I felt very, very square compared to our English dive master Giles, and made a mental note to get both nipples pierced, my naval too, and get a couple of Masai-warrior like earrings inserted into my ears as well. That would give me some sort of, er, street credibility in these diving circles. But it would have to wait, as we were now a good hour or so out to sea, west of Phuket in the fabled Similan Islands.
It was my first dive in Amazing Thailand (below water at least) and I'd always heard 'Similan, Similan, Similan' whenever I'd enquired of divers about their preferred spot. The talk had been of leopard sharks, napolean wrasse, even manta rays. So I must say there was more than an ounce of expectation.
The Sea Bees boat -- a massive bright yellow mini-ship -- cut an impressive sight at the wharf. It had 'serious dive boat' written all over it. And once on board, that was confirmed. With Teutonic efficiency, each of us was presented with a blue crate with our names on it, replete with all the dive equipment we'd requested, in the sizes we'd indicated. Then there was a mountain of scrambled egg, etc, by way of breakfast.
The first dive was on Anita's Reef (named after the favourite dive spot of one of the royal family, said Swedish dive guide Patrick.) 'It's a good example of a Similan dive,' says Giles, 'with its sloping coral.' He warned us about a resident moray eel which took someone's thumb off a couple of years ago when he was feeding it sausages. As you do. Jing jing! You can YouTube it. I made another mental note to not feed sausages to any moray eels I encountered.
The water was as though the butler had drawn me a lovely hot bath. 'The visibility's as good as Tahiti,' said Rod, only underwater it sounded like 'Bllbblbluubbbbllublblulbbubbub.' The season here runs from the middle of October to the end of April, during which there's an average visibility of around 20 metres.
Huge fans were a delight, lots of clown fish ('Hey, send my regards to Nemo') and even an eel forest. Eel forest? Yes, literally that, a thousand or so eels protruding vertically from their sea-bed holes. Just kind of hanging around, swaying in the currents. Ram-rod straight. Imagine meerkats with aqua-lungs.
Lunch was another mountain of food ... Thai style this time, all kinds of meat and veggies, but with notably sausages on the menu. After that huge lunch I wouldn't be needing the lead weight-belts. I was quite happy to settle into a nice siesta when Patrick called us up for our second dive.
'Boulder dives are less obviously beautiful,' said Giles in his briefing about East of Eden on Island #7, 'but they are the other type of dive we have here in Similan.'
Sure enough, the ocean bed here was less obviously beautiful. There was so much sand they could've shot Lawrence of Arabia here. The boulders added some topographical relief as we drifted around. (Just an aside: after lunch, Rod seemed to be blowing bubbles from both ends of his wetsuit!) Then came the wall. A really impressive wall, chock-a-block with the who's who of underwater stuff. And a couple of really fun bommies (that's dive talk for 'bomboras', towering columns of coral) which are home to all manner of colourful fish and fans.
A wrasse swam gracefully by, blotting out the horizon with its piscean vastness.
I spent a good couple of minutes watching a black-and-white banded sea snake out for a little afternoon swim. Then, before I knew it, my oxygen was reading in the red zone. Time to surface. Aah, that second dive was even better than the first.
'Yeah, for fish and visibility, Similan for sure,' said Patrick, who's spent nearly nine years in Thailand. 'For wrecks maybe Pattaya.' I made a mental note to go down next time I was in Pattaya ...