Follow along as this Canadian mom takes her teen to Phuket, Thailand, a dive mecca in Southeast Asia, to learn all about safe scuba diving and a new culture.
Our son doesn’t know how lucky he is. We’re diving in Hideaway Bay, just one of many spectacular dive sites found in Thailand’s Similan Islands, rated among the Top 10 places in the world to scuba dive. For adults, let alone a preteen kid just learning to dive, the Similans are a diver’s paradise — a cornucopia of underwater life rivaling the tropical forest on land.
Earlier, my husband, son and I had joined my brother on the island of Phuket in southern Thailand. My brother, a dive instructor, was going to teach my family how to dive. The big challenge would be our son Alex. While children can become certified at age 12, Alex was still naturally apprehensive about jumping into a sea of water and trusting his life to a tank of compressed air.
In Phuket, while enjoying a few days of relaxation at the Sheraton Grande Laguna Beach (66/76 324 101; 800/325-3589), Alex and my husband study dive tables and complete the various pool exercises required to become certified divers. (Since I already have my dive card, I loaf in the sun.) Five days later, we’re ready for the Similans.
Sprinkled 100 kilometers northwest off the coast of Phuket, the Similan Islands are a group of nine uninhabited islands that were designated a national park in 1982. Giant granite boulders ring some of the world’s fairest powdery white beaches. But, of course, the real reason for coming here is its magnificent underwater reefs.
Aboard the Scuba Cat
A transfer boat takes us on the four-hour ride to the Similans, where we hop aboard the M/V Scuba Cat, anchored off Similan Island No. 1. One of two live-aboard dive boats operated by Scuba Cat, this will be our home for the next few days.
It has 10 simple cabins with an upper and lower bunk. Between each cabin, the walls are open above and below to allow cooling breezes to flow through the boat. There are two shared combination toilet/shower stalls. It’s not the Sheraton. But it’s clean and comfortable, and what’s underwater promises to be fancier than any accommodation topside. Already, we’re mesmerized by the water’s brilliant shades of sapphire, turquoise and emerald.
We arrive in time for lunch. A juggling act ensues as a departing group gets off to take the transfer boat back to Phuket. Then there’s a safety and dive briefing for the 10 of us that have boarded, before everyone gears up for their first dive.
Because my husband and son are learning, our family dives separately with our own divemaster.
The First Dive is like the First Kiss
For the uninitiated, no words can quite describe the first time you descend into the open water. An immediate rush of panic strikes before you remember your training and the muscles relax. Moments later, the eye begins to appreciate the marvels of the mysteries undersea.
Alex bobs up and down like a sodden cork — he hasn’t yet managed to get his buoyancy under control — and my brother is glued to him, at the ready for any sign of trouble.
But the dive proceeds smoothly as we remove and replace our masks, try buddy-breathing and complete other open-water training tasks.
Our second dive that afternoon is Hideaway Bay. The water is so clear that we can see more than 40 meters away. Alex is more confident now, and my brother leaves him alone longer. A big mauve-colored grouper fish almost a meter long joins us. I keep my distance from him. Though harmless, one time I went diving, one of those big fellas gummed another diver’s bald head, presenting him with a nice egg-shaped souvenir on his crown to take home.
Dinner, served promptly at 6pm, is waiting when we break the surface. We rinse off and wrap towels around our bathing suits — there’s no dressing up for dinner here. As the sun sets and the sky turns a vivid hot pink, we tuck into spicy Thai shrimp and seafood.
That evening, the entertainment is the action video Armageddon and a bowl of popcorn. Later, we sack out on our bunks with the window wide open and the fan on, as the boat rocks gently on its mooring.
Similan Islands: an Undersea Haven
The rising sun wakes us up at 5:30am. We help ourselves to instant coffee and toast, then jump into the water for our first dive at 7am. On most live-aboards, five dives a day are offered, and the M/V Scuba Cat is no exception.
Everyone’s here to dive, and no one wants to miss out on anything. This dive is special for us. After more skills-testing, Alex and my husband are now fully certified scuba divers. Over breakfast of fried eggs, bacon and pancakes, we celebrate their success. But the excitement of the moment, combined with the all-pervasive tropical heat, saps our energy and we soon retire to our cabins. Life on board gradually takes on its own rhythm.
Eat, dive, eat, dive, eat, nap, dive, eat, movie, sleep.
Each dive is different, however. An everchanging variety of granite arches, swim-throughs and pinnacles showcases exquisite gardens of soft corals. It’s like swimming in a different aquarium every time. On one dive, we see a cloud of blue-spotted stingrays and a black octopus, and on another, we discover two white-tipped reef sharks (harmless if not provoked) and a docile leopard shark.
Once, we try a night dive, our flashlights and the moonlight above illuminating our way. Fifteen meters underwater, we hover motionless, face-to-face with a school of yellow-and black-striped angelfish. Below, a scarlet and white lionfish — a beautiful but deadly creature whose poisonous dorsal fins can kill a person — flutters ballet-like over a knot of brain coral. Nearby, delicate soft corals shaped like lace fans ripple gracefully in the silky warm current.
On our very last dive, we see hundreds of tiny garden eels poking their heads out of the sand bottom and swaying gently back and forth with the current, as if waving good-bye.
Go with a known brand when you have kids learning how to scuba dive. The Scuba Cat Diving company is the largest dive operator in Phuket and as a 5-Star PADI CDC Center, they have been running a PADI IDC 11 times a year for more than a decade. The M/V Scuba Cat is the largest live-aboard boat in the Similan Islands, with a very comfortable diving platform. Efficient and safety-conscious is the best way to describe the staff, who work hard throughout the diving season, generally from October-April.
Sheraton Grande Laguna Beach, Phuket (66 76/324-101, toll free 800 325 45454) is a luxurious resort hugging a perfect bay, at 10 Moo 4, Srisoonthorn Road, Cherngtalay, Thalang, Phuket 83110. Ultra-posh villas open onto your own pool deck or boat landing on the lagoon. Three pools and swimming canals meander under bridges throughout lushly landscaped grounds.
Kamala Beach Estates, Phuket (66 76/279-756) is located at 33/6 Kamala Beach, Kathu, Phuket 83120. It’s a less expensive alternative to the Sheraton. Nice, fully-serviced, one-and two-bedroom condos and three-bedroom houses are tucked amongst the trees in a quiet residential area.
The Chedi Phucket (66 76/236-550) is on the coast of Pansea Beach. Surrounded by serene, azure waters, the Chedi Phucket offers 108 thatched hillside cottages (89 one-bedroom and 19 two-bedroom cottages that sleep up to 5) under coconut palms that slope down to meet the white sandy beach. This hotel offers an array of amenities that will ensure an unforgettable experience for you and your family. Relax by the swimming pool that resembles a water garden by day and emits an intense light demonstration by night. Or experience the signature Thai treatment at the hotel’s spa, another section of this high-design boutique getaway.
We flew Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong then Bangkok, switching to Thai Airways for the flight to Phuket.
To obtain more information about the Similan Islands, Phuket and Thailand’s many attractions, visit the Tourism Authority of Thailand site or the TAT office nearest you.
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