Based on an article by Sheldon Hey
Recently I had the chance to jump on board the MV West Coast Explorer for a 4 night Similans liveaboard, and as I packed my dive gear the night before departure I was really looking forward to the trip.
West Coast are a long-established dive operator with a good reputation and despite my many years in Thailand, I had somehow never managed to see the boat firsthand. It was also a great chance for me to get to dive in the Similan Islands for the first time in more than a year.
West Coast Explorer accommodates 16 divers and is towards the cheaper end of the Thailand liveaboard market scale, albeit quite a little more expensive than previous years due to the sharp increase in fuel worldwide - a major cost for any liveaboard operator.
At around US$ 180 per night, including 4 dives a day, food and accommodation, this shows how the Thailand liveaboard market remains one of the world's best value dive options. It goes without saying that at that price you should not expect a 5 star Executive suite with daily servings of lobster and caviar delivered by a butler to your cabin, but it is always interesting to see what you get for your money. On board the West Coast Explorer I must say I was pleasantly surprised.
The best aspect of my cruise was the great atmosphere created by the dive staff. They were friendly and relaxed but still professional, and that put all the guests at ease. In response, the guests were all a happy bunch and mixed freely with one another, making new diver friends along the way. The international mix of guests on board is typical of West Coast's liveaboards, and on this trip we included divers from Brazil, Finland, Switzerland, Norway, United Kingdom, Italy, South Africa, Denmark, Germany and Austria. The divemasters were from Australia, England and Thailand so all in all we were a veritable league of nations.
The boat's owners are also so dedicated to providing a high quality service on their Similan diving safaris that they join every cruise. They are keen to make sure everything runs smoothly and that any problems can be addressed by someone with sufficient responsibility. In addition, the owner Milton has been leading tours on the boat for some 7 years, so his knowledge of the dive sites is beyond question, and he is also a keen underwater photographer and naturalist, keen to share his expertise. He is always on hand to assist you in identifying any marine animals that have grabbed your attention, or to point out that your underwater images might look better if you were to remove your lens cap first.
One strong feature of the boat is the well-designed dive deck and platform where all the available space is used thoughtfully. The entire area is rubberised for non-slip, and the individual diver spaces are well distanced from one another, instead of typically squeezed in beside extra tanks as occurs on some other low budget boats. Most dives begin from the back of the boat, which is fine since the boat is not enormous and can be easily manoeuvred. Where necessary, you will dive from a 4 metre motorised dinghy from which divers enter the water in 2 groups of 8. Every afternoon the dinghy ferries guests to and from the beaches visited, which goes down very well with those keen to stay in touch with terra firma.
I enjoyed the very colourful and detailed dive briefings which were held on the upper deck. In particular, it was pleasing to see that West Coast have developed their own series of interesting dive site maps and the briefings undoubtedly add value to the experience of visiting each site. For the full boat with a maximum of 16 guests there are 3 divemasters and the DM service is guaranteed in English only, although generally the DMs come from various parts of the world so you could be in luck.
After the briefing, the groups of divers use the dive deck in rotation to keep things organised. There are very good quality exit ladders which have extra deep and non-slip padded rungs and firm railings. This means even less mobile divers can avoid entry and egress difficulties. The platform also features 2 fresh water showers and there are 2 large rinse tanks used exclusively for rinsing cameras and computers.
I should also praise West Coast for the cuisine on board. Spicy food is typical of Thailand yet many liveaboard operators water it down a lot, believing that most westerners prefer bland food. With this operator there is a system which means there is something for everyone.
Although there is a fixed menu, each day is different. Breakfast is a mix of Asian and international styles. Lunchtime tends to be a Thai affair and can include such tasty dishes as chicken stir-fry with snow peas, Beef noodles, Tom Yum soup and green curry. The standard is that the dishes are lightly spiced, yet there are plenty of fresh chillies in vinegar, fish sauce or soy sauce so you can spice it up as much as you wish.
The evening meals are western and include favourites like Spaghetti Bolognaise, meat and potato stew, chicken cordon-bleu, and chicken rissoles. Portions are good-sized and served on the dining table on the carpeted upper deck, which is also the main social area. Every afternoon the chef makes a different drink to refresh those thirsty diver mouths such as orange slush, banana shakes or iced tea.
As a vegetarian myself, I very rarely praise food as I often find myself being considered an after-thought and forced to eat scraps of vegetables or extra portions of rice! I was therefore very pleasantly surprised on board the West Coast Explorer. Each meal was different and specially prepared to my taste, for which I was very grateful. I was served a variety of vegetarian dishes including vegetable green curry, Pad Thai with soy meat, penne arrabiata and spicy pumpkin soup. In all it was a really wide range of interesting flavours.
I found the cabins on the Explorer to be a bit if a mixed bunch to be honest. All have twin bunk beds and share 3 bathrooms. The best cabins are the 2 cabins to the front of the main deck. They have more space and are lit brightly by sunlight from the large windows on the front and side of the boat. There are 4 identical cabins behind these on the main deck which are also pretty reasonably sized with large windows. However, the 2 cabins on the lower deck are very small, have very limited standing space and are not blessed with natural lighting. They are also quite far from the bathrooms, so it's a bit of a trek when wrapped in your towel.
However it is possible to reserve cabins on a 'first-come-first-served' basis, so I would recommend you book well in advance for the front main deck cabins. If these are full then you should reserve the rear cabins on the main deck. If these are full then consider changing dates or boats since you are unlikely to be too chuffed to be in the 2 smallest cabins!
If I must add any other complaints I would say the boat is definitely on the small side for 16 divers. The ladders leading up to the sun deck are aluminium but have no stepped rungs which makes it quite awkward for climbing. Also, 1 or 2 of the entrance ways are a little low so if you are tall guy it seems very likely that you would frequently bang your head, and it would be easy enough to pad them to avoid injury.
Our Similan Islands diving itinerary was as follows - Our first diving day was spent around the Similans central islands 4, 5 and 6. Dive sites we visited were Elephant Head Rock, Anita's Reef, East of Eden and Honeymoon Bay. Day 2 was spent around the northern Similan Islands 7, 8 and 9. Dive sites on this occasion were Beacon Reef, Batfish Bend and North Point. In all this gives a good mix of fringing reef sites and boulder sites. Dive Day 3 saw us spend the day at Richelieu Rock with a night dive at Koh Tachai. Dive day 4 included 1 dive at Koh Bon Ridge and 1 dive at Koh Tachai Plateau.
On days 1 and 4 you receive a wake up call at 07:00 hrs and on days 2 and 3 at 08:00 hrs. Each cruise has 3 scheduled night dives.
You will be picked up from Phuket and then returned to Phuket at around 17:00 hrs. This involves a 2:30 hrs minibus transfer to and from Khao Lak, from where the boat departs. The crossing time between the pier and the islands is around 4 hours.
Lastly, there is a pretty good library of marine and general books which guests are free to borrow from the indoor saloon area. The selection was superior to the usual Danielle Steele, Steven King and Tom Clancy. I spied a few travel books - the Thailand Lonely Planet, and The Pol Pot Regime (good bedtime reading) - a Wilbur Smith book, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan, and an easy-reading Bill Bryson book which I chose to devour. I was in the process of reading this book while attempting the tricky manoeuvre of trying to change my shorts and hang up my towel on the bow of the boat. All of a sudden it dawned on me I needed at least 4 hands to do it all, and before I knew it my pants were off and being carried into the Andaman Sea.
The moral of the story is 2-fold. Number One: If you want a great value short trip to the Similans, then look into the West Coast Explorer. Number 2: Just when you think you have learnt how to keep your pants on in Thailand, something or someone will always come along to show you otherwise.