N I G E L M A R S H P H O T O G R A P H Y
U N D E R W A T E R I M A G E S A N D A R T I C L E S
KHO TAO - DIVE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD
By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose
More divers become certified at Kho 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!
Kho Tao is a small rocky island located in the Gulf of Thailand, with its name meaning turtle island in Thai. We first visited Thailand almost twenty years ago and at that stage Kho Tao had only just opened up to divers. We had heard good reports about its diving, but didn’t visit the island as it was the monsoon season (while you can dive Kho Tao year round, the best diving is March to October). We recently returned to Thailand and decided to find out what is so special about Kho Tao that attracts so many divers.
Arriving at Kho Tao by ferry, the only way to reach the island, we were instantly surrounded by touts from a dozen dive shops/dive resorts offering cheap diving, dive courses and accommodation. We 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 Kho 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?
Our first couple of dives were pretty average at Laem Thian and White Rock. The visibility was only 12m and we were diving these sites with another thirty odd divers. At Laem Thian we explored a number of interesting caves and found anemonefish, butterflyfish, trevally, angelfish and nudibranchs. While at White Rock we explored rocky bommies and sand, finding many reef fish, octopus and thousands of shrimp gobies.
We were quite surprised to see that the hard corals looked healthy, not smashed by clumsy leaner divers. In fact all the open water divers we saw seem to have good buoyancy control, and the instructors do all the teaching on sand. The corals were more affected by the odd crown-of-thorns starfish or by silt stirred up during the off season monsoon.
The next day we dived Kho Tao’s premier dive site – Chumphon Pinnacle. The month before we arrived whale sharks had been seen almost daily at this site, so we were eager to explore this pinnacle. The only problem we were worried about were crowds of divers, as there were thirty divers on our boat, and a similar number on the other six boats at the site. We were the most experienced divers onboard, so could do our own thing without a guide, and once in the water we found that we hardly saw another diver until the end of the dive. It was not because the site is huge, but because most of the divers are only open water level, so couldn’t go below 18m and also ran out of air in 30 minutes. We stayed below 20m and avoided the crowds.
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. As we swam around the pinnacle 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 dive 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 site was the HTMS Sattakut shipwreck, which had only been scuttled a year before. This 49m long troop landing ship had original 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 Kho Tao, it is not the best as we discovered on a day trip to Sail Rock. Located two hours south of Kho Tao, Sail Rock projects 10m above the surface and plummets to 35m below the surface. We didn’t really know what to expect at Sail Rock, especially with another dozen dive boats at the site, but were amazed. We again 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. There were also pretty corals, nudibranchs and moray eels, but unfortunately no whale sharks again. We enjoyed 30m visibility at Sail Rock and the guides said it was the best collection of fish life they have seen at the site in years.
We ventured to Kho 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.
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