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Rediscovering the Similans and Surins Aboard the MV Hallelujah
By Lia Barrett, April 20, 2018 @ 04:00 AM (EST)

The underside of a large bommie dripping with soft corals
 

After doing my Divemaster’s straight out of college on Roatán, I headed for Thailand to work the liveaboard seasons. Back-to-back trips over the course of four years is a great way to build up your shooting skills. My classroom was the Similan and Surin Islands, my teachers were the elements of weather, visibility and tourists—all of which taught me to be flexible, and how to look for a shot when one seems to be elusive. 

So when it came to getting back to doing what I love after two years of doing the pregnancy thing, and then the post-pregnancy dance of worrying about sleep schedules, feeding routines and milestones, I thought, why not return to some home turf? A place I know like the back of my hand. Where the corals are bright and plentiful, the topography is interesting, and where friends like my buddy Ric Parker, and operators like Big Blue Khao Lak are willing to take me diving with an understanding for my quirks.

And so, with my husband and mother taking care of the “Little Dragon”—aka my 10-month old daughter Mako—I was primed and ready to get back in the water.
 

A wall of sea fans and sponges at West of Eden: “I know them all too well from my liveaboard days,” says Lia
 

A rebel scorpionfish not doing its best to hide from predators

 

Hallelujah! Freedom at Last!

Ric is basically part of the fabric of the Similan Islands diving scene. A die-hard ambassador for these waters and a guy who puts his extra time, money and effort into promoting manta science in the area, Ric is just good people. When he’s not venturing north to the quiet waters of Burma to host scientists doing manta identification research, he’s working as a tour leader for Big Blue Khao Lak—a reliably excellent operator whom I’ve found, over the years, to be consistently the best amongst the many in the area. And though I need to get back for a Burma trip myself, I am more than stoked to be on Big Blue’s beautiful MV Hallelujah for four days of fun dives in the Similans with my old pal. Along with Ric, I’ve brought one of my besties, Jacque Comery, on this trip. Jac is coming straight out of two seasons in Antarctica, where she was station leader for Australia's Casey research station, as well as an operations coordinator. In short, she needed some quality time in the sun. 

So poor Ric has two dive professionals who haven’t been diving in at least two years—no, Jac is not allowed to dive with the orcas in Antarctica—and so short of embarrassing ourselves with asking for a refresher, our first dive is seriously a checkout dive. I forget how to analyze my nitrox. When we jump in, Jacque floats on the surface, trying to get down until the dingy driver brings her more weight. My second strobe poops out after five flashes—the battery apparently gives me two middle fingers for sitting it on a shelf for too long. And of course, because my luggage weight was filled with formula, diapers and baby food, bringing backups wasn’t even an option. But all of the hiccups we take in stride, for it is glorious just being in the water again.
 

A massive gorgonian sea fan at West of Eden
 

Swimming above a swarm of glassfish just so we can keep track of one another

 

Hideaway Bay to Christmas Point

Our first dive is in Hideaway Bay, a dive I would have turned my nose up at in days gone by. No, seriously, I wouldn’t have bothered to get out of bed; but times have changed and with it, my take-it-for-granted attitude. To my pleasant surprise, the coral has started to regrow after the devastating bleaching in 2010. At the time, we went home for low season with beautiful coral gardens, only to return later in the year to all of the hard corals above 60 feet being wiped out by the increase in the water temperatures—everything was white or brown. So to see the regrowth is incredibly heartening and totally worth getting out of bed for.

After Hideaway, we head to old familiar spots like West of Eden and Elephant Head Rock. I am starting to get the feel for this diving thing again. We eat too much between dives—as you’re supposed to do—and enjoy the serenity of the cerulean Indian Ocean waters. A glimmer of Internet lets me know that the Dragon is still alive, and so I relax into Day 2, ready for some more action. We hit up Christmas Point, where we zigzag around large boulder formations, and head to Three Trees, where I’m charmed by a hawksbill turtle who runs its nose into my dome port. 
 

Jacque practicing her best tec frog position at Elephant Head Rock
 

Feeling festive at Christmas Point
 

The deeper end of West of Eden where the “green monster” of thermocline tends to lurk

 

Bon, Tachai and Richelieu

Heading to the northern tip of the Similan National Park, we mosey on out to Koh Bon, where we drop down to the deep pinnacle covered in small yellow soft corals and hover at the top of the pinnacle around 60 feet where hunting trevallies guide small baitfish in a symphonic harmony as they swoop in and sway the masses in rhythmic form. We finish off the day with hunting tuna at Koh Tachai, and I find that some of my favorite fans have blossomed over the years into explosions of pink and orange that I can’t even fit into my frame. I am okay with being a one strobe Samantha until I see these fans. My only solace is that next time I visit, they will be even bigger and I will be prepared—unless I have to cart around luggage for, like, five kids (not going to happen!).

Rounding out the trip is, of course, the Holy Grail of Thai dive sites: Richelieu Rock. Part of the Surin National Park, the site is famous for its coat of purple and red soft corals, anemones filled with clownfish, and walls of fish that patrol the horseshoe-shaped rock. I don’t bother with macro anymore on this site, as it is literally soft coral heaven. I light up my frame with the rich hues, taking in the fact that, for another several years, I might not return to this beautiful place I considered home. The biggest highlight is the trevallies working in unison to chase the baitfish into the corals. In all my years diving this site, I have never seen this sort of action. Ric describes them as basically being the apex predator of the area. With the sharks fished out—they have been sparse in the area for some time now—the trevallies are king.
 

Enjoying the small soft corals that cover Koh Bon Pinnacle
 

Jacque inspecting the fans and soft coral at Koh Tachai
 

Trevallies chasing baitfish into the reef at Richelieu Rock

 

Changed Perspectives

My husband and I visited Thailand together for the first time almost 10 years ago when we first met. He recently told me that if he knew we would be returning a decade later married and with a baby, he would have headed for the hills! I laugh only because he was able to put that sentence together before I had the chance. But things change. The reefs change, your perspectives change, your priorities change. Ten years ago, I would have freaked out over a broken strobe, which is why I used to carry two of everything, plus backups. Today, I shrug it off and improvise.

I am able to be thankful merely for the moments I get to enjoy the ocean, as I have returned with a renewed sense of enthusiasm and appreciation for what I am able to do. I am starting to grasp the concept of work-life balance, family and career. It is possible; you just have to be flexible. And having awesome folks like Ric and Chris at Big Blue who allow me to come out and dive, knowing that logistically things are a bit more difficult, is a big part of making that happen. And so to them, my family and Mother Nature, I am extremely grateful for helping me get back to doing what I love.
 

Hunting trevallies on Richelieu Rock
 

Lia was so distracted by the hunting trevallies, she almost didn’t look up to see the whale shark above her head!

 

Planning Your Trip to the Similans and Surins

How to Get There: Khao Lak is a little over an hour from Phuket Airport. Minivans, taxis and buses head in plentiful numbers and frequency towards Khao Lak. A minivan, which is crucial if you cart around a lot of gear, is around 1500 baht ($50).

When to Go: The season runs from October 15 to May 15, while peak time is roughly February to April. Tip: If you book with Big Blue before the end of August, there is a 10% early bird special.

Where to Stay: There is a wide range, from low budget to high end, in Khao Lak and the surrounding towns.

Liveaboard Diving: Big Blue’s MV Hallelujah is a cut above other boats packed to the brim with divers. Expect two-person cabins with personal bathrooms, a saloon, great photo facilities (and staff who know how to handle cameras), and excellent food. Above all, the friendly and knowledgeable staff will take care of your every need.

Water Temperature: Warm, very warm, except when the green monsters of thermocline creep up. Many people dive in board shorts and a rash guard, but a 3mm is a good idea if you dabble in the colder spectrum.

Photography Gear: You’ll be tossing between both macro and wide angle the entire trip. Strobes are a definite must for shooting the soft corals, even if you only have one.
 

Ric being awesome next to a sea fan at Koh Tachai
 

Lia savors a moment without the camera

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