Monday, December 30, 2013

Professional diving and the tsunami

The six diving guides aboard Oktavia were all single men between their late twenties and mid-fifties. Of them the only local, Aey, came from a village about 70 km away from Khao Lak. Thai government requires foreign-owned businesses to hire a certain percentage of locals: a good thing, and yet, though we were told Aey was an excellent diver, the company didn't seem to know what to do with him. His English wasn't strong enough, English being the lingua franca among divers. Snorkeling together, Aey and I communicated mostly in diving signs--wordless gestures for "turtle," "eel," "Okay."

One of the guides, an expat from Europe, gave us a glimpse into the life of a nomadic diving guide. Each location had a particular season: the Andaman Sea season, for example, lasted from November to May. Guides who had been at it the longest, and given a measure of luck in establishing the right relationships, could get hired for the entire season. This allowed them to stack seasons and after Andaman, go, for example, to Egypt, where the season was from May to October. Sometimes there could be an unfortunate overlap, where Egypt's season might start a few weeks before the Andaman's ended: but that wasn't the worst problem to have, a problem of over-employment. In addition to Aey, two most senior diving guides on Oktavia were hired for the season; three others, including the speaker himself, had short term contracts for Christmas and New Year's trips, and their reemployment depended on the number of tourists booked for the following weeks. A short-term contractor established a base in a town like Khao Lak, and every couple of weeks went around all the diving companies to drop off his resume. And sometimes that strategy worked out, and at other times, he would run into the company owners and managers at the local pubs, and that worked just as well.

This was a very particular lifestyle, infinitely fascinating to hear about; it seemed singularly suited for the single men who didn't mind remaining single. The opportunities to settle down existed in larger cities and year-round tourist destinations, long-term gigs at dive shops, teaching beginners. Many of these men had done stints on land in the past, but opted for the nomadic life on the sea. If there were any women guides on the live-aboards, they were certainly in the minority. (I've yet to meet one.)

For Dave's perspective and pictures, check out his blog:

Due to their exposure to nitrogen, divers are not allowed to fly for twenty-four hours after their last dive. Dave and I spent one night in Khao Lak, where Oktavia had dropped us off. This coastal village was one of the hardest-hit areas in Thailand by the 2004 tsunami. A ten-meter high wave that formed after an earthquake in the Indian Ocean washed over the Similan Islands, destroying much of the sea floor and corals there, and then crashed into the mainland, wiping all the coastal hotels and local dwellings. Somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 people died. The township designated the memorial to the tsunami: a large police boat that had landed a mile into the shore.

On our ride from Khao Lak back to Phuket airport, our driver turned out to be a former dive guide. He'd spent nearly fifteen years on the live-aboards in the Similans, and he'd been out at sea when the tsunami hit. They had no radio or any other kind of advance warning before the tsunami. Half hour before the wave came, the sea changed color. From blue it turned yellow: the wave was sucking up all the sand from the sea floor. The crew canceled all the dives for the day and returned to Khao Lak. Being in the deep, they hardly noticed the wave onboard--nothing beyond the normal rocking. Upon returning to town, they found total devastation, levels of damage "like you wouldn't believe," our driver said.

The police boat memorial (img from Wikimedia Commons)
In the decade since the tsunami, Thai government invested into the system of advance warning towers all along the coastline to give the people a bit longer notice. We saw two of these towers on the Similan Islands; solidly constructed and equipped with large antennae, they inspired confidence. And the corals, our driver said, were recovering much faster than had been predicted. They were possibly not as colorful as the corals of old. Manta rays and whale sharks became much harder to spot in the last ten years. Why was this? The water temperature seemed colder. The fishing industry did its damage. The whole world was changing.

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