Mar 18, 2013

WMT24 16-18 Mar 2013

Mike Newman and Greg Reed 'followed on' for two trips; I swapped Greg from Heikki's group, with Mike from my group; for this trip. I figured they might enjoy a change; and Mike benefitted from a smaller group as Greg had on the previous trip. This would also be the last trip for our popular masseuse Dtik. I hope she can join us again in the future - if not just for her wacky hairbands!

There were many other returning guests on this trip; mostly Singapore based, taking advantage of the shorter trip to a rarer destination in our schedule; spanning the weekend.

I entertained Peter and Katy Downs; Father and daughter buddy team; and Evertonians (footballing part of Liverpool, England), who reside in Singapore. Peter has a great music collection.

Charlie and Joanne were back for their third trip of this Thailand season; they also reside in Singapore. Charlie is a geologist who used to lecture at UCLA. They are from Seattle, Washington state, USA. It was partly this detail that prompted me to transfer Greg from Heikki's group; as Greg is also from Seattle, Washington.

Hayami took care of Anne-Sylvie; whom usually attends with buddy: Sara, but she was absent on this occasion. Gerda Heinzel returned after months. Steven Neo dives regularly with White Manta. This is the fourth trip he and I have completed together in the last calendar year! Completing the quartet was Ben from Germany; Kerry Leach, manager of Sub-Aqua and personal friend recommended this trip for Ben, and he helped translate sometimes for Gerda.

Joining Mike in Heikki’s group was a friend of mine and regular White Manta diver, Doug Lowther. Doug regularly organises groups of divers for our trips, and indeed his mutual friends will be joining us in Layang Layang soon. On this occasion only Ken MacDonell joined Doug, himself only absent from White Manta Diving for months. Finalising Heikki's group was Tony Bhatti; an Englishman residing in Singapore. Tony has been diving with us for many a season.

Having dropped off the majority of guests from the previous trip at Patong Bay, we quickly sailed onto Chalong Bay to pick-up guests from the well utilised boat pier.

Mike and Greg took the opportunity to enjoy the sundeck to themselves. Previously, Mike had reminisced with me how Patong Bay looked over 40 years ago when he first visited. It was an engaging trip down memory lane, one I wish I could have experienced myself - but then youth would be traded, I was probably only just born. Both Mike and Greg are fascinating guys, so many worldly experiences. Greg would pick-up our boat guitar in the morning, giving me a short melody to caress my mood into the morning. I can tell that Greg is quite a talented player, I'm just sorry our guitar strings are in need of replacement and it's a bit out of tune. I'll endeavour to fix that pronto.

Guests arrived about 9pm, so we got our dive gear set-up quick and I invited those less familiar with our operation for a clipped briefing in the saloon after dinner.

Saturday, 16th March 2013

Day 1 would be spent at the twin pinnacles of Hin Daeng and Hin Muang; Red & Purple Rock respectively. These are considered the highlight sites of the trip.

We opted for Hin Daeng first, which is just as well, since there were other boats there too; they all did Hin Muang for their first dive. We started early to miss the falling tide before dive 2. Hin Daeng was in good fettle, plenty of giant moray eels; really nice dendronephthya corals; and sporting a healthy school of batfish closely identified by Charlie and Joanne. Visibility wasn't at its best, but we really enjoyed the leisurely dive, particularly the vertical drop-off that once nominated Hin Daeng as Thailand's best wall dive (not true actually).

Next, we completed repetitive dives at Hin Muang; the longer, deeper extension of submerged rock. The current helped us along on the first dive, and they were both nice dives. Both times we witnessed a turtle, but it was not really what we were hoping for - Hin Muang is one of the stages for one of the underwater world's exhibitions; schooling manta rays or perhaps even a whale shark. We were without lucky omen, Tristan Bellville - he claims to have a high hit rate for gentle giants here. Alas, he had to do a visa run. Perhaps the large fish did too!

We finished the day with a dusk dive at Hin Daeng, having marginally avoided nearly every other boat during the day. The last dive was a corker, Joanne found a cuttlefish, there was plenty of fusilier action we just lapped up the end of day reef activity.

We sailed to Koh Haa, close-by, for the night – and where we would spend the rest of the next day.

Sunday, 17th March 2013

Waking up in the five limestone rock masses of Koh Haa (Haa is Thai for five) is a rare treat. The islands are stunning. With large islands at either end of the cluster and a third one forming a lagoon with the other two; amongst the most eye catching limestone formations in all of Thailand.

We chose to dive at Koh Haa Neua to start the day. We settled on a 6.30am wake up so that guests got a bit of a lie in, but early risers would enjoy the sunrise - stunning.

Koh Haa Neua is island 1 in the chain. Neua refers to North, which is intuitive. It is the best island to dive in my opinion and we started with one of the favourite features "The Chimney". It is a small vertical swim-through with 2 openings, just a few metres from the surface; either side of another swim-through full of copper sweepers. This swim-through drops down vertically in a chimney-like passage, single file only, to about 20m. If that isn't exciting enough - one exits amongst several rocky outcrops amongst one of the most prolific fields of purple soft coral you are ever likely to witness. This divesite has so many delicate whip corals, bushy fan corals and sponges that you mind goes dizzy with the potential discoveries.

We found a few 'cool' nudibranchs including Stricklandi and Tesselata of the Halgaerda order. Peter Downs, a self-confessed macro lover, was in his element. Sarcasm may be the lowest form of wit, but nothing could prepare me for the blank expressions observed; he was that astonished at my interest in these small critters.

I zapped this picture of him during the safety stop, using Katy's camera - with lionfish in the foreground.

After the dive Heikki and I checked out an open air pool, sealed inside island 3 at high tide. Heikki reminisced at once completing a confined water dive in a small patch of pebbly sand here - since the sea was too rough outside on that occasion. Smart thinking I thought. What a magnificent natural little pool it was. Limestone rock makes jagged edges and easy foot holds for the competent climber. Heikki explained that we could climb to the top of the island and enjoy the view over the lagoon - so we gave it a try. He went the 'tried and tested' route, and I tried another one. I dodged a couple of crabs and nearly put my hand on a sea krait (confirming that they can slither out of water) and got stuck. Heikki fared better and the recce was complete. We would return here with the guests at high tide after lunch.

Second dive was enjoyed at Koh Haa Yai; the big island. We had a great dive in the 'Cathedral' a large cavern network; by network I mean two adjoining caverns, one larger than the other that you swim easily between. Each has a large opening out to sea where the light pours in. There's nothing much to see in the cave, but it is still magic. We surfaced in the pocket of air above sea level, I was tempted to blast out a few verses of opera in the natural amphitheatre - absolutely marvellous.

We re-descended back into the larger cave and sought to explore a small tunnel at the back of the cavern, which opens out into another small cavern. However, Heikki's group had already explored this, and silted it out - good and proper.

We moved outside the caves and were met by divers from MY Genesis - I think. Pity, they could see that we were diving there already. Turning left shoulder from the caverns enterprises the divers with a series of deeper limestone rock outcrops, covered in soft corals and sponges. Lots of whip corals populate the sea bottom at the edge of the site; I measured one at 2.4m! I remember past dives here yielded ornate ghost pipefish. One such dive I witnessed a banded sea krait that had been trapped by a zigzag oyster. Poor thing was hanging limply with its head stuck fast in the bivalve.

Back to the limestone pool; we had to dive under the limestone rock to enter the pool at high tide. All guests scaled the pool side to the top of the island and enjoyed the view. After a group photo Ben jumped from the top of the island into the sea below. It must have been about a 25m plunge! I was impressed.

I returned to the pool to witness Heikki back-flipping into the pool from the climbing route and even had a wee dive myself - I didn't score very well.

Dive 3 of the day was conducted back at Island 1. We put it to vote, that, or the lagoon - even giving cards to the guests with 1 or 2 for the options. Number 1's were waved with quite a bit of vigour.

We started our dive where we had finished in the morning, continuing on our right shoulder until the north-east corner where a finger of rock continues outward to satellite outcrops.

The first 'find' of the dive was to occupy a good third of it; a pair of yellow ornate ghost pipefish in a deep wide crack in the rock at about 9m. The smaller of the two retreated back into the depths of the recess when the torchlight was shone to point them out. Charlie was eager to see what it was, and proved easy to show. Peter & Katy were also on the scene quite quickly and Katy passed me her camera to get a good picture. Peter took some video with his Sealife camera - footage that I am sure he will review repeatedly over the next few months; he could barely contain his excitement at the spiky stick. Joanne proved more difficult to share the find. She routinely explores the water column vacant of other divers - Charlie had gone to join her and I found them quite a way forward enjoying a formation of big fin squid in the open water just off the reef with Greg.

Max was guiding Naffa and Ying on a DSD experience (Naffa is a certified diver, but doesn't dive much). They had passed me too, so I escorted Joanne, Greg and they, back to the spiky stick so everyone could delight in its spiky magnificence. Greg gave it his usual 'thumbs-up'

That took a bit if time; during which, Heikki, up ahead; had found some harlequin shrimps, another rare species in these waters.

We enjoyed the finger of rock extending from the island, richly furnished in corals, sponge and fauna. Charlie was in his element - mesmerised by the abundant schools of fish at about 16m. It was a very colourful part of the dive. After we enjoyed that for a while we continued on until we sighted a hole in the rock. We swam through to a shallower side and finished the dive. A perfect end to a rewarding dive.

I promised the guests that a night dive here is magnificent. However, Mike, Charlie & Joanne decided to go ahead and do a sunset dive with Heikki. That meant Doug, Ken and Tony joined Max for the night dive. I guess they missed the sunset - which was a scorcher!

Our night dive was immense. I like to dive around the wall of the back-side of island 4 for the night dive, and the current eased us to island 2 where I like to finish on the shallow sandy area dividing the rock formations underwater.

The wall is so colourful, particularly under the light of the torch. Deep reds, absorbed by the water column, during the day, dominate the spectrum. Yet, all the colours of a Dulux paint chart would be comfortably represented. Camouflaging themselves amongst this fusion of colour are decorator crabs. These unusual critters stick sponge matter to themselves to blend in. I found about half a dozen. Towards the end of the dive I was looking at a particularly large and ornately decorated thorny oyster when a small white protrusion caught my eye in a withered-looking sea-fan below. I thought it was a short-pouch pygmy pipehorse at first, but as I closed in, it was better: a small white seahorse - hurrah!

During the last few minutes of the dive I searched for sea-moths on the sand. Didn't find any, but did come across an anemone hermit crab and a sole.

Monday, 18th March 2013

The final day would be a very compact schedule. We were aiming to get back to port at 2pm after 3 dives. That's quite tight. We started early at Koh Bida Nok, hoping to see leopard shark (aka zebra shark). Hayami's group was fortunate, the rest of us less so, but we really enjoyed the rich waters of Phi Phi. So many fish and really bright healthy corals; the visibility was quite good to, where on occasion it can be a bit challenging.

Next dive was at Shark Point. No boats here either. This would be the last chance to see the leopard shark. We descended on the first pinnacle to the delight of a small young leopard shark at 8m only! All of the divers circled the shark, but kept their distance. I thought it flinched to swim away a couple of times, a little anxious at the attention it was receiving. However, it stayed put; I wonder if other divers, later in the day would behave with the same decorum and allow the shark to rest in peace; probably not. We hunted for the resident tiger-tail seahorses and found another, larger leopard shark. I was made-up, all trip Katy wanted to see something bigger than a turtle - way to go!

Last dive was conducted at Thailand's best wall dive - Koh Doc Mai (Flower Island). I used to dive this site a few times a week, back in my day-tripping heyday. I loved it, and so do all the dive guides in this area. Bushy sea fans and bulging red barrel sponges punctuate the overhanging walls of various oysters and sea whips. I often think the walls lean over with the sheer weight of the biomass.

In the past we would find frogfish amongst other treats. Today the highlight was a banded snake eel, foraging along the bottom at the foot of the wall. This rare species looks a lot like a banded sea krait, but it has gills and a long dorsal fin scaling the length of its body.

It was a marvellous trip to finish the season. I wish we could dive Koh Haa more often. It is a delight, better than Richelieu Rock overall, in my opinion.

It was nice to finish the season amongst familiar faces, folks that have enjoyed many experiences with in the past - and hope to continue to do so in the future.

See you again soon.

Trip report by cruise leader: Christopher Hutton.

Photos courtesy of Joanne Petrina (people); me (landscapes) and Katy Downs' camera (underwater).

Trip: WMT24 16-18 Mar 2013
Author: Christopher Hutton