A visit to Phuket is a holiday of a lifetime for millions of people each year, flocking here in droves to enjoy the beaches, Thai sunshine, hospitality, food and nightlife to name but a few reasons, taking home memories that will stay with them forever.
While many of Phuket’s visitors are attracted to her land-based charms, a large percentage travel to the Pearl of the Andaman to experience what lies beneath the waves, learning to dive in the warm, turquoise, clear waters that surround this piece of paradise or taking a trip to the Similan Islands, one of the world’s premier diving destinations.
With water temperatures sitting between 25 and 30 degrees Celsius all year round, diving is not only possible but also enjoyable 365 days a year.
The Similans – the reason many people journey to Phuket – are only accessible during the months of November and May when conditions – wind, swell and visibility – are at their best but Phuket’s plethora of dive operators still offer trips to Koh Phi Phi, Koh Ha and localised dive sites.
The vast majority of diving in the region is conducted on colourful coral reefs that fringe the various islands in the Andaman although there are a number of dive sites that are pinnacles or rocky outcrops that rise up from the depths.
While other popular dive destinations excel in certain types of diving – Lembeh in Indonesia for muck diving, Truk Lagoon in Micronesia for wrecks –Phuket can be considered a good all rounder; pelagic and macro life, drift diving and wrecks are all common encounters in these waters and just a few of the things that can be experienced on a foray below the surface.
While it is possible to enjoy many aspects of diving on a trip to Phuket, it is the marine life that inhabits the Andaman Sea that truly captivates the imagination and is the main reason why so many travel to Phuket and Thailand to get their nitrogen fix.
At certain times of the year, the tropical waters of the Andaman become home to some of the world’s most majestic migrants, the whale shark; the gentle giant of the fish world and one of a number of attractions in these waters.
“Manta rays are other seasonal visitors to Thailand’s west side, while sharks, rays, barracuda, dugong, and other pelagic, not forgetting the turtles exist in these waters all year round,” said Klaus Thumm, owner of H2O Sportz in Cherng Talay, a resident of Phuket for nearly 20 years.
Encounters with the biggest fish in the sea are moments to be savoured and recalled for years and years to come. When many people think of sharks, they conjure up images of Jaws tearing through boats, people and everything in his path but one glimpse of a whale shark will dispel most if not all of your concerns.
Although capable of moving at a decent speed despite its size thanks to its large tail fin, whale sharks are usually seen cruising serenely through the water, seemingly with a smile etched on its face and a sparkle in the tiny eyes that sit on the side of its head.
The largest whale shark ever recorded was more than 12m in length, although there have been reports of much larger specimens encountered, but never officially measured.
Despite their size, very little is known about these magnificent creatures and they are protected by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in a bid to preserve the dwindling numbers around the world.
Because of their size, whale sharks are popular targets for fisherman looking for shark fins to sell to satisfy the demand for shark fin soup in China, Taiwan and other parts of eastern Asia; given they are paid an amount per kilogram, there is a lot of money to be made from a whale shark’s fins.
Whale sharks are most commonly witnessed in the months of April and May just as the Similan Island season draws to a close often around Richelieu Rock, Koh Bon and Koh Tachai. However, if you’re very lucky, it is possible to catch a glimpse of these magnificent, awe-inspiring fish all year round.
Manta rays are reasonably common between the months of December and May. Resembling birds of prey from a prehistoric era, their wing span is usually in the realm of three to four metres, but they have been known to grow to in excess of seven metres and weigh up to 2,300kg.
Mantas feed on plankton and are totally harmless, regularly choosing to interact with divers and showing a playful nature as they swoop in and around pinnacles and reefs. This is occasionally done as a group seemingly mimicking a display by a formation airplane team.
There are a number dive sites in the region which offer very good opportunities to witness these incredible creatures in action. Hin Deang and Hin Muang to the south of Phuket are considered the premier manta ray spots in Thailand, while encounters at Koh Bon, Koh Tachai and Richelieu Rock in the Similan/Surin Islands are also frequent.
Away from the ‘big two’, Thai waters are home to many other species of sharks and rays. Trips to Bida Nok and Bida Nai close to Koh Phi Phi plus Shark Point – considered by many to be Phuket’s best dive site – and Koh Racha are likely to produce an opportunity to see a beautiful leopard shark languidly cruising past with a flick of its long tail or resting on a plateau as well as black tip reef sharks.
Unfortunately, sharks have an unwarranted bad reputation which detracts from how incredible they are as a species but as more people learn to dive and become increasingly educated about life in the sea, the perception of all sharks as nothing but mindless killing machines is being altered.
Turtles certainly don’t have a bad reputation and the elder statesmen and women of the sea amble peacefully around reefs, seemingly without a care in the world. Comfortable in the presence of divers, most turtles will fix humans with a beady eye as they carry on their daily lives of eating coral, resting or sedately moving around just so they know they’ve been observed.
Sadly, encounters with turtles are becoming less and less frequent as numbers in the region diminish. The west coast of Phuket used to be an important breeding ground for leatherback turtles but the rapid development of Phuket as a tourist destination has lead to an alarming decline in their numbers according to Dr Kongkiat Kittiwattanawong of the Phuket Marine Biological Centre (PMBC).
“In the last 60 years, the number of nesting sites in the region has fallen sharply from several hundred to less than 10,” he said.
“Coastal development is the biggest threat to the marine life in the region – not just turtles,” he added.
Fortunately, a number of resorts on the island support turtle protection and release programs in a bid to boost numbers.
Through its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) practice, Laguna Phuket has an active turtle preservation program and works hard to ensure the hotel operates in an environmentally friendly manner to protect the fragile ecosystem.
“The historical transformation of Laguna Phuket from a polluted coastal tin mine into a lush, tropical resort clearly demonstrates that Laguna Phuket is aware of potential positive and negative environmental impacts upon both the marine and terrestrial environment, and can be used as an indicator of the measures we take to ensure this balance is positive,” said David Campion, group director of CSR at Banyan Tree.
“We educate our guests about the environment here and alert them to sensitive snorkelling practices, plus raise awareness with local schools via environmental outreach to clean beaches and alert about the dangers of plastics.
“We also hold fundraising activities and we’ve been working for over 10 years to direct the resort’s extensive international reach towards local causes including the PMBC’s turtle protection and head-starting programs. Satellite tracking of last year’s released turtles can be seen on our website,” he added.
It is hoped that programs similar to those adopted at Laguna Phuket around the island will help to slow the decline in numbers of the turtles and other marine life in the region.
Because of their sheer size, it’s easy to understand why whale sharks and manta rays grab all the headlines but for those who enjoy the smaller, more difficult to find treasures, a trip to the west coast of Thailand can be equally rewarding with nudibranches, shrimps, cuttlefish, frogfish and rhinopia just some of the gems that lie in wait.
The shallow reefs and sandy bottoms of a number of the dive sites in the area are a haven for some of the sea’s stranger looking organisms, however many of these creatures can also be found adorning some of the pinnacle dives in the Andaman.
With underwater photography becoming increasingly popular, accessible and affordable, the waters off the west coast of Thailand can provide the canvas for some truly spectacular photographs even for the most amateur of photographers.
Nudibranches are extremely common in these waters and given their slow, almost static nature combined with their dazzling colours and livery, they provide the best opportunity for some spellbinding pictures.
Other species encountered include cuttlefish, octopi, frogfish, seahorses, pipefish, sea moths, moray eels, crabs, blennies, rhinopia, lionfish, and scorpion fish to name but a few but a trip to the waters off Thailand can be made complete with a sighting of a pair of harlequin shrimp.
When most people think of shrimps, they associate them with food but the harlequin shrimp is simply to beautiful a creature to ever even consider eating.
White in colour with patches of blue scattered about their bodies, harlequin shrimp grow to no more than five centimetres and are incredibly difficult to find even in areas of the world where they are known to be common.
Their front legs are unusual and feature paddles, giving the harlequin shrimp the impression that it comes with its own armour plating; should you threaten to take away its favourite food – starfish – then it is ready to rumble and will come forward to warn you off, regardless of your size.
The reefs in the region are reasonably healthy and teem with huge shoals of colourful reef fish, creating a constant moving kaleidoscope of colour but rising sea temperatures and more direct human behaviours are causing damage to the reefs that they may not recover from unless something is done to protect them.
Over the summer low season months, divers operating out of Koh Lanta to the south of Phuket have noticed a marked increase in the amount of bleached corals that can be found at frequently visited dive sites; sadly it is a trend that is likely to continue.
Other problems have arisen from cyanide fishing, which, although illegal in Thailand, is still occurring. It is the most effective method of rendering fish unconscious so they can be removed and sold for vast sums to boost the tropical fish collections of wealthy people without scruples around the globe.
The side effect of using cyanide is that it is often swept by currents across the reefs, killing all that lies in its path.
The combination of rising sea temperatures, coastal development, poaching and mass commercialised fishing are having a detrimental effect on all marine life in the region and numbers have been diminishing in recent years.
There is a three-mile ruling in effect which prohibits fishing within a three-mile radius of Phuket but due to a lack of resources it is all but impossible to enforce.
“In recent years the fish stocks in the region have been on the decline,” said Klaus of H2O Sportz.
“This is largely due to the amount of commercial fishing in the area but also due to increasing numbers of tourists visiting this part of the world,” he added echoing the sentiments of the PMBC’s Dr Kongkiat.
Some damage has been done but it is not irreparable by any means. Dr Kongkiat believes that the regulations in place are sufficient but what they are lacking is the correct enforcement.
“I think what we have a good set of regulations in place to reduce the damage being done to the marine environment in and around Phuket but for them to work they need to be enforced more stringently,” he said.
“We also need to increase people’s awareness of the state of the seas in order to make long-term changes,” he added.
H20 Sportz’s Klaus Thumm, however, believes more needs to be done to protect the marine environment.
“We need to put more of the islands in these waters under the protection of the marine parks ruling. That way we have a chance of saving these precious ecosystems,” he said.
As with many things, education is the key but it will take a collective effort from all concerned – locals, expats and holiday makers alike – to make a real difference. Although it is never too late to change existing bad habits, the process must begin with school children of a young age and be continued into employment as is the case at Laguna Phuket.
Many people on the Pearl of the Andaman have realised that it is down to them to help make positive changes; beach and reef clean ups are now a common feature of Phuket life.
The Thailand Diving Association have taken the task to the schools in order to teach young Thai and Western children the importance of ocean preservation, while companies such as surf apparel giants Ripcurl have gotten behind events like the three-part 2010 Grom Search surf competition which has placed a large amount of emphasis on water safety and, importantly, conservation.
Changes won’t happen overnight but if the people who live on and visit Phuket make a conscious effort to change the way they live then it will be possible to protect and preserve what so many cherish.
Without that, Phuket and the Andaman region may find that it loses one of its outstanding natural assets and with it, some of its soul.
Phuket Marine Biological Centre (PMBC) is next to the Phuket Aquarium in Ao Makham and welcomes visitors to see their turtle rehabilitation centre.