Al Hornsby is pleas­antly sur­prised by the di­ver­sity of div­ing on Koh Tao.

AL HORNSBY heads for the is­land of Koh Tao and is pleas­antly sur­prised by the rich di­ver­sity of div­ing ex­pe­ri­ences, as well as the com­pre­hen­sive pro train­ing on of­fer

Sport Diver - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by AL HORNSBY

There are a num­ber of rea­sons why the small is­land of Koh Tao, off Thai­land’s east­ern coast, is con­sid­ered one of the most­pop­u­lar Thai re­sort desti­na­tions. Like many other is­lands in the coun­try, it has a rep­u­ta­tion for fun and par­ty­ing - it’s one of the monthly ‘Full Moon Party’ is­lands, af­ter all - but it has dif­fer­ent of­fer­ings as well. Its crowd, largely Euro­pean, is a mix of both young and some­what older peo­ple than seen on most of the other is­lands, with a lot of re­peat trav­ellers who vis­ited when they were univer­sity-age, now com­ing back with their fam­i­lies. And, while there is no short­age of great bars, restau­rants and late-night clubs, it has a clean, laid-back at­mos­phere that co­in­cides with the beauty of its nat­u­ral, trop­i­cal-is­land en­vi­ron­ment.

And, while Koh Tao’s gran­ite-boul­der ge­ol­ogy and steep moun­tain­sides cre­ate an in­cred­i­ble land­scape for hik­ers and climbers, its big­gest recre­ational draw is its div­ing and snorkelling. Its name in Thai means ‘ Tur­tle Is­land’, as it is a nurs­ery area for green and hawks­bill tur­tles, which are fre­quently seen, and its beaches and near-shore waters of­fer sur­pris­ingly vi­brant dive sites of var­i­ous de­scrip­tions. It is es­pe­cially unique in that de­spite its small size - only 21 sq me­tres, and much of that sparsely-pop­u­lated moun­tain­sides - it has be­come one of the top dive train­ing lo­ca­tions in the en­tire world, with thou­sands of peo­ple each year hav­ing PADI Dis­cover Scuba Div­ing ex­pe­ri­ences, gain­ing their Open Wa­ter Diver cer­ti­fi­ca­tions, and mov­ing on up through Ad­vanced Open Wa­ter and other con­tin­u­ing ed­u­ca­tion lev­els. To top it off, it has be­come one of div­ing’s most-pro­lific pro­fes­sional-level train­ing cen­tres, and claims to have more Dive­mas­ters and in­struc­tors trained each year than any other is­land on the planet.

When you visit Koh Tao for the first time, you might won­der how this evolved. Well, it does have ex­cel­lent, pro­gres­sive dive op­er­a­tors who make it nat­u­ral and easy to ex­pand one’s diver train­ing while en­joy­ing div­ing each day, af­ford­able prices, and a per­va­sive, tran­quil, trop­i­cal love­li­ness. Its real se­cret, how­ever, is one that isn’t the first thing al­ways talked about in Koh Tao, but some­thing that is ac­tu­ally treated very mod­er­ately - it’s the ex­tra­or­di­nary qual­ity and di­ver­sity of its div­ing. I can tell you, as some­one for­tu­nate enough to visit many dif­fer­ent dive desti­na­tions, my wel­come to a new area usu­ally be­gins with tales of just how in­cred­i­ble the div­ing is, all the life and mar­vels we’ll see, etc (claims that are vir­tu­ally al­ways ac­cu­rate and that I’m cer­tainly very happy to hear). Koh Tao was dif­fer­ent… the at­ti­tude was far more re­served and con­ser­va­tive… that their div­ing was very nice, but not so fa­mous as other ar­eas, and so on.

If this was by de­sign (and I re­ally don’t think it was), to lull me into mod­est ex­pec­ta­tions while know­ing that I’d be blown away the mo­ment I hit the wa­ter, I’ll have to say, it worked. Hav­ing dived many parts of the world - es­pe­cially in the Asia Pa­cific re­gion - I can hon­estly say that never have I been so sur­prised at the in­cred­i­ble rich­ness and di­ver­sity of a new dive lo­ca­tion as I was in Koh Tao. The en­vi­ron­ment was dra­matic and chock-full of life, rather a ma­rine-species-on-pa­rade ex­pe­ri­ence in very unique set­tings. To de­scribe just a few dive sites, as ex­am­ples:

SALT ROCK

The one some­what dis­tant site reg­u­larly dived (though less than two hours by boat), Sail Rock lies in open wa­ter be­tween Koh Tao and an­other Thai is­land, Koh Phangan. It’s an ice­berg-shaped, life-cov­ered pin­na­cle, with sur­round­ing ad­di­tional sub­merged peaks, that rises steeply from a 45m sand bot­tom. While it is famed for its wind­ing, well­lit chim­ney that ex­tends from 18m to within 5m of the sur­face, for me its spe­cial magic was the pro­fuse col­lec­tion of ma­rine life, with mas­sive schools of dif­fer­ent fish as well as large soli­tary species, in gen­er­ally very good vis­i­bil­ity (the week I was in Koh Tao it ranged be­tween 15m and 40m). In my two dives there, I pho­tographed sev­eral types of large grouper, as well as large schools of longfin spade­fish; a huge swarm of yel­lowfin bar­racuda, fol­lowed a bit later by a school of pick­han­dle bar­racuda and soon af­ter­ward I was en­veloped by blue­lined bar­racuda; and also there were vast shoals of yel­low­tail scad, all milling around the gi­gan­tic spire. What we didn’t see were whale­sharks, which are reg­u­larly present (though Koh Tao saved that for just a cou­ple hours later).

SOUTH­WEST PIN­NA­CLE

A great dive site on its own, the third dive of our day to Sail Rock was at a mar­velous place known as South­west Pin­na­cle (you guessed it, south­west of Koh Tao). A group of seven un­der­wa­ter peaks and ridges that ex­tend from 30m to within 5m of the sur­face, it’s a var­ied, im­pres­sive area, with large patches of anemones cov­er­ing the rocky faces, most with res­i­dent pink anemone­fish, and with many small groups of Java rab­bit­fish milling about. How­ever, lovely and in­ter­est­ing this all was, how­ever, it was the eight-me­tre whale­shark that re­ally grabbed our at­ten­tion. Over our 45-minute dive, the huge shark made four or five quick passes… and what an in­cred­i­ble sight it was, es­pe­cially in this unique set­ting.

GO­ING PRO IN PAR­ADISE

In Koh Tao’s his­tory, Sairee Cot­tage Re­sort, lo­cated along the wa­ter on the is­land’s most-pop­u­lar area (Sairee Beach), is con­sid­ered one of the pi­o­neers. And, for the is­land’s dive com­mu­nity, many long­time lo­cal pros have been as­so­ci­ated with it at some time in their ca­reers, whether re­ceiv­ing train­ing, work­ing or even liv­ing there - in the old days for about the cost of a burger a night! These days, it still is a fix­ture in the Koh Tao dive scene, hav­ing been de­vel­oped into a lovely, mod­ern re­sort, but hav­ing lost none of its ca­sual, on-the-sand charm. With a train­ing pool, dive cen­tre and class­rooms, Wi-fi and the other ameni­ties ex­pected by mod­ern trav­ellers, and sev­eral restau­rants around the prop­erty (with many more ac­ces­si­ble within short strolls), the re­sort has a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent ac­com­mo­da­tions, in­clud­ing beach and gar­den bun­ga­lows, pool­side and gar­den rooms and even a com­fort­able dor­mi­tory (in­cluded in the price of the Go Pro train­ing pro­grammes). The dive op­er­a­tion has qual­i­fied as a PADI five-star In­struc­tor De­vel­op­ment Cen­tre, and is known not only for its ex­cel­lent fun-dive of­fer­ings, but also for its dive ed­u­ca­tional pro­grammes, fea­tur­ing ev­ery­thing from snorkelling and PADI Dis­cover Scuba Div­ing to Open Wa­ter Diver, Ad­vanced Open Wa­ter Diver, Res­cue Diver and spe­cial­ties; in fact, a size­able per­cent­age of open wa­ter-cer­ti­fied div­ing guests start out fun-div­ing, only to re­alise that by the end of a week-long stay they can also earn their PADI Ad­vanced Open Wa­ter cre­den­tials, and more, along the way. Even more spe­cialised is the pro­fes­sional diver de­vel­op­ment pro­gramme, with PADI Dive Mas­ter and In­struc­tor De­vel­op­ment Cour­ses a hall­mark. With wide-reach­ing pro­grammes and sched­ules, divers in­ter­ested in go­ing pro find not only the re­quired train­ing, but also in­tern­ship and men­tor­ing pro­grammes that help build real-world ex­pe­ri­ence in div­ing op­er­a­tions, guid­ing dives and work­ing with cus­tomers. The Go Pro PADI In­struc­tor pro­gramme is led by PADI Plat­inum Course Di­rec­tor/emer­gency First Re­sponse In­struc­tor Trainer Mar­cel van den Berg, who, with his IDC Staff, con­ducts hands-on, close-at­ten­tion pro­grammes that re­ceive high marks from their can­di­dates. Af­ter qual­i­fy­ing as PADI Open Wa­ter Scuba In­struc­tors by suc­ceed­ing in a PADI In­struc­tor Ex­am­i­na­tion (IE) (which are con­ducted fre­quently on Koh Tao), the in­no­va­tive Mas­ter Scuba Diver Trainer (MSDTC) Pro­gramme not only teaches can­di­dates the five in­struc­tor spe­cial­ties re­quired, but also pro­vides the new OWSIS the op­por­tu­nity to teach and cer­tify the 25 divers needed to be cer­ti­fied as MSDTS. This can be ac­com­plished in about two weeks, but the full in­tern­ship pro­gramme can be en­joyed for up to six weeks, al­low­ing can­di­dates con­sid­er­able train­ing and teach­ing ex­pe­ri­ence be­fore they en­ter the dive in­dus­try. Divers in­ter­ested in be­com­ing PADI In­struc­tors should go to www.

saireecot­tage.com and click on the IDC tab for full in­for­ma­tion.

SAT­TAKUT SHIP­WRECK

Not far off­shore on the west side of Koh Tao, we dived a very in­ter­est­ing ship­wreck, the Sat­takut. A 48-me­tre-long US Navy LCI (land­ing craft, in­fantry) that saw con­sid­er­able ac­tion dur­ing World War Two through­out the Pa­cific theatre, af­ter the war it be­came a part of the Thai Navy. Sunk as a dive site in 2011, it rests with its stern at 30m, the bow at 26m, and the bridge at 18m. With two guns, the most dra­matic is its 76mm bow cannon. Around the wreck we saw stingrays in the sand, and gi­ant grouper, sweet­lips and sev­eral species of snap­per con­gre­gat­ing about the deck and su­per­struc­ture. Pen­e­tra­tions were pos­si­ble for those of us with the ap­pro­pri­ate cer­ti­fi­ca­tions.

CHUMPHONG PIN­NA­CLE

Well, ev­ery des­ti­na­tion has its favourite dive, and for me, as nice as my dives around Koh Tao had been, the fi­nale - which ac­tu­ally now lives in my fa­vorite (ever) dive sites’ list - was a long, sub­merged pin­na­cle off the north­west tip of the is­land. Ris­ing up from a 40m sand/rub­ble bot­tom to within 14m of the sur­face, Chumphong is drama per­son­i­fied. We dropped onto a huge panorama of moun­tain­ous ridges and spires ex­tend­ing out­ward in seem­ingly ev­ery di­rec­tion, dizzy­ingly com­plex in the 35-me­tre vis, crys­tal-blue wa­ter. The sur­faces of the rocks were dec­o­rated with large gor­goni­ans, black coral bushes and sponges. Most spec­tac­u­lar, how­ever, were the seem­ingly hectares of slopes that were com­pletely cov­ered with huge, emer­ald, gold and vi­o­let-col­ored anemones, with mas­sive schools of flash­ingly-bright yel­low­band fusiliers swirling above them all; as my many pho­to­graphic im­ages bear wit­ness, the scene was near-in­de­scrib­able. As we moved about, we found large brown-mar­bled grouper, coral cod and groups of gi­ant sweet­lips. At one spot on the sandy bot­tom, a large school of squid moved about, hunt­ing over the sand. And, as if not to al­low the dive to end on a quiet note, dur­ing our safety stop, a group of four young African pom­pano be­gin mak­ing rapid, flash-by passes at us, with one of them pe­ri­od­i­cally ex­tend­ing his ‘streamer’ threadfins in dis­play, then in­stantly re­tract­ing them. For many min­utes, I fol­lowed them through my viewfinder, re­peat­edly fir­ing, try­ing to cap­ture the mil­lisec­ond of the dis­play, with­out be­ing able to tell if I ever caught it or not - un­til later on the boat, look­ing closely at my im­ages - one, un­usual pho­to­graph emerged, of the four, chromium-hued pom­pano, the big one at the cen­tre in full dis­play, an im­age like I had never be­fore cap­tured.

Yes, my brief visit to Koh Tao was some­thing in­deed, sur­pris­ing, and so very spe­cial. Al was sup­ported on his Sport Diver ex­pe­di­tion by Sairee Cot­tage Re­sort, Sairee Cot­tage Div­ing and their in­struc­tor de­vel­op­ment pro­gramme ( www. saireecot­tage­div­ing.com)

Train­ing in the Sairee Cot­tage pool

The Sat­takut gun

Sairee Cot­tage is a great place to go pro Anemones and at­ten­dant clown­fish

Shoals of fish swarm over a bed of anemones

Sun­set in Thai­land

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