By Johnny Diver
As background, I'm a freelance diving instructor in Phuket, living in Kata. I've been living here for almost a year and a half, and I've put a decent amount of energy toward learning the language and culture. Unfortunately, not nearly as
much as I did when learning Japanese, but enough to almost read and hold conversations with patient people. I thought maybe someone might want to read this and so I'm forwarding this submission.
Considering what happened, I was in the right place at the right time. We were getting ready for our second dive of the morning when all of the other diving boats around us started leaving the site. My Thai isn't the best, but we found out over the CB radio that there was a major earthquake near the island of Sumatra in Indonesia and that 30 ft / 10 meter tidal waves were hitting the coasts of western Thailand. Twenty odd boats were already sunk, destroyed, or grounded at the port we had departed from a couple of days earlier and the tsunami was headed in our direction. I was the de facto tour leader on the 4 day / 4 night live-aboard diving cruise since the Thai tour leader was inexperienced and had poor English skills. When we heard a tidal wave was approaching the captain looked to me to cancel the dive and let him head out for deep water, to which I readily acquiesced.
Living in Japan for seven years made me aware of the phenomena of tsunamis, but along with everyone else I had no actual experience of how to deal with one. The amount of information I could get out of the captain and crew was minimal, mostly tinged with panic and fear. In Thailand, when there is a problem the Thais have a tendency to clam up. This was especially frustrating because I was the one who had to inform the passengers what was going and what we were doing about it.
We stopped out in the middle of the ocean within sight of, but well away from, the Surin National Marine Park. The customers too were scared and some wanted me to take the boat to the nearest island so they could get to high ground. It took a lot of explaining to help them understand the best place we could possible be was in deep water surrounded by other diving boats should assistance become necessary. Shallow water is the last place you want to be when a tidal wave comes.
We waited and waited, but didn't see anything. News over the radio was getting worse and we heard of more waves coming due to aftershocks. Most of the customers were skeptical and feeling a bit cheated, after all we hadn't seen anything at all the resembled a tidal wave, not even a bump, but with the continuing sporadic reports of damage and destruction from the captain, we refused to schedule any more dives. We were well out of cell phone range and the boat didn't have a GPS phone, so we decided to head back closer to the mainland to try and get some solid information. We spent the night near the port, but still well away from the shore.
The captain and crew were extremely distraught as most of them had families living near the shore. I knew it would be impossible to ask them to go back out to the islands to go diving. However, to keep the passengers happy I alluded that it might be possible, if it turned out that events were exaggerated. The next morning the captain and the Thai tour leader went ashore to confer with the authorities. Before they came back I found out from one of the Thai passengers that more waves were expected and so I got everyone together and informed them the trip was canceled and to get all their belongings together so we could quickly disembark. The captain and tour leader came back and without a word to me brought the boat up to one of the concrete piers that was still undamaged and hurried us all off the boat.
The minibus transport company we use to take all the customers back to their hotels had lost all of its vans and we had to pile everyone into the back of a pickup truck and then started heading back to Phuket. The tour organizer who met us at the pier was overflowing with rumors and tales of destruction, many of which turned out to be exaggerated or untrue. The difference between the Japanese, who have had years of experience and training in dealing with natural disasters, and the Thais was very evident. More like a chicken with its head cut off running around in circles.
The organizer decided to dump us off at a local school that was serving as a refugee and transportation center, sending off the foreign visitors in army transport trucks to either the airport for a free flight to Bangkok, or to Phuket Town where a number of embassies had set up shop to deal with the frightened and disoriented masses, trying to catalogue them. I feel really sorry for those visitors who weren't conversant in English; it must have seemed like the Tower of Babel was crashing down around their heads.
After arriving in Phuket Town I hopped into the back of a pickup heading to Patong, hoping that my motorbike was still there. It was, luckily. After that I drove south to Kata, where my house is located, marveling at all the debris littering the streets. I had been expecting the worst, but both Karon and Kata seemed to have come away with little damage except for the hotels right on the waterfront. Driving around the beach today I could see that it was largely cleaned up already, with the military still shoveling sand out of the streets here and there.
One of the most frustrating things is that the cellular network my phone uses is overloaded and calling out and getting calls is almost impossible. I can still get messages, albeit infrequently, and so I know that most of my friends are okay and accounted for.
Watching the news I'm surprised how much attention is given to Thailand and especially Phuket, where compared to some of the surrounding nations like Sri Lanka and Indonesia, casualties were low. I guess it's because so many of the casualties are rich Westerners, many of whom have video recorders to capture the scenes of devastation that the television news networks so love. Although hundreds of white people have perished, thousands upon thousands of locals in South and Southeast Asia have lost their loved ones and had their lives destroyed. Let's not forget them.
The captain of the boat lost his house and everything he owns. The Thai tour leader's sister is missing. The cook's daughter is also missing and lives in one of the slum areas along the coast that was hit hard. I hope everything turns out okay for them. I'm glad that most of the passengers on the boat didn't argue with me too much about going back to do more dives so they could get their money's worth.
Some of the diving companies are preparing to start up business again already, but I suppose it'll be at least a few days before things are really up and running like before. I think the short-term effect on tourism in Phuket will be hard, but things will pick up again quickly. Most people realize that this is a one-time event that only happens every century or so.
I'm doing okay and I realize how much there is to be thankful for this holiday season.
I guess you didn't see the worst of it. A friend of mine who went down to help told some bloody awful stories about what he had seen…