You often hear about dive sites that are reportedly one of the “top ten dives sites in the world”. I have no idea how many top ten lists there are, but there are a few dive site names that I hear repeatedly and Richelieu Rock is one of those legendary dive sites names I keep hearing.
Discovered by Jacques Cousteau and some local fishermen, Richelieu Rock in Thailand’s Andaman Sea can be accessed as a very long day dive or as part of a liveaboard. Dive cruise itineraries also includes the Similan islands, which form the Mo Koh Similan National Park, north of Phuket and approx 50 KM West of Kao Lak.
The diving season for the Similan Islands is during Thailand’s cool season – December to April, so since I live in Thailand, I decided now was the time to tick off Richelieu Rock and the Similan islands. Some friends recommended I dive with the Pawara, a liveaboard in its second season and operated by Phuket based West Coast Divers.
The five day, four night itinerary for the Pawara cruise started at approx 5pm when I was picked up from my Phuket hotel by Brian, a one of the dive guides from the boat. After around three hours, we arrived at the very busy and bustling Thab Lamu pier, which is close to Kao Lak and the official pier and launch point for the Similan Islands National Park.
We arrived onboard at around 8pm, and after being shown our cabins, everyone set up their gear. We then had our mandatory full boat/safety brief. This was very comprehensive and reassuring and held in the open dining deck. However, there were constant noise distractions from the other boats tied up alongside of us, as well as diesel fumes – although the staff did apologise for this. Dinner was then served at around 9.30pm, which was a bit late for me personally, but that seems to be the routine for all the boats from what I observed around me. At around 10.30pm we got underway to the Similan Islands. All good.
The next morning, I was up bright and early and even managed to catch the sunrise..
Soon it was time for our first dive. Our check dive was at a site called Anita’s Reef, but by the second dive, I was awake enough to capture Marco, the Cruise Director giving the dive brief. All briefs on board were given by him and all were supported by detailed whiteboard maps as well as what to expect with conditions and marine life. There was also a daily briefing “state” board so everyone knew what the dive routine was.
A quick note about the all important dive deck and its operations. The Pawana can take up to 22 guests. We had 17 onboard, with 15 divers. As you can see, the deck was a bit full, but we were split into four separate groups, kitting up and diving in “waves”. This worked like clockwork and was very well organised, with three deck hands to help us. The captain had CCTV to the dive deck too, so boat operations were good, safe and coordinated. Nitrox was also available and was included in the advertised price, which was a massive bonus!
So what was the diving like? Well, I had done a liveaboard in the neighbouring Andaman Islands (India) back in 2010 and it still rates as one of my best dive trips. I remember its rugged and remote sites, great visibility and wonderful, wild and pristine sites and LOTS of fish! So I had high expectations for this trip. I was not disappointed. The visibility was amazing – around 30 to 40 metres, with the odd dive where it was reduced to around 15m, mainly because of current. Due to the overall fantastic visibility, we obviously saw a lot. Gorgeous soft corals, absolutely millions of glass fish and small wrasse, schooling in ever changing mushroom clouds, schools of snappers and jacks, a huge manta (I spotted it!), ghost piper fish, sea horses, turtles and all the usual reef suspects. I unfortunately lost my ability to take underwater pictures due to a housing flood, so all images and video have kindly been graciously provided by some fellow divers.
As for Richeleau Rock, yes it was amazing and incredible – a large horseshoe shape so the site is massive. We did two dives there and still didn’t see it all. We did see lots of healthy soft and hard coral, schooling snappers, jacks and much more. Here is a short video to give you and idea…
And here is the full list for these two dives from the dive log provided by Marco, the Cruise Director:
- 3 Tigertail Seahorses ( Hippocampus Comes)
- 2 pairs of Harlequin Shrimps (Hymenocera picta)
- Cleaner Pipefish ( Doryrhamptus janssi)
- Blackfin Barracuda (Sphyraena qenie)
- Big Yellowfin Barracuda (Sphyraena obtusata)
- School of Bluefin Trevally (Caranx melampygus)
- Several Giant Morays (Gymnothorax javanicus)
- Yellowhead Snapper (macolor macularis)
- Several Longnosed Emperor (lethrinus olivaceus)
- Many-Banded Pipefish (Doryrhamphus multiannulatus)
- Several Pharoah Cuttlefish – (Sepia pharaonis)
- Brown-Banded Pipefish (Corythoichthys amplexus)
- Flasher Scorpionfish – Red variation (Scorpaenopsis Macrochir)
- Big Potato Grouper (Epinephelus tukula)
- Several peacock mantis shrimp (Odontodactylus scyllarus)
- Several Banded boxer shrimp (Stenopus hispidus)
- Several White – banded cleaner shrimp (Lysmata amboinensis)
- Durban Hinge-beak shrimps (Rhynchocinetes durbanensis)
- Octopus (Octopus cyanea)
- Giant Moray (Gymnothorax javanicus)
- Several Fimbriated or Spot-Face Moray (Gymnothorax fimbriatus).
- Several Yellow – Edged Moray (Gymnothorax flavimarginatus)
- Several White – Eyed Moray (Siderea Thyrsoidea)
- Several juvenile Cube boxfish (Ostracion cubicus).
- Bar – tail Moray (Gymnothorax zonipectus)
- Honeycomb moray (Gynothorax favagineus)
- Serveral Tiger egg cowries ( Crenavolva tigris)
- 2 Queen Isabella Cowrie (Cypraea Isabella)
- Allied Cowrie – (Phenacovolva Biostris)
- Nudibranchs – (Halgerda Tesselata)
- Ornate Sapsucking slug (Elysia ornata)
- Zebra moray (Gymnomuraena zebra)
Although the site was big, there were three other boats at this site. As well as the stunning marine life, we unfortunately observed some very inexperienced divers on this site – bicycling like mad, clinging on to each other with panicked eyes and churning up whatever was in their fins path. This site is really special, but won’t be in a few years time if boats continue to take inexperienced divers on such stunning places Thailand’s authorities should really consider following Egypt’s example – ensure that ALL divers on live-aboards have a minimum of 50 logged dives when diving inside their national marine parks.
The next day we retuned to Koh Taichai Pinnacle. The previous day there had a strong current precluding some of the other divers from dropping down, although our group enjoyed a nice, if not vigorous dive where we saw two schools of barracuda feeding in the current. The second time it was very different – the current wasn’t so strong, the visibility was incredible – and a wonderful show came to us. Quite simply, it was one of my best dives ever – I didn’t know where to turn as we were surrounded by thousands and thousands of pelagic and reef fish out to play/eat. I knew I was in the remote Andaman Sea here! In particular, two huge schools of trevalleys and barracuda, with the latter going onto a bait ball – probably because of our bubbles. I have only ever seen this in the Andaman Islands and at Shark Point on the tip of the Sinai in Egypt (Sharm el Sheikh). Anyway, here is part of the show that gives you some idea, although it was of course much more dramatic and memorable being there – behind where this was shot was a similar scene with trevalleys.
A total of 14 dives were offered over the five day, four night trip. I only did 12 due to yet another ear infection. Here are the dive sites I logged:
- Anitas Reef
- West of Eden
- Elephant Head
- Turtle Rock (night dive)
- North Point
- Koh Bon (North and South)
- Koh Tachai
- Richelieu Rock (twice)
- Koh Taichai
- Koh Taichai reef
The two dives I missed were on the Boonsung Wreck.
Above water, the nine Similan Islands also offer gorgeous powder sand beaches, a unique granite boulder landscape and stunning scenery to visit and marvel over during surface intervals…
All in all, the Similan Islands and Richelieu rock is definitely an Asian bucket list dive trip. What it may lack in diversity compared to its Coral Triangle neighbours, it makes up for with sheer volume of fish and incredible topography above and below water. Sites are generally shallow, up to 30m, so it does suit (and attract) less experienced divers. The islands are also very accessible and every budget is catered for, so you will see other boats and divers. The Pawana is the higher end of the mid-budget, but you can get basic backpacker boats as well as high end. Some itineraries go up to the Burma Bank but from my research, the visibility there can be hit or miss, depending on the run off from the rain on land.
Finally, a look around the boat and the people that looked after us all. First, the all important 24 hour snack bar! Everything in the fridge is extra, but reasonable.
After diving, it’s always about eating and sleeping…
Our dive guide Brian… one of the best, so he is (and Irish)!
The some of rest of the crew – who really made our trip…
All in all, great diving, great boat, great conditions and great people — all you need for the perfect dive trip. Thanks for a wonderful trip guys!