Author: Iain Page, December 2004
The 26th December was a traumatic day for many people, not only here in Thailand but all around the world. Those not directly affected were indirectly affected with thoughts and concerns for friends and relatives in the tsunami-hit areas.Since the tsunami Oui and I have received many e-mails expressing concern and offering help. In response, here is an account of what we did that day and some after thoughts.
7:20 a.m. Having put the alarm on snooze for the 4th time we decided we'd better get up and get ready for work. I was working as tour leader on the boat that day but had a group of 5 private customers from Sweden to look after too (3 divers, 2 snorkellers). My wife Oui came along to help me with our private group. So we showered, set up the underwater cameras and then headed off to the pier.
08:00 a.m. The usual melee can be found at the pier with numerous dive companies and hundreds of customers hanging around. This is the peak, peak time of year. It doesn't get busier than this. I had approximately 25 customers and about 8 staff on our boat.
08:45 Having got everyone together (pick-ups coming from various different towns) we headed down the pier, onto the boat and off to Phi Phi. The mood was jubilant with everyone looking forward to a great day's diving. With the Christmas hangovers gone we just had calm seas and terrific scenery in front of us. The trip to Phi Phi takes almost 3 hours so after everyone had set up their diving equipment it was time to relax. Downstairs we were playing Finding Nemo, upstairs just fresh air and views.
10:30 The boat captain tells us that some of the boats going to other dive sites have had to turn back because of large waves and choppy seas. We find this almost unbelievable as where we are is beautifully calm. More mixed reports come in although it is not clear exactly what has happened. The reports vary from "Earthquake at Racha Yai", a local small island, to "Large waves have destroyed Sarasin Bridge ", the bridge connecting Phuket to the mainland. It later turns out that both reports were untrue. At this point we are still not aware of what has happened in Phuket or Phi Phi.
11:10 Phi Phi is in close view. Our dive sites are at two small islands (Koh Bida Nok/Nai) a couple of kilometres from the main Phi Phi islands. Normally at this time of day these dive sites have 5 to 10 diving boats from Phi Phi hanging around. I am surprised to notice only one boat and assume that the others must all be hidden around the other side of these small islands. Time for the dive briefing.
11:45 Everyone is kitted up and ready to jump. We are still all completely unaware of what has happened although there are now reports of some fishing boats sinking near Phuket. Just as we are about to enter the water one of the crew points out a strange phenomenon about 400 to 800 metres away. There is a largish slow-moving area of brown bubbling water in the middle of the calm blue ocean. Expecting a possible thermocline bringing in dirty water I warn everyone to stay close to their buddies in case the visibility drops.
11:51 The dive begins. Just before we descend I comment on the good visibility and am genuinely excited about the prospect of a good, easy dive. This is a wall dive along the side of the island with a small current to gently drift us along. With myself at the front, my 3 customers in the middle and my wife following up the rear, we descend down to about 16 metres.
11:53 I notice the visibility starting to drop down to a couple of metres from about 15 metres and, worried about the thermocline, bring the group shallower to about 5 metres. The small current that was allowing for a gentle drift suddenly rapidly increases and we find ourselves rocketed around the corner of the island. Instantly, the current changes direction and we are propelled backwards. Visibility is now down to less than a metre and I am thinking of aborting the dive only a few minutes in. Next thing I know another group comes crashing into ours and we all start to get sucked down and tossed around, then pulled back up shallow then down again. It is like being in a washing machine.
I instantly move close to the wall where currents are generally weaker and motion for my divers to come over. Two are very close and manage to grab hold of the wall. The third momentarily disappears from view but a few seconds later reappears and joins the group. My wife is nowhere to be seen. As she is also a dive instructor and very calm in the water I assume that she will make her way to the surface and switch my focus to the remaining three divers who are all relatively inexperienced.
I motion to the group to all link arms and then give the ascend sign. First we have to move away from the wall in case of waves at the surface bashing us against the island. As I expect, as soon as we move out the waves and currents under water start to throw us around but with everyone linked together I have only to focus on one thing, getting to the surface safely. As a group we start to fin up. I am watching my depth gauge and note that we have already been sucked from 5 to 15 metres deep and so signal for everyone to fin harder. We have to be careful not to surface too quickly so as to avoid the risk of decompression sickness.
The four of us together form a stable pod and we slowly but surely make our way to the surface. I do not make my normal five metre safety stop as I am concerned for my wife and the rest of the customers too. On reaching the surface we all get buoyant and I look around. There are divers everywhere and, to my relief, I can see my wife Oui about 20 metres from me. The surface is choppy but not too bad. The boat gradually picks up the scattered dive groups and I check that we have everyone back on board. There are still two groups missing but they were dropped in a different place to the rest of us. We wait and eventually they too surface and I can now relax knowing everybody is safely back.
12:30 Lunch is served and we turn on the TV on the boat. Now we start to see what has happened on the local news and are finally aware that it was an earthquake in Indonesia that has led to large waves being generated. We are still not aware of the catastrophe that has hit Phi Phi so badly. After discussions with the captain we decide to head back to Phuket but wait for the one other boat on the dive site to pick up their divers. The water around us is now a muddy shade of brown. Once the other boat is ready we head slowly off together back towards to Phuket.
16:30 As we approach the local Phuket harbour in Chalong we see rows and rows of boats waiting in the deep water outside the pier. The local port authorities have deemed it too unsafe to approach the pier. We are now aware of the large waves but still not truly of their impact. However, we wait patiently in the deep water awaiting further news. Everyone on the boat seems calm and relaxed, surprisingly so with only one customer getting frustrated that we can't get on to land.
18:00 Speedboats have been arranged and come out in pairs to pick up the customers and staff. We are transported to another small port where it is considered safer to land. People are urged to move quickly and leave all dive equipment behind. Soon everyone is safely back on land and transportation is waiting to take people back to the head office. It is now we start to understand the damage that has happened as those staying near the beach in Patong are told that they may not be able to return to their hotels.
19:30 Everyone has been taken back to their hotels or alternative arrangements are being made. My wife Oui and I head off home to shower and eat. We are exhausted but thankful to have returned safely.
The following day we start to realise the damage that has occurred. In Thailand , Phi Phi and Khao Lak are the main areas that have been hit and the toll on lives lost increases with each hour. Many hotels and homes have been destroyed especially in Phi Phi where it has been reported that only two hotels have been left standing. In the relative scheme of things Phuket got off lightly especially compared to places like Aceh although unfortunately many people died here too.
Thankfully there were many close escapes. One colleague was spending his day off down at the beach. He noticed the unusually low tide but thought nothing of it - having to walk out a kilometre to get waist high water is quite common in parts of Britain . Suddenly he noticed the water moving rapidly back in. He started to run but was caught up in the water, thought he was going to die and then found himself in the top of a coconut tree. As he was thanking his good fortune a second wave came crashing in. A building next to the tree was swept over, crashing into the tree and knocking the tree over too. As he fell towards the water, for a second time he thought his time was up. He was then swept against a palm tree and scrambled up it for his life. This time he was finally safe.
A couple of days after I am sitting in a bar with the Swedish friends I went diving with. We have out a map of Thailand and are trying to follow the path that the waves followed. We realise how lucky we were. If the waves had been an hour earlier we all would have been leaving the harbour. Most likely the boat would have sunk. Also, when we think of our underwater experience we realise that we only got caught in the rebound not in the main surges. The tsunamis themselves would have passed right under us whilst we were in deep water. When you are in deep water you don't notice if the depth suddenly increases by 5 to 10 metres!
Many people in Phuket are now angry about the international press coverage. Certainly there has been some serious damage in and around Phuket but nowhere near as bad as has been portrayed. You'd think that the whole island had been flooded whereas the water actually only came in up to about 100 metres inland. The areas most badly hit were those homes, businesses and resorts right on the beaches, hence the high levels of devastation at Phi Phi and Khao Lak. Press reports to avoid Phuket because of high risks of disease are unfounded and utter rubbish. The clean up operation is well under way. In many places including Kata where I live you wouldn't know anything had happened. The only sign of something untoward is the silent streets and deserted beaches.
There are not bodies lying unattended on beaches. There is not lack of medicine. The hospitals here are, in my view, better than those in the UK . As for lack of blood, one hospital even sent out a message asking people not to come to donate anymore as their blood banks were full and they had nowhere left to store it.
The biggest disaster that can happen to Thailand now is if people stop coming here on holiday. The local economy here has been devastated with thousands of people losing jobs, and many businesses on the verge of bankruptcy. And you have to remember that there is no social security in Thailand. If you don't work then you don't get money!
We would therefore encourage people to keep coming and support Thailand by spending their money here. It is a clean, safe place to be, just as safe, if not safer than most other tourist destinations around the world. Don't let one unfortunate freak of nature and thousands of over-dramatic news reports put people off. The people in the Land of Smiles are still smiling...for now!
It may seem strange to say but, as someone living in the middle of a tsunami-hit area, very little has changed since before the tsunami came. Oui and I live in a small town called Kata towards the southern end of Phuket. When the tsunami hit, many places were severely damaged but all were located on or close to the beach.
Even the day after the tsunami in Kata Centre itself most restaurants and hotels continued to operate. In fact, with the relocation of many people from Patong, Kata Centre became the busiest I have since it for the few days immediately following the disaster.
That rapidly changed, though, as many tourists were needlessly evacuated back to their countries of origin. Within days Kata had become a ghost town and January was spent driving around playing "Spot the Tourist". In fact, towards the end of January a group of us were sitting in a cafe when we noticed four tourists together. These were the first we'd seen for a few weeks and we couldn't help but point and stare!
February saw a slow trickle of tourists returning, though in nowhere near the numbers we would normally expect. Patches of work started to appear and Oui and I both took trips to the Similan islands. On our return there after the cleanup operations in January we were pleased to see already that our work had had the desired effect. Many corals were reestablishing themselves and the fish life was as abundant and varied as ever. I had possibly the best trip I have ever had to the Similans that month.
March is now well under way and, although still quiet in comparison to the usual, business has picked up. With only a couple of months left until the liveaboard season ends many people are taking the chance to hop on a boat and explore the Similans. And who can blame them. Whale sharks and mantas have both been seen regularly in the Similans and Surin islands over the last month and will probably continue to be seen until the end of the season in May.
Soon it will be time to prepare for the low season. Already tightened belts will have to be tightened further as many businesses struggle to survive post-tsunami. Now should be when the coffers are full, with reserves in place for the rainy season. Unfortunately, with the disaster that took place, and the subsequent consequences, that is not the case.
Hopefully people will continue to come over the low season. Except for possibly September, the weather is normally quite good and the diving is as excellent as ever. As long as you can handle the choppy waters then June to October can be a great time for day trips with less people around and consequently more space both on the boats and underwater.