Koh Tao was a new chapter in my limited dive career – easy, chilled out diving with lots of cool stuff to see, but less of the the sensory overload of Komodo or the Similans. I was in town to get more dive experience, and completed 13 fun dives in a week, learning loads in the process thanks to some great Master Divers’ DMs and instructors – Phil, Adam, Johanna, Sarah and Paul. Here’s the highlights:
This was both a great dive and a strange dual-time experience – the Sattakut is a World War II era Landing Craft Infantry (LCI), but it has only been underwater a few months so is weirdly both old and new. The wreck sits almost perfectly upright with a buoy line leading onto the bow at 14m, before the stern drops away down to around 30m – great fun to watch your no-deco limit falling off a cliff as you drop into the depths. Deck guns fore and aft give it that “boys’ toys” swagger chic a sunken car ferry just doesn’t deliver, whilst the lower level of a dual entry wheelhouse a couple of metres wide makes for a simple swimthrough.
With the newly sunk MV Trident further out and deeper down for the slightly suspect “look at my 17 tanks” kit fetishists otherwise known as Tech Divers, the Sattakut has been permanently parked as a plaything for us recreational dive muppets. Only time will tell how it fares in Koh Tao’s monsoon storms, but looking back I wish I’d made the effort and taken the PADI wreck specialty on this trip as it’s a perfect training site – all clean passages and dead ends welded shut.
I dived the Sattakut twice – the first time from on top of the wreck and straight down the line, buddied up with the lovely Gabi – a Swiss woman just embarked on a hugely exciting two-year Asian odyssey – great dive buddy and good company for the day or so we dived and dined together. Second time around, a slightly murkier warship came into view after a frankly knackering “25m” surface swim in low to mid surface chop (a personal note to dive guide Phill – that was waaay more than 25 metres mate – remind me never to buy a used car from you).
Red Rock drop-off to Japanese Gardens
Nanguyan Island sits just where you’d put the top left tack into a wall map of Ko Tao, a hundred metres or so offshore. Unsurprisingly, a private resort dominates, with an impossibly pretty sandspit leading Matryoshka doll-like to an equally fetching mini-me island, then on again to another islet. This fairly unique piece of photogenic island geography leaves a wide, sheltered bay facing back to Ko Tao that is home to Japanese Gardens – the dive site where thousands of divers take their first fin-kicks towards a PADI card.
I had the luxury of a “private” dive guide on this one – just me and instructor Johanna, who was winding down and looking forward to getting home to Sweden after a long season on Ko Tao. The two of us dropped in North of Jap Gardens and followed a boulder complex back towards the shallows. We missed out on the area’s resident turtle but were kept awake by numerous Titan Triggerfish who were definitely up for a game of “Did you spill my pint? Were you looking at my girlfriend’s bum? Outside!”
As well as an interesting dive, this was also a great example of how Master Divers go the extra mile with their divers. I’d mentioned in passing when I walked into the shop a couple of days earlier that I’d like to learn how to deploy a surface marker buoy at some point, but hadn’t raised it again since, so was pleasantly surprised when on the boat out, Johanna passed me a spare SMB and briefed me on what to do – the classic “watch one, do one” of dive training. As ever with diving, nothing is as simple as it looks, and with SMBs the trick is not to inadvertently accompany the buoy to the surface once inflated, something I just about achieved. Marker buoy up, surfacing at Jap Gardens was an experience – I’d never had to play “find the dive boat” before. Not because it had disappeared, but because there were so many to choose from – this place really is PADI Ground Zero.
Chumphon Pinnacles / Southwest Pinnacles
Further out from the inshore dive sites with their 15 minute boat rides in and out, Chumphon and Southwest Pinnacles definitely edge over into super cool territory and give the adrenalin glands a workout.
I dived Chumphon with Gabi, happy to be buddied with a diver whose experience matched mine. From the buoy we dropped down onto the top of the central pinnacle and further down the side of the main wall, staying around 25m. Plenty of cool stuff to see along the side of the seamount before we reached the end of the first leg and emerged into a brisk current.
The other diver pair in our group were a young Israeli couple, whose rollercoaster buoyancy profile and continuous “arm-swimming” (been there, done that, had it beaten it out of me by a succession of instructors) revealed their experience level. So, when dive guide Sarah requested an air check, their answer effectively stymied any plans for wider exploration – this would be a rare occasion when I WASN’T first to show the dreaded 50 bar sign…
The reward for making it this far though was a great encounter with a giant grouper, facing us head on from a gully a metre or so below, a freakishly wide mouth lazily open, plus a school of giant barracuda and the ever-lovely batfish. This clip of a Malaber Grouper was shot at Chumphon within a month of our dive, and you know what, he looks kind of familiar.
Southwest Pinnacles a day or so later was another pulse-raising trip. Like Chumphon, this is a true “open water” site, far offshore from Koh Tao, so we were fortunate to find it on a day with virtually no current and very decent visibility – dropping down and looking around there was a real sense of 360˚ of deep blue sea around you, fading into darkness.
Exploring the multiple pinnacles, the usual pleasures awaited – the largest school of Batfish I’d seen, plus some neat macro spots from guide Adam – banded coral shrimp and a typically shy Scorpionfish. The dive turned out to be another first for me – watching a diver get “Triggered” by a Titan Triggerfish. Fine as long as you get a fin between you and them, but this one took a long time to get bored of chasing Phill – their territorial tendencies definitely expansive. Hanging a metre above the group and keeping my movements to a minimum as much as possible kept my air consumption respectable at 47 minutes – I’m getting better, slowly.
White Rock (night)
My last piece of underwater fun on this trip was a classic night dive experience. Our group were guests on another school’s dive boat that night – a busy, unfamiliar and potentially hazardous deck which, combined with what might generously be called a “lively” sea state, made it a night to pay attention and focus – thankfully we had “our” deckhand Wintae on the team to babysit us off and on the boat. The conditions did make it a superb training experience though and seriously hard work in the water on the surface – the usual safety crutch of a mooring line to descend on had turned Black Swan-like into a danger – rising and falling several metres with every wave, it would have happily dragged any diver dumb enough to use it out of the water and into trouble.
A few metres down though, all worries about waves subside and the night dive fun begins – Giant Barracuda slide menacingly by on the hunt for prey, clouds of bioluminescence follow the movements of your hand once the dive torches’ beams are blocked, and a sweet find for myself of a shy little octopus trying to avoid everything and everyone. Underwater, with a slightly foggy mask (mine, not a rental), the challenge was ensuring I stuck with buddy Sarah and guide Phill as we came across other groups. In the darkness, with everyone dressed in black, it sounds silly but there was a real chance of swimming off after the wrong stream of bubbles!
The dive ended with a long, sloping free ascent, hard work all the way up, but worth it to minimise what would have been sketchy surface swimming conditions and I was absolutely knackered as Wintae dragged me off the top of the ladder. Job done and looking forward to a large Chang.