Richelieu Rock is really only accessible by a liveaboard, unless you are a sea gypsy from Surin! This was my second visit here, my first visit was onThe Junk, by far the best choice in my opinion, they have one big downfall though; they do not have nitrox (Note: 21/3/2012 I think they do now), so with that in mind a US buddy I know called Greg, wisely chose the MV Queen Scuba. They do the trip in just 4 days and 4 nights, to make this more achievable they sail from Thap Lamu port, about 50 miles north of Patong. Queen Scuba will pick you up from either your hotel or the airport as part of the deal. From the name of the boat I was relieved that it wasn't run by a group of scuba diving lady boys! We were all greeted on the boat by Mike from Arizona who was the cruise director for our trip, and what a grand job he did of that too. The Queen Scuba is a better than average liveaboard, it had 3 accessible decks; accommodation and dive deck, dinner and “salon” deck, and sun deck; which also had a sheltered space with comfy sofas to lounge on. Due to the boat not being completely full, I was lucky to get an upgrade to a VIP bunk space with Greg. Altogether there were 16 divers on the Queen Scuba, a good 4 groups of 4. On our team we had me, Greg, Jean (a French dive magazine owner), and Paul, a UK guy stationed in Afghanistan, who has been on Queen Scuba 11 times. Once on board I started setting my camera gear up but was shocked to find that I had forgotten the camera tray which aligns and secures the camera into the housing - pretty obvious that I was a bit disappointed! Luckily for me, Greg was at hand with his compact backup. Although a little disheartened, I soon got to grips with it and started taking advantage of its size and flexibility.
The Similans Islands are an archipelago of 9 islands, a great warm up for Richelieu Rock. A couple of days into the Similans and our Thai captain got a call from a boat further north; there had been a Manta Ray spotting, with that in mind I leapt to life, and started to think about what I could do to secure my D90 in its Aquatica housing. Some highly technical planning was involved, basically I taped a couple of AA batteries together and put them in the bottom of the housing and packed around the camera with tissue paper to balance it - Job done! I was good to go. In we went, and as time passed by with no sign yet of the mantas, we hung around on the dive amid a huge shoal rainbow runners creating sweeping shapes around the rocks, like the smoke monster in Lost, with nitrox running down we aborted the mission and headed back to the boat. The Captain then spotted movement in the water and headed towards what he believed was the invisible Manta! The surface current was running pretty fast but I was ready, now with snorkel, mask and fins, and my camera on call, but unfortunately we didn't get an opportunity to jump in. Time running on we headed to Richelieu Rock. As our French buddy told me, when Jack Cousteau discovered it, he named it after Cardinal Richelieu, he was young King Louis XIII's Prime Minister in the early 1600's, the colour of the soft cabbage coral here is the same colour as that of a Cardinal's sash. Hence the name was born. We managed to get 3 dives in at Richelieu as it was pretty quiet and conditions were good. I was here exactly 2 years ago and there were Mantas galore then, can you understand why I rushed back at the chance!? From what the dive guides were saying the Mantas were 3 months early this year. Now that I have my SLR, I had to choose macro or fisheye, as there had been no reports of Mantas, macro was the obvious choice for me. Down we went, on the submerged rock of Richelieu, first thing on the agenda was a pair of Harlequin Shrimps, our guide knew this site very well, we then went on to see an Orange Harlequin Ghost Pipe Fish, Yellow Tiger Tailed Sea Horses Peacock Mantis Shrimp, these were quite easy to find if you scanned around the sea bed for a hole the size of a golf ball. Usually they have an entry and exit point so if you see them going in one hole it doesn't mean it will come out the same one, within a radius of about a foot you should find its back door. The light went down, we looked up... a huge shoal of Barracuda... we had it all, well almost! I just wish I had my fish eye as well! We carried on with our macro marathon, more ornate Ghost Pipe Fish, a Cleaner Pipe fish, tiger egg snails clinging onto sea fans, cardinal coloured coral was everywhere, and so were anemones with their variety of damsel hosts. A good mix of bright colour for this macro life, it was like muck diving but in techni-colour. Yellow boxfish, stonefish, scorpion fish, groupers, the list went on. Once we got back on the Queen Scuba after our third dive we set sail back to Koh Tachai for a sunset dive. On this dive we had our only spotting of a leopard shark that came over to see us briefly, guns flashing in the distance I soon realised that Greg got his first sighting of a blue spotted stingray, it was like love at first sight for both of them! Back on board we were once again fed a superb selection of Thai food. A couple of times European food was served, which was also excellent, but I would have preferred it if they had stuck with Thai as it was magnificent. On our last meal the dive crew came round showing us a slideshow of their dive photos, a nice way to end it, but personally, I wasn't so fond of the dive guide taking photos down there while we were. The boat crew were extremely helpful looking after each and every one of us while keeping us entertained at all times, yes they did get thrown in, so did I! All part of the fun, such a great bunch of lads. I didn't do the 2 dives on the last day as I didn't have enough brownie points with the wife for a night out on Bangla Road, I didn't really want to push my luck did I? Queen Scuba left me off at the airport, I checked myself in with, luckily, no excess to pay again, and headed straight for a massage to relieve all my tension and push out any of that stagnant nitrogen, bringing me back up to earth! I did 12 dives out of a possible 14 on a 4 day trip. Four days really did feel like a week, it was so intense but not once did I feel exhausted. I flew on a Wednesday morning and arrived back the next Tuesday morning straight into work.
To summarise this trip, it does compare really well to upmarket Red Sea liveaboards, Once you have found the best deal for a flight online, it is roughly the same price after all, and one hell of an adventure, with so many opportunities to extend on anywhere else around Thailand, such an awesome place to explore.