Diving the Similans: Things on a Wreck

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Our last dive in the Similans was at Boonsung Wreck. It used to be a whole boat at the bottom of the sea, but the tsunami lifted it up and smashed it into four big pieces. Ironically, this makes for richer marine life as there’s more space for coral to grow and therefore more places for fish to hide and spawn. Among which were these bored, listless looking longfin bannerfish mooching about the place.

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There were quite a few moray eels and here was one of the few blackspotted morays I’ve seen. It wasn’t too pleased with its hole because soon after I took this picture, it departed and tried to fight a white eye moray for space but sadly was soon defeated and had to go back to its lousy old hole. Poor guy.

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Then there were goby shrimp and their shrimp gobies. It’s cute how all the shrimp does is shovel gravel out of the hole. Talk about a menial task. The goby just guards the hole and darts in at the first sign of trouble. The shrimp never shovels past the middle of the goby’s body. It was so hard to get close enough to take a good picture. This is the best I got.

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Then there were these two lovebird cuttlefish who stuck together despite showing their alarm colours. I think there were too many divers hovering over them and no crevices big enough for them to hide in.

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Last of all was the only set of nudibranch eggs I saw on the trip. It was funny how there weren’t a huge number of nudibranchs in the Similans. The ones I saw were the rather common and boring ones, so it was such a treat to see the ribbony sheets of eggs. See how each pink dot is an egg? I wonder how these things survive without being eaten by predators, they’re so obvious. Maybe they’re poisonous to most fish.

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Boonsung Wreck was a nice easy wreck to dive at. While the viz wasn’t the best, I liked how there was stuff both on the wreck and around it. It was a relaxing end to the diving.

Diving the Similans: Things in Crevices

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There was lots of other good stuff at Koh Bon. A lot of these were crevice dwellers. Some of them were quite shy and it was fun to wait for them to emerge and observe them doing their thing. During the dive, I only saw the two white eye moray eels in the hole and spent ages trying to get a good shot. It was only when I reviewed the pictures out of the water did I notice that there was also a fimbriated eel at the back of the hole. Look carefully above the middle white eye moray’s head and you’ll see its yellow head splotched with black.

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There were other oddities such as this warty orange thing. I have no idea if it’s a coral or a worm or something else, but it’s incredibly pretty nonetheless.

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Then of course there are the ubiquitous Christmas tree worms. They come in lots of different colours and are invariably embedded in brown coral. When you go too close they suddenly withdraw and the entire thing retreats instantaneously into the hole.

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I admit the lighting in the next photo isn’t great but try to spot what’s there. Hint: it takes up quite a bit of the photo. This fella is a master of disguise.

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Can you see it’s a reef octopus? It’s one of the biggest specimens I’ve seen and its tentacles looking quite menacing. Needless to say, I didn’t stay longer than necessary for a few snaps.

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Our dive guide spotted this ornate ghost pipefish quite by chance and he was visibly pleased to be able to point it out to us.

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It’s related to the seahorse and it’s such an odd fish for always being upside down. It’s one of my favourite fish because it’s so pretty and sightings of these aren’t that common.

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Towards dusk, the crustaceans started coming out. Here are some durban dancing shrimp. They’re cute because they always hang out in groups and like to face the same direction.

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It also helps that they’re not painfully shy and are quite happy to pose for pictures. They’re such funny stripey little red things.

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Then there was this lobster with the longest feelers ever. I had to resist the strong urge to pull it out of its hole by its feelers!

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The identity of this crevice dweller stumps me. I looked through my entire fish ID reference book and I can’t find a fish that has a head that looks like My Little Pony! I think it’s a type of blenny, anyone have any ideas?

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And the last of the lot: a banded sea snake! This is probably only the third one I’ve seen and I’ve done a far number of dives. They’re supposed to be several times more poisonous than the most poisonous land snakes but aren’t aggressive. I guess that’s a good sign.

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Diving the Similans: Manta Ray

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We’d left the Similans proper and gone up north to Koh Bon where we had a few decent dives but without seeing much that made us go “wow.” DC and I chatted with Vincent, the guy behind Black Manta, who joined in for this trip and he suggested we go with him for the next dive. Hope was up when Vincent came back from the recce dive saying that he saw mantas!

We were very hopeful in the first 20 minutes of the dive but the hope started to fade as the current picked up and the visibility got worse. At one point the whole group was clinging for our lives to a coral outcrop and there wasn’t much to do except hold on tight and not turn my head lest the current rip off my mask. And then Vincent started pointing. We strained our eyes trying to figure out what it was and then our eyes focused and we saw the manta looming in the distance.

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It then disappeared and then for quite a while we hung back in a more sheltered area rather than by the outer walls of Koh Bon. Soon, we noticed that the divers in the far group started to get excited and swim out further. The manta was back!

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Calmly and unhurriedly, it came past, flapping its wings sedately. The slow strokes belied the strength and speed of the motion as we had to hurry to keep up with the big ray.

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This one was a beauty and huge too! Its wingspan must have been at least 4 metres.

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It seemed to want to get closer and play with us as it wheeled and came round a few times.

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Each time it seemed as if it was teasing us by leaving and then turning round in a sedate circle to come back and check us out.

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It was almost as if it was saying to us, “You puny humans, look how tiny and helpless you are and look how big and lovely and graceful I am.”

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It came up magnificently close.

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So close in fact that my camera couldn’t take in the whole creature!

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I could see clearly its eyes, mouth flaps and gills as it sailed past. If my regulator wasn’t in my mouth it’ll probably have been agape at this majestic sight.

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Soon it was over and the giant manta ray wheeled for the last time and swept back off into the distance.

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Diving the Similans: Beach Time

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It wasn’t all underwater action in the Similans. We stopped at two different white sand beaches there, one a rather rocky beach on a bright sunshiney day.

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This place is called Donald Duck Bay. Quite obvious from the picture eh?

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It was nice to just poke around on the beach, looking out at the view…

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… and watching startled crabs scuttle for their lives to the water.

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Another beach we spent a little time on was much more beautiful. It had the smoothest white sand that Singapore probably could never hope to import. Just too bad about the overcast weather though.

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Here we also spotted crabs, this time duelling hermit crabs.

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Diving the Similans: Not Your Usual Fish

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Of course there are lots of other types of fish and sealife other than the typical, well, fish-shaped fish. Moray eels were rather common and we even came across this one moving homes. It’s rare to see moray eels out of their usual crevices so suddenly seeing this one was a nice surprise. We kept a good distance away from it because giant morays are known to be aggressive. Not quite to the point, but there’s a story about a rather tame one in the Similans that divers fed by hand. One day after getting his usual sausage treat, the moray eel mistook the dive guide’s other hand for more tasty offerings and bit off his thumb in one hefty chomp!

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We found another giant moray under a coral cover and this time it was facing off with a small hawksbill turtle. Too bad I had a bit of problem fiddling with my camera and didn’t manage to get in for a closer shot.

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In the end the turtle and the eel just minded their own business and the turtle wandered off to munch on some moss. It was a bit of an anticlimax, like the turtle telling us to run along, nothing to see here.

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Along another patch of coral, the visibility cleared up a bit and we chanced upon this beautiful cuttlefish. Once it saw us, it reared up cautiously, though its colours remained the usual striated spots. Only if it got spooked would it start having fluorescent violet spots ringing the edges of its body.

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I like how otherworldly and calm it looked against the backdrop of coral and anemone.

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Diving the Similans: Bigger Fish

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My luck is not too bad for slightly bigger fish. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to see pairs go by, like these white collar butterflyfish. I like how the yellow-green-blue of the main body contrasts with the bright red tail. It’s almost as if the fish was drawn by a very skilled primary school kid who only had the four colours.

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Coral groupers like these always make me feel a bit hungry. I still feel slightly guilty about it, but looking at one of these makes me think of perfectly steamed fish, Cantonese style. I can just imagine the tender flesh of perfectly cooked fresh fish accented by light soy sauce and shredded spring onion. All of it sliding down my throat. It’s amazing how one glance can evoke all these sensations, even underwater.

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Then there’s one of my favourites: the clown triggerfish. It’s just crazy how madly flamboyant this fish is, with the bright white spots and the yellow lipstick. It just looks so comically out of place.

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Then the other joy of slightly bigger fish is watching them at cleaning stations. Here we have some fusiliers, most likely variable-lined fusiliers, mingling around. Look carefully to see what they’re up to.

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Did you see how they’re opening their mouths to let the little cleaner wrasse in? The wrasse goes in to eat up parasites and other edible yuckies in the fusiliers. I’d never seen fish gaping their mouths open so wide for cleaning before!

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And talking about cleaning stations, check out this cool sight. The two fish are the same species, yellowfin surgeonfish, even though they’re such starkly different colours. Better yet, they can change colour at will. When they want to be cleaned, they turn to their black night colours. Isn’t great to change colour at will?

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Diving the Similans: Small Fish

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I’m not very lucky with big fish. Whenever we’re out for a dive to see something like a special sort of shark or bumphead parrotfish or whatever, I rarely get the first glimpse. Also, my group is invariably the one that doesn’t see anything while other people spend ages looking at it. Case in point was that my group was the only one throughout the whole 4-day trip that didn’t see a single leopard shark, not even at the dive site named after them.

Perhaps it’s because I don’t see as many big fish or perhaps just out of sheer perversity, I like taking pictures of small fish. Each trip, I take one of the prerequisite photos of clownfish. These here playing in the anemone are called false clown anemonefish. It’s funny how they look so cute frolicking among the anemone tendrils yet have such grumpy expressions up close.

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Next is a series of my favourite little fish: the hawkfish family. These are infernally difficult to get good pictures of because they’re very shy. The pixy hawkfish is one of the shyer ones. Even though they’re rather common, most of the time I see them peeking out from a coral crevice. Either that, or the dart of a tail into shelter. I like the way it cocks its head very slightly to one side as if posing for a picture.

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Much less frequently, I spot the freckled hawkfish. It’s funny how it comes in two variations. I like the one with bright orange-red and white streaks better.

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The duller version somehow looks a million times grumpier. It still has freckles on its chin, just not the cute bright red ones of its prettier variation.

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The trick to small fish is merely patience, not luck. Once I spot one, I normally lie in wait for it to emerge and get used to me. Most small fish like either pause for a while to rest on a bit of coral, or stay in their own territory. It’s not terribly hard to get in a few shots in good light for fairly decent photos. Plus, good pictures compensate loads for bad luck with big fish.

Diving the Similans: Islands 1 to 9

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The Similan Islands get its name from the Malay word for “nine.” This cluster of nine islands is famed for its underwater boulder landscape and the coral gardens that grow around them.

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Some of the boulders really are bits of island and where sea and land meet, I had a fish-eye view of waves breaking on the boulders above.

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It’s also much of a fish nursery here. Schools and schools of little fish envelop the boulders. It makes for a beautiful sight in the right kind of light.

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Sometimes the schools get so thick that you hardly see anything else beside little fish. Even other divers get obscured in the crowd.

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Most times it’s hard to tell what species the fish are. Other times, when the schools are made of fish destined to be large predators, it’s easier. Here we have a school of juvenile chevron barracuda.

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Those barracuda would probably grow up to feast on the blue schools of these fusiliers.

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Either fusiliers or these snappers that formed a school around me.

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While Islands One to Nine didn’t offer up a great deal of hard-to-find wildlife and the visibility wasn’t as great as we hoped (bad weather the night before), there were lots of great opportunities for good photos (including this one of DC).

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Diving the Similans: The Black Manta

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It’s a pity, my computer still isn’t fixed so the posts from previous trips are still on hold. At least I still go places occasionally now, so here’s a series of my recent trip to Similan Islands in Thailand.

Get ready for a whole load of blue! What else but diving is there to do when you’re on a boat in the middle of the sea? DC and I liked the Black Manta when we were last at Seven Skies. In fact he was so impressed that practically the next week he’d looked up all the available trips and before I knew it we were booked six months ahead.

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We had days with lovely weather, although some evening showers and the edge of a storm caught us. Some of the dives didn’t have the greatest visibility because of bad weather the day before, but it was still great to get away and be uncontactable for a while.

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It’s a lovely boat from all angles isn’t it? I like how spacious it is. All the cabins have aircon and most are ensuite.  They have a water maker on board so there’s no need to ration water and you can shower as many times a day you like and even rinse your gear with fresh water every day! The food is great (Thai crew) and it’s got a big diving deck so it isn’t at all congested before or after a dive.

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And what did we see below the water? More next post!