover, but in the meantime Jeroen told me he had already chartered a substitute boat.
The following evening, 45 minutes before our sailing time, my luggage finally arrived at the airport. A fast cab ride brought me back to the Fantasea office just in time to join the other divers as they were driven to the beach for transfer to the June Hong Chian Lee - a traditional Chinese junk, complete with golden dragons and red sails, converted for diving.
We would be sailing with the junks boat crew, but the dive crew was pure Fantasea. In the warm darkness, with the traditional firecrackers exploding on the bow for good luck, we set sail for the Similan Islands and beyond.
I felt I needed every firecracker in the string because, as everyone knows, bad luck comes in threes.
I neednt have worried. For a day and a half we dived the Similans. At Christmas Point, Mark Strickland showed us a bright orange Commersons frogfish, almost 30cm long.
Near the end of a night dive at the Bommies, with my bottom time running low, I found several sleeping parrotfish, but failed to get pictures because the batteries in my F5 had died.
We dived at Elephants Head, where fields of small, colourful soft corals cover the rocks down deep, and clownfish-filled sea anemones are plentiful in shallower water. Then at Ko Bon, with a fully loaded camera and fresh batteries, I found a zebra shark resting on the bottom in 39m.
Mark had told us that these zebra sharks are shy and dont like to be approached suddenly, so I settled to the bottom and sat quietly for several minutes before starting to crawl slowly towards it. I had closed to within shooting distance and shot about 10 frames when the shark suddenly twitched several times, then turned and swam a metre closer to me, stopping with its head in a much nicer position for pictures.
There it sat, patiently. I finished my roll of film before making the long, slow ascent required by my overtime in the depths.
On the third day we dived at Richelieu Rock, an isolated, jagged granite outcropping that just breaks the water surface, rising 40m from the sandy ocean floor. Its a fish magnet, home to swirling schools of baitfish and snappers, multitudes of groupers, and more scorpionfish per square metre than I have ever seen before. This time I also had the chance to photograph mating octopuses and a large manta ray as it flew by.
We pulled anchor and headed north into waters new to me. Late that night we cleared immigration and added a Burmese observer to the crew. Just before dawn we arrived at Three Islets and it was there, near the end of the first dive, that I found the magnificent male cuttlefish and his antagonists. The whole of my second and third dives were spent photographing them.
By late afternoon the cuttlefish action had tailed off, so I used the last dive of the day to shoot several reef scenes of crinoids sitting among soft corals and gorgonians, and a pair of yellow ghost pipefish.
Burma Banks, broad reefs that rise out of the deep ocean and come to within about 20m of the surface, beckoned the following day. On the morning dives we drifted in crystal currents, passing over orange gorgonians and red soft corals, and among schools of goatfish, snappers and surgeonfish.
Marks afternoon shark feed succeeded in attracting three sleek silvertips and a 2.5m-long tawny nurse shark so friendly that he carried her from the feeding bucket to within a couple of metres of my camera on his shoulder.
Mark later told me he had been feeding that particular female for more than five years. I enjoy diving with Mark, who shares my passion for underwater photography, knows more about the marine life of the area than almost anyone else and shares his knowledge freely.
Turning south-eastward, we dived at High Rock the following day before crossing back into Thai waters and retracing our route to Phuket via Richelieu Rock and the Similan Islands.
We also stopped at Ko Tachai, spending most of the dive with a manta which was willing to stay a while with three boatloads of divers. And I got another crack at the sleeping parrotfish at the bommies and, with fresh batteries and a full roll of film, achieved the shots I wanted.
And then I did the whole trip all over again.
Not all Fantaseas cruises include Burma. The Similan Islands and Richelieu Rock are richer in fish life, and probably have clearer water more of the time, but the Burmese extension added new, enjoyable dimensions, with more of the smaller macro subjects such as nudibranchs, shrimp and colourful snails, as well as the shark-feed.
Phuket is one of the most competitive dive markets in Asia, with more than three dozen boats taking divers to the Similans and Richelieu Rock. Its unusual to be the only boat on a good site, and I have seen as many as six at the latter. But only about a third of these boats travel to Burma, and we saw only one other dive boat at one site during our three days there.