View from Sail Rock.
View from Sail Rock. Shirley Sinclair

Shelling out dive surprise

I COULDN'T help but scream.

Luckily, being underwater, my simultaneous shock and awe went unnoticed by those gliding nearby.

Just seconds earlier, I had jumped off the Khao Lak Land Discovery boat in my snorkelling mask and fins, righted myself horizontally for my first glimpse of coral and sea creatures in Thailand's Similan Islands, then almost went cheek to cheek with a large sea turtle.

The inquisitive turtle apparently is a frequent visitor to Island 9, as it is commonly known, and enjoys swimming with the human fish with each tourist boat that arrives throughout the day.

So, after a momentary splutter, I popped my head straight back into the water with a huge smile on my face and watched the “cheeky monkey” flap on by to his next unsuspecting victim.

That smile rarely left my face throughout the day-long adventure.

Whether it was being surrounded by schools of fish, witnessing a turf war between what looked like a small but feisty bream and a wrasse many times its size, or spying a game of fish chasey in, out and around holes in a rock, the close encounters of the marine kind helped create a highlight of my first visit to the Southern Provinces.

The Similan Islands Marine National Park, 70km offshore from Khao Lak, was designated in 1982 and originally took in nine granite islands covering an area of 128sq km.

Each island has a number as well as a name.

These are, running from north to south:

Ba Ngu (No. 9)

Similan (No. 8)

Hin Lunk Chang (No. 7)

Payu (No. 6)

Haa (No. 5)

Miang (No. 4)

Payan (No. 3),

Payang (No. 2)

Hu Yong (No. 1)

After including another two more islands in the north, the park now contains 11 and covers 140sq km.

Consistently ranked as one of the top-10 dive sites in the world, the Similans are popular with leisure-seeking yachties, day tourists coming by speedboat, and divers on short-term live-aboard vessels.

The islands are virtually uninhabited, with no resorts or stores and only a couple of ranger stations plus a few bungalows and tents. Huge sea fans are among the 500 species of soft and hard coral living on bommies, in coral gardens and covering massive granite boulders in the crystal-clear waters.

Manta rays, leopard and white-tip sharks and bountiful numbers of tropical fish species join the world's biggest fish, the whale shark, in calling the Similans home.

From powder blue surgeon fish to coral-chomping parrotfish, fluorescent blue tangs to what looked like black damsels in a feeding frenzy, pretty harlequin tuskfish to eye-catching lionfish, every colour of the rainbow is represented here in the sheltered bays and channels of this underwater playground.

After mooring in the bay between Islands 5 and 6, I followed a crew member closer in towards the boulder shoreline of Island 5 where he pointed out a huge wrasse, a jittery clam and tiny clownfish darting in and out of an anemone.

That certainly made up for the no-show of the star attraction at nearby Barracuda Point.

While the marine park features some of Thailand's finest snorkelling and diving sites, the scenery above is just as magical as the world below.

Unusual rock formations and boulders littering the western and southern shores of several islands contrast with lush rainforest and whiter-than-white soft sand beaches lapped by turquoise waters sparkling in the sunlight.

Coming into Island 8, one of the rocks on the hill has inspired the area name Donald Duck Bay (though I couldn't see the resemblance, myself, and much preferred Fred Basset Hound Bay).

Those feeling the need to stretch the legs have the opportunity here to explore the natural reserve behind the beach or make the steep, 15-minute path climb to Sail Rock for a majestic view of tourists frolicking in the sheltered bay with the waters changing in hue from teal to emerald according to depth. And the cool, treed surrounds of Island 4's Honeymoon Bay is a great place to relax over lunch and enjoy a swing before walking through the rainforest track and past the campground and bungalows to rejoin the boat.

“Similan” comes from the Malay word “sembilan”, meaning “nine” but to me, the name translates only as superlatives – majestic, beautiful, natural, awesome.

The writer was a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

GOOD TO KNOW

For more details on the Similan Islands, go to Khaolak Land Discovery.

Where to stay: Kantary Beach Hotel, on a private beach, offers garden, ocean and kids' pools, a fitness centre, Fairway Minimart, internet room, laundrette and beach massage. Go to Kantary Collection.

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