Forty-six Chinese nationals have died near Phuket after their tour boat sank in one of Thailand's worst marine disasters.

More than 50 divers were sent below the surface to recover the bodies, while the rest of the world has been focused on the divers working in the Thai cave rescue.

Local technical diver, New Zealander Kevin Black has been at the centre of it all.

Black, who has lived in Thailand for nearly 10 years, was called to the wreck the morning after it capsized with 101 people on board, including 89 tourists, on July 5.


"We got a call the next morning from one of the dive centre managers who said they were putting together a group to try and search for survivors.

"Obviously they were after some technical divers to join that team so I dropped everything, grabbed my gear and jumped on board," he said.

Black has been a diver for 20 years, and worked as part of a team that were tasked to recover bodies from the wreck of the Phoenix.

"I was part of the group to go inside the wreck. We sectioned up parts of the wreck for search teams and I focused on the engine room," he said.

"I recovered eight bodies from the engine room and three from the forward lower deck."

Black said the wreck lies on its side in 45 meters of water, making the search and recovery of bodies a challenging technical dive for those with less experience.

Kiwi diver Kevin Black was one of over 50 diving instructors involved with the two day search and recovery of missing Chinese tourists that went down with the Phoenix. Photo / Supplied
Kiwi diver Kevin Black was one of over 50 diving instructors involved with the two day search and recovery of missing Chinese tourists that went down with the Phoenix. Photo / Supplied

"Lifting floorboards and falling ceilings, electrical cables, plumbing and other loose machinery along with floating debris," were some of the obstacles divers faced.

However, he said the hardest part of the job was the recovery of so many bodies.

"I have never done a job where there were this many bodies to recover, and also it was the first job where I was dealing with children and babies. That was the hardest part," he said.

"You have to be super-careful because that is when you start losing focus on the dive.

"You can't stop yourself and think, you have to keep going even when it's dangerous to do so."

In tragic circumstances like this, Black said you have to focus on doing the job, and not what you are doing.

"Being a Kiwi we just get the job down right. Plus I have a trick, I never look at their faces."

Black said the Thai community had been very supportive of the volunteers involved, and counsellors were being brought in to support those in need.

Although full recovery efforts are now over, Black said he remains on standby for duties while officials work to salvage the boat and retrieve a final body that lies under the wreck.

"While there is still even one person left unaccounted for, it feels like the job isn't finished because there will be a family somewhere that is impacted," he said.

"It is one of those things, when you think about the number of people who lost loved ones and family members out of this incident – there were entire families wiped out – how could you not get out there and help?"

The Phoenix went down in rough seas last Thursday during an outing to a small island. Forty-two passengers and the crew of a dozen Thais were rescued.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the leader of Thailand's military government, expressed his "sympathies and deepest condolences" to the families of the dead.

The government will "exert all efforts to find those still missing and provide support to all survivors of this tragic event", he said in a statement.

The captain of the Phoenix has been charged with negligence causing death, police said. He has denied the charges.

The accident has also led to a drop off in tourist bookings in Phuket.

Black said he'd heard chatter about "the dangers of travelling to South East Asia".

"The one comment I would make is, there are budget operators everywhere in the world that cut corners and break laws. You get what you pay for in this type of thing," he said.

"If you are a Kiwi travelling abroad, there are Kiwi, Aussie and European operators and naturally we have a higher standard so think about the fact that the cheapest is not always the best. It is worth paying a couple of extra bucks for a better experience and a safer experience."

With AP