When I e-mailed some friends a few days ago with the subject "Diving with Elephants" it certainly caught their attention. They all know that underwater I've seen sharks, turtles, manta rays and many other species of marine life but elephants? What is that all about? After reading the first few lines, all became clear as the story of Phuket's new marine park unfolded.
It was the third dive of the day and our boat, the Greta, had moved from the fantastic dive sites of Racha Noi island to it's bigger brother, Racha Yai. Unfortunately that day we hadn't seen the big stuff we were hoping for a.k.a. mantas and sharks, but were far from disappointed after a couple of superb dives with excellent visibility. With the sun starting to drop it was time to decide where to end the day's trip.
With me on the boat was my sister-in-law and current divemaster in training, Oor, who came up with the brilliant idea of visiting Phuket's latest underwater attraction, the Phuket Diving Park. I had dived the park a week earlier and had since been telling everyone what a bizarre experience I had had. With the tour leader , Owen, more than happy with the suggestion we pointed the captain in the right direction and off we went.
The park itself is located just on the edge of Siam Bay on the northern end of Racha Yai island. Its creation came about on the suggestion of the Thai government as a way of attracting divers back to Thailand after the tsunami. With some reefs suffering bad damage from the giant waves four new underwater parks were created around Thai diving hot spots including Phuket. The park consists of a number of concrete,fibre glass and metal structures placed on a clear sand patch at a depth of 18 metres, the perfect depth for certified divers and those on the last dives of their open water courses. With a mooring marking the site descents are easy - just pull yourself down the line and there is the park right in front of you.
As it happened Oor was taking her Diver Propulsion Vehicle specialty so we grabbed our underwater scooters and off we went to explore. As we reached the line the first thing we came across were a bunch of hollow concrete cubic frames, absolutely perfect for buoyancy practice and even more perfect for us to motor in and out of on our scooters. We could tell already that this was going to be a great dive. After half a dozen loop-the-loops we then spotted a rather bizarre silhouette about 10 metres off to the south. Off we zoomed directly towards one of the strangest thing I have ever seen under water, a three metre high elephant!
Round and round we went and then Oor broke off and motored straight underneath it between the elephant's legs obviously being careful with her buoyancy to ensure that she didn't touch it. Later on I asked why she had done this and she explained that in Thai culture it is considered good luck to pass underneath an elephant. I guess you would have to be pretty lucky to pass underneath an elephant without getting squashed! At least the probabilities were on our side here as this elephant's feet were securely moored to the ground!
Further to the south we saw another elephant, this one with its trunk raised giving a photo opportunity too good to miss. Off Oor went, DPV in hand, ready to pose. Unfortunately with the sun dropping late afternoon the light was not the best for photography but it's amazing what can be done nowadays with a little bit of photo editing!
The next main attraction was a Thai sala, a traditional pavilion like structure used country wide as a resting place for workers and visitors alike. This building had the perfect design to enable us to practice yet another swim-through experience on our scooters!
The final main attraction is a replication of the entrance to a temple with a couple of yaks standing guard. Yaks are a class of nature ghosts or demons, originally from Hindu mythology, that are often found at the entrances to Buddhist temples. Their role is to protect the temple from evil spirits or anyone in general wanting to carry out bad deeds within the temple itself.
Having had great entertainment from the underwater statues we ended the dive by heading over sand for a short distance to the main reef. Consisting almost entirely of staghorn, blue and lobe pore corals we saw a surprising amount of interesting marine species. In the sand you can see blue-spotted stingrays often with just eyes and tail protruding up. We also came across one of my favourite types of pipefish, the bent stick pipefish, a curious looking creature that really does resemble a bent stick!
As we swam over the reef itself we were joined by a large school of Forster's barracuda, a smaller species of barracuda than the norm, but very curious. It was a good ten minutes before they got bored of us and swam off in another direction. Ending the dive in the shallowest part of the reef at about 5 metres deep we spent the safety stop with a group of sergeant majors, a colourful damsel fish with yellow, blue and white markings all over their bodies.
Back on the boat, having packed away the gear, we spent the journey home relaxing in the sun and eating pancakes! This is an added bonus of the boat that we were on that day, the Greta, who supply their special pancakes on all three dive days. Then it was back to the pier, a smooth journey home eager to view the day's photos and looking forward to the next chance to going diving with elephants!