A couple of general comments:
- The Junk is definitely a mid-priced (& mid-quality) liveaboard. I'm glad you enjoyed it - I know lots of people that got very tired (like by day 2) of climbing down the ladder to get into the zodiac to go diving... the boat was never designed to be a dive boat, and for many the atmosphere (and style) doesn't make up for this over a week.
Well, I've been on more than a few liveaboards, and other than diving off a dedicated rear dive deck (Turks & Caicos Explorer, California Truth Boats and Nekton Rorqual - and the trade-off there is you have to find the freaking boat as it is on a fixed mooring ), we've been required to somehow transfer from the mother ship to the tenders. A few steps down, with willing and able assistance from Junk crew, was seriously no big deal, and nothing near as difficult as stepping off the Galapagos Aggressor, fully kitted up, onto a bucking panga in six foot seas. Ymmv. The Junk is no Archipelago Adventurer, but in our opinion is a fun, modest budget option, although not particularly well set up if there were several photogs with large vid or dslr rigs on board.
- Someone may be able to correct me, but I don't think they've seen a whale shark at Richelieu for a couple of years. Mark Strickland (then photopro/cruise director on the Ocean Rover) said they stopped showing up a while ago (very unfortunate).
Whalesharks were reported as been seen in the week previous to our visit (December 2007).
- Last: the west coast of Thailand is still a great place to dive, but (unfortunately) it's nothing like it was even 10-15 years ago (true for many destinations, I know...). For those of us who have lived in Thailand it's just a little sad (and frustrating) to see such a beautiful natural environment suffer because of the pressure put on by the ever-growing tourist population, and the lack of foresight by those responsible in managing the resource responsibly.
How fortunate for you that you were able to dive Thailand before it became a diving mecca.
I consider myself quite well-traveled and have seen alot of healthy reefs - Fiji (Bligh Waters/east coast Viti Levu) , far northeastern Australia (Raine Island, detached reefs), Banda Sea, etc - no doubt that most if not all reefs are under at least some pressure from development, global warming, imbalances due to over-fishing and harvesting, but I thought that most of the reefs we visited in Thailand were in good condition (in fact, as I wrote in my report, in better condition than I would have expected for an area so heavily touristed) - I did not see evidence of coral disease or bleaching, and other than the areas I mentioned that appeared to be affected by dynamite fishing (a few sections on the Surin reefs) and tsunami damage (Koh Bon), the reefs looked very healthy and there was prolific fish life. Any less than stellar dives we did in Thailand were still (in our opinion) better than the best of the Caribbean that we've done - Cozumel, Bahamas (various locations), Roatan, Bonaire, Curacao, Cuba, Antigua, Turks & Caicos. I would be happy to dive in Thailand again, although I would not revisit during peak tourist season as there are not enough sites available to accomodate the current armada of dive boats and gaggles of bubbling, reef-whacking newbies.
Thanks for your comments.