Monday, June 06, 2005

Where the kiwi has flown - #1 Tsunami Diving

We’d just finished our third dive off Koh Phi Phi, near Phuket in Southern Thailand. It was the day after Christmas, we were on holiday, the sun was shining, the water was warm, and we’d seen reef sharks, leopard sharks and Nemos; we were feeling lucky to be alive. Just how lucky, we wouldn’t realize for a couple of hours.

We did think it was a bit strange how we were the only dive boat off Maya Beach, where the movie “The Beach” was filmed. There was a capsized longtail boat and the waves seemed to be coming in off the beach instead of the other way around. There were strange spots of turbulence; in fact, during our first dive a strange thing had happened. About twenty minutes into the dive I felt myself rising – I assumed I was just having trouble with buoyancy as my tank emptied. Then I started panicking a bit as the rest of my group disappeared. Even though we had had perfect visibility, suddenly everything was murky. My brother-in-law spotted me and signalled to the dive master, who came back for me and found me some coral to cling to on the wall. He signalled OK and took off.

By this time I couldn’t see anything except for the sea slug that was hanging out on the wall next to me. My sister later reported seeing divers being swept helplessly back and forth with the erratic current. I wasn’t scared, maybe just a bit confused. I may have started worrying if the dive master hadn’t come back, but he did. We rose to the surface and the first thing he said was, “Holy shit, I couldn’t find them”.

Looking around the bay there were divers bobbing haphazardly everywhere. The surface was calm enough, but a huge amount of debris had been churned up. From behind a boat my sister and her husband appeared (whew) – they had almost surfaced right under the boat, but managed to avoid it at the last minute.

Our entire group intact, we climbed aboard and decided to find a calmer spot. Everywhere we tried seemed similarly churned up. The boat crew, who had been out on these waters for almost 20 years, said they’d never seen anything like it. All the other dive boats seemed to have decided to call it a day. Still, we convinced ourselves it was something to do with the full moon, a high spring tide, maybe an underwater landslide nearby. And so we kept on diving.

Eventually we headed back in. The Thai crew said they had heard from other boats that there had been a big wave. They said a baby had been washed out. In hindsight, they probably said “bathers”, but we heard “baby” and worried that it might be my 3-year old niece. We had left her with her 4-year old brother and their aunt on the beach for the day. We reasoned that they probably would have been out of the water by then (when we left for our dive at 7am they were already heading for the beach). And if they had still been in the water, we decided, their waterwings would keep them safe.

As we came into cellphone range, the Finnish dive master picked up a number of text messages – from Finland – asking if she was OK. We started realizing this might be bigger than we had thought. Then the dive shop owner got us on the radio – finally. He had been trying all day and feared the worst. We were told to get to Krabi as quickly as we could, as there were rumours of more waves to come. It was a tense ride back; we were all quiet. Finally we got to the port, where so many boats were docked that we had to clamber through three of them to get to dry land. We decided not to wait for the dive shop bus and instead ran through the streets of Krabi looking for a taxi to take us to Ao Nang. We finally found one, but it could only take us part way – the beachfront road was completely blocked. We dodged bricks and wood and bits of boats and the remains of street vendors’ stalls, not really noticing the capsized ferry just offshore or the waterlogged restaurants.

Finally, lugging our dive gear, we made it to the street our bungalow was on. Right outside was a police stand for missing persons. Seeing this really hit home that maybe everything wouldn’t be all right. But a few seconds later I rounded the corner and there were my niece and nephew and sister. We breathed a collective sigh of relief. My nephew asked if we had seen the Chaos, and my niece wanted to know if it had legs.

Even after all that, it took us a couple of hours and the BBC World News to realise we should probably email home. In the internet café, I logged on and started reading the news stories. And started to realise just how lucky we were.

The Editter wrote her experience of the tsunami (she was of course the aunty on the beach with our niece and nephew) the other day (thus prompting me to finally write down mine).

I'm sure you've all seen this map, or one like it. Krabi and Ao Nang are to the east of Phuket, and were therefore somewhat protected. We were diving just south of Phi Phi (south of Krabi), which incidentally was pretty much decimated, but I think we were protected by being in relatively deep waters.

Here I am on the dive boat mere hours after the tsunami, blissfully unaware of anything except for my lingering seasickness (and apparently my ability to point my toe).

And here is just a small taste of the chaos. This is actually pretty much as bad as we saw - lots of damage, especially boats. The next day we flew back to Bangkok. My nephew says we can never go back to Ao Nang - "it's too dirty and it's too dangerous".

I'd like to take a moment to remember all those who died, disappeared, were injured, lost loved ones or had their lives and livelihoods shattered on that day.