In the end we took a double cabin on the Dolphin Queen – a boat run by Similan Diving Safari’s in Khao Lak. This is one of only two lower budget range boats I could find that does 4 night itineraries that include both sites in the Similans and north to Richelieu Rock – our main objectives for this dive trip (the other boat I found, the Andaman run by Sea Dragon, was full for our date ranges).
For $150-$175 per night on this liveaboard dive boat, you get a very nice standard of living. The cabins are pretty small in this price range as you would expect, but we had a double room to ourselves (they also have 4 bunk cabins) and it was air conditioned and suitable for a very comfortable night’s sleep. With a maximum of 22 guests, the boat still didn’t feel cramped as people could spread out across 3 decks (dive deck/cabins, main living/eating deck and top sun deck). The were 3 toilet/shower rooms which were kept clean and provided warm fresh-water showers, for which we rarely had to wait in line.
It helped that the boat was extremely well organised and well run – the dive groups were split into two teams to go gear up and get in the water seperately, and a thorough briefing on boarding meant that after the first couple of dives the whole process was efficient and automatic – and normally my tank was being refilled by the time I had my wetsuit halfway off.
The staff, dive instructors and crew all seemed very competent, were friendly and engaging and the whole group was alot of fun.
As far as the diving itself is concerned, it was a great experience (although I think we already beat any of those dives with our second dive at Bunaken). Over the four days we did 14 dives in a 4-4-4-2 pattern – wake up at 0630, first dive between 0700-0730, breakfast, second dive around 11am, lunch, third dive around 3pm, dinner around 6pm, night dive around 7pm. The dive sites were well chosen, the briefings were through and the instructors/divemasters did a great job keeping everyone safe and pointing out the interesting marine life.
View from the top of Sail Rock
The highlights of our diving were – fish volumes on richelieu and some of the other reefs, a huge school of barracuda we saw at the end of one of the dives (and a second time at the start of a dive at richelieu), a cool anenome crab on a night dive, a huge brown grouper, turtles, lots of different types of moray eel, and a harlequin shrimp eating a starfish (with one big starfish leg sticking out of its mouth), seahorse, Kuhl’s rays etc…
We also did a couple of shore visits on the Similans during surface intervals which were excellent – especially Donald Duck Bay and the hike up to Sail Rock.
The food was really excellent and served frequently and in large volumes which kept us all going through the long days of diving.
The only disappointment of the trip was the amount of bleached/dead coral in shallow water (although not as bad as around Phuket/Phi-Phi/Lanta) and hearing about how much better all these dive sites used to be and how much more frequent sightings of Whale Sharks and Manta’s used to be just a few years ago (no sightings on our trip).
Overall the trip was great value for what we got to do and I would definitely recommend the Dolphin Queen as a lower budget option than the high-end or luxury liveaboards.