Spending the Easter holidays at the Phi Phi islands, with a couple of days of diving with Phi Phi Scuba Diving Center. How could I refuse this offer from Dive The World? In fact I didn't, and my report here below shows you how much I enjoyed Phi Phi and the dive sites there.
The Phi Phi islands (Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Leh are the biggest ones) are always on the 'To do list' for all the travellers visiting Thailand. Its main features are the popular Maya Bay (the famous and unique tongue of sand at Phi Phi Leh, where the movie 'The Beach' was filmed), the party nights (especially among the young) and of course for scuba diving, snorkelling and other marine activities.
There are plenty of accommodation choices on Phi Phi Don (although none on Phi Phi Leh), restaurants and bars. If you are planning to go diving, then my recommendation is to stay in the Ton Sai Bay area as the daytrip boats depart from, and the dive centres are, there.
The meeting point was at the dive centre at 07:15 am. Just a few minutes for a coffee and for organizing the weightbelts, then a 5 minute stroll to the Ton Sai pier where the Phi Phi Scuba dive boat was waiting for us.
It is painted in bright yellow, like the diving centre, so it's easy to recognise! The boat has 2 decks; the top deck is partially covered, an ideal sheltered place for the briefings and also for eating lunch in between dives, but also where the sun lovers can work on their tan. The lower deck hosts the dive area with the tanks and dive gear and one toilet.
The dive centre has 3 boats of different sizes, depending on the amount of divers booked for the day. We used the one called Thanapon that can carry up to 12 divers. The biggest boat they run can take up to 21 divers. Using smaller boats has the advantage of great manoeuvrability and also limits the amount of divers on board.
On the negative side though, they don't have much to offer in terms of comfort and entertainment for the divers: no fish books, TV and so on, although the diving day always ends back at the diving centre again early afternoon, where they show the video of the day and fish books can be read.
Day 1 would be 2 dives, with the first one done at Koh Bida Nai (which is only 2 km south of Phi Phi Leh) and the second dive to the famous Shark Point dive site. I could already foresee a good day of diving, as the sun was bright in a cloudless sky, and the sea was surprisingly calm as if we were cruising on a lake. In fact, the divemasters had already announced a day of calm water with no strong currents.
Bida Nok is a large outcrop that faces another site named Bida Nai. They already look awesome from the surface, but non-divers can't really imagine that also underwater they host amazing features. As we descended for the dive I noticed the big red gorgonian sea fans that grow on the walls, surrounded by soft corals and anemones. The sunny day made these corals even more colourful for us.
Since conditions and visibility were close to perfect, we decided to descend to around 25-30m. We were looking for leopard sharks which usually spend daytimes resting on the sandy bottom after hunting at night. All eyes should have been focused on searching these amazing creatures, but I'm sure the other divers were as much distracted as me by the amount of fish that were crossing our descent. There were indeed large schools of beautiful and colourful yellow snappers that seemed to cross ways with other groups of red anthias and glass fish. We were thankful to be the only dive boat on the spot at the time of day. Unfortunately we didn't find any leopard sharks, but we did have some great encounters.
I was glad to find an octopus free swimming from one rock to another (which is quite strange, as they usually hide under rocks, especially when divers are around). There was also a nasty triggerfish that was protecting his nest from intruders. It was showing us its big teeth and obviously not one of us dared to get any closer. As we ascended, towards the end of the dive, we watched schools of fusiliers and trevallies that were hunting smaller prey. Their silver skin reflecting the sun light made an amazing show of colours. A perfect way to end the dive!
The second dive of the day was at Shark Point. Divemasters and guests were still upset by not having seen the leopard sharks during the first dive, but Shark Point is basically their 'real home'. This time there was already another boat in the area and we noticed that some people were snorkelling just on the surface, where the pinnacle that forms the dive site may just touch the surface, depending on tides. We saw them exchanging the 'L' hand signal, which in diving it doesn't stand for 'loser' but for 'leopard shark'! That was it. In a few minutes we were all geared up and ready to jump in the water.
Indeed a leopard shark was waiting for us just below the surface, resting and apparently not disturbed by all the action (snorkelers and divers) that was going on around it. We were all getting really close to the shark, and I couldn't stop thinking that we were indeed too close and it was just a matter of time before it took off. But surprisingly it didn't! We were all thrilled by such a close encounter, you could tell by the amount of bubbles that was coming out from regulators!
We eventually decided to leave it alone and start descending to greater depths. But then another couple of leopard sharks were waiting for us. One was resting while the other was swimming in a circle above the other leopard shark. It was such a unique and beautiful experience, and I was glad to find out that despite the rumours I had heard before the trip, leopard sharks are indeed still in the area and they are often seen by scuba divers.
I was a bit disappointed when the divemasters announced that we were doing again another dive at Koh Bida Noi since Phi Phi has many great dive sites. Little did I know that the decision was made based on the whispers that had been going on that morning about the presence of a whale shark in the area. The guides did not mention it, as they probably didn't want to create too many expectations on board. Whale sharks are very shy creatures and they could leave a dive site in a matter of seconds if they feel disturbed.
So we jumped in the water, and there it was! Well, at least for a couple of seconds. As we only saw a dark shadow that was swimming away from the dive site. A few minutes earlier and it could have been a different dive. We hovered for few minutes, hoping to see the whale shark coming back. But since it wasn't happening, the guides took the right decision to continue the dive.
But instead of following the same direction as the previous day, to my delight we went down to 28m to a pinnacle that's just few metres away from the main rock that forms Bida Nok. It was all covered with red soft coral and anemones and it seemed to be the main attraction for the small fish in the area: there were anemonefish, sergeant majors, beautiful and colourful angelfish and all around the pinnacle there was a big cloud of glassfish that were moving away as divers approached. It was probably the highlight of the dive, despite the shadow spotted at the beginning.
Bida Nai was our second dive and also our second chance to see the whale shark a little bit closer up. We had seen the big fish swimming in that direction (during the first dive) so we all tried to convince ourselves that the shark was indeed there. But unfortunately the whale shark was nowhere to be seen. Visibility also had dropped from the previous dive, making things a little more difficult.
We decided to focus our attention on the walls of Bida Nai in search of macro life instead. I enjoyed watching the boxer shrimps hanging from small crevices; we even spotted a mantis shrimp with its funny rotating eyes. Nudibranchs are also one of the highlights of the day; I like them as they are so colourful and easy to photograph since they don't move too much.
The staff on board are usually very young as they have a lot of trainees and students, giving a nice atmosphere and a pleasant day to the customers. Perhaps a bit of lack of experience, but dives are easy and safe.
Lunch is pre-ordered the night before the trip, so you can choose from a list of what you would like to eat on board. There was also fruit and drinks (tea, coffee and water) available on board.
It is great that Phi Phi Scuba use 5 boats of different sizes, depending on the amount of customers and students that are booked for the day. They offer dives at the local Phi Phi dive sites (Shark Point, Bida Nai and Nok, Anemone Reef and Garang Heng) but also the King Cruiser Wreck and also further dive sites such as Hin Daeng and Hin Muang (via speedboat).
I decided to reach Phi Phi by booking a spot on one of the mid price ferries that depart from Phuket (Rassada Pier). But the options are endless - speedboats, luxury ferries, cheap ferries etc. It took an hour and a half to set foot on the Ton Sai pier at Phi Phi.
Phi Phi is probably the capital of tourist activities! You can visit the local beaches, go snorkeling or kayaking. There are booze cruises, cliff jumping and climbing (but not together). More sedate experiences include Thai cooking lessons and yoga sessions. So there is something for everyone. There are no roads, cars or motorbikes on the island, but bicycles are for rent.
I did dive the local dive sites around Phi Phi a few years ago, and I was glad to dive them and find out that they are still in good condition and offer enjoyable dives, even to more experienced divers.
I was impressed by the fact that there were not so many diving boats the days we went out diving, despite it being the Easter holidays. This was not because of a lack of customers, but I believe it was because the dive centers on the island communicate with each other and plan the dives so not too many divers are on the same spot.
I also enjoyed that the diving trips only took up half my day: from 07:30 in the morning till 13:00 in the afternoon, leaving me with a lot of free time for other activities that could be done in the afternoon.
Written by Enrico Rossi, April 2014
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