Tiny Koh Tao, meaning “turtle island,” is part of the Chumphon Archipelago in the Gulf of Thailand. Measuring eight square miles (21 square km), it is only accessible by boat. With pristine beaches, crystal-clear waters, and wild full moon parties, it’s easy to see why Koh Tao has become a mainstay on the backpacker circuit. But if you look past this tiny island’s party reputation, you’ll find a fantastic dive destination. Conditions and visibility are great year-round and water temperatures are consistently warm. And although it’s gained a reputation as one of the world’s best places to learn to dive, it caters to far more than just beginners. Dive sites run the gamut from shallow reefs to wrecks to deep dives where you may spot a whale shark. Here are our picks for the five top dive sites in Koh Tao.
Where is it: In the bay of Koh Nang Yuan Island
What makes it special: Tiny Koh Nang Yuan, just off Koh Tao’s northwest side, is home to Japanese Garden. A diversity of corals and small reef fish make this site stand out. You’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to photo opportunities here, both above and below the waves.
Details: Japanese Garden is a shallow dive site, sloping down from the beach to a maximum depth of 50 feet (15 m). The site is in a bay with calm, warm waters (around 82 F/28 C) and visibility of more than 30 feet (10-plus m). With these conditions it’s perfect for beginners, especially discover scuba divers and newly qualified open-water divers.
What to see: There’s a great diversity of corals, from boulder to staghorn and mushroom to funnel. You’ll also encounter reef fish, such as butterflyfish, angelfish, bannerfish, groupers, parrotfish, and hundreds of sergeant majors. Note that triggerfish can be quite territorial on this dive site, so keep your distance.
Where is it: Chumphon Pinnacle is located 7.5 miles (12 km) northwest of Koh Tao. It takes around 40 minutes by boat to reach the dive site.
What makes it special: Chumphon Pinnacle is the crown in Koh Tao’s diving jewel. The site features one huge granite pinnacle that rises from 118 to 46 feet (36 m to around 14 m), and several smaller surrounding pinnacles. This site stands out for an abundance of marine life, including the resident groupers that can reach almost 6.5 feet (2 m) long. This is also a great place to spot a whale shark from March to May and from August to October.
Details: With a maximum depth of 118 feet (36 m), this dive site is best suited for more experienced divers. It generally boasts great visibility with sight all the way to the bottom. It can feature a slight current, but nothing that an advanced diver can’t handle. Like everywhere around Koh Tao, the water is warm, around 72 F (22 C) at the bottom. Bring a reel and deploy an SMB as you surface as there can be several boats approaching the site.
What to see: As you descend, you’ll see a carpet of pink anemones covering every inch of the pinnacle’s top. Look closely for the tiny pink anemone fish, crabs and shrimp. You’ll also see huge schools of trevally, horse-eye jacks and chevron barracuda. At around 79 feet (24 m), you’ll encounter the giant groupers resting around the pinnacles. If you’re lucky enough and dive in the right season, you may spot a whale shark as this is one of their favorite spots.
Where is it: located just south of Koh Nang Yuan and a short boat ride from Mae Haad Pier on Koh Tao.
What makes it special: HTMS Sattakut was purpose-sunk in June 2011, making it Koh Tao’s newest and most popular wreck dive. The Sattakut launched in 1944 with a commission from the U.S. Navy to participate in World War II in the occupation of Japanese islands. It most famously participated in the battle of Iwo Jima, before joining the Royal Thai Navy in 1947, where it served until it was decommissioned in 2007. The wreck was cleaned and stripped of all hazardous materials before the Thai Navy performed a controlled sinking on June 18th, 2011. However, the initial sinking didn’t go as planned and the wreck lay on its side in the sand until a salvage team managed to stand it upright in August 2011.
Details: The wreck lies between 59 and 100 feet (18 to 30 m), so it’s ideal for advanced divers. It’s 160 feet 949 m) long and boasts two intact cannons. With several swim-throughs and penetration points, the Sattakut is also ideal for a wreck specialty or tech course. You’ll want gloves and a torch to shine light into several portholes on the side of the ship.
What to see: As you descend, you’ll see a large gun projecting out of the ship’s bow, as well as large schools of fusilier, various snapper and wrasse. Inside the portholes you may see giant grouper, butterflyfish and sweetlips. Rays often rest below in the sand.
Where is it: Shark Island is just southeast of Koh Tao.
What makes it special: Unfortunately, there are no sharks at Shark Island. The island is named for its appearance, looking like a shark fin from the surface. Although you won’t see sharks here, there is great diversity of both hard and soft corals here. With large boulders and rock formations encircling the island, this site also calls for more than one dive for proper exploration.
Details: Average depths range from 50 to 59 feet (15 to 18 m), but only experienced divers should visit because of unpredictable — sometimes strong — currents. With varying currents comes varying visibility, ranging anywhere from 16 to 100 feet (5 to 30 m). On a great day, this dive site is beautiful.
What to see: Apart from the disappointment of not seeing hundreds of sharks swimming by, what you will see here will still excite you. With some of the Gulf of Thailand’s most stunning soft coral, the site is awash in color and diversity. You will also spot some greyface moray eels, inquisitive batfish, pufferfish, a diverse mix of reef fish and bluespotted rays. Again, watch out for the titan triggerfish, which can be quite aggressive at this site.
Where is it: White Rock is west of Koh Tao and south of Koh Nang Yuan. It takes around 10 minutes to reach the site by boat from the main beach of Sairee.
What makes it special: White Rock is one of the largest dive sites in Koh Tao, making it one of the most popular as well. Consisting of two large rock formations separated by a beautiful coral garden, it offers a huge variety of marine life. The namesake ‘white rock’ is located just northeast of the coral garden and is a must-see.
Details: Depths start at only 16 feet (5 m) and max out at 72 feet (22 m), making this an ideal beginner’s dive site. There’s little current and visibility of up to 66 feet as well. With so much to explore, including the two main rock formations, distant sand patches with macro life and coral gardens, this dive site is definitely worth more than one visit.
What to see: This site holds everything from macro life, such as nudibranchs and tiny shrimps, to larger animals like sea turtles, bluespotted stingrays and triggerfish. Night dives often feature schools of great barracuda and banded sea snakes.
By guest author Beth Alexander