The 2018-2019 Similan & Surin high season has just come to an end. All the National Marine Parks on the Andaman Sea are closed to the public from May 15th until October 15th. We are delighted to report that our 6th season was once again our most successful! Although we are very much looking forward to the low season months, we’re not relaxing. We’re building, repairing and improving our pages and offers. We do this to offer our guests the best experience from browsing our websites to enjoying the best diving in Thailand! We also spend time expanding the areas where we offer scuba diving liveaboards. We will be adding Egypt this summer!
Why Do The National Parks Close?
The national marine parks of The Andaman Sea are only open from the middle of October to the middle of May each year. This is because during the rainy season the Indian Ocean monsoon winds make sea conditions unpredictable and often too dangerous for small boats. Recreational vessels are not allowed into the national marine parks during this period, and most liveaboard boats go into dry dock for refurbishments.
What happens in low season?
At some stage during the low season all of our boats undergo some refurbishment. It’s necessary to do regular maintenance checks, for example the hull, the engines and all of the safety equipment. Also, most boats’ cabins and communal areas need to be repainted and have any ‘wear & tear’ repaired. Going into dry dock enables the boats to be thoroughly inspected underneath, and the cabin renovations can be done at that time and afterwards. Depending on customer demand, each boat owner’s business plans, and the local licencing, some boats stay out of service until the Similan season begins in October, while others continue to offer trips in areas which are protected from waves and not closed to the public. MV Giamani and The Junk offer trips from May until the end of August. They can shelter from the wind & waves by staying behind Phuket, and therefore offer short liveaboard trips from Phuket’s Chalong Pier to local dive sites around Phi Phi, eastern Phuket and The Racha Islands.
Our team continues to work through the low season. The I.T. department work throughout the year maintaining everything from the website pages, to advertising. But our booking department can enjoy fewer emails and phone calls during the low season, and focus more on helping the I.T. team to build, improve and repair the websites. We are also actively working on pages for our boats in Indonesia, The Maldives, and now Egypt. They can be found on No Troubles Just Bubbles. It really is a never-ending job, but we enjoy it, and it’s necessary to stay up to date and ahead of the rest.
Special Trips Last Season
There were three special trips in the Similan Islands during the 2018-19 Season. Our team likes to dive as much as possible, and it’s valuable experience if we can dive from the boats which we offer to our guests. Also, the dive centres who we work with appreciate our efforts and always invite us when we’re available and they have space. This season was no different. In October Jamie & Holly dived from Sawasdee Fasai, enjoying 4D/4N of great diving, on-board luxury, awesome service, delicious food and wonderful fellow guests. Holly now has 50 logged dives before her 14th birthday! In November, Jamie also enjoyed a day trip on Blue Marlin, the brand-new speedboat that only visits the three best dive sites of Thailand: Richelieu Rock, Koh Tachai & Koh Bon. Blue Marlin is specially designed as a diving speedboat, meaning that the dive platform goes around the outside of the three 250HP outboard motors. This enables safe and easy entry & exit for divers, but doesn’t affect the performance of the boat at all.
Finally, we had guests book a week-long full charter through us in November! This was a group of 22 doctors and medical staff from Sweden who came as a group. It was a coincidence that they ended up on a Swedish boat (MV Oktavia), but our team helped them to choose the best boat that offered the right amount of comfort & value, could accommodate their group size, and had the flexibility to offer 7 days & 7 nights at sea. Of course, the Oktavia team didn’t disappoint, and everyone had a wonderful time on board. In addition to organising hotels and taxis for several of the group, our booking team went down to meet everyone and ensure that they boarded Oktavia and sailed off into the sunset happily!
What marine life was seen?
Just like the previous season, divers saw lots of exciting marine life, both large and small. There were dozens of reports and photographs on social media, and our lucky guests told us directly.
Almost everyone wants to see the two most-popular large species found around The Similan & Surin Islands. If you don’t already know, these are Whale Sharks and Manta Rays. Diving with either is a truly wonderful experience and usually one you never forget. 2017-18 was quiet for Manta Rays, but excellent for Whale Sharks. This season (2018-19) was equally great for Whale Shark sightings, and plenty of Manta Rays were also seen in March & April. In fact, near the end of the season, some divers were lucky enough to see both species at the same time on several dives!
We get lots of emails asking the best time and best place, to see these gentle giants. Both species can be seen throughout the season, and at any dive site, including The Similan Islands, Koh Bon, Koh Tachai & Richelieu Rock. Normally, there are more sightings of Whale Sharks & Manta Rays from February until May. And they are more often seen around Koh Bon, Koh Tachai & Richelieu Rock.
For some reason, 2019 has been fantastic for sightings of Guitar Sharks / Shovelnose Rays (Glaucostegus typus). These strange-looking fish have been quite rare in recent years, but this year they have been spotted in groups on regular occasions and at several locations. Our guests also reported sightings of dolphins and even whales, but these were from the boat, not while diving.
Smaller species that are popular include the seahorse, Ghost Pipefish & Harlequin Shrimps at Richelieu Rock, and turtles, octopuses and of course the Clown Anemonefish / Nemo!
What challenges did we face during the 2018-19 season?
Well, the challenges that we faced last season actually began a year ago, in May & June 2018. Most of you may have heard about GDPR, the General Data Protection Regulations for any resident of the European Union. Like all other websites who have an audience in Europe, we had to adapt and manage our databases and privacy policies in order to follow the new guidelines regarding the data collected by us, our systems and our partners. Although our I.T. team are fully focussed and well prepared, this still involved lots of additional work for them. But they were able to manage the situation in time.
Then, just a couple of days before the Similan National Marine Park opened to the public in October, the local authorities introduced strict new policies to control and limit the number of visitors to The Similan Islands. Although we absolutely agree with the concept of managing the numbers fairly, it was quite a challenge for our team to adapt at such short notice. Luckily, we already had a system in place to collect the necessary information from our guests, and our booking team are well organised in ensuring that the information was collected in good time for the peak periods. However, it was ironic that after several months of dealing with GDPR, we then had to ask for personal information and copies of passports, even for someone who just wanted to go on a snorkelling day trip! Not only did the local authorities announce that passport details of every tourist were required to buy park entry tickets in advance, they also limited the number of divers and snorkellers! Just 525 scuba divers are allowed within the Similan Islands Marine Park on any day of the season, but the number of snorkellers was reduced to more than 3,000! In our opinion, divers normally cause less damage to the reefs, due to their environmental awareness and the knowledge and skills they get from training. Snorkellers are often seen flapping around in shallow water, crashing into and standing on coral! Certified divers can enjoy the underwater world without having to touch anything at all. A good diver can maintain neutral buoyancy and explore the reef leaving zero impact. The local authorities also announced that it is now not possible to learn to dive at the Similan Islands. Everyone who joins a Similan Islands day trip or liveaboard cruise must already be a certified scuba diver. We feel that this is a sensible regulation, because novice divers lack buoyancy skills and can therefore damage the marine environment like snorkellers, even if they don’t intend to.
Then to everyone’s surprise the local authorities announced just a few hours before the New Year holidays that the national park entry regulations would be relaxed for three months until April 1st. The busiest three months of the year would be back to how things were in the past.
To continue the irony, just as everyone was enjoying more freedom due to the relaxed park regulations during the peak period Thailand experienced the most-extreme weather in decades. In the first week of January 2019 Tropical Storm Pabuk was forecast to cause lots of damage as it passed across The Gulf of Thailand towards and into The Andaman Sea. As a safety precaution, all boats were forced to return to harbour and stay there. Of course, safety comes first at all times, but this had a drastic effect on the businesses in the south who depend on full occupancy during the peak season. As it happens, even though many trips were cancelled, the storm weakened before it reached Khao Lak and Phuket. However, the authorities were correct to be safe, rather than sorry.
As usual, there are special offers for many trips next season. Some boats offer a 10% discount for confirmation and full payment before the end of August. Others offer a discount or free Nitrox or equipment if you book a fixed period in advance. For example, in December you can book a trip for March and still get the deal. And MV Andaman has discounted trips in October and for the final four weeks of the season (April 19th-May 15th), regardless of when you book.
Of course, throughout the year and regardless of a special offer or not, all of our liveaboard guests get a free t-shirt, plus the choice of a dry bag or beach towel. Our merchandise has become very popular, and we plan to soon open a retail outlet to enable anyone to buy the products.
Public Reviews About Us and the Trips We Offer
Because so many of our divers come back happy, and everyone gets an invitation to leave a review, we have had hundreds more genuine reviews on our boats’ pages. Some mention to the service that they received from us, but most rave about how much they enjoyed their dive trips, promising to come back! This makes us very happy that we are able to help our guests to choose the trips that best suit their needs, budget and desires. Also, the genuine reviews on each boat’s page enable anyone who browses our pages to get truthful feedback on the boats and trips that they are interested in. Do we publish all reviews, even the ones which aren’t as positive? Yes, of course we do! Plus we encourage divers to upload images. Other liveaboard websites appear to only publish the positive reviews, which we feel is misleading. We publish them all, but it’s no coincidence that 95+% are positive!
In truth, we feel that the number of TripAdvisor reviews could have grown more quickly than it has this season. But when we think about it, any enquiries we get through TripAdvisor are usually people who think that we sell diving trips in Bangkok, which of course we don’t. Visitors who click onto our TripAdvisor page from our website have already found us, and they can already see that we offer a great service to our hundreds of guests from around the world. We are still very proud of our 5-Star TripAdvisor rating.
Next Season’s Challenges and Plans
Even though we have already taken quite a few bookings for next season, we are expecting another challenging year. It’s is rumoured that the local authorities will more-strictly enforce the new regulations, and this includes boat licences, advance park entry ticket purchases, and limiting the number of guests per boat.
We have no doubt in our team’s ability to build, repair and update our pages. This includes boat schedules & itineraries, general information and blogs on specific topics. But it’s a lot of work that needs to be done quickly but properly. Our philosophy is to offer our website visitors the best experience, from browsing our pages to getting our help and advice.
We face ever-increasing competition from other agents and dive centres, both for attracting new visitors to land on our pages from online searches to confirming a reservation. A couple of global online booking agents have the resources to spend a lot of money on Google advertising, causing everyone else to increase their own budget. However, these large agents can’t possibly offer the same personal service that we do, and to them each guest is ‘just another number’ whereas to us, you have names, needs, personalities and we befriend most on social media, such WhatsApp and Facebook.
Here are some wonderful pics from our divers throughout the season 😀
The 2019-20 Similan Islands diving season will be at least as challenging for us as any other season, especially if we hope to continue our steady growth for the 7th year in succession. But we are very much prepared for the challenge, and fully focussed on ensuring everyone who browses our websites, contacts us, and joins our trips has a great experience from start to finish.