Wearing a skin suit, fins, a scuba tank and other diving equipment, 26-year-old Pornnatcha Sankhaprasit is ready to dive down 22m into the sea to survey the Rang Khwian shipwreck site 10km off the shore of Satthahip district, Chon Buri.
Pornnatcha Sankhaprasit - photo by Pichaya Svasti
About half-an-hour later, she and her colleagues emerge from the water with a piece of ivory, a fragment of pottery and two Chinese coins dating back to the Ayutthaya period. Pornnatcha is the country's first female underwater archaeologist, recruited by the Fine Arts Department.
"I chose to become an underwater archaeologist for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there are very few _ men or women.
"Secondly, before becoming [one], I was a volunteer at the Office of Underwater Archaeology, and while assisting them I found they worked very hard and were always busy," she said.
Pornnatcha has been working in her position for about 10 months. She was born in Phetchaburi and graduated from Benjamathep Uthit School, later obtaining a bachelor's degree in archaeology from Silpakorn University, Bangkok.
"I have had a passion for Thai history since childhood. I chose this field as my first priority and passed the university entrance examination soon after," she said.
With her love for solving mysteries, she was a volunteer assistant to underwater archaeologists since she was 19, after attending a summer camp at the Fine Arts Department's Office of Underwater Archaeology in Chanthaburi.
After her graduation, she became an archaeologist at the 11th Fine Arts Office in Ubon Ratchathani and worked in Kalasin, Roi Et and Khon Kaen for four years.
"Such a summer camp is annually held and attended by both male and female students. However, a few of them really wanted to become underwater archaeologists. Only two men and one woman took the recent exams. I was one of them and gained this opportunity," she said.
The first female member of the team was an art historian and researcher who has been working in the field for 12 years, but the Fine Arts Department had no marine archaeology positions at that time.
Underwater archaeologists must study basic subjects like all archaeologists, but must also be able to scuba dive to survey sites in water.
They must be trained in how to use special machinery such as sonar devices for locating shipwrecks, underwater cameras for recording the locations of finds, and sand vacuum machines for finding objects on the sea floor.
Their work requires diligence and patience. Each trip can last a week or up to a month. Every dive takes about 30 minutes and requires a rest at a depth of 3m for about three minutes to relieve pressure before returning to the surface of the water.
If another dive is needed, each person must rest for about two hours first, however, they usually make one dive a day. The average depth for the team to reach is 30m, however, highly experienced divers can go as deep as 60m. Pornnatcha once went down as far as 36m.
Every month, each of them receives a risk allowance of 10,000 baht for at least 50 dives in addition to their salary.
"Just finding an undamaged pot is exciting for me. Water pressure and poor vision can impair our ability and judgement, plus we are thinking about so many things simultaneously. This could include having to focus on the task at hand or the air left in our cylinders.
"More work does not mean less excitement. In fact there is a sense of euphoria that is difficult to put into words.We have become accustomed to our work as we dive often. However, we are neither careless nor fearless _ we cannot afford to be in this profession. The point is to pay attention to safety measures," Pornnatcha said.
This occupation is known as a risky one. About three years ago, an underwater archaeologist died on duty after emerging from the water too fast and failing to adjust to the rapid change in pressure.
"I am scared, scared so much. My parents are aware of possible risks from my work. But they are familiar with the nature of my job, which requires me to work in the provinces and even carry out excavations alone," she said.
Currently, the team is conducting further excavations studying new evidence found at the Rang Khwian wreck site, off Chon Buri, and rechecking the existing information.
Underwater archaeology officially began in Thailand in 1974 with an excavation in Satthahip Bay, Chon Buri, carried out by the Fine Arts Department and supported by the Royal Thai Navy and related agencies.
After technical assistance and training provided by the Danish government in 1975, the department set up the underwater archaeological project a year later. The workforce has increased from four naval officers to a team of 15 marine archaeologists, Fine Arts Department officials and navy officers. The office will soon be upgraded to a division.
Given her interest in the past, has Pornnatcha ever wondered what it would be like to live during the Ayutthaya era?
"I think everyone was reborn from one point," she said.
"More importantly, at least I have the opportunity to do something in return for what my country has given to me. As Thais we are called on to protect our national treasures."