Riding the Thermocline

Trip Start Jun 25, 2003
Trip End Sep 2004

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Friday, January 30, 2004

Leaving our Borneo Adventure behind we have spent the last two weeks in beautiful southern Thailand for some much needed rest and relaxation. We flew from Kuala Lumpur to Phuket, Thailand and then hopped a ferry to Koh Phi Phi, a gorgeous island in the Andaman Sea off the west coast of Thailand. This lush green island is fringed by dazzling white sand beaches stretching out across crystal clear turquoise waters to an amazing coral reef teeming with life. Upon arrival it is easy to see why the movie "The Beach" was filmed here. We didn't have any time to look for Leo though as the instant we stepped off the ferry we were greeted by our good friends Vicki and Arnaud. They are on an around the world trip as well (see VickiArnaud in travelpod) and we were fortunately able to coordinate some time together in such a beautiful place. We spent the day lazing around on the white sands and in the warm clear water, and the night eating dinner on the beach exchanging travel stories and telling each other how good we all looked, not having a job obviously agrees with us.

How does one improve upon hanging out on a beautiful tropical island with friends... add more friends. So the next day we met Jake and Ali at the ferry terminal (still no sign of Leo) two good friends who came half way around the world on their vacations to spend time with us. I like to think it was just to see us and that we could have been in Siberia and they still would have made the trip, but it is possible the island had something to do with it. So another day of lazing around in the sun on a gorgeous tropical island and hanging out with wonderful friends. So wonderful in fact that Ali brought a care package for us all the way from the US. To my dismay, none of Mom's home cooking made it into the care package, mostly just a bunch of stuff for Jan's hair.

We spent another four days exploring the island, drinking the local whiskey, and working on our tans. One day we hired a longboat to take us around the two islands that make up Koh Phi Phi, Don and Ley. We motored around in the beautiful waters stopping in coves and bays to snorkel and swim or just laze on the beach. The snorkeling was fantastic, schools of tropical fish, loads of giant clams, and gorgeous corals. The beaches were pristine soft white sand and the views from the long boat spectacular. The next day we rented kayaks to revisit some of the gorgeous beaches we had seen from the long boat and do some more snorkeling. Kayaking was a blast, especially since one of our destinations was "monkey beach". It was hard to choose between watching the monkeys steal things from the tourists and snorkeling in such amazing waters, if only the monkeys were the "Sea" variety I could have had my banana and eaten it too.

Unfortunately all good things must come to an end, and after an amazing week hanging out on Kohl Phi it was time to say goodbye and go our separate ways. Vicki and Arnaud went east to explore the rest of S.E. Asia, Jake and Ali went north to visit Chiang Mai and Jan and I went west into the Andaman Sea to the Simian Islands for three days of diving. The Simians are a beautiful chain of nine small tropical islands world renown for amazing coral reefs and crystal clear waters making for excellent diving. After a long journey out to the dive boat we would be living on for the next three days, we donned our scuba gear and hit the clear warm waters. It was everything I had hoped for, visibility was 80 - 100 feet and the water so warm wet suits was almost unnecessary. We dove past beautiful coral and among schools of fish as we swam through giant sea fan covered granite canyons along the edges of the small islands.

After such a fantastic first dive I was really excited for our second dive, especially as it was in an area known for leopard sharks, which I had only seen once before. We went down to depth, about 80 feet down, and I began eagerly looking around for sharks. I saw more of the same exquisite coral and beautiful tropical fish but no sharks. Then off to the left I could see what looked like a greenish yellow haze, it seemed out of place in the crystal clear blue water but I didn't think much of it at the time. We continued to swim along descending deeper searching for sharks when I noticed the dense haze drawing closer. I looked over at our dive master and saw him pointing behind a large coral boulder before quickly swimming behind it. Janice followed him and as I was about to join them I looked over my shoulder and saw the yellow green haze right on top of us. The water seemed to change instantly just as I got behind the boulder and found a hand hold. My first instinct as it swept over me was to hold my breath as the greenish yellow haze seemed toxic. The visibility went from 100 feet to almost zero and the temperature dropped ten degrees instantly causing us all to shiver in our thin wet suits. The current grew incredibly strong rushing past us with such force that if we hadn't been in the lee of the boulder we would have been swept away for sure. The change was so sudden it had the feel of a storm sweeping through the area, like a sand storm through a desert, or a thunderstorm over an open field. We held on as the freezing cold water rushed over us seemingly trying to rip us from our hiding place.

I looked over to the dive master hoping for reassurance but he was busy looking around for two other divers who had been with us a minute before and were now nowhere to be seen. After about five minutes, which seemed an eternity, the current became lighter, the water a bit warmer, and the visibility improved enough for us to leave our shelter. We swam along another ten minutes or so but were forced to surface as another diver in our group was running out of air. Fortunately when we came up, the two divers we had lost were at the surface waiting for us, they had surfaced as soon as we were hit by the "storm". It had been so rough under water I half expected it to be stormy on the surface, but I was greeted by the same sunny blue sky as when we had descended.

Once back on the boat the dive master explained we had been overtaken by a thermocline, a mass of cold water moving through the warm tropical waters. Usually thermoclines are followed by amazing sights. They are often rich in plankton and followed by little fish which eat the plankton, which are in turn followed by bigger fish which eat the little fish, the whole circle of life thing. Our dive master had been planning on riding it out to see what would come behind it but because we lost two divers and one other ran out of air we couldn't wait around to see and we rode it out for nothing.

Jan was a bit reluctant to hit the water again after our experience with the thermocline, but I was excited. The idea of riding out an underwater storm to be rewarded with huge predators in its wake seemed pretty cool. We dove several more times in the next two days and had some of the best dives I've ever been on. We saw leopard sharks as well as white and black tipped reef sharks, a school of barracuda, many sting rays and schools and schools of beautiful tropical fish, the Similans easily live up to their reputation.

Nearing the end of our trip I had given up on the chance to ride out another thermocline and see a huge predator. Then on our second to last dive we were once again diving deep looking for sharks when I felt the water get a bit colder and the current a bit stronger. The clear water began turning yellowish green and it became apparent we were about to be hit by a thermocline. Janice grabbed my hand and we sought shelter by lying flat on the sea floor behind a small reef. It became extremely cold as the water rushed over us and I no longer could see a thing more than a foot away. The dive master, who was lying next to me, held out his dive computer so I could watch the water temperature reading drop as we waited, in 30 seconds it dropped from 86F to 78F. As this time I knew what was happening I wasn't worried, and looking over at Jan she seemed concerned but calm, cool, and collected. We rode it out holding onto small bits of the reef and pressing ourselves into the sea floor. As the greenish yellow haze passed and the water became clearer we received our reward, a huge leopard shark, 7 to 9 feet at least, swimming right behind the thermocline.

Now we are back in Bangkok our point of departure from S. E. Asia to India after four wonderful months. Mostly we are just hanging around running errands, watching movies and eating fast food. But later today we head off to the dentist for a check up and cleaning - we have been on the road for seven months after all. Surprisingly Bangkok is known for it's dentists, hopefully Delhi is known for it's accountants, tax season is just around the corner.
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