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Stunning fish and other aquatic wildlife await the patient diver in the Andaman


Alcoholic beverage, Strong smell food, Children, Pets, Slippers, Short pants, Cameras


Editorial Reviews

Manta mantra

Stunning fish and other aquatic wildlife await the patient diver in the Andaman

My captivating moment with a manta ray at Koh Bon was pure joy. When the current is mild, manta rays often visit a cleaning station there. If they sense no harm from visitors, they will swim around divers with curiosity.

They literally came out of the blue. Black dots among a canvas of deep blue sea danced in the distance. And as they gradually approached and flamboyantly glided the current and pool of bubbles blown by zealous spectators, the sight was breathtaking.

In a pleasant mood, they frolicked in circular motion right above me. Being an inch away from them, the contiguity was surreal. It's no surprise that the manta ray, with its affable manners and ample curiosity, tops many divers' wishlist of creatures to encounter. Although it was neither my first meeting with the manta ray nor my first time in the Andaman, this diving trip was one of the most memorable, despite the crowds above and under the water.

For avid divers, the Andaman Sea is the place we usually revisit annually. Right after the monsoon ends in the middle of October, the diving season in the Andaman begins. This year, I waited till almost the end of the season, usually in the beginning of May, to avoid the throngs of other tourists. But with the hype of social media on Koh Tachai (Tachai Island), a tumultuous scene is inevitable.

After my Facebook page was swamped with jaw-dropping photos and tip-offs on how Koh Bon (Bon Island) and Koh Tachai were the happening places for spotting manta rays, I couldn't wait to get in on the action. So I called my diving agent, got a plane ticket to Phuket, booked a berth on a live-aboard boat and was ready to be mesmerised.

Known for their wonderful beaches and turquoise water, Koh Bon and Koh Tachai now belong to Similan National Marine Park, Phang Nga. Located on the northernmost point of the Similan Archipelago, both islands are relatively pristine compared to other ill-fated islands located near booming Phuket.

Divers can either reserve a day-trip package to Similan at the dive shops in Phuket or, for those who prefer not to commute (about four hours back and forth), great accommodation can be found on live-aboard boats. With clean facilities, air-conditioned bedrooms, and palatable meals and snacks, most divers, myself included, are so well-pampered they tend to gain a couple of pounds.

Every week, most live-aboard boats will leave Phuket on Wednesday night and return at around midnight on Sunday.

The four-day trip covers the vast area of Similan and Surin National Marine Parks, and dive sites are varied depending on the dive leaders, divers' skills, depths, current and weather. Dive leaders usually schedule four dives a day. For me, dives at Koh Bon, where we simply floated not far below the surface waiting for the parade of manta rays, were the highlight of the trip.

Koh Bon and Koh Tachai are your best bets for seeing the manta rays, because of their unique natural habitats. A huge underwater rock located about 50m northwest of Koh Bon serves as a dwelling for schools of cleaner fish. At the cleaning station, these fish eat parasites, dead skin and bacteria off the manta rays' skin, keeping their giant buddies healthy and happy. Koh Tachai, on the other hand, is thriving with marine animals and prolific coastal reefs that provide spawning grounds for phytoplankton, the manta ray's staple diet.

Even with its geographical advantages, divers need luck when it comes to meeting Manta rays. Water current, time of day and water temperature are also crucial factors in whether or not manta rays will visit the site. On our first day in Koh Bon, four of them circled divers waiting at the cleaning station for around 30 minutes. Pushing our luck and hoping to repeat the same dreamlike experience, we returned to this same site on our last day of our trip. Only this time around, we were left hanging for an hour while not a single manta ray showed up.

Somneuk Thathee, our adept local dive leader, who has been diving in this area for more than 20 years, said that only a slight change in the sea conditions can alter the behaviour of the manta ray and other marine animals.

"If the temperature is right and the current's condition is perfect, they will come for food and to play. They are super-sensitive, just like other marine organisms," he explained.

During breaks and meals, he would vividly recount stories of how this part of the Andaman was once home to myriad stunning animals and colourful corals. His voice became less ardent when I asked about the present situation.

From first-hand experience, I too felt for Somneuk's lack of enthusiasm as a witness who has seen drastic changes over the decades. Apart from a beautiful landscape of vibrant sea fans and soft corals, many spots of the same area were quite insipid. Plastic trash was strewn among the sea anemones, and a cemetery of stark white coral lay idle as a result of bleaching caused by climate change. Since coral will flourish only within a certain temperature range, a slight shift adds stresses and forces them to expel algae, the symbiotic pals that keep them alive.

Sadly, the idea of returning to Similan and other Thai marine areas back to their heyday may seem far-fetched. But I'm optimistic that it's not hopeless. With more-stringent rules on fishing and vigorous environmental campaigns during the past couple years, the untouched parts of the marine park remain protected from illegal, detrimental fishing devices. Frequent appearances of large marine animals like manta rays and sharks at these islands are also encouraging signs that these areas are transforming into a safe haven.

Apart from manta rays, the waters around Koh Bon and Koh Tachai are teeming with colours and excitement. This can include vibrant sea fans, dainty soft corals and insouciant leopard sharks resting peacefully on the sandy bottom, surrounded by a fortress of rocks.

Stunning underwater scenery at Richilieu Rock, a part of Surin National Marine Park, located further north on the Similan Archipelago. This well-kept sanctuary is a part of the standard four-day itinerary.

Two playful manta rays enjoy a feeding frenzy as spectators watch with great delight at Koh Tachai. As the underwater ecosystem is well-maintained here, phytoplankton attract many manta rays to this area.

A walk on Koh Tachai’s beach is close to foot-massage therapy. Watching the azure sky reflect on the mirror-like surface of the sea makes you lose track of time.

Live-aboard boat Scubanet is comfortable and clean. There is an entertainment room for movies at night and a top deck for passengers to enjoy the sunset and fresh air. With a chef on board, food and snacks are plenty, succulent and diverse — from Key lime pie to spicy local delicacies.


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