Matt Butcher is thirty three years old and hails from Essex, UK. After quitting his job at London’s, Stansted International Airport, where he was employed as an operations controller for a handling company (a high stressed job with very little reward), Matt decided to leave England in search of a fresh challenge and to pursue his dream of becoming a diving instructor and it is in Thailand where he has been living and working for the last six years.

Matt first came on holiday to Thailand in 1993; he immediately fell in love with the country and its people vowing one day to return. Matt did return to Thailand in 2000, and it was on Phi Phi where he first leant to dive -Koh Phi Phi is situated in the Andaman Sea between Phuket and Koh Lanta. After discovering for himself the underwater delights that diving offered, he decided that he wanted to progress his dive skills and knowledge; and eventually after much studying became a full time Padi Open Water Diving Instructor.

Matt is one of the most famous Scuba divers in Thailand if not the whole of South East Asia, if only for his misfortune. Here in his very first interview; he tells us about living and working in Thailand, what it’s like to dive with huge Mantas Rays and Whalesharks, life as a videographer and his true love for Moray eels.

Hi Mat, why did you choose Phi Phi Island as the place where you would learn to dive, there must be closer places to home than Thailand?

I chose Phi because it is a great place to dive as well as a great holiday destination. The water temp is always around 30 degrees; there are lots to see like Sharks, Turtles, and other interesting stuff. Phi Phi is also a nice place to live and work, it’s has a small community where there is always something going on, it’s also a great place to party. I did my open water and advanced courses on Phi Phi, then travelled to Koh Tao for my rescue and Divemaster courses. As far as the quality of diving goes Phi Phi wins hands down, there is just much to see.

Have you ever dived in the UK? If not, why not?

No. The main reason, I guess, is that I’m not too keen on the idea of diving in cold water. I like coral reefs, colorful fish, good visibility, and being able to dive in just a pair of board shorts. I’ve never used a dry suit and don’t really fancy it. Saying that, maybe one day I wouldn’t mind trying some hardcore ice diving.

So, you really do not think you will be returning back to work in England any time soon then?

It’s very unlikely. Two weeks a year in the UK is enough for me. Thailand’s my home these days and I’m happy here; I live here with my Thai girlfriend and our young daughter.

What’s it like working on a paradise Island like Phi Phi, is that the place where the filmed the movie The Beach?

A4: Working on Phi Phi is great, everything is close by and everyone knows everyone. Workers get discounts in bars and restaurants, and life is generally good. I like the fact there are no roads, cars, or motorbikes. The downside about staying on Phi Phi is that it is getting quite expensive, especially when it comes to renting rooms and bungalows. For the monthly rent you pay on Phi Phi for a basic room with a bed and a fan, you could easily get a two or three bedroom house in Phuket, and Phuket isn’t exactly cheap. It was after The Beach was filmed that prices shot up, people just became too greedy.

Have you worked anywhere else in Thailand, if so where?

I am very lucky as my job takes me to the Similans islands and Phuket dive sites.

Phuket, wow, what’s the diving like there?

The diving is surprisingly good. I was pleasantly surprised when I first dived in Phuket after years on Phi Phi. The visibility is usually good, and we are always seeing cool stuff like Manta Rays at Racha Noi.

Have the recent problems at Bangkok airport affected tourism where you are?

Yes, it’s pretty quite at moment. I just hope they can sort out the political problems soon. It seems that which ever side is elected the other side cannot accept it and they throw their toys out of their cots and start causing trouble. It has to stop. If some people cannot accept a democratically elected government, elected by a majority, maybe they should take the privilege away, though where that may lead to is a scary thought.

You mentioned the Similan Islands before, where exactly are they?

They are about six hours north of Phuket by boat. Or like many do, you can travel by bus to Khao Lak (a beautiful beach resort 50 minutes north of Phuket International airport) from there you go to Tab la mo port and the journey is a bout 2 hours in a speed boat.

Apparently these are some of the best dive sites in the world; can you elaborate on them please?

The great thing about the Similans is that it’s a protected marine park. The visibility is usually excellent, and there are some pristine coral reefs which teem with fish. There’s also a huge variety of dive sites to choose from, some gently sloping coral reefs, some with massive boulder formations.

What is your favorite dive site and why?

I like a lot of them. Elephant Head Rock is cool, it’s easy to find Sharks there; well it is if you know where to look. Three Trees has some great corals and a lot of fish, but my favorite sites are just north of the Similans, like Koh Bon, I have had some wicked dives with Mantas Rays there, and Richelieu Rock (the most famous dive site in Thailand), as I’ve seen quite a few Whalesharks there.

So now you have become a videographer? You must have some amazing footage.

Yeah I’ve got a few external drives full of good stuff.

What is your favorite sea creature and why?

Probably Manta Rays, they always take my breath away when I see them gliding past they are just so graceful, the boat is always buzzing after a Manta sighting.

Everybody who comes to dive in Thailand wants to see a Whaleshark or Manta Ray how many have you seen?

I have seen more than 100 Manta Rays and seven or eight Whalesharks. I saw two Whalesharks on a single dive once at Hin Muang.

Is it true you once had a close encounter with a Moray Eel, what happened?

There used to be a famous Moray called Scarface at East of Eden in the Similans and a lot of instructors and dive guides would take food down for her, and feed her in front of their guests. I was careless one day, and wasn’t paying attention when I was removing food from a plastic bag. Scarface came around behind me, could smell the food, and accidentally latched onto my thumb. I tried to prize her jaws open and get her off me but it was no good. Within seconds there was a sickening popping sound and my thumb was bitten clean off. She swam away and that was the last I saw of my thumb. It was my fault, firstly for feeding a wild animal, and secondly for being careless. My dive buddy Bex was holding my camera and managed to get some footage of it happening.

You mean you have video footage of it? Can you tell us about the operation?

After several months when the wound healed and the Doctors were happy that there was no infection, I flew up to one of the best hospitals in Bangkok; where a specialist hand micro surgeon amputated one of my second toes and attached it to my hand. In an operation which lasted over six hours, he connected all the nerves, blood vessels, and tendons. Now I have a new thumb, which is almost as good as the old one. I can feel it, and move it like a real thumb.

Did it not put you off diving?

Not at all, I was back in the water less that a month after having the operation. Why would it put me off? It was an accident.

How do other people react when you tell them the story?

These days I don’t mention it, unless someone asks. They’re usually quite amazed at how normal my toe / thumb looks.

I heard this story in a dive shop in Koh Tao (another Thai Island) how do you deal with the fame?

It’s not something to be proud of really, and it’s not really fame. Not many people know it was me, and I like to keep it that way.

Would you feed Moray Eels again or have you learnt your lesson?

Well, I used to love feeding her, but no, I wouldn’t do it again. It’s not really a good idea to feed marine life, it’s not natural, and with animals like Morays and Sharks especially, they can start associating scuba divers with food. Accidents can happen.

When and where will your next dive be?

My next dives will be tomorrow at Koh Doc Mai and Anemone Reef near Phuket. I head up to the Similans in a few days for a week or so.

Well good luck Matt, take care and Thank you for talking to us!

Jason Butler