Monday, September 16, 2013

Underwater Rock Stars

Picture by Mike Johnston

Hin Daeng, a relatively unknown diving destination in southern Thailand offers divers rare encounters with whale sharks, manta rays and giant eels. 

Author's Note: This article was originally published in the Bangkok Post in 1996.

I was just about to ascend when I saw John Williams, co-founder of Siam Diving Center, frantically pointing into the dark blue depths. Scanning the water below, I knew almost without a doubt that his "look here" gesture could only mean one thing: he had spotted a whale shark.

We were diving at Hin Daeng (Red Rock), 48 nautical miles southeast of Phuket. Topside, the rocky outcrop is easily recognized, jutting a few meters above the sea. Below, a vertical wall dropsan abrupt 55 meters on one side and gently slopes on the other, creating an ideal underwater seascape for encounters with larger marine life. Common to this area is the gray reef shark, giant schools of jacks, fusiliers, tuna and barracuda.

In our three days of diving at various "hot spots" from Shark Point near Phuket to Red Rock, we had seen an amazing array of marine life; leopard sharks, nurse sharks, giant eels, octopus and a magnificent variety of colorful reef fish. Still, our greatest desire was to encounter a whale shark.

Aside from John and Frank Hebert, our equipment manager on the Daranee, (a live-aboard dive boat we had booked from Phuket) the other members of our dive group had never seen a whale shark. In fact, John had been diving for 15 years before his first whale shark encounter in the Similan Islands a few years earlier.

Although whale sharks are considered rare, in recent years the number of sightings by local dive operators has increased dramatically. A few companies reported more than 12 encounters in a single month. A member of the species Rhinocodon typus, the whale shark is the largest fish in existence. However, these gentle giants are harmless to divers, feeding on only small fish and plankton. Most often they are found cruising near the surface, where their food source is most abundant.

Pumped with adrenaline, our dive group raced toward John, glancing at each other with excitement. And yet, as we approached closer, I still couldn't see anything in the dark, gloomy water. I stared out into an empty blue void, wondering if the mysterious creature had possibly already vanished. Then suddenly, a dark shadow emerged underneath John and I saw the unmistakable white markings of a whale shark!

Our group finned rapidly trying to keep up with the "baby" shark, which was about three meters in length. Adults can grow up to 15 meters and weigh more than 20 tons. With his camera in tow, John managed a face-to-face meeting with the shark, clicking off one shot of the shark's wide mouth before it shot off into the murky distance.

The young shark was obviously startled when another diver touched his dorsal fin. While older sharks will let divers "hitch-hike" on them, and even appear to enjoy playing with divers, young ones are less tolerant and are easily frightened. 

Emerging from the water, our group beamed with joyous smiles. We soon learned that Frank was the only member of our dive group who hadn't seen the whale shark.

"Oh, did you see Oscar?" he asked, as if we'd run into an old friend.

Apparently "Oscar" was another young whale shark he'd seen on several occasions at Hin Muang, the dive site we'd explored the previous day.

Lying close to Hin Daeng, Hin Muang’s uncharted pinnacle is completely hidden 6 meters underneath the water’s surface. Appropriately named Purple Rock, Hin Muang is covered by brilliant purple soft corals and sea anemones. On one side, a vertical wall plunges 60 meters to the ocean floor, while the flat top of the rock measures about 15 meters across.

The highlight of Hin Muang, of course, is the possibility of meeting Oscar or one of his friends. Whale shark encounters here are nearly on par with Richelieu Rock, a world-class diving destination located near the Surins. Possibly the largest whale shark, a massive 14 meters, was seen at Hin Muang. The impressive rock is also teeming with an amazing variety of marine life, making it one of the best dives in Thailand.

Picture by Tim Sheerman-Cha

During one of our deep dives, a giant moral eel appeared snaking through the open water. His body was easily the size of a man’s thigh. Inspecting every crevice of the sheer wall, I later discovered the less common yellow moray eel peeking out of its dark burrow.

The ocean drama was spellbinding. Shimmering clouds of baitfish darted around the rock face. Numerous lionfish floated beneath bright orange sea fans. On a clump of coral, an intelligent octopus displayed its amazing ability of camouflaging by changing the texture of its skin and color, to perfectly match the coral background. On occasion, giant manta rays have been seen flying gracefully through the waters surrounding both Hin Daeng and Hin Muang.

Another compelling dive site is at Koh Ha Yai, the largest in the Koh Ha archipelago of five small islands. Lying a few hours north of Hin Daeng, Koh Ha Yai’s main attraction is its underwater sea caves. Night dives are truly spectacular at this unique location where a 20 meters descent brings you to the wide mouth of a large cavern, connected to another similar cavern by a wide archway. Ascending to the surface of one cathedral, you emerge inside a huge enclosed air chamber with shimmering crystallized limestone “waterfalls”.

Turning off our torches, we easily made our way to the surface where water shimmered brilliantly underneath a full moon. Streaks of neon blue phosphorescence flashed around us as we made our way back to the Daranee. It was a spectacular natural light show and without question the best night dive location in Thailand.

Our last stop was at Koh Rock Nok and Koh Nai, two beautiful twin islands separated by a channel approximately 15 meters deep. Strolling along Koh Rock Nok’s immaculate white sand beach, we came upon a unique shrine of sorts, constructed by local fishermen. A large number of phallic symbols adorned the shrine, expertly crafted by its worshippers. 

Reaching these remote dive sites in the Trang region is perhaps easiest from Phuket or Phi Phi, where regular departures on live-aboard dive boats can be booked from November to April. However, those who prefer a more adventurous commute can hire boats to Koh Lanta, southern Thailand’s dive base, from Krabi and Trang.

The stunning range of dive sites in the Andaman Sea waters surrounding Hin Daeng and Hin Muang is definitely worth looking under. You might even be fortunate enough to meet Oscar.

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