Last week I was fortunate enough to enjoy my second ever liveaboard trip. Exactly a year ago I was cruising the Red Sea and this year I booked a 5 day / 5 night trip to the Similan and Surin Islands, located in the Andaman Sea in Thailand. They’re roughly 60 km from the coast of Khao Lak, which is where I boarded my liveaboard.
The liveaboard – Manta Queen 7
Okay so first of all, I got super lucky….. again…. managed to score myself a private cabin! There was literally 1 free spot on the boat and I got the private cabin. The exact same thing happened to me last year in Egypt. I can’t express how happy this makes me, even more happy than an entire free row of seats in the plane. (please don’t think I’m anti social now, haha).
Anyways, the boat. I booked my trip with Similan Diving Tours , a company specialized in liveaboards to the Similan islands. They’ve a great website with all the different possibilities. I used it extensively when picking out my liveaboard as I had a few preferences. If you’re looking for a liveaboard in the Similan, use their website. They offer all the different companies and the contact person (Jamie) is local. He answered all my questions usually within minutes!
First of all, I didn’t want to be on the biggest boat out there. There are boats that can hold over 34 divers, which I personally find too busy. Secondly I really wanted to also check out the Surin Islands, located North of the Similan islands. So with those wishes in mind and also wanting to go at least 4-5 days, my choice was the Manta Queen 7.
The Manta Queen 7 holds 24 guests, mostly twin cabins, couple of quads. No en-suite bathroom. Boat had a total of 4 bathrooms/toilets. Especially after the last dive of the day this meant no toilet possibilities as the showers were all occupied. Not a really big deal, but not ideal either. The boat has the worlds smallest galley (kitchen) but my goodness, amazing food came out of the galley! The quality of the food was something I was very impressed with! Other than that, the usual liveaboard features: a good functioning dive deck, two places to sunbath, a dry room where you could chill and watch movies and a outdoor deck where the briefings were held and food was served.
The company that owns and runs the liveaboard is Khao Lak Scuba Adventures. There was a lot of staff (dive related personnel) and crew (captain, engineers, cook etc) on board. In total there were 6 instructor/guides, 2 Divemaster trainees, a AI trainee and a Master instructor. From the crew there were another 8 people present, making it a total of 17 people working on the boat, in addition to 22 guests, all with all quite a full boat 39!!
The diving – protocols etc
Things I liked more about this liveaboard:
- Long, long, but very detailed briefing. I swear it was long, loooooong. But I do appreciate a company taking the time to discuss all necessary safety aspects. I’m sure it could have been shorter, as somethings got repeat a few times but rather very detailed than rushed.
- Magic cup, a cup filled with all kinds of meds and plasters etc for quick fixes to make it possible to keep diving with minor ‘problems’.
- My guide & dive buddy. I had a great dive team, consisting out of Jessy our dive instructor guide & Julia a very experienced diver. Directly after the first dive we concluded we’d be up for some really fun dives together as our dive style and air consumption was more or less the same. Also, pretty much all the pictures that you see in this article are taken by Julia. I’m terrible at taking pictures it turns out, so she is my hero supplying me with all these awesome photos, saving the day.
- 5 minute safety stop. Ok truth be told, I’m not sure if I really like this one but this is one that for sure can’t hurt. Basically, every dive is ended with a 5 minute safety stop at 5 meters instead of the usual 3 minute one. Now there’s a fair amount of deep dives (25-30m) that are done on this trip, pretty much atleast 2/3 a day so I don’t think it’s a bad thing to do it. But it does make me question the 3 minute rule we’ve all been thought, haven’t they concluded that, that is enough? But again, I really don’t mind investing 2 more minutes a dive in possibly something that benefits my health. So it goes to the positive list.
Things I didn’t like about this liveaboard:
- Diving without/with a guide. On the liveaboard in Egypt everyone was free to chose to dive with or without a guide (granted you’re certifiedand dive with a buddy ofcourse). On this liveaboard a guide was mandatory. Since I am a Self-Reliant Certified Diver, i’d would have loved to do a few solo dives even, but that was out of the question on this liveaboard. Weirdly, that didn’t apply for the tripleader, who did solo dive on at least one occasion, without the appropriate extra equipment (this double standards stuff really annoys me). Anyways…. I was lucky that I had such a great guide and dive buddy…..
- Diving to 40 meters. So this was one I really couldn’t wrap my head around, even discussed it with the staff instructor as I was honestly displeased by the policy on it. One of the dive sites was a dive site that literally on their divemap had a Leopard Shark drawn saying they could be found at 40 meters depth. Now I am not a big fan of deep dives, but I do have my deep dive specialty and I got it exactly for this reason. If there is something good at 40 meters depth, I can go to it! Well not on this liveaboard, unless you pay for a private instructor. All their dives were restricted to a 30 meters max, regardless of who you are or how you are certified. The only solution to getting to 40 meters was to hire a private instructor to “take you”. Just writing this down makes me angry about it again. First they ‘force’ a guide on you and then it completely limits you when you want to make a dive well within your training. It’s insulting.
The Dive Sites
So some of the dives I made were absolutely amazing and some of the dives I made weren’t even worth putting on your wetsuit for. The contrast between the quality of the dives sites is high. Especially the dive sites in the Southern Similan Islands are disappointing in comparison to the paradise more up North. I understand why there’s diving in all places though. If only for logistics purposes, if you look at the map you see you start of from Khao Lak and work your way up through the 9 different Similan Islands towards Richelieu Rock. Some of these islands were ‘ closed off’ for diving, so they could recover from the excessive diving that had happened on them last year. Also a few places were really badly damaged because of dynamite fishing…. One of the most horrible ways of fishing imaginable.
Richelieu Rock: This is by far the most interesting dive site. It’s part of the Surin National Park and I think it’s safe to say the most popular dive site in the Andaman Sea. Everything you can think of can be spotted at this dive site. Big and small. Sadly in the “big” department we were very unlucky, not once during the trip did we see a Manta Ray or…. Whale Shark. At Richelieu Rock the chance to see them is the highest, but sadly, no big fish for us. We did have a great encounter with this cute juvenile hawks bill turtle though! Just when we were about to start our safety stop as well, great way to end a dive.
Another really cool thing at Richelieu Rock is the Cuttlefish! Right now it’s cuttlefish mating season and we saw quite some cuttlefish action going on! Males fighting over the female, the actual act happening, neon blue colours. Yeah, the cuttlefish are busy right now!
The Dome / Tachai: So this is a dive site that can frighten inexperienced divers a bit, for me it was one of the most fun dives as I liked it being a bit more challenging. Basically, there’s a lot of current going at certain places at the dive site. Directly at the descend it’s smart to use the mooring line to not directly get taken away by the current. Once descended at the dive site it in general calms down a bit, though every now and then when you go past a corner you can get hit by current all out of a sudden. We did two dives at this dive site, the first time it was great fun lots of fish, barracuda’s, travelly’s etc. The second dive it was somewhat deserted and mostly just a battle against the current the entire dive. You win some, you loose some aye?
Surin Islands: On our third day of diving we did our last dive at the Surin Islands. It was a sunset dive, and as the diveleader also realized (afterwards) they should have given us torches as it was already getting darker. But even without the torches you could see very healthy coral and lots of different fish everywhere. A really really healthy underwater world. I think together with Richelieu by far the most healthy ones we’ve seen. It’s a shame we only did one dive in this location but because it’s so far up North it’s difficult to reach. Though if you ask me they could have skipped an entire day Similan Islands and traded it for more Surin Islands. Apparently of the entire Manta Queen fleet only the Manta Queen 7 goes to the Surin Islands as it’s the only liveaboard that is 5 days / 5 nights.
Similan Islands: As you might have noticed, all of the above mentioned dive sites aren’t part of the Similan Islands but of the Surin National Park. So is it really that bad in the Similan Islands? No ofcourse not. There is still decent diving with plenty of opportunity to see some interesting stuff. It’s just…. it’s better up North! So you’ll always be comparing. But for sure it’s worth it going to the Similan Islands as well. I don’t regret my trip at all. If I was to do a day trip I would focus on Richelieu Rock though, and if possible the Surin Islands.