Recently spent a week on The Junk liveaboard
off of Phuket, Thailand. We spent 5 days diving in the Similan and Surin Islands in the Andaman Sea.
The diving, at its best, was really spectacular. Richelieu Rock is the highlight of the trip. We spent 1 day out of 5 there. It's covered in a rainbow of soft corals, cup corals, and fans, reminiscent of the best of God's Pocket, and the density of fish was just amazing. Schools of "glass fish" (silversides, I think) so thick you couldn't see 5-10' ahead of you. Lots and lots of groupers, fusiliers, anthias, snappers, trevally, triggerfish, unicorn shrimp. It was sensory overload, true to the divemaster's warning in the briefing. There was a mated pair of pharaoh cuttlefish we ran into. Saw a couple harlequin shrimp and several peacock mantis shrimp. An ornate ghost pipefish. We also saw a whale shark pup (~3m long), but our group was far away from it. The other group (we were diving 2 groups of 4) got way closer.
Other days, we saw some turtles and giant oceanic mantas. Again, I was often shooting something else when they popped up. And I had my macro lens on when others were snorkeling with a couple turtles. While not Richelieu Rock-level, the other reefs are still very colorful and lively. Some dives were average tropical dives, but some were still very cool. There was one dive site (Similan Koh Pay-yu East of Eden) that supposedly almost got labeled a UNESCO World Heritage Site before a bleaching event that was just so dense with plate coral that there was nowhere you could settle down to the bottom to get a low angle shot of a critter. Saw every color of ribbon eel (juvenile, male, female). Lots of those shrimpgobies. Several kinds of moray eels, giant clams, emperor, regal, and yellow-mask angels, powder blue surgeonfish, blue spotted stingrays, pink whiprays, schools of barracuda, several banded sea kraits, lots of nudibranchs (mostly phyllidia), parrotfish. The crown-of-thorns starfish were purple with black spines that had red tips. I missed the couple humphead wrasse that were spotted. I have to go back through the ID books and list off what I saw because I simply couldn't get photos of everything.
Water temperatures were consistently 85-87F, but on nearly every dive, there were random thermoclines throughout. Made seeing what the divemaster was pointing out really hard. Visibility early on was not great, 30-50', but cleared out to standard tropical 80-100' the last few days. Manageable current on most dives. Procedure was to backroll off the RIB, follow the divemaster for up to 60 minutes, someone deploy an SMB during the safety stop (they provide them), pop up, and let the RIB pick you up.
Accommodation wise, I am glad I chose the week I did. There were 8 of us when they take groups of up to 16, 17. So those of us by ourselves had no problem getting cabins to ourselves. 8 felt like a comfortable fit. My cabin would have been very awkward to share with a stranger. The food was good. They usually served both Western and Thai dishes for each meal. Nothing much in the way of dessert, which was fine. Free soda! And you could grab beer or wine whenever and just mark it down on a sheet to pay up later. I appreciated the dive schedule: dive, breakfast, dive, lunch, dive, snack, dinner, night dive. Spaced out to give time to change into dry clothes and warm up between dives. Staff was friendly and solid. 4 people helping you in and out between the RIB and the big boat. Dives were only a minute or two ride away. Very flat water the entire week. My divemaster tried to give me a heads up whether to go wide-angle or macro for each dive. Nitrox available for something like $20/day. It was a very good experience all around.
I also got the sense that I was one of few Americans to make my way through. I know it's not
For pictures of the whale shark and mantas, check out the Instagram account run by the pro photographer who was also on the boat that week.
For those that care, I spent most of the trip alternating between my 15mm fisheye+1.4x teleconverter and my 105mm macro. Did not get a lot of use out of my diopter. There were some things small enough to warrant using a diopter (the blue dragon comes to mind), but current and having to follow the divemaster didn't really allow for it. The 60mm lens was just too wide, even for the fish portraits. If I had to do it again, I might go with a 16-35mm lens for much of the trip, good for the mantas and turtles and triggerfish and coral scapes.