Inner Space Thailand: Part 3 – Into the Silent Darkness
We awoke to the coolness of an early high season morning. The clear skies were matched by the azure blue of an oceans’ surface brushed smooth by the light North East trade winds. After a full Monty breakfast at Gino’s, we made our way down to Moskito Diving to pick up our dive cylinders and weights. While I loaded out the small trolley, we were going to use to move our dive kit and cylinders down to the beach, Pete went and filled the esky with bottled water, Heinekens and ice. Steve arrived with his kit just as I finished loading up the trolley.
“I think I should’ve left when you guys did” he said looking a little worse for wear.
“A bit of a late one was it mate” I said with a chuckle at the sight of his condition.
“Probably a bit too late and one beer too many; I didn’t get my head down till about three”
“Self inflicted mate. I’d recommend getting a couple of liters of water down the gullet quick smart though. Have you eaten anything yet?”
“No. I got up about twenty minutes ago; just grabbed my kit and stumbled down here”
“You’d better get some tucker into that belly of yours as well mate; it’s going to be a fairly physical day. When Pete gets back we’ll push the trolley down to the beach, load the long tail and go to one of those café’s down the laneway. Is all your dive kit in order” I said with a degree of seriousness.
“I haven’t dived for a couple of days but my gear bag was packed and ready to go” said Steve starting to focus a bit more.
“What about your dive torch. Does it take rechargeable or disposable batteries?”
“Disposable but I might need to replace them”
“We’ll pick some up on the way to the café. You’d better rent another torch from Moskito though”
“Because you need a minimum of two to dive in a cave; if one goes on the blink, you’ve got one to exit with”
“Okay, understood” said Steve as he turned towards the entrance of the dive shop.
By the time Steve had sorted out the hire of the extra dive torch, Pete had returned with the esky full of ice, beers and water. We gathered up our kit and followed the shop assistant as he pushed the trolley along the laneway that led to the beach. A few minutes later we stood there looking at all the long tails’ lined up along the low water mark.
Long Tails lined up at the low water mark, Tonsai bay.
“Bloody Murphy’s law isn’t” said Steve and we began the job of humping the dive gear the extra thirty meters, or so, down the inclined beach to the waters’ edge.
“It’ll do you good mate. You’ll sweat out all of that poison” I said sniggering at his discomfort.
The shop assistant indicated which long tail we’d be using and ten minutes later the gear was loaded, and evenly spaced for correct ballasting, for the run out to the dive sites. We made our way back along the front laneway, which ran parallel to the beach, until we found the café I’d suggested going to earlier. After ordering some ham, cheese and salad rolls we downed a couple of M-Sports to help alleviate the de-hydration caused through the previous nights booze consumption. Steve guzzled a large bottle of water and was looking decidedly better by the time we arrived back at the long tail.
I indicated to the driver that we wanted to push off. He hesitated and looked at the dive shop assistant who, for some reason, was still hanging around.
“Long tail captain, he say he want more See Loy Baht” said the shop assistant.
“No bloody way. We paid the agreed price yesterday. The deal was eight hundred. What do you reckon mate?” said Pete looking at me.
What did I reckon? I reckoned it was the LOS factor again. The driver may have genuinely wanted more but, from the look of it, I’d say the shop assistant was trying to cut a deal to earn a bit extra for the day. If that was indeed the situation then the fact was I could make things difficult for the him by demanding that we go back up to the dive shop and get a receipt for the extra four hundred baht. This would mean some serious loss of face and possibly the sack.
“Tell the boat captain if he does a good job for us today I’ll give him a two hundred baht tip. If he doesn’t like that then we’ll go back to the shop and ask for a receipt for the four hundred baht” I said looking into the eyes of shop assistant.
The shop assistants’ face told the story; he was seriously pissed off. Realising he was in a no-win situation; he turned and spoke with the driver. The driver smiled. It was a smile that basically said ‘suck shit you young punk, I’m still going to get two hundred Baht anyway.’ I pulled one hundred baht out of my pocket and looked at the shop assistant.
“You push trolley when we come back, okay” I said as I held it in front him.
“Ka pom” he said as he smiled and held out his hand.
“Don pai, pra marn bai see mong” I said as I smiled and put the one hundred baht back in my pocket.
“Bai see mong” he said nodding his head in understanding.
With balance restored and face regained, he turned and walked back up the beach towards the trolley.
“Cripes mate, don’t you think you’re being a bit too generous there?” said Pete looking slightly perplexed.
“Not really mate. Everything is about negotiation over here. Never give something for nothing” I said as we started pushing the long tail into deeper water.
“It looks to me that’s what you’ve just done mate” said Pete.
“I would’ve given the driver a tip anyway because there’s a lot of extra work he’ll have to do above, and beyond, what he does with a simple snorkeling charter. He’s going to have to help us with our dive kit when we enter and exit the water. The thing is, now that I’ve told him that getting a tip depends on providing good service, he’ll double his efforts to ensure that he pockets the song roi at the end of the day”
“What about the young bloke?” said Steve.
“I restored his face, so he owes me. When we get back I’m going to offer him another one hundred baht to wash all our kit while we sit back and enjoy a cold beer. In the end he’ll get what he wanted. The only difference is that he’s going to have to work for it” I said as we all jumped into the long tail.
“Not bad mate, not bad. I reckon I’ve got a bit to learn yet” said Pete.
“Just keep it in mind that everything is about negotiation and face over here. You can always cut a deal which benefits both parties. Try to avoid making the little buggers lose face because they can harbor grudges for months before trying to exact retribution for the perceived slight”
“Crikey, are they that sensitive” said Pete.
“Mate, you’d better believe it. The maintenance of face, to your average Thai, is almost as important as life itself. A couple of months ago a dive instructor I know in Patong was set upon by a couple of boat boys, wielding lumps of wood, one morning just after he’d stepped onto the dive boat” I said as the long tail driver began cranking up the motor.
“Bloody hell, what was the deal with that” said Steve.
“It turns out that he’d said, or done, something a couple of months previously which caused them to lose face. They bided their time and waited for the right moment to exact revenge. On this particular morning he’d gone ahead of the day trip group to load the gear onto the dive boat and, when he stepped off the long tail, they got stuck into him” I said.
“Nasty” said Pete.
“It might have been worse but for the fact that the Thai dive master, that was assisting him, managed to intervene. Even so, he ended up with a busted nose and a few stitches in his scalp. If that wasn’t bad enough, due to fact that he couldn’t go on the said vessel anymore, he lost his job. Any foreigner that underestimates the importance of face, to a Thai, needs to tread very warily” I said reflectively.
“I’ll keep that in mind” said Steve.
The long tail driver, having got the engine fired up, lifted the prop shaft out of the water and dropped it back in almost parallel to the boat. The boat spun around, on its’ point of axis, and we began to slowly chug away from the mooring area. The long tail is a rather remarkable bit of Thai marine ingenuity. With standard petrol driven engine, mounted on a pedestal for three hundred and sixty degrees of rotation, the driver is able to change course, and maneuver around obstacles, simply by lifting and lowering the prop shaft, which is an extension of the engine, in and out of the water.
The view towards the Southern Point of Koh Phi Phi Don
We started sorting out our dive kit as the sheer, jungle topped cliffs, of the main island, loomed large to our right. The abundant green, of the recently finished rainy season, contrasted dramatically with the deep blue of the surrounding ocean. Our first dive site was just around the southern tip and a couple of hundred meters up the exposed western side. The slight surface chop, encountered during the run across to the southern tip, was replaced by the smoothness of a lee side as we rounded the corner. The long line of craggy, vertical cliffs, running directly into the ocean, was a spectacular sight as the long tail driver threw out the anchor and we came to a halt. I gave the boys a briefing on our planned dive as we continued prepping our kit. Pete and I had been into the same cave, a few months earlier, but hadn’t known that you could remove your kit, in the large air chamber at the end of the submerged tunnel, and then walk up into an extensive dry chamber. We’d been informed of that later, by a Thai dive master, and were now keen to see it for ourselves. We completed our preparations, did our equipment checks, donned our kit and then rolled backwards into the water.
After setting our dive timers we started our descent towards the cave’s entrance eighteen meters below. There’s something about being submerged in a body of water that is completely unlike any other feeling you’ll ever experience. I think that’s the reason scuba divers are so passionate/enthusiastic about their chosen recreational activity. You enter a liquid world and time seems to stand still. The worries and responsibilities of life are put on hold as you drift along suspended in an environment without gravity. As one becomes more proficient, in the required skills, the enjoyment factor seems to increase. Those with advanced buoyancy control abilities seem to be able to move around with minimal effort. The breathing becomes more efficient and your relaxed state of mind enters an almost meditative state.
After an easy descent we eventually found the base of the cliff line. A rocky, coral covered, slope led away to the void of the depths beyond. I indicated the direction of the cave’s entrance and, drifting towards it with the current of the rising tide; we began our preparation for the penetration. The black maw of the entrance appeared out of the gloom of the silt reduced visibility. Kneeling on the bottom we faced a triangular shaped entrance big enough to drive a small truck into. We turned on our dive lights and, with me leading the way in single file formation, started our penetration. On our last dive here, six months previously, there had been a permanent guideline in place along the left wall of the cave. It ran from just inside the entrance to the end of the submerged tunnel. As we moved beyond the fading glow of the entrance, and into the cave proper, we spotted the silt covered guideline. After hooking our fore fingers around it, and once again in single file, we continued moving slowly forward into the dark silence.
The increased concentration levels create heightened awareness. Up ahead, in the periphery of my dive light, I picked up movement. My controlled, regular breathing became elevated as that movement evolved into the mass of a reef shark fining towards us. Largo’s shark pool, in Thunderball, flashed through my mind. We all stopped to watch the lazy, side to side movement of a black tip reef shark as it swam by; its one and a half meter body silhouetted in the dull, blue hue of the entrance some fifty meters behind us. With an easy flick of its tail, the shark disappeared into the blue void. We continued on. The thick silt, of the cave floor, gave way to bare, jumbled rocks as we began a gradual ascent towards the tunnels’ end. Sixteen minutes after beginning our initial descent, we ascended into the large, dry air chamber. As I shone my dive torch towards the chamber ceiling, some ten meters above, our voices echoed eerily off the enclosed limestone surrounding us.
“Impressive” said Steve removing the demand valve from his mouth.
“Bloody Impressive; what’s the plan mate” said Pete looking around.
“We need to remove our kit and stow it on those rocks behind us. The tides’ coming in so we should make sure we place all of it above the high-water mark. After that we’ll begin our ascent into the dry chamber” I said indicating, with my torch, to a steep slope on the left side of the cave.
“Turn off your hand held torches and put on one of your helmet lights” I said as I began removing my kit.
Even though we were now in shallow water, and our fins could touch the bottom, the jumbled rocks beneath us made standing, and wading, hard work. We kept our fins on and, with our cylinders and stab jackets removed, moved towards the rock plateau where we would stow our kit. After removing my fins I scrambled up the abrasive limestone and began placing the kit above the high water mark. A few minutes later, with all the kit safely secured, Pete and Steve joined me on the plateau as I surveyed our surroundings.
Stowing our dive kit above the high water mark.
“Crikey, it’s a bloody sea snake” said Pete as he shone the torch into one of the dark corners at the rear of the plateau.
“Well, it’s not called the Snake Cave for nothing mate” I said with a bit of a chuckle.
“Are those things venomous?” said Steve rather naively.
“Black and white banded sea snakes are highly venomous mate. One bite from one of those buggers and you’re brown bread” said Pete as a matter of fact.
“They are highly venomous but the chances of one of them latching on to you are nil to Buckley’s because their mouths are so small. You’d need to offer up the webbing between your thumb, and forefinger, for one of them to get a decent bite in. Even so, we’ll make sure we check our kit thoroughly when we get back here” I said.
“Yeah, righto Malcolm bloody Douglass” said Pete giving me a bit of stick.
“Whose Malcolm bloody Douglass?” said Steve.
“The original bush tucker man and outback adventurer all rolled into one mate. Last seen rounding up crocs in the Kimberly” said Pete puffing out his chest with West Aussie pride again.
I pointed my helmet light across to the slope that we were going to have to climb to access the tunnel that ran up into the limestone mass. It was a series of three plateaus and, in the dim light, I could see a couple of pieces of thin rope running down the length of the ten meter, or so, traverse.
“Right then, we’ll need to hop back in and swim across to that first level to begin our climb. It looks as though some enterprising bugger has put in an access rope to make the climb up a bit easier” I said.
Getting up onto the first level
After a short five meter wade, we were all standing on the first level and looking at the dark ascent in front of us; it was a mixture of limestone rock and slippery clay. The humidity and heat, of the enclosed environment, put a film of moisture over anything that wasn’t solid limestone. A closer inspection revealed that some steps had been cut into the bottom half the muddy slope.
“We’ll be able to use the rope and the steps to get up to the second level. After that the going should be easier. It’s probably better if we move up to the second level one at a time. That way, if one of us should slip, he’s not going to clean up anyone that’s following” I said as Pete moved towards the first step.
A few minutes later, after a careful and deliberate climb, we were all standing on the second level. From the position we were in we could see the entrance to a tunnel leading off to the right above us. The ascent to the final level had less of an incline than the previous. Pete moved off again and a couple of minutes later he was looking down at us from what appeared to be the safety of the top level. Appearances can be deceptive though.
Moving up to the top level
“Be careful when you get up here, I’m standing on a narrow ridge. There’s a bloody great sinkhole with about a six meter drop on the other side” said Pete.
Steve and I made our way up to where Pete was standing. There was a narrow ridge, about a meter or so in width, that ran around the rim off the large sink hole which was at least five meters in diameter. We all stood there looking into it. Pete was right; it was a good six meter drop, maybe more, with an almost vertical wall around its’ entire perimeter. Anyone falling into there wasn’t going to get out in a hurry. We shone our torches down into its bowels. The bottom was a jumbled mess of eroded, jagged limestone. Just as we were about to move off towards the tunnel, we heard a noise like a giant wheeze. I shone my torch back into the sink hole. There was a fine salt mist in the air.
“There must be small connecting passages out to the main tunnel. This thing’s breathing with the movement of the ocean” I said as we watched the ocean’s level recede back into rocky maze below us.
Walking up the dry tunnel
With Pete leading the way again we moved forward up the ridge towards the safety of the large passage-way ahead of us. The initial incline gave way to an easier gradient and the going was dry under foot. The floor of the passage was packed with a fine dust that could only be powdered limestone, built up over millions of years from erosion. At the edges of the path up, and where the curve of the roof met the passage floor, the powdered limestone was piled a foot deep. It had a soft, fluffy texture, quite unlike anything I’d ever seen before, and, if you stepped into it, your foot would disappear up to mid calf level. Pete was a few meters ahead of us and had stopped to look at something on the limestone wall of the tunnel.
“Look at this mate. Some bloody Euro backpacker, hippie, wankers have left their calling cards” said Pete Shaking his head.
As we caught up to him we could see what he was venting his spleen about. At the odd location water seepage, from fissures in the limestone, had created small pools of thick dark mud on the passage-way floor. It seems as though Christian, Karl and Michael had decided to let others know they’d been up here by writing their names, and the date they were here, in black mud on the tunnel walls. A couple of meters further ahead we saw a small sign sitting upright in the limestone dust. It was a polite request, from one of the local dive shops, asking people to refrain from indulging in the type of artistic handiwork we were now looking at.
“Is it really so bad. Humans have been putting their artwork in caves for thousands of years’ said Steve.
“It’s not the same mate. Most of that ancient artwork, that archaeologists find, is mainly about rites of passage or hunting activities. This amounts to little more than graffiti drawn by egotistical wankers. It’s about the same as a male dog pissing on a lamppost to mark out its’ domain” I said.
“Bloody Euro backpacker, greenie bastards; they’re full of shit” said Pete as he shrugged his shoulders and moved off up the passage-way again.
A few meters ahead, we could see what looked like some cave formations. The torches were doing a good job of lighting up what would otherwise be a world of total darkness; a world which had evolved, one slow droplet of calcified water at a time, over millions of years. The passage-way opened up into a massive vertical chamber. We stood there looking at a huge formation which began at the floor and rose into the limestone massif. We shone our torches upward. Approximately forty meters above us the formation narrowed into the apex of the cathedral like vault. We stood there quietly taking in the magnitude of what we were looking at; it had to be millions of years old. Every few seconds a water droplet, hitting the area we were standing in, broke the surreal silence.
Kneeling at the base of the massive formation.
“Thanks for bringing me along Mike. This is one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in my travels through Thailand” said Steve.
I smiled. “The jobs only half done mate”
“How do you mean”
“I’ve got to get you back out yet”
“Besides that, we’ve still got some lobsters to round up” said Pete.
‘Yeah, we’ve still got a bit to do. Have you guys seen enough?” I said.
‘Yeah, we may as well head back” said Pete.
We moved back down the passage-way retracing our steps. The journey out was uneventful and, after making sure there were no sea snakes coiled up in our dive kit, we were sitting back on the long-tail boat twenty five minutes later. We sat there munching on our ham and cheese rolls and taking in the grandeur of the limestone peaks in front of us.
Looking toward the limestone peaks of the western side of Koh Phi Phi Don
“This Island must be riddled with caves” said Steve.
“About a kilometer further along the cliff line there’s a neat little key-hole inlet called Wanglang Bay. I’ve heard that Wanglang has got one of the biggest above surface caves in the entire area. Apparently, a lot of the locals go up into it to gather bird’s nests” I said.
“Bird’s nests, why on earth would they be doing that?” said Steve questioningly.
“The word on the street is that, as far as Thai incomes go, it’s a fairly lucrative, but hazardous, business” I said.
“It’s because there’s a lot male impotence in this part of the world mate” said Pete as a matter of fact.
“Impotence, how do you figure that?” said Steve.
“When you think about it, Pete might have a point. You see this stuff being sold all over the place as an elixir. Hell, they’ve even got restaurants set up selling it in soup to the Chinese, Korean and Taiwanese group tours that come here. The amusing thing is that nobody actually tells them that what they’re eating amounts to little more than fungus formed by sea swallows vomiting into a nest that’s built in a dark, damp environment. Those Chinese, Korean and Taiwanese boys are all convinced that it helps them get it up” I said shaking my head.
“Like I said, there’s a lot of bloody impotence in this part of the world. Instead of chewing their way thru sharks fins, tiger’s penis, rhino horn and bird’s nests, why don’t they just eat a decent bloody steak instead” said Pete looking non-plussed.
“Well, you can guarantee one thing mate” I said.
“What’s that?” said Pete.
“The Thai’s aren’t going to tell them to change their eating habits any time soon, there’s too much money in it for them” I said with a chuckle.
“Yeah, good luck to them” said Pete.
I indicated to the driver we wanted to get going and, after pulling in the anchor and cranking the engine into life, he aimed the long tail towards Koh Phi Phi Le. We sat back and quietly took in the mood of the day as we chugged towards Maya Bay. We’d planned for a minimum two hour surface interval, before making our next dive, and, after an easy thirty minute run we still had a good hour, or so, to enjoy the spectacular scenery of Maya bay; a place which, in later years, was to become world famous as a set location for the filming of the ‘Beach’.
Maya Bay, Koh Phi Phi Le.
The driver eased the long tail into the shallows and, as the nose dug into the white sand, we jumped out into the crystal clear, knee deep water and made our way up the slope of the beach.
“What are all those Thais doing further down the beach there Mike” said Steve as he pointed to a spot one hundred meters, or so, away from us.
“If I’m not mistaken mate I’d say it’s the locals doing a bit of a beach clean up before the hordes of tourists arrive over the coming months” I said noticing there were, at odd intervals along the beach, small piles of wood, plastic and polypropylene rope.
“During the monsoon season the weather bangs straight into this bay and the wind and waves bring all that debris in from the open ocean. It just shows you how much garbage gets dumped overboard from the various vessels passing through the Andaman Sea. Hell, when the weather is really up, I’ve even seen slicks of heavy sump oil; probably dumped by passing vessels, wash up on the beach in Patong. If you go for a run along the beach, after a heavy storm, you’ll end up with tar balls on the soles of your feet” I said.
“So much for the pristine paradise in the holiday brochures” said Steve.
“Yeah well those photos are always taken during the high season when the sun’s shining and the seas are calm and clear. No tourist wants to sea tar balls and piles of plastic debris on the beach mate” said Pete laconically.
“Well, you can always dress shit up. One of your lot told us that if I’m not mistaken” I said smiling at Steve.
“Aye” said Steve looking a little confused.
“Remember that big red headed bugger we had on that advanced course about three months ago; the London wide boy” I said.
“How could I forget; him and his dad were the archetypical Arthur Daley barrow boys. He didn’t try to sell you one of those time share condo’s did he?” said Steve shaking his head.
‘No but he did impress upon me the idea that, in this part of the world at least, it’s quite easy make things look better than what they really are. Those bloody condo’s he was scamming people for were set well back from the beach; probably a good five hundred meters or so. His advertising brochures made it look as though the condo building was just behind the tree line fringing Patong Bay. He said he had the photo taken, with a high powered telephoto lens, from some location beyond Kalim and looking back towards Patong. When I queried him about it he just said ‘well yeah, you can dress shit up’. It must’ve worked because he had no end of gullible punters giving him four thousand dollar deposits after little more than lunch and an hour of sales spin”
“Bloody muppets, they deserve to lose their money for being so gullible. Crikey, here comes the lunch time crowd” said Pete as we turned to watch half a dozen long tails slowly chugging towards the beach.
“More like a horde of Taiwanese package tourists out for a days’ snorkeling” said Steve as we watched the long tails moor just off the beach and disgorge a gaggle of orange life jacket clad Asians into the clear, sheltered shallows of Maya Bay.
“I suppose we’d better get prepped for the next dive then” I said moving towards our long tail.
We started going through our checks again in anticipation of the next cave penetration.
“You say that the entrance to the next cave site is just around the corner there” I said to Steve and pointing towards the Southern head of the bay.
“Just a around the corner there Mike. We can jump in a few meters off the cliff face and drop down onto a shallow shelf that extends out from the base of the cliff line eight meters, or so, below”
“Okay mate, that sounds like a plan. If we’re a little bit off we can just follow the cliff line again until we find the entrance. Everyone good to go” I said checking my watch to confirm that we’d completed our planned surface interval time.
“All good here mate” said Pete giving me the thumbs up.
“Roger that” said Steve.
“Okay captain, Bai Dam Nam Krap” I said as we hopped back into the shallows and put our shoulders into the task of moving the bow of boat off the beach.
A couple of minutes later our long tail was drifting freely in the shallows. With a couple of quick turns, our captain cranked the motor back into life and swung the vessel about. We started donning our kit as we chugged steadily towards the Southern Head of Maya bay.
“Anything else you can tell us about this cave mate” I said to Steve.
“To be honest mate, I’ve never been all the way to the end. The entrance is fairly wide and then narrows down to a point where there’s two smaller openings either side of a massive stalactite. The cave then doglegs to the right and, as far as I know, goes on for another one hundred meters or so”
“Where are all those lobsters mate?” said Pete.
“Shit mate, you’ve just polished off two bloody ham and salad rolls. You’re not still hungry are you?” I said giving him a bit of stick.
“No mate, just putting the six P’s in place when it comes time to grabbing the little buggers that’s all” said Pete looking at me with a level gaze.
“The six P’s, what’s that?” said Steve.
“Jesus mate, we have had a sheltered life haven’t we. It’s actually the seven P’s” said Pete.
‘Well the Aussie version is the seven P’s” I countered.
“Yeah, righto mister know-it all” said Pete giving me some back.
“Okay then, the seven P’s. What are they?” said Steve.
“Prior preparation and planning prevent piss poor performance. Now, you were about to tell us where all these lobsters are located” said Pete dryly.
“Not too far in from the entrance as I remember from last time I was in there. The cave floor is riddled with small holes and that’s where they hang out” said Steve.
“Right then, we’ve got two catch bags and a fifty kilo lift bag to float the buggers back to the surface” said Pete determinedly.
“We’ve also got two pairs of grit gloves to stop our hands getting chewed up” I said.
“Good one there mate” said Pete.
“Pete and I will do the grabbing and you can carry the catch bags Steve. Is there anything else you can tell us about the cave” I said looking at him enquiringly.
“Yeah, I almost forgot. Just inside the entrance there’s a really large air pocket in the roof of the cave. It’s big enough for a number of people to surface into and float around in” he said as I signaled to the long tail captain back off on the throttle.
“Is this it?” I said looking at Steve.
“Near enough” replied Steve.
“Yuut tee nee krap” I said to our captain.
As soon as the anchor was firm we began donning our dive kits.
“Right then, listen up. We’ll do the full penetration of the cave first and get those lobsters on the way back out. That way, if we run low on air, we haven’t got far to go to exit” I said.
“Plan the dive and dive the plan” said Pete.
Just as we were about to roll in to the water Pete yelled out “all stop.”
“What’s up?” I said.
“Almost forgot” he said reaching into the esky and passing out a can of Heineken each.
I looked at him as though he was losing the plot.
“For when we’re up in that bloody air pocket; a toast, so to speak” he said with a wry grin.
“I like it” I said stuffing the can into my stab jacket pocket.
We rolled off the vessel in unison and then again did our standard series of safety checks before descending to the bottom. Just as I was about to lead off towards the cave entrance, Pete shook my shoulder and pointed back towards the surface. I looked up to see one of the majestic sights of the underwater world; a whale shark, roughly five meters in length, passing slowly above us. We all smiled and gave a thumb up. It was already a dive to remember.
The horizontal visibility was good. Not too far ahead we could see the large opening to the cave and, after turning on our dive lights, we moved off three abreast towards the entrance. Steve was right, it was wide at the mouth; roughly fifteen meters across. As we continued on into the silent darkness I looked up at the cave roof and spotted the air pocket that Steve had spoken of. Instead of rock, there was pool of aquamarine blue. The water at the surface, where the air pocket was situated, was reflecting the surreal blue light coming through the cave entrance. We continued on and the cave began to narrow towards the large stalactite that Steve had talked of; it wasn’t so much a stalactite, more like a massive formation spanning the space from floor to roof. As we approached it our lights began picking up pin point reflections and the movement of long wispy feelers on the pocked mark, limestone floor; it was our lobsters.
A tasty morsel
I signaled to the boys to leave them for the moment as we moved around the near side of the large formation. Swimming a couple of meters clear I dropped to the limestone floor and indicated to Pete and Steve to halt for a moment. They dropped down beside me. I looked back to the formation to check that we were still within the visible, natural light zone and then unclipped my reel. The leading cause of fatalities, in cave diving, is failure to have a continuous line back to the cave entrance or visible, natural light zone. I secured the line around a limestone outcropping and then indicated to the boys that I would lead off. The dog leg in the cave lay in front of us and, once again, we went forward into the silent darkness. I moved my dive light slowly from side to side and, in doing so, began to pick out the ancient formations from millennia past. Due to the fact that this part of the cave was at least fifty meters distant from the entrance proper, the visibility was rarely affected by the oceans’ movement. The water was gin clear and, for all intents and purposes, gave the effect that we were suspended in space. As we continued on the cave began to widen again. The rubble, from collapsed formations, was strewn along the cave floor.
At some point in time in an ancient, bygone era – perhaps during the last ice age when the sea levels were lower – all of Phi Phi’s caves would have been dry. With the rising of the ocean, and the eventual flooding of the caves, the once spectacular formations were now just broken, lichen covered remnants of their glorious past. One hundred meters, or so, in we arrived at the back of the cave. There was another massive floor to roof formation with an uninterrupted space around its’ entire circumference. In the space behind it, and backing up onto the dead end of the cave, a semicircle of pure white sand was two foot deep on the cave floor. I held position with the reel while Steve and Pete circumnavigated the formation. As they reappeared I indicated a cylinder pressure check was in order. Our HP gauges were all showing around 125 Bar; an ideal situation for this type of diving as all the teams’ breathing rates’ were similar. I turned and faced the direction of the line leading back to our lobster nest. It was time to retrace our steps and I signaled to Pete and Steve to head back. They would stay ahead of me; the diver with the reel is always last man out. Ahead, I could just make out two small specks of aquamarine blue; it was the natural visible light lancing through on either side of the large formation at the beginning of the dog leg.
We moved slowly towards our exit point. It had been a great dive so far and we were all, in our own way, just absorbing the ambience of being in what is, pretty much, a prehistoric environment. A few minutes later I untied the line, wound it in and clipped the reel back onto my stab jacket. We now had some serious work to do; catching our dinner. Pete and I got to work delving into and out of the limestone crevices for those canny crustaceans. Thirty minutes later we’d filled one catch bag. We’d also used up a lot of our remaining air; our HP gauges were showing thirty bar. I attached a lift bag to the catch bag and filled it with a few puffs of air. The bag full of lobsters was now neutral in the water and a lot easier to move around. We had one last stop before exiting the cave completely; the air pocket in the roof of the cave. A few meters ahead, and above us, the translucent blue, of the reflected light from the cave entrance was inviting us up. I stayed behind with the lobster bag and turned off my dive lights. As Pete and Steve rose towards the air pocket, their images were dark silhouettes against the aquamarine of the natural light from the entrance. They rose slowly up and then broke through the blue water at the surface of the air pocket. I moved up to join them with the lobster bag.
It was a large air pocket, at least four meters in diameter, with a meter of space above our heads. We removed our demand valves and lay back on our inflated stab jackets.
“Well I reckon this calls for a toast” said Pete rummaging around in his stab jacket pocket.
“A good a time as any I guess” I replied as I went searching for my own can of amber fluid.
“That was pretty amazing. What do you think Mike” said Steve popping the ring pull on his can.
“You know, while I was waiting for you guys to ascend into the air pocket, I started to consider the shit you don’t think about when the mind is completely and totally focused on something as real and absorbing as this” I said taking a swig of my Heineken.
“Cheers” said Pete.
“Cheers mate” said Steve and I in unison.
“What do you mean mate” said Steve.
“For the entire fifty minutes of that dive I didn’t once think about being in a beer bar or being with a Thai bar girl. It just goes to show you that in the big picture, the picture of things that have real meaning in life, beer bars, and the associated detritus, don’t even rate.” I said taking another swig of Heineken.
“Well, one thing’s for sure” said Pete flatly.
“What’s that mate” I said.
“If you could think of something which is on the point of the furthest extremity from a beer bar, then this would be one of those things. Bugger, should’ve brought in two cans each” said Pete as he downed the last of his beer.
“Yeah” I said.
“Yeah” said Steve.
PS; If any of you guys want to do something completely different, during your time in the LOS, drop me a line. I am a qualified cave diver and scuba instructor.
A very nice trilogy indeed!