Diving Inside the Similan Island's Secret Shark Den
Boxing with sharks in Southern Thailand
My Japanese dive buddy Rioshi, licked his dive knife and expertly performed a perfect front flip off of the dive platform. Loaded down by my heavy scuba equipment, I tried my best to just stand up. My penguin walk and giant stride entry into the calm sea was not nearly as impressive as my experienced partner, but Rioshi had about 4,000 dives under his belt, compared to my tadpole amount of 50 dives.
As we bobbed in the water waiting for the rest of our group, Rioshi gave me a wicked grin and asked me if I knew what to do in case we saw an aggressive shark. I shook my head. As far as I knew, the sharks in these waters were nearly harmless to divers; some even had names like ‘Snoopy’.
“You punch them in the nose,” Rioshi advised me, with all the authority of a shark expert. At that point, I still couldn’t quite imagine having a boxing match with a shark. I was about to learn.
Rioshi and I, (along with nine other divers) had all come to the Similan Islands aboard the Scuba Cat, a catamaran live-aboard dive boat with an excellent, (if oddly named), mostly Thai crew comprised of Captain Nut, Chef Pooh, Noisy, a fun loving mute boat boy, and Eric Dunlap, the boat’s spirited cruise director. This would be our first and deepest dive of the day - the 7 a.m. pre-breakfast shark dive to a secret shark den some 35 meters below.
We were diving at Christmas Point, the best place in the Similans to see sharks. Lying approximately 50 nautical miles northwest of the resort island of Phuket, the Similan Islands feature most of Thailand’s top dive sites. The stunning marine national park is inhabited by various species of sharks, but what really drew me back to the islands, (for my third trip) was the opportunity to see a variety of small and large marine creatures, including whale sharks and manta rays.
What also makes the Similans one of the world’s best diving escapes is the dramatic diversity of each dive site. The huge granite boulders that form the islands’ unique topography are also found below. In several dive sites, these ancient stones have created amazing labyrinths and endless archways, swim-throughs, tunnels and caverns to explore.
Rioshi first came to the Similans decades earlier, when the immaculate chain of nine mostly uninhabited small islands were considered remote and attracted few visitors. Today, however, live-aboard dive boats can be booked on a regular basis from Phuket and Khao Lak throughout the high season from October to May. But beware: while reaching the islands has become just an easy matter of booking a trip, not all live-aboards are created equal. And in some cases, only a small price difference separates you from spending your dive vacation on an old converted fishing boat piled inside a dormitory-style sleeping cabin, rather than on a luxurious boat that offers much more in terms of comfort and diving convenience.
Close Encounter with a Manta Ray
At 30 meters long, the spacious Scuba Cat was certainly in the more luxurious class. And thanks to our cruise director, a sun-bleached American from Colorado, our week-long trip had been perfect. Over the previous six days we had seen an amazing array of marine life, including a new experience just the day before. I was slowly ascending at the end of my dive and had nearly reached the surface, when I felt something watching me. I turned and there, hovering in the sunlit blue waters, was a huge manta ray only an arm-length away. The manta eyed me for the longest magical moments of my life, and then swooped upward, gracefully flying through the watery blue expanse.
An Alien Sea Creature
On our final day, as we descended into the darker blue and quiet realm, I wondered if our luck would continue. But before I could give the passing thought much more attention, I heard a sharp plinking sound echoing through the water. It was a familiar sound – whenever Eric wanted our attention he simply plinked a marshmallow-like object that was strapped to his air tank. At first glance, the creature swimming by Eric appeared to be shark-like. But as I finned closer, I saw what could’ve easily been an outer-space creature with a head of a stingray attached to a shark’s body. My heart raced as I finned alongside the marvelous fish that I never knew existed. I glanced at Rioshi and he looked back at me with an expression mirroring my own: What is that? Later back on board the Scuba Cat, we would learn that the other-worldly fish was the rarely encountered bowmouth guitar fish.
To Box or not to Box?
At 35 meters depth, a number of thoughts raced through my mind. Had we missed the den? Perhaps we’d already passed it and today the sharks were elsewhere. We were swimming against a brisk current and although the other divers finned ahead with relative ease, I was kicking at 100% effort struggling to keep up. Suddenly Eric stopped swimming and waited for me, as if he had just tuned into my thoughts. He used a hand gesture that meant: “Are you OK?” I signed back that I was OK, and then Eric made a “shark” sign with his hand on his forehead and pointed into the gloomy water. At the bottom of a gigantic boulder, I spied a large white tip reef shark, (almost three meters long) resting on the sandy ocean floor. I suddenly realized that we were actually floating in the middle of the shark den!
I quickly scanned the area and counted a total of six other white tips and one leopard shark! A surge of heart-pounding adrenaline rushed through me. One by one, the sharks began circling slowly underneath us. I watched in fascination as one white tip rolled on the ocean floor trying to scratch its back. His behavior reminded me more of a dog than a fearsome predator. Then suddenly, the dog-like shark headed straight at me. My entire body tensed and my gut reaction was to fin backwards.
Only a scant moment before a face-to-face collision, the curious shark turned and shot off with a powerful flick of its tail. Sure, I was ready with my right hook, but I was certainly glad that I didn’t have to use it.
Recommended Dive Shops in Phuket
There are some excellent dive shops in Phuket, but the only one that we can personally recommend is Scuba Cat Diving. They are also currently ranked as the leading dive shop on TripAdvisor. Our last trip with Scuba Cat was January of 2011 and as always, we had a perfect 5 day live-aboard vacation to the Similan Islands and are planning another trip with them in January of 2012.
Scuba Cat Diving
94 Thaweewong Road
Patong Beach Phuket 83150
For more information on other dive shops, I recommend reading the reviews on TripAdvisor.