FREEDIVING THE FIVE CHAMBERS OF PHI PHI DON
Nan and David are with me as we gulp in air to fill our lungs to the utmost capacity, the expression that best describes this process is “eating air”; also known as “packing”. We need maximum breath-holding endurance as we swim into the darkness. At this stage, we were all experienced freedivers and indulging our passion to explore the underwater caves of Phi Phi without scuba gear.
Krix Luther leader of our little group is a fitness instructor and ex Muay Thai fighter, he has held his breath before now for 15 minutes after breathing pure oxygen, he is the best free diver among us, or the craziest, yet to decide. He is also the founder of ‘Clean the Beach Boot Camp’ here in Phuket, which organises fitness classes linked with beach clean-ups every fortnight. Nan, real name Xiaonan Feng, is a stunningly beautiful Chinese scuba instructor with a passion for free diving, she is also Krix’s girlfriend. David Adame is a Spanish yoga instructor, superbly fit and a great freediver, because we like him so much and because Krix and I are Brits, we call him ‘The Mexican’. Last of all is me, a pensioner living the dream and lucky to be the owner of “Blue World.”
So today “Blue World” with forty passengers is on a regular day charter to Phi Phi, we have left the comforts of the catamaran with the customers snorkelling happily at Monkey beach. We jumped in the dingy, piloted by Bon our irrepressible boatman and sped across the bay to Camel Rock. The sea is choppy today and in the rocky cliffs opposite Camel Rock water spray jets out in a mist betraying the existence of an underwater cave.
Bon drops us off and we swim towards the spray. I watch as Bon powers away, the bow of the inflatable pointing at an impossible angle towards the sky as he performs the marine equivalent of a wheelie! I make another mental note to have a word with that boy! Down below us, we see the blackness of a cave entrance and Krix dives down, disappearing under the overhanging rock and into the cave. We wait on the surface for him to report back but typical of his sense of humour he finds an air pocket and instead of returning immediately keeps us waiting for five minutes and more! We know his game by now and we wait patiently and then suddenly he’s back.
It’s only a short breath-hold, down maybe 4 metres then a short swim and instead of the limestone rock above us we see a black circle, an indication of an air filled cavern above us, we don’t know how much breathing space there is as we surface gingerly hand stretched out above us to protect our heads as we emerge into the air space. It’s quite large, maybe 8 metres across with a ceiling 3 metres above our heads.
Even in here we feel the waves and we rise and fall with them sometimes having to fend off before our heads make contact with the rock above. I take out my snorkel to breath more easily as the air is thick with spray; I feel tightness in my chest and the beginnings of claustrophobia
Krix and the others are unworried and they greet my stream of expletives with laughter. Krix points down to another dark patch in the wall of rock below and off he goes again. We give him a half a minute and then dive down after him and look into the blackness of a new cave, in the distance we see his torch, a huge 5000-lumen beam shining straight down. This torch is attached to his waist and he turns it on when he finds air and guides us to it. I find it difficult to fill my lungs in the spray filled room in any way that gives me confidence of a long breath-hold but down I go, David has already gone followed by Nan, this time it’s a longer swim but only about thirty seconds and we surface by Krix’s legs in a new cavern. Here the water is calm and the air is good to breathe. We are all carrying two torches and I have a small emergency tank of Spare Air attached to my weight belt, I relax a little.
We search around and sure enough, Krix finds another black opening, down we go again and swim through a narrow tunnel and emerge into another large air space. We swim on the surface exploring the perimeter and yet again we find another swim through, this one is longer still and we swim holding our breath through a twisting and narrow tunnel for what seems an age. Finally, we surface, this time into a long air space and we swim on the surface as it curves around to the left. At the end we see rocks leading up from the water into the darkness of a surface cave. Even this far from the open sea and even though there are no waves the water is still surging us too and fro and we struggle to take off our fins in order to climb the slippery rocks, hanging on with our arms to prevent the surge sweeping us off, a little climb and we’re up over the rocks and into the calmness of the cave, taking off our masks we place them with our fins on high rocks to prevent the sea sweeping them away.
This is neat, a dry cave fun to explore, with rooms off to the right like a small house, there are rock structures and alcoves to use as seats and we take a break. To the left is another small cave but both caves are dead ends, no more caverns to explore, just 5 chambers joined by underwater swim-throughs. So the name of our discovery is easy, we call the cave system ‘The 5 Chambers.’ We turn off our torches to immediate blackness and as our eyes adjust we look back into the water to see a faint glow of light indicating the way out.
The swim out is even more spectacular as we swim and free dive through the cave system towards the light, we swim through schools of fish and at the entrance framed in the light of the cavern entrance we see a blacktip reef shark, ghosting by, very beautiful but very nervous and detecting our presence it darts away.
Finally emerging into bright daylight to find Blue World waiting for us.
We clamber on board for lunch.
My 5 years with the boat were made up of many days of discovery like this. Occasionally we would go further afield, 40 nautical miles to the beautiful islands of Koh Ha with its crystal clear turquoise water and spectacular dives like the Chimney and the awesome caves of the Cathedral or even further to the Similans or the 100 mile trip to Koh Lipe in the south. My favourite dives were the rocky pinnacles of Hin Daeng and Hin Muang where we would dive with giant Mantas who attracted by our bubbles would pirouette over each divers head before moving on to another bubble source.
This is what the boat was designed for, a power catamaran big enough for 54 passengers and 6 crew and equipped with two powerful 5.8 litre diesel engines capable of 27 knots or 50 kph and a range of around 800 nautical miles (1,481km) We could travel to remote islands and return the same day, doing expedition diving that was normally the preserve of the slow liveaboard boats that would spend a week doing these same dive sites.
Blue World, more than just a boat she was my life’s work, made possible by long years of hard work and the success of my nightclub back in England, sold now to achieve my ultimate dream. My life was now devoted to adventure, visits to remote islands and scuba diving or freediving with equally free spirits. Enjoying the physical aspects of being at sea, weathering the elements, diving into clear water. The company built around the boat was a beautiful thing and I counted my blessings every day. This was a future I wanted to share with my children and my children’s children.
I was lucky, I had a fantastic crew headed by the dependable and good-natured Captain Pan, my lovely guide and Dive Master Nangy, the incorrigible Bon a superb boat handler, engineer Pung and two ever-eager boat boys Good and Pat. Back in the office, the bookings were taken care of by Mew, the latest edition to the company. More than a team we were like family to one another and most had been with me now for years. They worked hard to give our customers the best possible time and I was proud of them and my little company, Blue World Safaris
Mike Fallows (Captain)