On the 17th of October 2016, my travels from South Africa to South-East Asia began. It was my first time travelling abroad and I can still remember the feeling of frantic butterflies in my stomach when the plane left the ground. I had done a fair amount of research on my destination but ultimately I still knew very little. After 2 full days of travelling and navigating through airports, I finally arrived in Koh Phangan, Thailand. The beauty of the island and the island lifestyle had me in awe. The small roads twisting through the tropical landscape and the endless amount of wallpaper-like beaches blew my mind and only then did I realize that I would be living in pristine paradise.
I was welcomed warmly into my new diving company and I was already bubbling with questions. It was quiet season at that time which meant that it would be a few days before I was given a course to teach and this allowed me to settle in and absorb my new surroundings. I was living in an area called Haad Yao, which is translates from Thai into ‘Long Beach’, and as soon as I could I was exploring the 600 metres of white sand and flat turquoise water that was a 2 minute walk from where I was living. I saw a few snorkelers off the beach and decided that I would grab my mask and go see what was out there. To my amazement, there was a long stretch of reef just 20 metres off of the beach. I spent hours swimming along this reef, seeing huge schools of parrotfish, bannerfish, all kinds of butterflyfish and angelsfish, needlefish and the list goes on. When the setting sun eventually dragged me away from my snorkeling adventure, I arrived back to great news at the dive shop. There were a group of fun divers going to Sail Rock, the best dive site in the Gulf of Thailand, the next day and I would be allowed to tag along to learn a bit about the site. My excitement was indescribable and I spent the night studying the map of the site, having no idea that I was about to experience a whole new underwater world.
The next morning was a haze of packing gear and tanks and then suddenly we were on the boat on our way to Sail Rock. It was an hour and 10 minute boat ride to the site, so I had a great time sharing my excitement with the guests and my new colleagues. Sail Rock is basically a huge rock pinnacle in the middle of the ocean, between Koh Phangan and Koh Tao. It rises from the sea bed to up and above the surface and has depths ranging from 1 to 40 metres. When we arrived, I was bubbling with excitement and was ready to dive in the water head first. Once all of the guests were ready to dive, we did giant-stride entries into the flat ocean and immediately I was amazed by the temperature of the water. 29 degrees, compared to the 20 degree water of South Africa, meant that I did not require a wetsuit. We slowly swam on our backs closer to the Pinnacle and then began to descend. As we descended, the beauty that lay before me made me feel like I was doing my first dive all over again. I was looking at a vertical wall full of moving colours. We were immediately greeted by a giant school of Batfish and another giant school of Barracuda and Trevally. If I had been able to speak I would have been truly and utterly speechless. We slowly made our way around the vertical wall full of anenomes, butterflyfish and countless other species and I was amazed by the lack of surge. I felt a sense of absolute peace and comfort in my new diving environment. As we made our way towards a section of the reef called Batfish Pinnacle, I was completely unaware that my first experience at Sail Rock was about to become one of the greatest encounters of my life.
I was busy studying a small nudibranch clinging to the rock when I heard an urgent banging noise coming from the Divemaster hitting his tank with a metal rod. I looked up to see him gesturing frantically towards the open ocean. I followed his gesture to see something that I can still see vividly in my mind. A WHALE SHARK! It was peacefully gliding past us, going up towards the surface with its mouth open wide. I could suddenly hear my heart beating loudly and I felt absolute and utter joy. As a group, we all swam away from the wall of the pinnacle and settled near to the huge fish. It was not at all bothered by our presence and continued to swim up and around us, opening its mouth up to the surface and then coming back down and circling us. The beauty and size of such a creature was mind blowing. It was about 6 metres of smooth, spotty perfection and it glided through the water with such grace. The respect and amazement that I felt almost brought me to tears. We spent about 45 minutes with the Whaleshark, all signaling each other with child-like excitement. Sadly Enough, our air supply forced us back to the surface which immediately became filled with cheers of elation. It took a good 20 minutes for my heart rate to go back to normal after that but nothing could stop the repetition in my mind of seeing the Whaleshark for the first time.
We spent an hour on the surface, conversations full of what we had just experienced, and then we changed our tanks and hopped into the water again. Hopes that the Whaleshark was still there were high and we began the dive searching the open ocean next to the Pinnacle. After 20 minutes of diving there was no sign of the giant fish and we turned our full attention back to the amazing life of the reef. Then I experienced something that can only be described as Déjà vu. I was looking inside a tiny cave at a few ghost shrimp, when I heard the urgent banging again. I turned my attention toward the open ocean and there it was. I don’t think I could ever get used to the feeling. We all grouped up again and spent another 30 minutes of being circled and watching the creature in amazement. I grew somewhat of an attachment to the amazing fish and when the end of our dive eventually came it felt as if I was saying goodbye to a good friend. Once we were all back on the boat and everything had been packed up, we were on route back to the island. The sun was shining, the sea was calm and the boat was full of smiling faces. I felt truly content and I was full of excitement and intrigue to see what else my South-East Asian adventure had in store for me.