Coming up to my 20 year "anni-diver-sary", having logged over 2,000 dives from destinations such as Thailand, Oman, Indonesia, Malta, and the Philippines (to name but a few), my affinity for the Big Blue is as strong now as it has ever been. In all my years of exploring the underwater world, the one question I have been asked more than any is "What is your best dive?", to which I have become accustomed to answering "the next one". But I do have one particular story, though hard to fathom (pun intended), I think might be deserving of "best" accolade.
Lucky Number 9
A short back-story might be required quickly. I started diving when I was 9 (in the South of France), I began working as a Dive Professional age 19, which began on October 9th 2006, and my "best dive ever" would come on the 9th dive of a Liveaboard cruise to the Similan Islands, which coincidentally departed on April 9th 2009. Spooky? Or written in the stars?
On a perfect April evening, we set off due West from Phuket, into a chocolate box sunset onboard a chartered vessel, waking the next day to the majestic granite topography of the Similan Islands. Over the next few days we enjoyed a total of 14 dives in a sublime underwater meli-melo of beauty and diversity. By the end of the second day, we had already seen Leopard Sharks, Turtles, and Manta Rays. Feeling very smug, we ventured to our cabins, succumbing to the gentle rocking of the boat and sound of the waves. Nothing could have prepared us for what would follow the next day.
Discovered by Jacques Cousteau, and named due to its overwhelming colour that resembled Cardinal Richelieu's robes, and U-shape structure of the submerged pinnacle that resembled his floreffe, the mystical Richelieu Rock was our next dive. There was unexplained electricity and excitement in the early-morning air that day. We were lucky enough to be the only boat up there at that moment, so jumped in for an early 6am dive. What follows is all true.
It is customary...
To start the dive in its deepest point at 30 metres, looking for all manner of critters, while keeping one eye in the blue for Whale Sharks. Generally we search for Tigertail Seahorses, Frogfish, Ghost Pipefish and the elusive Harlequin Shrimp. Within the first 15 minutes of the dive, all had been found!?! With ample time remaining, we continued to search the bottom of the pinnacle, and ventured out into the sand, not in search of anything in particular, but why not? By pure luck, we came across the rarest shark in the Andaman Sea, the Bowmouth Guitar Shark! He wasn't hanging around and quickly shot off into the blue, leaving us to start making our way back to shallower water. On the way, we bumped head first into a White Spotted Eagle Ray, gracefully swimming over our heads. Ok, thank you Richelieu Rock, you have delivered a great dive yet again.
A Lacy Scorpionfish
But the show was far from over. As we continued to move into the shallows, my eagle-eyed dive buddy spotted a Lacy Scorpionfish, a species not known to those waters, more commonly found in Indonesia. All of a sudden we heard a rapid clicking sound, clearly growing louder and louder. We looked up to be amazed by a pod of Dolphins slowly swimming across the top of pinnacle, some jumping out the water - an amazing site for those above and for us below. We attempted to move closer to no avail, and just as we thought we were the cause of the pod moving away, two (yes, two!!) Whale Sharks came out of the blue, and blessed us with their presence for a memorable safety stop.
The Ultimate Experience
There may be places around the world which are considered better than Richelieu Rock, but on that day, burdened with glorious purpose, Richelieu Rock left its mark on all of us. It is for days like this that we dive, constantly seeking that ultimate experience, and I believe I am lucky enough to have had that Ultimate of experiences. And just to make it extra sweet: how many special species did we see that dive? Lucky number 9.