The first glimmer of sunlight touches the calm sea south of Phuket, where the dive boat MV Aragon is anchored. Suddenly rays of sunlight break the horizon and the sea that was so dark during the night, brightens to its usual deep blue. For Holger Schwab, the German owner of Sea Bees Diving Center, this is the time most suitable for scuba diving: the hour when his guests on board still sleep and the sun’s first rays are hitting the ocean.
Beneath the keel of the MV Aragon, Hin Muang lies waiting. For divers this almost legendary reef starts at a depth of eight metres. Covered with purple soft corals, which evolution has raised upon it like a lavish gardener, this home to nudibranchs and colourful tropical reef fish is regularly visited by the giants of the oceans: manta rays with wingspans of up to seven metres, and whale sharks, the largest fish on our planet.
Schwab jumps from the boat into the water and slowly – like his buddy – sinks deeper. In 15 to 20 metres they level off, and drift along the reef, their attention always directed out into open water. “No other sea creature has the elegance or the size of the whale shark,” Schwab says later. “Anyone who has ever witnessed this peaceful giant sliding gracefully through the water, will love this creature for ever.”
Whale Shark encounters are becoming rarer
Up to 14 metres long and weighing 12 tonnes, whale sharks feed mainly on plankton and small organisms that they filter out of huge volumes of seawater sucked into their gaping mouths. Yet for people, encounters with these giants are completely safe. Their bottom half is lightly coloured, their back shimmering gray-blue, interspersed with stripes and prominent bright spots. Worldwide, their numbers fall every year. Overfishing, deliberate hunting, environmental factors – the reasons for their slow decline are many. And even at Hin Muang, once a safe bet for encounters with manta rays and whale sharks, they have become less frequent.
Holger Schwab dives along the reef and swims regularly out to open water. A large school of trevally crosses his path – fast swimmers, their bodies shining silver in the light. The instructor watches them only briefly; the same with the turtle, which grazes on a bunch of soft corals for breakfast. The visibility today only reaches around 15 metres, due to the high volumes of plankton – actually, ideal conditions for finding the gentle giant. On the sandy bottom next to the reef lies a nurse shark, a good specimen almost two metres long. This shark prefers to feed on crabs, molluscs and cephalopods and is extremely popular with divers because of its placid nature.
Suddenly Schwab stops, turns with a kick of his left leg away from the reef, and looks out into open water. Was something there? Has he seen the shadowy outline of a manta in the diffuse sunlight? Schwab waits, lurking near the reef. Perfectly balanced and breathing slowly, he hopes for the crowning moment of his early morning dive. A minute passes, then another, but nothing is happening – the shape is gone, perhaps only a mirage of imagination, which has wished for an elegant Manta. The pressure gauge shows only 90 bar left in the scuba tank, and Schwab turns back, and heads to the boat in shallower water.
Mekong Whiskey in the Monkey Bar
“In 1997 we offered our first trips from Phuket to Hin Muang,” Schwab says later on the sun deck of the MV Aragon. “Back then they were real adventure trips, with accommodation in small bungalows on the island of Ko Lanta. There was no electricity, so we had to find our way with torches. But on the other hand, we had the Monkey Skull Bar on the island, with its shelves full of Mekong Whiskey, a real drink guaranteeing a sore head the next day.”
He sounds a little nostalgic, this man who left Augsburg behind in 1995 to live in Thailand, and who now operates two diving centres, two resorts and six boats. “Then you didn’t have to worry about mantas – they were just there, as natural as the sunrise.”
Then Holger Schwab gives a mischievous smile to his guests who are preparing for their first dive. “Hin Muang for me is like a woman who may lose her looks over the years, but for whom love will never die. What can I do?” he laughs.
Next to the whale sharks, it is the mantas which he can’t forget. When they slowly emerge from the deep blue, and gently glide by like a flying carpet, then even he, the experienced instructor, feels like a little boy again, who gets carried away by his own enthusiasm.
Mostly he just hovers in the water and lets the giants come to him, until they ascend right in front of him and present their shiny bellies. Yes! – a feeling that only a diver can really understand.
Like beautiful women – fascinating and rarely predictable
Today he hasn’t been allowed this feeling – the mantas and whale sharks have been unfaithful. “Never mind,” says Schwab, “sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. The open sea is not a zoo, where everything can be planned. I know they are out there somewhere. Maybe they were just barely out of sight. And one day I will see them again, maybe today or maybe next month – just like with beautiful women…fascinating but rarely predictable”.
An hour later the guests resurface. The gentle wind blows away their words; gestures, however, are clear: they spread their arms and flap them like birds’ wings – the common sign among divers for Manta sightings. On board the faces glow with joy, while digital cameras are passed from hand to hand: two manta rays, each about 4 metres wingspan flying in formation can be seen on them.
How did Holger Schwab put it? Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Today he has lost but his divers have won, and yet it is not a defeat for him: otherwise would he be laughing so infectiously, here on the reef of the gentle giant?