DAYS 13 & 14 - Thursday 9th and Friday 10th July 2009 - Lions (fish) and leopards (sharks) and wrecks: oh my!

It was only after days of prodding and words of conviction from Nick that I finally relented and decided to buy another two days of scuba diving training; in this case, an Advanced Open Water Course, which would allow submersion of 30 metres – just 10 from the absolute maximum allowed in recreational scuba diving (which is 40, in case your maths skills are as terrible as mine).

My pre-dive briefing with Adam, involving much nodding and taking notes

Thus we once again found ourselves on the dive boat, speeding towards Racha Yai. I had by now become certain than I was somewhat blessed; the weather had miraculously cleared, despite preceding days of rain and cloud, and the sun was promising a scorcher. My British penchant to moan about the climate was in shreds.

The ship's cook washing vegetables for lunch

The first dive of the day would be different to my previous outings as Nick was now armed with a digital camera, securely enclosed in a waterproof case. After some short tests which included me hovering in water, legs crossed, demonstrating buoyancy control, Adam led us on a fun dive, over and through Racha Yai’s coral reefs.

I attempt buoyancy control - with limited success

We were delighted to discover an enormous moray eel, gaping out of its captured awning cavern and resolutely blind to our presence as Nick happily snapped away.

Adam and I with the moray eel

The moray eel - the camera flash brings out the hidden underwater colours!

The subsequent dive, however, did not succeed with quite so much light joviality. The skill I was supposed to demonstrate was underwater navigation. As it included much computation and, God forbid, numbers, I was naturally hopeless. My repeated inaccurate calculations and flapping in the wrong direction, casting occasional glances at my compass, only to be buffeted by the strong current into swimming even further off course were taking a toll: Adam’s growing frustration was becoming evident by his increasingly louder and more disgruntled underwater grumbling, and Nick later admitted to consuming far more air than he is used to after continual attempts to catch me and save me from crashing headlong into a reef. Upon broaching the nitrogen limit, we ascended, having failed to complete the task in time. Aware that the practically wasted dive had been nothing less an unmitigated disaster, my journey back to Phuket included much dejected silence and shameful head-hanging.

Nick has no such troubles with navigation

My spirits were reignited the next day, as it would include my first ever 30-metre dive – and what a dive! It would be a visit to none other than the King Cruiser, a 48-metre ferry wreck. There are three conflicting theories to the origin of the King Cruiser wreck, as the ferry was allegedly in perfect condition when it went down on a flat, calm day, in the middle of the ocean. Firstly, that the captain had been drinking a little bit too much prior to the commercial journey to Phi Phi island. Next, that the accident was the result of an elaborate insurance scam. Lastly, that the major dive schools on Phuket had each chipped in a few thousand baht, a successful bribe directed towards the captain so they could ensure Phuket’s first wreck: a huge draw and big money-spinner amongst diving enthusiasts. (The latter is popularly believed to be the most likely, and I am inclined to agree.)

Changing the cannister between dives - a few seconds later, it exploded (not really)

The ship itself is extraordinary. In the 12 years since it was lost from the surface, the underwater world has quickly claimed it for itself. Coral has spread over its great hull, infecting the interior and attracting millions of fish and sea creatures of all shapes and sizes. Unfortunately the camera was left safely onboard throughout this dive, as Adam strongly advised constant wariness, not because of danger from animals, but because the rusted steel and numerous sharp outcroppings could damage scuba equipment far more easily than anything not fabricated by humans. I kept this in mind as I swam cautiously through a corroded open doorway, narrowly avoiding a drifting lion fish in the process.

King Cruiser had been interesting, but the next dive would include a sighting of the most beautiful creature yet seen by my inexperienced underwater eyes. We were diving at the aptly-named Shark Point, home to dozens of leopard sharks. Virtually harmless to humans, this particular shark, at least two metres long, was lying casually in the sand. Adam inched his way towards it while I followed close behind until we were but an arm’s length away from its head. We had followed Adam’s earlier instructions; approach only from the front, otherwise it will flee instantly. A few seconds passed as a cleaner fish wriggled up its back and the animal idly opened and closed its mouth. I made a sudden, inadvertent movement and the shark instantly whipped around and lithely propelled itself into the murky distance, beating its powerful tail just once or twice.

Before a giant stride entry - Nick was determined to capture my swimming shorts on camera

Adjusting my mask

The third and final dive of the day was also the shallowest, taking place along the rocky and coral-encrusted walls of Koh Doc Mai. Adam had thoughtfully brought along his own camera and handed it to Nick, who snapped a few photos before handing it to me. Driven by the desire to capture the underwater world in photographic form, I went snap-happy photographed anything and everything, often of mundane pieces of coral, or of lonely fish. I began to form an appreciation for underwater photographers; the fish in particular frequently darted from the frame, leaving a pointless photograph of a frustratingly bare patch of rock. My patience began to fray; I suppressed the urge to grab a fish and tie it to a rock with a piece of seaweed.

Prior to an ascent - look, it's difficult to pose underwater.

This dive was memorable for three other events; a brief encounter with a pitch-black undersea cave, a quick glace at a solitary seahorse, and my repeated collisions with other divers followed by my frantic gesticulated apologies. One such impact with a Japanese fellow resulted in me shouting “sorry!”, only remembering too late that speaking underwater is impossible. My attempt at an apology yielded a stream of bubbles and sounded more akin to “murrblurb”. I hoped desperately that he didn’t assume an obscene insult, although the likelihood of such is increased by his replying with the flicking of a middle finger.

Koh Doc Mai

While Adam, Nick and I awaited the boat on the surface of the sea, rising and falling with the surging waves, I contemplated my scuba journey so far and realised that I could hardly wait for another opportunity to launch myself into the depths of the earth’s ocean.

Nick and I

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