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KOH TAO – DIVE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD

By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

Backpackers flock to Koh Tao, a tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand. But unlike other backpacker hot spots, they don't come to Koh Tao to party all night long; they come to dive or learn to dive, as more dive certifications are awarded at Koh Tao than any other dive destination in the world. We recently headed to Koh Tao to see what attracts them.

 

Koh Tao is only accessible by ferry, and arriving at the wharf we were surrounded by touts offering cheap dive courses, cheap dive trips, cheap rooms or a package deal on all of the above. Fortunately we had a van waiting for us as we had booked a week with Big Blue Diving Resort (BBDR), one of the larger dive operations. BBDR is owned and managed by Jim Donaldson, who has been on Koh Tao for twelve years and seen the island explode with dive resorts. On a tourist map of Koh Tao the island appears to be overrun with dive resorts and dive shops, meaning there are a lot of divers on this tiny 21 sqkm island.

 

BBDR have a range of rooms on offer, from dorms to air-conditioned bungalows, and have a number of package deals involving courses, from open water to tek diving. Most of the dive staff working for BBDR are European, escaping to the tropical Thai lifestyle.

 

Although you can dive Koh Tao year round, the best time is March to October, as this time of year offers the clearest water and more chance of a whale shark sighting. We timed our arrival for May, hoping to see a whale shark or two. Before our arrival whale sharks were being seen almost daily, but they are never a guarantee at Koh Tao.

 

So what about the diving? We dived ten of the thirty dive sites around Koh Tao. Some were a little average, while others were superb. The most surprising thing we discovered was that the corals looked remarkable healthy. We expected to see broken corals from all the learner divers, but hardly saw any; even delicate fans and whip corals were in good condition. The instructors obviously do a good job of teaching buoyancy control. At Hin Wong and Shark Island we explored lovely coral gardens packed with reef fish, while at Green Rock, Laem Thian and Red Rock there were caves and swim throughs to explore. During our stay the water temperature was 29°C and we enjoyed 12m to 30m visibility. There wasn't a big variety of species to been seen, but we did see gropers, nudibranchs, moray eels, stingrays, octopus, schooling fish, pelagic fish and a couple of turtles.

 

For tek divers there are a number of shipwrecks in the area, but for us recreational divers there is an artificial reef, a former Thai Navy ship that was scuttled last year. The HTMAS Sattakut now rests in 30m and is a great dive. The 49m long ship doesn't have much growth on it yet, but is already home to gropers, trevally and reef fish. It is also a very photogenic ship with bow and stern guns and an unusual bridge.

 

Koh Tao’s premier dive site is Chumphon Pinnacle, located 40 minutes north, it also happens to be the best place to see whale sharks. Chumphon Pinnacle rises from 35m to 12m and is a brilliant dive site. Its rocky walls are covered by black coral trees, sponges, corals and anemones, and home to gropers, reef fish and schools of barracuda, batfish, trevally and snapper. Unfortunately no whale sharks during our stay.

 

We were a bit concerned, before arriving at Koh Tao, by the number of divers in the water, as there must be thousands staying on the island at any one time. But even at popular sites like Chumphon Pinnacle, where there were six or more dive boats, each with twenty or more divers, we only saw a handful of divers for most of the dive. This was because most of the divers were at open water level, so stayed above 18m with their guide and generally for less than forty minutes. We dived without a guide, stayed below 18m, and usually for sixty minutes. The main time we encountered other divers was in the shallows at the end of the dive or when returning to the boat.

 

Now diving Koh Tao is obviously not for everyone, but it is a great place to learn to dive, continue your dive education or gain experience as a Divemaster. It is also a lovely island to relax on, with great beaches, bars and restaurants. We actually had a great time on Koh Tao and discovered another reason to visit the island, Sail Rock, which we will cover in the next issue.

 

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