The Surin Islands don't have much to offer a diver, only a few dive sites with not so many fish. But, Surin's ace card is a small submerged rock about 18km east of Mu Koh Surin National Park. Richelieu Rock, just exposed at the lowest of tides–thus a navigational hazard for those boats not paying attention–rates as one of the best dive sites in the world. If you get bored here, it's time to take up golf!
Richelieu has become famous as one of the best places in the world for swimming with our gentle giant, the whale shark. Encounters with these fish–the largest of all fish–are rare almost any place in the world. But for some reason, Richelieu attracts more than its fair share. Swimming with such a large animal, known to grow to lengths of 20m or more, has to be a high point for any diver. Sightings occur often, but unfortunately less often than in the 1990s. The big difference between diving here and other areas that are famous for whalesharks, such as Western Australia, is that we don't need spotter planes as the sharks cruise around the rock, and the visibility is normally very good. Who knows why they are here, but the sharks aren't around because of plankton blooms like in Australia. Thus, when they are seen, you generally get a really good look since you're diving in clear water.
During the past decade we have seen a decline in the number of whale sharks for some odd reason. It may be due to the effects of the El Niño weather effects or it could be some other reason. We are still keeping our fingers crossed that they will return in the numbers we have come to expect.
Nearly every imaginable variety of bony fish is found here, including many species of butterflyfish, wrasse, damselfish, lionfish and a host of other reef dwellers. Among the most abundant species are scorpionfish, which are amazingly adept at blending in with their surroundings. Be especially careful where you put your hands, because many things that look like rocks are not really rocks! A number of eel species live here as well, including giant, white-mouth, fimbriated, snowflake, bar-tail and zebra morays. Schooling fish like fusiliers and snapper are also prevalent, in addition to open water predators like rainbow runners, mackerel, and barracudas. One schooling fish deserves special mention–a huge school of big-eye jacks can often be seen on the up-current side of the rock, where they often circle divers en masse, creating a living maelstrom of fish. Schooling chevron barracudas are also found here almost all of the time.
Divemasters are now quite good at spotting ghost pipefish, Harlequin shrimp, and tigertailed seahorses. If you don't see something weird here you just aren't paying attention. Cuttlefish hover around, usually in the autumn, but very often at other times of the year as well. Octopus are common, and lionfish as well as different kinds of anemone fish are easily spotted.
Richelieu Rock is a world-class dive site, and if you don't like diving here, you simply don't like diving! You can dive here over and over and see something new. The currents change constantly, and it's not always an easy dive. But, if you listen to your dive guide and his or her briefing, you can learn how to hide from the currents and have a very enjoyable dive all of the time. Many boats will spend the entire day here so you can get a full appreciation of the variety of conditions and marine life at this fantastic dive site.
Note: Recently there have been postings (even on PADI's website) that Richelieu Rock was named by Jacques Cousteau's team when they were filming in Thailand and the Andaman Islands in 1988 and 1989. However, Richelieu Rock was named long before Mr Cousteau visited these waters so this story is simply not correct no matter how romantic it sounds. There were European explorers all over Southeast Asia in the 17th and 18th centuries and many European names exist for islands and rocks in Thailand as well as in the Mergui (Myeik) Archipelago in Burma. By the way, Cousteau was denied permission to go to Mergui when his team was here, but he did do a little-known film about the Andaman Islands called The Invisible Islands.
The Surin Islands, although visited by several dive operators from Phuket, are more appropriately famous for their beautiful coves, bays and dense jungle than they are for their diving. Spending a few idyllic days on a sail boat or other yacht here are the stuff dreams of paradise are made of yet the serious diver will be bored easily after a few dives because of the generally poor visibility and lack of fish.
There are a few dive sites, mainly on the southern island (Surin Tai) which are popular with a number of boats and their guides. The key to having a good dive here is to have a very knowledgeable guide to show you the highlights. Just jumping in and swimming around is normally disappointing for most people. The snorkeling is fairly nice in her protected bays and the anchorages are wonderful.
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.