From battle hardened steel to coral-covered paradise
Scuba diving has been big business in Thailand for many years now, with tourism as one of the main planks of the country's economy and diving tourism ranking very high. Pattaya offers a range of dive sites quite unlike any in national waters – a range which continues to grow.
It is not unusual to hear that people are put off diving because of its dangerous reputation. Much like skydiving, it is actually surprisingly safe, albeit misunderstood. While there are hazards, these are easily avoided with proper training. There are many diving schools around Pattaya, though only Seafari Dive Center offers Thai and English instruction from experienced male and female instructors.
Pattaya is especially good for wreck diving sites, with a fifth shipwreck added to the selection on October 20, courtesy of the Royal Thai Navy. This puts Pattaya far ahead of any other destination in Thailand for this sort of diving. Understanding that diving is so popular here, the navy have obligingly donated three of their obsolete vessels, sinking them to form artificial reefs.
His Thai Majesty's Ships Khram, Kut and Mataphon have all been scuttled over the last decade, with the first two hitting the sea bed around the islands off Pattaya in 2003 and 2006. All three ships were World War II vintage troop transports, of the sort built in massive quantities for the US Navy to help in the island-hopping campaign across the Pacific Ocean.
The Khram and the Kut - off Koh Phai and Koh Sak respectively – were both LSM-1 class landing ships, originally named the USS LSM-469 and LSM-333. Built towards the end of the war, they saw very little active service, though the Kut was involved in the landings on Okinawa. She earned a battle star as recognition of participation in combat operations.
The Mataphon, too, has a battle star for taking part in the invasion of the Philippines in 1945. She is a tank landing craft – formerly USS LCT-1260 – and won a Navy Unit Commendation for being part of a Salvage, Fire-Fighting and Rescue Unit. Like a surprising number of other American warships, including the Khram and Kut, she was surplus to the US Navy's requirements after the Second World War and was sold cheaply to the Royal Thai Navy. After a lifetime of service, she continues to serve the Thai people as an artificial reef and an attraction for scuba divers.
Thanks to some confusion over which ship is which in the Royal Thai Navy, this wreck is likely to be forever known as the Phetra. The diving community was led to believe that it would be HTMS Phetra – also a Landing Craft Tank Mk.6 – being scuttled. However, the hull number of 761 marks it as the Mataphon. Phetra was numbered 764.
Artificial wrecks, however, are not as popular as those which sank naturally. Part of the joy of wreck diving is in knowing and understanding the history of the ship. By doing so, a lump of rusted and coral-encrusted metal become an interesting and often violent tale, where every bump, scrape and bullet hole tells a story.
The Pattaya area is fortunate enough to have two such shipwrecks within recreational diving limits. The so-called “Petchburi Bremen” - so named because she was built in Bremen, where she was christened the SS Petchburi - sank in 1920 after an engine fire caused an explosion, which caused her to run aground and slowly sink.
The “Hardeep” is a genuine war wreck – one of very few in Thai waters. She was actually called the Suddhadib, after one of King Rama V's daughters. She was pressed into service for the Japanese Army during the Second World War and, in June 1945, was the target of a successful RAF air raid. A single 1,000lb bomb, dropped from such low altitude that it skipped off the water and failed to detonate, is credited with sinking her after it punched a hole through the hull in the main cargo hold.
Aside from offering regular diving on all of Pattaya's available wrecks, Seafari also offer a range of other marine activities, including snorkelling and fishing. They are very good at catering for families, including providing food for the trip.