Koh Tao Dive Sites
The sleepy little islands of Ko Tao (turtle island) and Ko Nang Yuan, located approximately 65 kilometers North of Ko Samui in the Gulf of Thailand, have exploded as a diving destination over the past few years. Although populated for some time, previously the only form of income for the islanders was the harvesting of coconuts and light fishing. These days there are a number of backpacker-style bungalows, one or two up-market resorts, and about 10 dive centers offering scuba and snorkeling trips to the surrounding reefs and pinnacles.
An idyllic tropical paradise, Ko Tao seems to attract many divers looking for lengthy stays in Thailand-many backpackers travel to the island and end up spending months there. Some of the reasons for this is the relaxed pace of living, inexpensive accommodation, camaraderie between divers and dive centers, and of course interesting and relatively inexpensive scuba diving. All these combine to bring back visitors time and time again.
One of the best things about diving around these two small islands is the fact that the dive sites, unlike Phuket's and Samui's, are only minutes away. Including Ko Nang Yuan, which is only a short hop from Ko Tao, there are over 15 dives sites charted in the area. Sites range from deep water pinnacles, to shallow coral gardens, to rocky points complete with swim-throughs such as we find in the Similan Islands. Although water clarity can sometimes be limited, frequently the water becomes as transparent as the Andaman Sea with visibility over 30 meters. Again, this may not be typical, but when the water gets like this, watch out: The diving gets truly exciting.
One day a couple of years ago, I was visiting Ko Tao with a friend from the States. The day was perfect, the sea glassy and smooth, and the water crystalline, so we decided to take a dive or two. There had been much talk of whale sharks over beers the night before since I had seen quite a few on the Phuket side that year. Everyone had high hopes of today being the day that the big boys would be out to play. Well, the boys were out and then some.
As we pulled up to Chumpon Pinnacle, someone shouted "Whale shark!!" and sure enough, there she was next to the boat. While everyone jumped in with snorkeling gear, I hurriedly slapped on my tank so that I could follow her more easily. As the snorkelers crowded around her, she slowly moved off and only myself and a videographer were able to follow. We spent the next 20 minutes swimming easily along with the shark before she swam off to depths unknown.
But that wasn't all. As I swam back to the boat to meet up with my buddy, a four meter-long sail fish (or possibly a sword fish) swam lazily below me almost the whole way back. He was a light tan color and had a "sword" on him over one meter long.
Then, upon reaching my buddy and finally descending on the dive site proper, we descended through a spiraling school of large jacks numbering well over 1,000 individuals. We felt we were lost in some monstrous whirlpool of fish and we were so mesmerized we completely lost sight of the rock again.
Another long swim back to the boat with no air remaining. But it wasn't over. Some type of huge animal, surely over 12 meters, was swimming around the rock with a black back and a tiny black fin. We knew it couldn't be another whale shark with those markings, but only when we jumped in the water did we find out that two fin back whales were frolicking with our group. Divers swam with these whales for over one hour. This was definitely a dive of a life-time-even though we never found the dive site.
Although he's not nearly as large as a fin back, Ko Tao has a resident fish with an ego the size of any whale. Trevor, The Terrible Trigger, dwells at White Rock off Ko Nang Yuan and what he lacks in size he more than makes up for in belligerency. Trigger fish are known to be hostile around mating season and they rigorously defend their nests, but Trevor just doesn't seem to like anyone no matter what time of year it is. He has this annoying habit of sneaking up on divers and biting their hair, mask, fins, regulator, or anything else that happens to be in the way. I really beheld Trevor peering out from behind a rock waiting for divers to look away from his hiding place so that he could then spring upon the group like some kind of crazed warrior. And they say fish are stupid.
Personally, I have had other stimulating encounters with marine life on other dives that I prefer over my encounter that day with our friend Trevor. However, my divemaster friends on Ko Tao assure me that the terrors of Trevor are easily avoided if you know the reef and avoid his territory. Fine. Just goes to show you that a good guide is invaluable. I know that Trevor T-shirts are being sold on Ko Tao. My hope is that they will use the proceeds to open a hospital for deranged and demented fish.
Ko Tao offers the best diving in the Gulf of Thailand and combined with the pleasantries of shore life, it is well worth a visit. You may not see whale sharks or sword fish every dive, but you'll certainly be more than charmed by the local inhabitants of the reefs.
About the Author
John Williams has written, co-authored, or contributed to four diving guides on Thailand, the Mergui Archipelago, and the Andaman Islands. These are the award-winning Lonely Planet Diving & Snorkeling series, Periplus Editions Diving Southeast Asia, Asian Diver Scuba Guides and Singapore's Times Edition Diving Thailand. He has lived in Phuket and dived in Thailand's waters since 1987.