More divers become certified at Koh Tao than any other place in the world. But why is this island in Thailand so popular? Well the dive courses are cheap, so is the food and accommodation, the water is warm and the island is a backpacker’s haven. And even the diving is good too!
Koh Tao is a small rocky island located in the Gulf of Thailand, with its name meaning turtle island in Thai. You can dive Koh Tao year round, the best diving is March to October) Having been to Thailand before we but not to Koh Tao we decided to find out what is so special about Kho Tao that attracts so many divers.
Arriving at Koh Tao by ferry, the only way to reach the island, and had already booked a week at Big Blue Diving Resort, one of the larger dive operations. So squeezed through the crowd to meet our driver. Diving is what it is all about at Koh Tao, with nearly all the resorts offering dive courses and dive trips. At any one time there must be several thousand divers on the island. That’s a lot of divers, so what is the diving like?
We were quite surprised to see that the hard corals looked healthy, not smashed by clumsy learner divers. In fact all the open water divers we saw seemed to have good buoyancy control, and the instructors do all the teaching on sand. The corals were more affected by the occasional crown-of-thorns starfish or by silt stirred up during the off season monsoon.
We dived Koh Tao’s premier dive site – Chumphon Pinnacle. The month before whale sharks had been seen almost daily at this site, so we were eager to explore.
Chumphon Pinnacle is an amazing dive site, a ridge of rock with several peaks; rising from 35m to 12m. We had 30m visibility, but found at 25m there was a cold and murky thermocline, so kept above this. The rocky pinnacle is covered in black coral trees, volcano sponges, tubastra corals, hard corals and a carpet of anemones. We encountered numerous gropers, rock cods, angelfish, rabbitfish and thousands of damselfish but the best was all the schooling pelagic fish – barracuda, trevally, snapper and batfish. We enjoyed three brilliant dives at this site, but unfortunately no whale shark.
During our week we dived a number of sites around the island. Shark Island was one of the best sites, lovely coral gardens and prolific marine life, but we also enjoyed dives at Hin Wong, Green Rock, Twins and Red Rock, even seeing a few turtles at these sites.
Another favourite was the HTMS Sattakut shipwreck scuttled the year before. This 49m long troop landing ship had originally served in World War Two with the US Navy, but later became part of the Thai Navy. The ship now rests in 30m, not far from two other dive sites, Hin Pee Wee and White Rock, and all three can be explored on one dive. We had great fun diving this ship, which is still very clean, and home to gropers, trevally and barracuda. It has bow and stern guns, with winch handles that can still be turned, and the bridge and lower decks can be explored.
While Chumphon Pinnacle is the most popular dive site off Koh Tao, it is not the best as we discovered on a day trip to Sail Rock. Located two hours south of Koh Tao, Sail Rock projects 10m above the surface and plummets to 35m below. We didn’t really know what to expect, especially with a dozen dive boats at the site, but were amazed. We stayed below 20m to avoid the crowds, but at Sail Rock we were hard pressed to see any other divers as there was just too many fish.
Schools of barracuda, trevally, fusiliers, rainbow runners, queenfish, snapper, mackerel, damselfish, batfish, rabbitfish, surgeonfish, gropers and a good collection of reef fish left us breathless. We can honestly say we have never seen so many fish on one dive site and the visibility was 30m. There were also pretty corals, nudibranchs and moray eels, but unfortunately no whale sharks again.
We ventured to Koh Tao to hopefully see a whale shark and see why so many divers came to this tiny island. We may have missed the whale sharks, but we ended up having a great holiday, enjoying many wonderful dives, eating great Thai food and relaxing on one of the prettiest islands in Thailand.
Information – www.bigbluediving.com