Earlier in July, I had the privileged to take my first step into technical diving with Blue Label Diving(BLD) in Phuket. I hope this review would be helpful to fellow Scubasg-ers like me a year ago, looking for info on technical dive shops to take courses with. Disclaimer, this is a very long review as it covers a 34 day trip of 50odd dives at 3 main locations.Links to Trip Videos:
Khao Sok National Park & Song Hong
Racha Noi The People
BLD is run by the dynamic husband-wife duo, Ben & Simone Reymanents.
Ben, though a prominent figure in the tech dive realm, is a super down-to-earth guy. He is able to convey the technical bits of tech dive theory in a simplistic and easy to understand manner. This made it very easy for us noob students to grasp. He also constantly have that mischievous, up-to-no-good grin on his face, giving absolutely no clue to the next curve ball heís gonna throw us in our training! Thus keeping us all on our tippy-toes throughout the course.
Simone, with her own impressive tech resume, is the backbone of the operations. Anything you need or want, she can help to coordinate. When planning for my trip, all my questions were answered very promptly within a day. She was able to buddy me up with Jonny, a fellow trainee, and dive instructor from Aussie, and tailored a rocking month long itinerary for us.
Apart from the Reymanents, there were also, Sandy & Hiro, who were on a semi-work/internship stint at BLD when i was there. Both were then preparing for their world record wedding in Sep. While Sandy is the crazy, hyperactive one; Hiro is the steady, calm one with sparks of random quirkiness. Both wonderful instructor with a large passion for diving and explore the great innerspace. (On 30th Sep, Sandy & Hiro became the only couple in the world to get married at a jaw-dropping depth of 130mÖÖ.IN A CAVE!)
Not only were they experiences and knowledgeable, they were also very up to date in various developments and studies done in the field of technical diving. And were able to share with us these latest developments, many of which hasnít yet been updated in the agencies training materials. They are also very selfless in their advice and tips, to get us diving confidently, comfortably, and competently.
Most of all they were a humble and fun lot. Never was there a dull moment in or outside of the classroom orwater.The Shop
BLD is housed in a two-storey terrace house, directly opposite Rawai Beach. Apart from all the various technical rental gears, which are well maintained and cleaned, the shop also has their own main & mobile gas blending facilities. With helium and oxygen from a supplier, BLD is able blend up all the various nitrox & trimix gases in house.
The shop has a comfortable and conducive classroom for theory lessons. A big plus is that it was always stock with fresh coffee and pastries in the morning, optimal for morning theory lessons. Course Locations - Song Hong, (Trimix, Tech. Sidemount, & Extended Range)
On the surface, this is just a quaint little fresh water pond located in the wilderness of the Tung Yao district, where the locals draw their fresh water from, and where local kids hang out for a cooling afternoon dip. Below the surface itís a whole different story!
This freshwater sinkhole goes down to 150m and beyond. Being an enclosed waterbody, it is calm and serene, without surge or wave or strong currents. With itís somewhat constant and predictable environment, it was a good location for training dives. Visibility varies at different depths with distinct thermocline layers, but it tend to clear up the deeper we went.
From a plastic container floating in the middle of the pond at 3m, a main line drops straight to a deco habitat installed at 6m by BLD and Pekka, the diving Viking from First Buddy. At this habitat, 2 divers can get dry (underwater), rest, and hydrate while doing their 6m deco stop, very cool if you have not done it before.
Hanging below at 9m is a wire-mesh deco platform, and from there the main line goes down to 20m , 30m and 40m all of which have circuit lines installed along the perimeter of the sinkhole wall. Exploring this line, you have awesome rock wall on one side, and totally darkness on the other. Silt covers most of the rock, thus any accidental fin kick or touch will send a mini avalanche clouding up the vis.
At 40m circuit a traverse line that leads to the adjacent pond Hong Lek. Doing this traverse, you have rock above, and a milky thermocline below, while you float weightlessly in a sandwich layer of clear water. Totally surreal!
Two mainlines lead down further to the 50m line. One zig-zags down after to the 60m, which we helped lay a part of the circuit, while the other goes down to 70m and beyond.
While we were there, Ben, Hiro & Sandy, together with Chris & Fred from Australia went down to 130m to scout out Hiro & Sandyís record wedding stage; while on a separate dive, Ben and Fred went down to 150m making Fred the third person in the world apart from Ben & Pekka to have been at that depth at Song Hong. While the big boys and girl were doing their thing, Jonny & I were exploring all the shallower circuit lines up till 70m, and even re-located a 6m circuit line that lead to awesome shallow water habitats and even a few new branch-offs which awaits further explorations. The only thing is, being a virgin to freshwater water diving, those legs felt so heavy!
Accommodation is nothing to rave about as it was a little run down love hotel about 20min ride from Song Hong. It had the basic air-conditioning, ensuite toilet and queen-size bed. However, no one complained since after a day of deep dives and gas blending, we totally knock out once we hit the sack.
There are 3-4 diving restaurants within the vicinity, which the crew brings us to each night. Most servicing local thai dishes and BBQ hot plate. The roasted pork knuckles and fried catfish with mango salad is a must at two separate restaurantsCourse Location Ė Khao Sok, (Cavern & Introduction to Cave)
The Khao Sok National Park is a large water catchment area, where a series of jungle valleys were flooded after the construction of Ratchaprapha Dam. Previously dry caves are now dive sites for the divers with a thing from tight dark holes! Having only read about cave diving, this was one of the highlights of the trip for me
Of the 4 days we were there, we dove at Catfish Cave, Temple Cave, Peterís Cave, and Andrewís Cave. Most dives involved tying a jump line on the surface to the main line at the mouth of the submerged caves. The water was greenish and visibility ranged from 1m to 15m. All had magnificent stalagmites and stalactites frozen in time in their greenish watery tombs. Some were so cavernous in size that when following one wall, it was just total abyss on out other site, while others have interesting restrictions of all size for us to squeeze our way though. One of this cave, canít remember which even had a dry air pocket at depth where we could surface into. Andrewís Cave was unique. After squeezing and crawling though a series of tight passages and opening, we pop out from a hole of an immense cliff wall at approximately 40m to dive over the canopy top of the old forest. Although flooded for years and totally bare, the tree trunks and branches of the old forest still stands at the bottom of the reservoir giving a one-of-a-kind dive experience which was a little eerie.
We all have a blast diving these caves and were awe-struck by the beauty that each site offered us. Of course, Jonny & I, being on course, were always challenged by Ben with various emergency scenarios during the dive. Most of the time, when we heard the Benís giggle through his regulator, we knew shits coming our way, and pop, off goes our masks, or free flows goes our regulators, or a cave-exit-with-an-out-off-air-buddy-sharing-a-long-hose-without-our-mask. Haha! Nonetheless, during each exercise, Ben was always at hand monitoring us and ensuring our safety. Never once did we fell like the situation was out-of-control and escalating into panic mode.
We travelled from dive site to dive sites within the reservoir on long narrow boat, amidst immense stone pinnacles, lushy covered with vegetation that rose majestically from the mirror-like water surface.
Our accommodations were a series of floating huts tucked in between a tranquil valley. Two branches of huts were connected to each other by narrow floating catwalks made of a mix-match of planks and tree logs, leading to a central dining hut and yoga platform. Each of us got our own hut, that were approx. 4mx4m floating hut with windows on all sides. Apart from a big bed, there was only a mosquito net, one power socket a light bulb in the room. But really, that was all we need. Air-conditioning in the room came from opening all the windows at night for the cooling night breeze to blow right through. Toilets might be the only drawback. Although Number Ones can be done simply out of one of the back windows, Number Twoís would require a track, in the dark on slippery catwalks to a separate loo hut, built on the hill behind. A heart-thumping and perilous journey at night. Haha.
After each day of diving, our long boats will park directly in front of our huts. To wash up, we just soap on the catwalk, and jump right back into the reservoir for a rinse. After that, we chilled at the main dining hut, watching the sunset, and welcoming the starry night, while enjoying each others company with chilled beer and good thai dishes for dinner. Normally by 8pm, we would be turning in for much needed rest, and waking up the next day to the fresh crispy morning air with the calls of gibbons and hornbills. This was really living as close to nature as it could get.Course Location - Rawai, Chalong, Racha Yai and Racha Noi, (Advance Nitrox, Deco. Procedures, & CCR Air Diluent Deco. Diver)
Rawai is located at the south east tip of Phuket, south of Chalong. Although not as hippy and party-crazy as Patong, itís still a nice chill spot with nice people.
The dive sites at Racha Yai & Racha Noi was average at best, as it was off season, and more often than not, the conditions were choppy and viz wasnít fantastic. However, at Racha Noi, past the depths of 40m, visibility was great, reaching 25-30m at times. (see vid link). Nonetheless, it didnít really bother us as we were more focus on the training dives and the task at hand. Ben and Sandy kept us busy with all the various scenarios and skills underwater.
Up and down the main street leading from Rawai to Chalong, one can find many cheap accommodations and good local eats. A few I highly recommend are, Mooís for their Cashew Nut Chicken and Deep-fried pork with curry(mouth watering deep fried siew bak with kailan in curry sauce), sandwiches at Lucky 13 guesthouse, pizza at Agli Amici, kebabs and falafels at the Family Restaurant, and burgers at Super Burgers.Conclusion
If you want a budget dive trip or dive course, or relaxing dives with luxury accommodation and food, or crystal clear water and unique critters/creatures at every turn, this is not for you. But if itís an awesome experience with at great company, a memorable adventure, and most importantly, a proper training in technical diving outside Singapore in Asia, BLD is definitely a strong contender.
All in all, this was my most enriching, fulfilling and challenging dive trip, and I totally enjoyed every single moment of it.