Feb 012015

Fish and coral; coral and fish. The program for an excursion to Koh Surin can be a bit repetitive, but for snorkeling lovers, there is a lot to see here, including the occasional octopus and reef shark, monkeys raiding the garbage, and a somewhat tamed hornbill. Add a visit to a “sea gypsy” village and you have a very full and exhausting four-day weekend. Just don’t plan on having internet access.

Friday morning we packed up our bags and ate breakfast at our own pace from the Greenview’s buffet. For those who saved things for the last minute like me, it was a fast pace.

The long concrete pier for departures to Mu Koh Surin is built high enough above the waterline that at first we did not even notice that our 26-passenger speedboat was docked. The slender metal staircase down to the boat lacked a handrail and its construction did not inspire confidence, but someone our bags and then our entire party (and 10 other people) managed to make it onto the boat for the bumpy 90 minute ride. Arriving at the Northernmost of Koh Surin’s two main islands, we were disappointed to learn that the pier had been washed away in the monsoon season. We would need to transfer from the speedboat to a longtail boat, motor to the beach, and then hop out into 12-18 inch deep water. It seemed that our feet would not dry fully again until Monday night.

In previous years, our group stayed in rustic wooden cabins along a steep walkway up the hill from the beach. At the foot of the walkway was a “Tsumani Evacuation Route” sign. But the cabins and walkway fell into disrepair and were not available this year. Kasma and Michael we able to rent 3 ground-level units with one walk-through bedroom and one private bedroom, each with two beds for a total of up to 4 residents per cabin. After some negotiations, this left one trip member (as well as Kasma and Michael) to rough it in a tent.

Actually, the tents have a wonderful beach view, cooling breezes and few bugs, while our humid room was infested with huge mosquitoes. We did have lights and air conditioning from 6 to 9:30 each evening, so I played host to the campers for purposes of recharging camera and phone batteries, and also providing a locked door for laptops and snack bags which might be attacked by monkey marauders. Whether you chose to shower inside or out, the water was ground temperature, cooler than the air temperature.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Our first snorkel tour followed a box lunch of turmeric chicken and rice supplemented by a piece or two of fried chicken. We gathered our masks, snorkels, fins and other gear, including variously full dive skins, headwear, and dive socks; waterproof cameras, sunscreen, bottled water, and other essentials (such as mobile phone for GPS tracking) and climbed into two longtails. We headed East and a bit North to nearby Mae Yai bay (Ao Mae Yai), which is known for its variety of colorful fish. We started on the reef at Northern edge of the bay, and then after about 90 minutes we motored down to the Southern edge. I had much too much water leaking into my mask, so there is plenty of room for improvement, perhaps by shaving my mustache. Hmm, that would be a big change.

Dinners at Koh Surin follow a model similar to the Khao Sok park: bottomless plates of three or four different selections. We joke that it’s 50% squid, but this is for a practical reason: squid is cheap here, and very versatile. If you don’t like squid, a la carte selections are available instead.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Oddly, there is a hornbill on one of the beams above the dining room this morning. Later we would learn that campers throw bits of bread or other food up to the bird, so it is partially tamed now. After a breakfast of all-the-seafood-rice-porridge-you-can-eat, we headed out for the first half of our day.

Oriental Pied Hornbill in the dining room at Koh Surin

Our longtails motored West through the channel between the North and South Surin islands to Suthep bay (Ao Suthep) where we explored the reef from East to West. In the slanting light of early morning it sometimes was hard to make out what you were looking at. Toward the end of our allocated time, I noticed a number of our group watching an octopus which was pretending to be an ordinary lump of coral. Eventually the octopus transformed back into a beast and moved to the next chunk of reef, modifying its colors to match while simultaneously feeling for food. Incredible.

Pair of Indian Redfin Butterflyfish at Ao Suthep Pair of Blackeye Rabbitfish at Ao Suthep Golden Batfish (I think) at Ao Suthep Titan Triggerfish at Ao Suthep Oriental Sweetlips at Ao Suthep Spiny Lobster at Ao Suthep Octopus swimming between coral heads at Ao Suthep Octopus setting up on coral head at Ao Suthep (1) Octopus setting up on coral head at Ao Suthep (2) Octopus setting up on coral head at Ao Suthep (3) Octopus setting up on coral head at Ao Suthep (4) Octopus disguised on coral head at Ao Suthep

Just West of Ao Suthep is an island variously known as Mungkorn and Pachumba. We spent some time exploring its Eastern reef and although I didn’t see anything as dramatic as an octopus here, I did notice a school of squid near our boat. They sped away when they realized I was following them, or at least that’s how it seemed.

Emporer Angelfish at Koh Mungkorn Virgate Rabbitfish pair at Koh Mungkorn Powderblue Surgeonfish at Koh Mungkorn Black-Spotted Puffer at Koh Mungkorn Clark's Anemonefish pair at Koh Mungkorn Bigfin Reef Squid at Koh Mungkorn

Our third spot required a longer journey, the reef off of Mai Ngam beach on the West side of the Northern Surin island. On my first visit here we camped on this beach and had snorkeled at dusk just past the muck deposited by the tsunami. The reef now is regularly flushed out by the monsoon storms, and is very extensive. As always, there were many nervous groupers here, and the first eel I’ve seen. I brought a telescoping rod for my camera, sometimes called a “selfie stick” and used that to try to take a close-up movie of the eel. Unfortunately, my new laptop cannot play the movies, so I’ll need to convert them to see how they came out.

For lunch we headed back to the park dining room. When we returned, it was clear that my sunscreen had washed off my legs and I had a nasty burn. I’ll have to cover up for a few days.

Within an hour or so we were back on the water. Our next two destinations were along the Eastern edge of the South Surin Island. “Turtle Bay” is a long reef with a dramatic drop-off from shallow to deep where large fish tend to lurk. I didn’t see any turtles, but there were plenty of fish, particularly camera-shy puffer fishes. Our group got a little mixed up about the direction we were taking on the reef and many of us got out of the water earlier than needed. We used the energy at our final spot, “Pineapple Bay” which is along the same coast a bit further North. I didn’t see any sharks there this year, but it’s always fun to try to photograph a spiny lobster: as you approach, they whip their antenna toward you to warn you off.

Back on dry land, we cleaned up and enjoyed a few glasses of whiskey on the beach (with club soda, water, and ice). Dinner was another somewhat forgettable meal and I passed out dreaming of another day on the water.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

This morning instead of rice porridge we had “American Breakfast” which consists of one fried egg, one slice of ham, two mystery wieners, 3 slices of white bread (there is a small charcoal brazier for toasting), and a dish of orange marmalade. Do you know anyone who eats this for breakfast? Tomorrow, we will go back to rice porridge, which we are pretty sure millions of people eat every day.

The wind came up overnight, so we will not attempt the long boat ride to the exposed Northern spots of Stork Island and Ao Jaak, where we may well lose our American breakfasts over the side of the boat. I did once seem several sharks up there, but under the circumstances, it made more sense to spend the morning locally.

On the South Surin Island, one bay is home to the Moken village. The Moken people and other “sea gypsies” (in Thai, Chao Ley) traditionally led a nomadic existence Apparently, it became difficult to maintain a stateless existence with Thailand and Myanmar suspicious of one another, so Thailand set aside land in the park for the Moken people. The relationship is closer than that: many of the longtail boat drivers are Moken, and Moken “totem poles” appear on the park’s main beaches. But I digress: the village features what appear to be one room homes built on stilts. When visitors land on the island, vendors appear to sell locally made crafts, such as carved wooden boats in Moken style, baskets, and crafts created from recovered materials. This year, we also discovered t-shirts. Who doesn’t need a teal shirt with a print of a Moken boat on the front?

After we finished our shopping and tour of the village, we motored back to Ao Mae Yai. The tide was considerably higher than on our first visit Friday, so the view was a bit different. On the way back, we stopped at Ao Chong Khad, close to park HQ, where the waves also were calm. Our premier spots would have to wait until after a quick lunch of fried rice.

Star Puffer at Ao Chong Khad Star Puffer at Ao Chong Khad Pipefish at Ao Chong Khad Orange-Lined Triggerfish at Ao Chong Khad To pairs of Latticed Butterflyfish at Ao Chong Khad Clown Anemonefish at Ao Chong Khad

At the very bottom of the South Surin Island is a small island, one of whose names is Torinla. When I first saw this reef in 2005 several weeks after the tsunami, the streams of multicolored fish crossing at different depths reminded me of a scene from “Finding Nemo.” With the bleaching of the corals a few years ago, the colors are no longer as beautiful But the fish remain plentiful and I had two reef shark sightings (possibly the same shark). We also visited a reef at the Southern tip of South Surin Island. By this time, I was really tired. In three days, I probably had gotten more exercise than in a typical month. It was time to go enjoy some downtime.

Pair of Threadfin Butterflyfish at Torinla Java Rabbitfish at Torinla Bridled Parrotfish with two Cleaner Wrasses at Torinla Black-tip Reef Shark at Torinla Yellow-Mask Angelfish at Torinla

After another typical park dinner, we got our update: tomorrow we will linger on the island until our ferry departs around 2:00. There is time for one more snorkel off the beach, but timesheets are due before the Firm opens for business, and that may well consume all available hours Monday. Bleah.

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