Sunday, December 29, 2013

Dec 29 2013 - Disembarking the Oktavia for Khao Lak

A friendly turtle swam over to Olga (top right) as
she returned to the boat from a Snorkel excursion
The makeup of the onboard crew was interesting. The local Thai crew (who are legally required for foreign-owned diveboats) are hired for a year at a time, the Trip Leader and the lead instructor are hired for the season, and the other dive guides are hired for a few weeks at a time. It seems to take a ton of hard work and good fortune to make a career as a dive guide. First you have to select a touristy area with great diving and a specific high season (and preferably a second location in the opposite season). You need to spend months renting rooms a week at a time, pedaling your CV to every dive company in a particular town. When you actually get selected, you work 6 days a week, getting about 18 hours off before you are picked up and taken back to the boat for another 6 days. Meanwhile you are offline and out of phone service - which certainly doesn't help your ability to find the next gig when these few weeks wind down.

Air pocket in a cave 20M underwater
Hike to a scenic viewpoint on Khao Similan island

Guides who are fortunate enough to be hired often find it is for seemingly superficial reasons. Often it's not because of your work history, references, or dive record. Usually it's due to factors such as the languages you speak (English is absolutely mandatory - and this boat was heavy on German-speaking tourists as well), whether you end up having drinks with one of the fellow crewmembers at a bar, how persistent you are at asking your CV to be put on the top of the list, whether you answer your cell phone the precise moment they have more passengers sign up to dive... That being said, it seems like a great line of work for somebody who is flexible about how often they work, enjoy a malleable corporate structure, don't mind being thousands of miles away and offline from their friends and family, and relish teaching / guiding. I have one or two people in mind who would be perfect for this lifestyle!

Dive buddies Dave and Woo
Pufferfish on the Boon Song wreck

One principle of diving is that you don't do it just to do it. You don't do a deep dive (greater than 19 meters) just because you can. You don't dive a wreck just because it's cool. But after 19 dives in 5 days, and 12 hours of silent underwater time to reflect, I started to realize that part of the reason I do it is just that - because the technology of breathing underwater and crawling the ocean floor is pretty damn cool. They say you shouldn't dive a wreck just because it's there - you're supposed to focus on the fish and wildlife - but I find the rusting metal and the history of the ship to be just as compelling. That being said, the fish at the Boon Song Wreck near Khao Lak were extraordinary - certainly the largest and most abundant fish I have ever seen. Is it because a wreck is not a naturally-occurring location? That Mother Nature herself didn't design a natural predator for this area? Because the area is closer to the shore and better patrolled by police? (we had seen illegal fishing boats in the Similan Islands, which are a poorly protected Thai National Park).

Camouflaged Scorpionfish on the
wreck (can you spot it???)

Boon Song Wreck - largest fish
I have ever seen!

Scuba rules require divers to wait 24 hours from the last dive before getting onto an airplane, in order to give the Nitrogen a chance to exit your system. Otherwise you can get The Bends in the air, similar to the effect of surfacing too quickly from a deep dive. Fully aware and understanding of the danger, a small part of me thinks the 24-hour requirement was concocted as a compromise with tourism officials in beach towns as a way to get liveaboard divers to spend a night in their town. After 5 vivid, wondrous, and (at times) grueling days on the sea, we disembarked to the nearest town: Khao Lak. The town seems to be hugely popular with German tourists, as most signs were in Thai and German, with a heavy dose of English sprinkled in for the rest of the world.

Massage, Laundry, and liquor bottles of Gasoline
Our hotel was a block from the Bang Niang beach in Khao Lak. The entire beachfront (about a mile deep) is brand new, a reminder of the horrific devastation caused by the earthquake and Tsunami on December 26 2004. With this in mind, we enjoyed swimming in the Andaman Sea one last time (yes we spent our first day on land back in the water!) with our thoughts on the 250,000 who perished. Olga does a "deeper deep" into the tsunami experience in her blog. There was a little shop next to our hotel offering massage, laundry, and gasoline - we had use for two out of the three :) When diving, you use some muscles you didn't know you had, other leg muscles get abused a bit, so the forceful Thai Massage really came in handy. I feel we might need another or two before we leave Thailand!

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