Sweet Memories Of The Splendid Surins

10/1/2008

By Liz Tosoni

Tom and I are back at work now, for a short spell. It’s a summer job in the wilderness of northern Ontario, and our temporary home is a rustic cabin in the woods. Before coming here, we put Feel Free “to bed” (on the hard) in Malta and flew to Toronto to spend time with family and friends and also, to celebrate my mother’s 85th birthday. Since departing Vancouver in 1985, I haven’t been around to celebrate any of Mom’s birthdays, and we’ve missed several other important family events like births, weddings, and the funerals of grandparents. So, it was such a joy to join my sisters and brother, sister-in-law and brothers-in-law, nieces and nephews, cousins, even a great nephew, in toasting the matriarch of our large family on her special day

My mother is surrounded by her large family on her 85th birthday.

If you read our first two logs (January 15 and Feb. 1), you know that over our many years of cruising, Tom and I worked along the way, not only to keep the cruising kitty healthy, but also to add variety and spice to our lifestyle. Our present job, managing a marina for the summer, is unlike any we’ve had to date. We’ll write more on that later.

For now, though, we’re far away from our boat and home, and being removed from it gives us the chance to ponder future itineraries and destinations, reflect on previous memorable passages and ports, and share some of our favorite memories with our BoatUS readers. What comes to mind when I think of our all-time favorite sailing spots, was the Surin Islands of Thailand, and I’d love to tell you about it this week.

On the chart, the Surin Islands appear like giant Rorschach ink blots, deeply indented with wide bays and rocky headlands. From sea, the view is a soothing landscape of lush, thick, verdant jungle, giant granite boulders and cliffs, and numerous pristine sandy beaches. The waters are gin-clear, and underwater visibility of around 20 meters is normal.

The underwater world in the Surin Islands supports a dazzling, colorful array of sea life, such as this lionfish.

For Tom and me, snorkeling in the Surins was like being in an underwater world of wonder, so abundant and diverse was the marine life we discovered there. These clean, clear waters support a profusion of reef species; they’re rich with hard corals, soft corals, feather stars, starfish, spiny lobster, giant clams, sea anemone, and sea pens. Many species of dazzling, colorful tropical fish inhabit these vibrant coral gardens -- parrotfish, triggerfish, clownfish, lionfish, angelfish, and groupers, just to name a few.

Just a day sail away from mainland Thailand, Mu Ko Surin National Park is located in the Andaman Sea about 30 nautical miles west of the closest point on the coast, covering an area of about 135 square kilometers. About 76 percent of this protected area is sea and includes two main islands -- Ko Surin Nuea and Ko Surin Tai -- and three smaller islands -- Ko Ri, Ko Klang, and Ko Khai, and off-lying rocks. A few nautical miles to the north is the Myanmar (Burmese) border, and 50 nautical miles to the south, the Similan Islands.

 

Feel Free is tied securely to one of the many sturdy mooring buoys found in various locations around the islands.

Numerous sturdy mooring buoys are found in various locations around the islands, for the use of pleasure craft and commercial dive operators, at a minimal cost. You can find comfortable, well- protected moorage on both east and west coasts, depending on the wind direction. When Tom dived to check the safety of our chosen mooring in Ao Suthep upon arrival, he came up exclaiming, “I don’t think Feel Free has ever been more securely attached to a bottom, anywhere!”

The Surin Islands are the number-one snorkeling spot in Thailand, not only because the coral reefs are the best and most diverse, but also because of their accessibility. The reefs are found between the low-water mark and 20 meters deep, so do not require the use of scuba equipment to be enjoyed. In all, there are 10 snorkel and dive sites around the islands, which the Park officials are happy to point out to you.

There is much to see underwater in the dazzling Surins.

While snorkeling in Ao Mai Ngam, Tom and I noticed in the distance, close to the rocky shore, what appeared to be a swarming of fish. As we approached, we saw that it was a school of brilliant, multi-colored parrotfish, hundreds of them, moving in unison like migrating birds. Rays of sunshine filtered through to illuminate the spectacle. The fish were oblivious to us as we joined them to swim close by. Munching on the coral as they swam in synch, not one veered out of step from the group. Dozens more continued to appear out of the rockwork, enlarging the giant swirl of astonishing color and movement as they traveled along. It was just one of many magical sights we witnessed.

The best site for deep-water diving is on the southeast side of Ko Surin Tai, and Ao Suthep on the west side is a good place for a night dive. About 18 kilometers east of Surin is Richelieu Rock -- one of the best places in the world to swim with the largest of all fish, the whale shark. These gentle giants are rarely seen in the wild but for some unknown reason, this seemingly insignificant, submerged rock attracts them regularly. They say that it’s become common to swim with two or three animals for long periods of time on a single dive.

One of the finely crafted traditional boats made by the Moken people

Years ago, Tom encountered one of these “friendlies” when we were in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, so we know what a thrill it can be. The Ray shark and bow-mouth guitar shark are also seen here regularly, along with lush soft corals and large schools of pelagic fish.

The larger islands are covered in an unspoiled tropical evergreen forest, where some trees grow to 50 meters plus, a wide variety of tree species are found along the beaches and in the mangroves. Large numbers of birds and animals are seen here too -- more than 90 species of birds have been recorded and 57 of them are resident. These include the hill myna, pied imperial pigeon, greater racket-tailed dongo, the rare Nicobar pigeon, and Besch thick knee. There are 22 species of mammals that can be found including flying lemurs, pig-tailed macaques, fruit bats, mouse deer, grey-bellied squirrels, reticulated pythons, and monitor lizards.

After mornings of snorkeling, it was cooling and peaceful to meander along the path of the well-marked nature trail on the largest island, Ko Surin Nuea., shaded by the canopy of luxuriant foliage. It’s easily found as it’s close to the Park Headquarters and includes signposts with interesting information about the flora and fauna.

As beautiful as the underwater world was, when we went ashore found the people of the Surins to be gentle, hospitable.

There’s a small village of about 60 families of Sea Gypsies or Moken (pronounced mor-ken) living, at least for part of the year, on Ko Surin Tai. They live a primitive existence and rely on the environment for their food and materials for boat construction. Up until very recently, one family lived on one boat and the boats traveled in a group like a flotilla.

The Moken make a living by spearfishing and collecting shellfish. An elderly Moken couple, with white hair and threadbare clothing, came by Feel Free for a brief visit to request some gasoline for their outboard engine. As they putt-putted off, and reflecting on the exchange, it was sad to think about their meager way of life, and we were frustrated not to have been better able to communicate with them.

Later, we were fortunate enough to join a group from the Ministry of Education for a tour of the village. We learned that when the devastating tsunami hit on December 26, 2004, the villagers were already prepared. They have a legend called “baboon” in their own language, about seven deadly waves, which they immediately recalled when the bay emptied that day. In their wisdom, they fled to the hills behind the village. Everything in the village was destroyed, but not a soul was lost.


An elderly Moken couple visited Feel Free asking for some gasoline for their outboard engine

Since then, the Queen of Thailand provided the funds needed to rebuild the village, including a new school, and now it’s thriving once again. The Moken people are now able to live there permanently. Previously, they were stateless as the Thai government didn’t recognize them as Thai nationals. Presently, they should have Thai ID cards and enjoy all the benefits that Thai citizens enjoy.

The Queen of Thailand generously provided the funds needed to rebuild the village after the tsunami, including a new school, (on the right).

The Surin Islands are jewels in the Andaman Sea, with superb sailing and beautiful cruising grounds. The scenery is splendid and the National Park is well organized and maintained, the snorkeling extraordinary. But perhaps the best part of a trip to the Surin Islands is meeting the locals, seeing their lifestyle, learning about their culture, and being allowed a rare glimpse into their simple, quiet life. For us aboard Feel Free, having this chance is one of the reasons we’re still cruising.

 

 

After the Queen of Thailand helped the Mokens to rebuild following the devastating tsunami; the village and the people are thriving once again.

In every culture, we share a language of smiles.