A Reef, A Wreck and a Point

by Helen Conway, May 2, 2002 | Destinations: Thailand / Ko Phi Phi

As we descend the buoy line, the murky waters of the Andaman Sea gradually reveal their prize: the wreck of the King Cruiser. Sometimes referred to with the cringe-worthy pun, the 'Thai-tanic,' the Cruiser was a Japanese car ferry that sank on May 4 1997. Its 85-metre long and 25-metre wide body could hold up to 888 passengers but it was carrying just over 600 when it went down. The ferry was making its regular daily journey from Phuket to Phi-Phi when it strayed several miles off course and hit Anemone Reef, a well-known navigational hazard. Quite how the boat managed to stray so far, on a clear day with hardly any wind or waves remains a mystery. Rumblings of "insurance" and "Captain could not be found," did, however, reach my ears. The reef carved a hole in one of the catamaran's hulls and the boat sank in under an hour but everyone on board was safely rescued. The boat drifted until it came to rest upright within the Shark Point Marine Sanctuary.

The wreck is often combined with Shark Point and Anemone Reef to form a 3-dive day trip, offered by many operators on surrounding islands, with Koh Phi-Phi being the nearest. I was diving with Phi-Phi Scuba, one of the largest dive operations on the island. Their facilities, boats and equipment were in good order although their personnel fell short on several points of politeness. The previous day, when I booked my dive, a brusque man measured me for a wetsuit by taking hold of my loose top and pulling it around disparagingly before saying, "Can't see a lot, can you?" I told him my dress size and he said that was irrelevant, it wouldn't tell him how big my bum was.

When I arrived at the shop that morning, my gear and tanks had been packed and taken down to the boat for me. When we came to gear up for the first dive, however, a wetsuit had not been packed for one of the divers. One of the divemasters lent her wetsuit and so missed the dive herself, resulting in our group being bigger than had been promised.

Most of the divemasters on our boat were surly although I was fortunate enough to be diving with a friendly young Spanish lady, Patricia. She had, however, only done a handful more dives than me. Most of the divemasters in Thailand are travellers who work on the boats and log dives in return for their Divemaster certificate. One of the other divemasters at Phi-Phi Scuba was an 18-year-old Canadian. He was already a qualified divemaster but had only been in Thailand for two weeks. I wondered how well he could possibly know the dive site having only been on it a handful of times.

At the King Cruiser, the visibility can be up to 25 metres but we could only see about seven or eight metres, which heightened the eerie atmosphere as the boat materialised in the gloom. We reached the cargo hold at 25 metres and swam away from the buoy line. We gradually rose to 18 metres and the passenger decks.

Divers are recommended to do a wreck penetration course before actually entering a wreck but here, the window frames are quite large and you can see the light coming in from the windows on the other side. There was no fear that we could get trapped inside.

Around us, the seats awaited ghostly passengers, tables skewed to one side. I couldn't help thinking of the boat that had brought me to Phi-Phi the previous day. It had looked just like this: tourists playing cards at the tables, children running up and down the aisles. And here we were, swimming around it.

We headed to the stairwell, its railings still intact. It was fairly narrow and only the females in the group made it up; the men swam out through the window frames and met us at the top. Every surface of the boat was encrusted with razor-sharp barnacles and the exit was tight. Despite my care, I caught my hand and a thin, wispy trickle of blood appeared. As red is the first colour of the spectrum to disappear, at this depth I was leaking a strange greeny-blue colour. Either I now classed as royalty- or an alien.

At the top of the stairwell we were at 12 metres, where we found the captain's cabin and the wheelhouse. These were too small for us to enter but it was fascinating to see so much of it still intact, as if it had sunk only yesterday. It may only be a few years before the weight of the upper decks causes the wreck to implode.

The formation of this artificial reef has resulted in a profusion of marine life. Usually, there are leopard sharks to be seen and moray eels hidden beneath the seats, as well as pelagics such as yellowtail barracuda and big-eye trevally. We were unlucky not to spot any sharks but we saw many schools of juvenile fish and several lionfish, their long feathery spines warning off any potential predators- or divers, as they are highly poisonous.

Back on the boat, we ate a simple lunch of noodles and fresh fruit while we motored to the next dive site, Shark Point Phuket, one mile west of the King Cruiser. The divemasters geared up the new tanks for us, so all we had to do was lie back and enjoy the clear blue skies and sunshine.

Shark Point was the first reef to be given official Marine Sanctuary Status in 1992 in order to protect the fantastic range of coral and anemone at the site. The name in Thai is Hin Musang and received its moniker because several leopard sharks can often be seen here on any one dive.

The dive site consists of two pinnacles, one of which breaks the surface and has a light buoy on top of it. The pinnacle is relatively steep and then the reef flattens out before rising in a smaller pinnacle some 500 metres away. The maximum depth is 24 metres.

There is such a difference between this dive site and the wreck, which is one reason why this day trip is so popular. Whilst the first dive will appeal to fans of rusting metal, this second dive will thrill underwater naturalists. The strong currents provide plenty of food for hard corals and tropical fish, with sea fans and sponges decorating the pinnacle.

The marine life here is spectacular. We saw angelfish, pufferfish, the colourful clownfish, which lives in the anemones and a small boxfish- a cartoon-like yellow cube with blue dots, onto which someone drew a face and fins.

We saw many lionfish and scorpionfish, both capable of a poisonous sting, as well as several varieties of moray eels. We watched mesmerised by the smallest moray eel I've ever seen. He came right out of his hole when the videographer put the camera up to him and he was about the size of my middle finger.

The current was quite strong so we swam around the pinnacle a couple of times. My buddy, this time a Dutch lady, and I were amused to see two brightly-coloured surgeonfish chasing each other in a circle, just swimming round and round. When we passed by again a few minutes later, the fish were still chasing each other's tail fins. Then we saw them again...and again. We finally realised that we were not leaving the pinnacle to see the rest of the reef. The current was quite strong but I would have expected the divemaster to write this on a slate rather than just leave us to admire the same scenery for half an hour.

Although the section of the dive site that we saw was stunning, after 55 minutes of marvelling once again at the beautiful gorgonian sea fans, I was glad to surface.

The third dive was supposed to be Anemone Reef, only 600 metres north of Shark Point. This is another pinnacle, which starts five metres below the surface. The site is famous for its beds of anemones but again, the current was too strong and we motored back towards Phi-Phi. The third dive took place at Bida Nok but as I was diving this the following day, I sat it out.

We arrived back at the dive shop in the late afternoon to fill in our logbooks and watch the tape the videographer had filmed during the day.

I went to see one of the men who worked in the shop, to ask him more details about the King Cruiser. The un-charming size assessor from the previous evening joined us. The pair of them were suspicious of my motives when I asked them about the wreck and rudely declined to answer my questions. Quite what they were wary of, I am not sure.

Most of the dive operators on Ko Phi-Phi set their prices at the beginning of each season so you won't find one offering the same trip a lot cheaper than any other. However, Phi-Phi Scuba could do with sharpening up their customer relations before they win any more business.

Note: The author paid for her own diving.

© Helen Conway 2002

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