Koh Tao (Turtle Island) is much smaller than Koh Samui and sits on a large rocky outcropping, which means the waters around its shores are often crystal clear. The island is ideal for both diving and snorkeling and its many protected bays attract large numbers of tourists who come to explore the underwater world.
The island was uninhabited until the 1930s, when it was used for a short period as a penal colony. Later, families from nearby islands moved to Koh Tao to farm and fish, then, in the 1980s, the tourists began to arrive. The diving boom began in the ’90s with the island quickly becoming one of the most popular places for cheap dive courses in Thailand. Unfortunately, this also caused a lot of damage to the inshore reef, and both the local government and the island’s residents are becoming more environmentally aware.
A full range of courses are available here, from introduction dives to professional level qualifications. The most popular course is the three- to four-day ‘Open water certificate’, which costs around 10,000 baht (~US$300) and is the first level of dive training that qualifies people to dive to depths of 18m. After the open water course, divers progress to more advanced levels and rescue training. More on Koh Tao adventure activities.
Those who are interested in pursuing a career in diving then continue to Divemaster level, which involves several months of practice and theory. Some schools on the island also offer a number of specialty options, such as underwater photography and nitrox diving. More on Koh Tao dive courses.
Koh Tao has no less than 25 dive sites. The average depth is 14-18m, with deeper offshore sites reaching around 30m. Beginners are generally taken to shallow inshore reefs, like Mango bay and Japanese Gardens, which average 10m and offer the chance to see a good variety of small reef fish. Open water divers drop into places like Twins and Green Rock, where divers can spot angelfish, clownfish and different types of rays at a depth of 12-20m. More advanced divers head for sites like South West Pinnacle, which has a maximum depth of 33m and provides opportunities to see giant grouper, schools of barracuda and even whale sharks.
Koh Tao also has plenty of accommodation, food and nightlife options, particularly around the port town of Mae Had and the long sandy beach known as Sairee. Prices range from 400 baht for basic bungalows up to 4,000 baht for luxury accommodation in a private bay. Many of the dive operators, such as Coral Grand divers, also offer packages that include accommodation in their own dive resort. These can be booked in advance on the web on Koh Samui before departure or on arrival in Koh Tao. In general, accommodation rates are cheaper when included in a dive package.
Some people prefer to dive Koh Tao with Samui based Dive schools. Courses can also be taken at several dive schools on Koh Samui or Koh Pha Ngan, though the trip to the best dive spots obviously takes a little longer. The SS Recompression Network has a hyperbaric chamber and medical facility set up on the island especially for dive emergencies. More on Koh Tao dive schools.