Scuba Diving in Thailand: A Balancing Act. A father-son relationship deepens during a scuba trip exploring an exotic underworld off Thailand.
Last spring, when my 22-year-old son Forrister and I pulled on wet suits and shouldered scuba tanks for our first night dive, we’d been aboard the Chinese junk in the Indian Ocean off Thailand for all of 24 hours. As our launch shuttled us out to smooth granite rocks just peeking above the surface near Island No. 9 in the Similan archipelago, I wondered whether I’d made a terrible mistake. Even including that day’s three dives, the sum total of Forrister’s diving experience amounted to only seven.
The German couple seated next to us counted 2,000 dives between them. My last dive had been 17 years earlier in the Galápagos Islands. Since then technology had leapt forward with slick new dive computers, fancy regulators, Nitrox air mixtures, powerful LED flashlights and tiny video cameras. Could I protect Forrister? Was I putting him into a situation beyond his experience? Had I gone too far this time?
I had not seen Forrister since the day after his college graduation in 2014 when he had left the next morning for a yearlong teaching fellowship in China. Communication had been spotty. I had been eager to continue a recent family tradition of taking a newly minted postgraduate child on an adventurous trip. I’ve always valued different kinds of travel with my family, whether it’s all of us together or one-on-one time with each of the two children. My then 21-year-old daughter and I had taken a challenging motorcycle trip through north Vietnam more than three years earlier. Escaping the distractions of home and predictable family interactions, we formed a new adult relationship in a neutral environment. We built memories that strengthened our relationship considerably. I wanted her to feel the excitement and empowerment of taking a trip outside her comfort zone. But while my daughter and I often think alike, Forrister and I haven’t always. I’m strong-willed and so is he. Maybe it was just the father-son thing.
Far away now from the lights of the big boat, a wet inkiness obliterated the divide between sea and sky. We fell backward into the water on the count of three, plunging into a darkness so total that it appeared I had lost my vision entirely. My breathing steadied after a few gulps of air. I twisted on my flashlight, which gave some comfort, but only illuminated the thinnest sliver of my new world. I spun around and saw nothing but my son and the dive master fiddling with their own lights. I swam over to Forrister. In diving parlance, he and I were “dive buddies,” who must never leave the other’s side or sight for safety reasons. The dive master would occasionally join us, but Forrister and I must count on each other. (Things rarely go wrong underwater, but if they do, they can happen quickly and end badly. An alert and nearby buddy can rectify most mishaps.) We descended.
Night diving resembles a caravan of cars snaking down an unlit mountain road on a moonless evening, inducing a strangely disembodied feeling. An active imagination immediately offered up a nightmare’s host of toothy, ravenous animals that lurked just outside the beam’s paltry reach. But these terrible fancies proved surprisingly easy to dismiss in the astonishing peacefulness. An incredible serenity flowed over me. That was, until my tyro son decided to head off on his own.
Five minutes into the dive at 60 feet, Forrister swam into a boulder canyon, making straight for a cave opening. No, I thought, you’re not really going in there. But, without so much as a glance back at me, he kicked right into its black maw, his light dimming, then blacking out entirely. The dive master had disappeared too. Just like that, Forrister had broken the first rule of the sacrosanct safety system by not communicating his intentions and leaving me, his buddy, alone. I suspect he believed that I would follow him, but there was no way my 56-year-old self was going into that cave at night. As I watched this scene from a few dozen feet away, two lines of an Edgar Allan Poe poem became stuck ominously in my head, “All that we see or seem/Is but a dream within a dream.”
I swam near the cave opening, running down a list of all the things that could go wrong: a tank caught on a rock obstruction or knocking one’s mask off and getting disoriented, all of which I had experienced underwater. Now anger and worry mixed into a horrible cocktail. I decided to spot him a couple of minutes, then follow him. Before that moment arrived, an eternity underwater at night, he emerged and rejoined me. Relief suddenly washed away all the worry, but not all the irritation. Together we swam up to a pair of red-glowing eyes that belonged to a large painted spiny lobster bristling with an exotic armored shell. We shut our lights off to experience total blackness, then swept our hands to agitate fluorescent phytoplankton. We looked in on a parrotfish asleep peacefully in a crevice.
Up top, my calm dissolved when I inquired sharply about the cave. “I thought you were going to follow me into it,” Forrister replied matter-of-factly. “It was cool.”
“The buddy system,” I began, but felt a lecture coming on so I stopped. It’s an awkward conversation. “Nothing went wrong, right, Paps?” My “But, what if …” question died on the tip of my tongue. I had taught him all his life to be independent and curious and to explore on his own. After all, it was his idea to go off to China and create a music department in a new school for autistic children. Now I needed him to temper that wanderlust just a little bit. I wondered if we would find a balance between his wanting to push the edges with my need for our being safe.
Even getting the trip off the ground had proved a little tricky. While my super-organized, enthusiastic daughter and I immediately pulled out notepads and fired up the laptop at the prospect of an adventure, Forrister and I had had a harder time. Discussion of a postgraduation trip had foundered.
Then, from China, I received a text from him: “Hey Paps, you dive, right? Just got certified. Wanna go diving in Thailand?” My wife, whose healthy taste for adventure does not extend to scuba diving or motorcycle riding, supported the idea. O.K., I thought, we could do this.
We decided on the Similans, one of the world’s premier diving destinations, an archipelago and national park that lie some 40 miles off Thailand’s southwestern coast, in the Andaman Sea. Their remoteness virtually requires serious divers to sign up for a so-called liveaboard, a type of tour in which a group of divers spend multiple days aboard a boat outfitted with oxygen compressors, cooks and dive instructors. While divers sleep, the boat cruises to the next destination. Without a moment’s hesitation we both agreed to forsake the luxuries of a sleek, modern cruiser in favor of a week aboard the June Hong Chian Lee, a 100-foot-long, 140-ton, three-mast Chinese junk built in Penang, Malaysia, in 1962. The junk’s Hollywood past clinched the deal: James Bond and his girlfriend sailed into the sunset aboard it during the last scenes of the 1974 film“The Man With the Golden Gun.”
I made arrangements for a seven-day excursion that would take us north to the outlying islands of Koh Bon, Koh Tachai and, finally, Richelieu Rock, the latter a rock pinnacle not far from the Myanmar border that barely breaks the surface of the water and hosts a world-famous soft-coral reef. I also started burning up laps at the pool. My son and I met on the beach near Phuket, the beachside resort town a little more than an hour’s flight south of Bangkok.
As we motored out of Patong Beach Harbor, members of the mostly Thai eight-person crew shot off fireworks to scare away the bad spirits and encourage the good ones to join us aboard. A traditional bouquet of good-luck flowers adorned the bow. The junk featured a broad foredeck, upon which teak deck chairs lined a row of tables, all protected from the bright sun by a tarp. Most of the 15 divers onboard set up shop here, sucking down water mixed with electrolytes, making entries into dive logs and comparing notes. Forrister flirted with an attractive Swedish banker 10 years his senior. Among us was an affable 40-year-old Swiss-German man, who had had a stroke decades ago that left his legs virtually useless; scuba enabled him to experience the extraordinary freedom that water confers. Two paying clients, dive instructors hailing from Britain and France, offered good-natured recommendations on equipment and diving techniques. At night waves gently slapped the sides of the boat and lulled us to sleep in our bunks.
Each day began with a bell at 6:30 a.m., a briefing at 7 and a dive at 7:15. Once we dried off from our first dive of the day, our two diminutive female Thai cooks brought out a multicourse breakfast of Thai and Western dishes. Few of our shoreside meals had matched these delicious home-cooked feasts, which included sautéed whole fish, spicy massaman curry, tom yum goong (spicy shrimp soup), larb gai (spicy ground chicken), fried spring rolls and pad thai. And there was always a vegetarian option. We repeated this process in the midmorning, midafternoon and evening. A refrigerator full of Singha and Chang beer awaited us after our last dive of the day.
A workable buddy system still continued to elude Forrister and me. He didn’t want me to tell him what to do, nor did I want to, but safety demanded communication. His was not the petulance of a teenager but the forming confidence of a newly emerged adult, committed to doing things on his own. We worked on some navigational skills underwater — and our signals got tangled, mostly around who was supposed to do what. Our dive master, Johnathan Winter, who was in his 40s and otherwise a man of great sense and knowledge, noticed our difficulties and advised me to remind Forrister who was paying for the trip. “Do you have any children?” I asked. “Nope,” he answered.
On the eastern side of the islands, which faced the Thai coast and were relatively protected from strong currents, we met forests of soft corals, beds of anemones with their waving tentacles offering refuge for bright orange clownfish right out of “Finding Nemo.” Yet the miniforests of corals in neon pink, purple, orange and yellow were more Peter Max-inspired crazy than anything Pixar offers up, their stalks so delicate that one swipe of a fin can destroy years of growth. Some gorgonian fan corals grew larger than a linebacker. Other huge, white, feathery soft corals reminded me of an ostrich’s rear end. About them swam the world’s most colorful fish, including my favorite, the powder blue surgeonfish, whose flanks bore a splash of blue as rich as the sky on the finest spring day.
In the profusion of color, we almost missed a pair of bright yellow tigertail seahorses with tails interlocked. The scruffy six-inch male appeared a little beleaguered, his stomach distended with some 1,500 eggs deposited earlier by the female. He’d bring them to term, then spit out a host of tiny progeny. Forrister and I learned to swim right up to the coral and peer at the teeming reef from inches away. That way I spotted an unfortunately named varicose wart slug, its black four-inch form exquisitely decorated with a Warhol-esque pattern of tiny fried eggs.
The islands’ western shores revealed a wholly different character. Calm, sandy-bottomed waters gave way to strong currents and jumbles of house-size boulders that formed avenues and alleys, caves and twisting passages. Three-quarters of the way through our trip, we dove on Elephant Head Rock, off Island No. 8, which possessed a city block’s worth of narrow passages through a boulder field. We negotiated this three-dimensional labyrinth, levitating up over rocks by holding our breath to become more buoyant, then exhaling to sink back down and kicking through dark passages. Forrister and I worked in harmony, changing leads effortlessly, following colorful fish, peering under boulders and pointing out hidden creatures. Few soft corals lived here, but the angelfish popped psychedelically against the gray backdrop. Only hours later did I realize that we had achieved perfect balance underwater.
Forrister took over my tiny video camera, its clear, waterproof housing fitting comfortably in his palm. While still wet from a dive, we gathered on the foredeck and queued up our videos on an iPad. Forrister played his clip of a highly venomous but shy banded sea snake undulating into a rocky crevice. A little too close, I thought. Another diver’s video showed a pumpkin-size octopus changing from gray to white to black within 18 seconds.
But the photographs of a modest but extremely talented German insurance claims adjuster silenced us all. For several days, he had manhandled his bulky rig of lights, camera and waterproof case. I had watched him flirt with a fish, coming close then backing away, then coming close again, until he earned its trust. His portrait of a giant moray eel from only inches away revealed orange eyes that gleamed with alien intelligence. The eel’s powerful naked head and neck were as thick as my thigh, its snaggle teeth so clearly designed to tear a fish to pieces. Coming off a dive here was like waking from a dream, and his images — an unexpected gift — reminded us that our now-fading memories were real, and as bright and extraordinary as we recalled. Looking around I saw that the others felt, as I did, that we were extremely privileged to visit such a strange and beautiful realm. Sharing those photographs created an unusual bond among us, the kind usually shared only with a close friend. The German photographer and I vowed to dive again together.
The islands’ western side also brought a huge school of pelagic — or open-sea — fish. Forrister and I approached a school of several hundred three- to four-foot-long blackfin barracuda, their perfect predator bodies and mouthfuls of keen teeth unsettling but mesmerizing to watch. They were not interested in us, so we maneuvered underneath them and observed their slow, methodical circling, a collective hunting behavior they use to corral prey fish, gradually narrowing the trap as they rise.
Strangely absent were the ocean’s top predator: Our 15 divers only collectively spotted a handful of blacktip and whitetip reef sharks, along with a couple of leopard sharks, in our week of diving. Johnathan, who has been diving here for nearly 10 years, reported that their once abundant numbers have been decimated by aggressive overfishing. I expected perhaps to encounter coral bleaching and other more conspicuous examples of reef destruction, but the absence of sharks disturbed me the most. Yet Thai park officials have taken reef conservation seriously, banning visitation to a number of once-popular dive sites so reefs can recover from damage caused by anchors, divers and fishermen. Most beaches on the Similans remain closed to protect the spawning grounds of endangered marine turtles.
I was routinely running out of air a little before Forrister, mostly because I was much older than he — and on one dive he decided to continue on, leaving me to surface alone. When he finally came up he realized that I was angry in earnest this time. Buddies always surface together, I told him. That’s just the way it was. He listened carefully, then agreed. It was as though we were learning a new, challenging language together.
Things settled down after that; we even got a bonus. On our 12th dive, at Koh Tachai, we ascended to our safety stop at about 20 feet, when an immense, meaty black-and-white form glided by, only a few feet underneath us. Like seeing a moose in the Maine woods or an elephant in Africa, it was too gargantuan to comprehend at first glance. With a wingspan of 10 feet, the reef manta ray bore a wide-open mouth that seemed large enough to swallow one of us. But these rays are truly gentle giants, consuming only plankton. Far below us, the other divers could only make out a vague, immense shape. We had ringside seats as this creature nonchalantly flew by us, flicking its dexterous wings ever so gently. No number of National Geographic documentaries could prepare us for personally witnessing such a moment of profound grace. We acknowledged that unforgettable moment with a nod of our masks.
As the trip progressed, I found that I not only trusted Forrister’s judgment more, but actually welcomed it. More important, I was shedding the ingrained parental need to take care of him every second. He was also paying more attention to safety, touching base underwater with me far more frequently. It had taken time, but we had cobbled out a way to work together. I felt that we had taken some step forward in our adult relationship together.
On the last day, we all helped the crew pull up the dark-red sails for a ritual sail, then sipped margaritas. Forrister — the youngest diver onboard — entertained everyone with flips off the high deck. He’s lean, tall and muscular, and the large tattoo of a cardinal rippled on his back shoulder when he sprang into his dive. I observed how the others loved Forrister’s enthusiasm and curiosity — and saw through their eyes how he’s matured into being his own man. Turns out he’s a really good diver, too, perhaps better than I am.
When it was all over and we had said our goodbyes to our new diving friends, Forrister and I relaxed on a wide stretch of pristine white sand near the resort town of Patong, letting our bodies leach out absorbed nitrogen in our blood before our flights. (Flying without spending a day “off gassing” means you may well experience the debilitating — sometimes fatal — condition called the bends.) The prospect of another trip came up, as well as a conversation about Forrister’s still-gelling future, and why I made certain career decisions. New vistas have opened up for both of us. At breakfast, he reached for a banana and we laughed spontaneously, remembering the moment when he was snorkeling and a hawksbill turtle swam up to him and took a section of banana right out of his hand.
IF YOU GO
Peak season for diving in southern Thailand’s Andaman Sea is between November and April.
You must fly first to Bangkok, then take the one-and-a-half-hour flight on one of a number of inexpensive domestic carriers south to the island province of Phuket, whose three most famous beach towns — Patong, Karon and Kata — line up on the western coast. Patong is an international party town, centered on bar-choked and often over-the-top Bangala Road, while Karon and Kata are quieter and lined with shops and restaurants.
The ever-crowded Red Onion on Karon Beach’s Patak Road serves inexpensive, authentic Thai food (486 Patak Road, 66-7639-6827; no website), while many other nearby restaurants display fresh seafood on ice-lined tables. Simply point to the seafood, then explain how you’d like it prepared. A night market opens on Tuesday and Friday evenings on the grounds of Karon’s Buddhist temple (at Wat Karon on Patak Road, central Karon).
Booking a Boat
The best way to enjoy diving in the Similan Islands is to book a “liveaboard” ship for a week’s trip before arrival. Dive the World (liveaboards.dive-the-world.com) offers a guide to various options, including the Chinese junk June Hong Chian Lee, whose excursions can be found at thejunk.com. A weeklong trip is $750 to $1,390, which includes all food, tanks and air fills, but not alcohol, dive insurance, and nominal Thai national park fees. Most liveaboard companies will rent you every piece of scuba gear that you’ll need. The junk’s equipment charge is approximately $22 per person per day, not including underwater lights and dive computers. They also offer refresher courses onboard.
John F. Ross, a contributing editor to Smithsonian Journeys magazine, is the author most recently of “Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed.”
A version of this article appears in print on February 21, 2016, on page TR1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Balancing Act in the Andaman Sea.
Source : www.nytimes.com