Koh Tao’s Best Dive Sites
Koh Tao has long been one of the most popular places to go diving in Southeast Asia if not the entire world. Despite that, many people claim (or claim to have heard) that the diving itself isn’t very good. So, let’s get this out of the way. No, the diving in Koh Tao is not in the same class as the best parts of, say, Indonesia or the Philippines. However, the diving in Koh Tao is much better than most people make it out to be. When I first arrived on Koh Tao, I expected to be disappointed by the diving but was pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety of the dive sites and marine life here.
There are shallow, protected bays that are perfect for training dives, muck diving spots perfect for macro photographers, multiple wrecks, shallow and deep-water pinnacles, and one famous rock that everyone who loves diving should visit. On any given dive, you might see turtles (Koh Tao does mean Turtle Island), blue-spotted stingrays, octopus, nudibranchs, anemonefish, pufferfish, huge schools of fusiliers, trevally, or barracuda, and, if you get really lucky, a whale shark!
Koh Tao has upwards of 35 dive sites, most of them no more than a 25-minute boat ride, so there is lots of choice. Here are my favorites.
Technically, Sail Rock is not a Koh Tao dive site as it is a solid 1.5-2hr boat ride away and is closer to Koh Phangan than Koh Tao. However, if someone were visiting Koh Tao and could only do one dive trip, I would tell them to go to Sail Rock. It is absolutely worth the travel time and extra cost of the trip (it’s usually done as a full-day, three-dive trip, so you do get more for your money). A deep-water pinnacle that rises from around 30 meters at the base right up and out of the ocean, Sail Rock attracts larger fish like giant groupers and the occasional whale shark as well as schools of trevally, batfish, barracuda, and fusiliers. While it is better suited to intermediate or advanced divers, there is still plenty to see for beginner divers at the shallower depths, including a vertical swim-through called The Chimney that has entrances/exits at 6m, 12m, and 18m. Highly, highly recommended.
Chumphon Pinnacle can be thought of as the poor person’s Sail Rock. Not because it isn’t great, but because it is closer (45-60 minutes by boat) and, therefore, cheaper to get to. You can see a lot of what you would at Sail Rock at Chumphon, just at a lower concentration. Unlike Sail Rock, Chumphon doesn’t extend out of the water (hence it being a “pinnacle” and not a “rock”) and the depths range from 14m-30m+, so this site is even more suited to intermediate/advanced divers. The highlight (well, if you don’t see a whale shark, that is) is the enormous school of fusiliers that makes its home there. Easily numbering in the thousands of individuals, you can get lost in it, surrounded on all sides by fish. It’s quite the experience. Highly recommended.
Named not because of any marine inhabitants but because it looks like a shark’s fin from certain angles, Shark Island is located just off the southeast corner of Koh Tao and is another great dive site. While the majority of the site is shallower than 18m and can certainly be dived by less experienced divers, the currents can be strong here at times. Expect to see barracuda, batfish, blue-spotted rays, and titan triggerfish, among other things. Shark Island is my favorite “true” Koh Tao dive site (ie, doesn’t require a long boat ride away from the island). Highly Recommended.
Red Rock, Green Rock, White Rock, and The Twins
Four of Koh Tao’s more popular dive sites, due to their proximity to the main areas of Sairee and Mae Haad, each is a pinnacle dive site with similar marine life but unique underwater formations. The Twins, Red Rock, and White Rock are shallower and are good for both beginner and intermediate divers. Green Rock is a bit deeper and the currents can be strong, so is better suited for intermediate divers. Red Rock features Nangyuan Cave, a large swim-through at only 5m depth a short swim from Red Rock itself along the edge of Koh Nangyuan. White Rock is the largest of the four, comprised of two distinct pinnacles with a large and beautiful coral patch in between. The Twins is the shallowest of the four making it the best for beginner divers. Green Rock has the most dramatic formations along with a few swim-throughs and is my favorite of the bunch, when the conditions are good, which is, unfortunately, not always the case. Each is worth a visit and, if you do more than a couple of dive trips while you are here, there is a good chance you will visit them all.
After years of work by the Koh Tao dive community, Koh Tao finally received two old Thai Navy gunboats that were sunk in September 2023, creating two new artificial reefs and wreck-diving sites to go along with the other wrecks already here. Names haven’t quite stuck for the new wrecks yet, but one is located near No Name and the other near Ao Mao, so No Name Wreck and Ao Mao Wreck will have to do for now. Due to their newness, neither has accumulated much marine life yet, but it’s cool to see a new wreck before it’s all rusty and crusted over so either one is worth a visit (they are identical ships, so unless you are a wreck fanatic, one is probably enough). Of the older wrecks, the MV Trident and Unicorn are best suited for highly advanced and technical divers and are rarely visited, leaving the HTMS Sattakut as the best option for a wreck dive. Located almost directly west of Sairee Beach, south of White Rock, the Sattakut lies in 26m-30m of water with the deck around 22m and the tower extending up to around 15m, making this site better suited for advanced divers, preferably using nitrox. In addition to the tower, which is home to numerous fish both large and small, it features two large cannons as well as penetration opportunities for those who are Wreck Diving certified.
Often overlooked, perhaps because it is basically in Mae Haad harbor or due to its less-than-appealing name, Junkyard is comprised entirely of artificial reef objects ranging from coral nursery cages to toilets, gym equipment, a tiny replica Sydney Harbor Bridge, and even a sculpture of a woman, Junkyard is a very shallow dive site (8m-12m) that affords long, exploratory dives making it great for beginners, photographers, or those looking to work on their buoyancy skills. Hidden amongst the structures you will find a wide range of marine life including anemonefish, nudibranchs, goatfish, batfish, and stingrays. It’s a unique dive site that I think is worth at least one visit.
In addition to the above dive sites, there are many more worthwhile sites to visit around Koh Tao, each with its own unique underwater topography and marine life. Wherever you dive on Koh Tao, you are sure to have a great time and see something interesting, so dive in and have fun!
By Misha Nadel
4 November 2023