The Octopus' Garden

by Helen Conway, Jun 5, 2002 | Destinations: Thailand / Ko Phi Phi

The forested slopes of Ko Phi-Phi Leh rise up sharply from the picture-postcard beaches, which are lapped by the tropical waters of the Andaman Sea. This island, given National Park status in 1983, remains uninhabited, by humans at least. All of which sound like reason enough to while away a few hours basking in the sunshine on the golden sands. Instead, I chose to leave behind this paradise to explore my idea of utopia below, rather than above, the waves.

Ko Phi-Phi is situated around 45 kilometres east of Phuket. All the accommodation and facilities are located on Phi-Phi Don, the largest of the islands in the group. The once peaceful fishing village of Ton Sai has now become the focal point of tourist activity and is where the dive companies are. There is an astounding number of them, given the size of the island. Most of them convene at the start of each tourist season to set the same prices, so cost will not help you decide which company to choose.

I looked at several companies and their facilities and equipment seemed of an equally good standard. The deciding factor, therefore, was the friendliness of the staff. Which was how I came to be diving with Island Divers. As I walked past their shop, a cheerful Australian voice asked me if I was interested in diving. Like a child hearing the musical tinkle of the ice-cream van, I couldn't help but look expectantly in the direction of the sound. The voice belonged to a lady named Pip, who successfully sold to me the wonders of a day spent diving at Phi-Phi.

There are several dive sites around Phi-Phi Don, most of which are located near its neighbouring island of Phi-Phi Leh. Which ones you do will depend on the weather and conditions. Our first dive was at Bida Nok, a small limestone karst two kilometres south of Phi-Phi Leh. Our boat, a green two-decked vessel, took less than an hour to reach the dive site. Meanwhile, each group of four divers was introduced to its divemaster. Our divemaster was Elin (another smiling face), who assembled our equipment for us and explained the layout of the dive site.

My dive buddy was a Danish pilot who had not dived in over a year so Elin did a short skills refresher with him. They rested on a sandy area at around ten metres whilst I and the two other divers swam around the area. With over fifteen metres of visibility, it was easy to keep each other in our sights.

I was dismayed to see so many shards and chunks of dead coral lying broken on the sea bed, their once vivid colours transmuted into a lifeless grey. With an ever-increasing number of dive schools on Phi-Phi, all bringing novice divers out to the reefs, it was only a matter of time before the students' less-than-perfect buoyancy control took its toll.

We began to explore the dive site and Elin led us to a sunken fishing boat, lying on its side at a 45º angle. It seemed so ghostly, its shell now providing a safe haven for the fish it once hunted.

There was such a magnificent array of colours: the reds and greens of sea fans, gently swaying with the motion of the water like grasses in the wind, orange barrel sponges, and black and white feather-stars, looking like upside-down tarantulas.

The corals and anemones provide food for marine creatures, so everywhere we swam there was an incredible profusion of life. We were lucky enough to see a banded sea snake. This reptile is one of the most venomous snakes in the world but is not aggressive and will generally not attack a diver unless provoked. Their skin is striped black and bluish-white and, just like their land-based counterparts, they need air to breathe and so are often found in shallow waters. It was fascinating to watch the snake gracefully weave through the water.

We were also fortunate to spot two leopard sharks. Their real name is the zebra shark (stegostoma fasciatum) as the juveniles have stripes. When they become adults, however, their markings change to dark spots, hence the name leopard shark, used in this region. These generally shy creatures are nocturnal feeders and we caught sight of one dozing on the seabed, its pale brown body blending in to the sand.

A short while later another shark swam by three metres below us. It was about two metres long, its paddle-like tail comprising nearly half its total length. It cruised effortlessly through the water, nonchalantly confident of its position in the food chain. We gazed in awe at its apparent strength and grace. For all of this, the leopard shark is quite harmless to humans.

We continued on and came across a green moray eel, the largest of the species. Morays too are nocturnal feeders but during the daytime divers can sometimes see their heads and necks poking out of holes and crevices. Their mouths continuously open and close, displaying razor-sharp teeth, which gives them quite a frightening appearance. This movement, however, is a method for passing oxygen over their gills so that they can breathe. They actually have very poor eyesight but a keen sense of smell and will usually only harm divers as the response to an inquisitive finger intruding upon their lair. This moray was nearly a third of the way out of its lair and the visible part was around sixty centimetres. This was one big moray eel.

One creature more difficult to see is the raggy scorpionfish. Elin pointed one out to us, superbly camouflaged against a rock. The scorpionfish clearly missed out in the looks department; its big, thuggish-looking face is the marine equivalent of a scowling bulldog. It manages to get its revenge by having spines along its fins capable of inflicting severe pain to the unwary that get too close.

The lionfish is capable of an even more serious sting although these fish are actually interesting to look at and we saw several on this dive. Their bodies have cream and brown stripes with long spines on their fins, which are covered in a dark-spotted, fine tissue. The spread of these feathery spines around the fish's face give it the appearance of having an early-Cyndi Lauper haircut, or as someone obviously once thought, a lion's mane.

The potentially dangerous creatures were far outnumbered by the countless tropical reef fish. The yellow-and-blue angelfish harmonised with their orchestra of the slender trumpet fish and the even longer flutemouth. The dive lasted almost one hour and we reluctantly surfaced only because we were low on air; there was plenty in the octopus' garden to keep us enthralled.

We motored over to Phi-Phi Leh for our lunch stop and into Maya Bay, along with every other diving, snorkelling and sightseeing day-trip boat, not to mention all the kayaks. The beach here was the location for "The Beach," 20th-Century Fox's film adaptation of Alex Garland's eponymous novel. In true Hollywood fashion, the powers that be decided that this Thai island did not look enough like a...well, a Thai island. They managed to spark an environmental controversy when they planted some coconut palms here. Even more damage appears to have been done now that the film crew has departed, leaving the beach a prime tourist destination. It might have been an isolated paradise when Mr. de Caprio swam ashore but now the number of boats here is quite amazing.

Our second dive was at Maya South, which took us around the 30-metre deep west wall of Phi-Phi Leh. Disappointingly, the visibility here was not as good as at Bida Nok, possibly as a result of all the boat activity.

Here, the corals were beautiful; the sea ferns glistened white, looking like branches of trees covered in snow and the gorgonian sea fans seductively undulated. Over the centuries boulders have tumbled from the island, coming to rest in random patterns on the seabed, creating swim-throughs and crevices.

As we moved through the water, shoals of tiny fish splintered away from us. Their mirror-like scales reflected flashes of sunlight into our eyes, like a mischievous boy with a watch. We encountered a shoal of sweetlips, easily identified by their fleshy- but to my mind not really so sweet- lips.

The marine life was not so numerous as on the first dive although we were fortunate to swim alongside a turtle. It did not even seem to notice us, blithely swimming about its business, despite the fact that it had lost its front right flipper. Perhaps this was as a result of a failed capture, turtles being a culinary delicacy in this region. This charismatic chelonian appeared so oblivious to us that I could have stayed to watch him for hours. However, my air was getting low and I left him to his aquatic meanderings.

Back at Phi-Phi Don, the staff of Island Divers took charge of the dive equipment, allowing us to refresh ourselves with the complimentary tea and coffee. Elin brought out the marine identification books to help us fill in our logbooks, pointing out the names and species of all that we had seen. Elin had been diving at Phi-Phi for the past few months and had accumulated a wealth of knowledge about the area, the diving and the marine life.

All the divemasters on the trip had been friendly and helpful. Island Divers succeeded in providing great value for money above the water and Nature took care of the rest under it.

NOTE: The author paid for her own diving.

© Helen Conway 2002

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