Written by: Matt Newkirk
Destination: Similan Islands, Thailand
Visited: February 2017
The crown jewel of Thailand's scuba destinations, the Similan Islands sits just off the coast of Mainland Thailand in the Andaman Sea. Named after the Bahasa (Malay) word for nine, "Sembelan," the Similan Islands consist of nine white granite islands created by ancient lava flows jutting straight from the sea floor, and a handful of limestone reefs and pinnacles in the Similan Marine National Park.
My wife and I chose to go in February after talking to a Thai dive master that I had met on a previous dive trip because this is one of the best times to spot the elusive whale sharks that supposedly frequent the archipelago. While our luck was not good enough to encounter the increasingly rare whale sharks, Similan Islands did not entirely disappoint.
We reached the Similan Islands after a 90-minute flight from Singapore to Phuket, followed by an hour drive North to Khao Lak, and a choppy two-hour speedboat ride to the boat.
To increase our chances of seeing whale sharks, we had booked a four-day, three-night "liveaboard." While liveaboards are probably the best way to dive the Simians, you do need to be careful when selecting your boat, as we quickly learned. Dive boats in Similan run the gamut of quality, and while true luxury can be had, for a price, our boat was not the Ritz Carlton.
The MV Camic was to be our home for the duration of the trip, and if it were not for the exceptional sea life we encountered, this would have been a pretty rough trip. Though it was sold to us as a liveaboard, this was not exactly the case. The dive company uses a speedboat to pick up and drop off dozens of divers each day, making for a chaotic trip where even the dive masters are not sure who is coming and who is going.
In addition to the constant barrage of new faces, which made the boat seem about as homey as a subway station, the crew couldn't be bothered to do things like empty trash cans and ashtrays, or clean the rooms before check-in. Despite being told daily that cookies and soft drinks were available, we did not see such amenities in four days’ time. While we were on board five passengers, including myself even got sick from food poisoning. We did see plenty of fantastic, sea-worthy, vessels in the Similans during our voyage, so my advice is to choose your dive boat wisely.
Necklace Sea Star.
Thankfully, the diving was much better the accommodations. Over four days, despite food poisoning, I did twelve dives including one night dive. The islands are home to a fair variety of sea creatures, including everything from great barracudas and tuna to a healthy selection of macro life such as banded shrimp, anemone crabs, and loads of nudibranch.
Christmas Tree Worm.
The second day, we headed to Khao Bon. The current was strong on all three dives that we did there, and the reef is a little bleached, but fortune had it that we saw manta rays on every single dive. With a little poking around there is plenty to see at this site, but if not for the mantas these dives would have been pretty unmemorable.
For the last two days, we headed to the main nine islands of the Similan chain. What makes the Similan Islands truly unique is the white granite coupled with lots of marine life, such as moray eels, titan triggerfish, and scores of other beautiful reef fish. Filled with countless swim-throughs and truly rugged aquascape, diving the Similans reminded me a little of hiking at Yosemite Park in California. With the large, gracefully sloping, volcanic rock formations, I will remember the dives that I did in the Similans for a long time to come.
Reef Scorpoinfish. One of the most venomous fish in the world.
So, we didn't see the whale sharks that we so longed to encounter, and we dealt with gross conditions on the boat. We did get to see manta rays and even a random pod of what the crew thought to be pilot whales in the middle of the Andaman Sea. Flying fish seemed to follow the boat's every move, and the sunsets over the islands were incredible.
Harlequin ghost pipefish.
While the Similan's did not quite live up to their legend as the mind-blowing scuba mecca of Thailand, the diving is quite good, and the place is worth a stop if you happen to find yourself looking for a nice place to dive for a few days while traveling in Thailand.