Koh Tao Diving and Snorkeling: Where are the fish?

In ADVENTURE, ASIA by Janice and George27 Comments

Koh Tao snorkeling

Snorkeling? Scuba diving? Sign us up.

We love Thailand, and we’ve visited the country several times. This trip, we included a visit to Koh Tao.

Koh Tao is reputed to have some of Thailand’s best snorkeling and diving.

Cavort with sharks and rays in a playground of tangled neon coral,” says Lonely Planet of Koh Tao.

So on our recent island visit, we decided to book a “big boat” Koh Tao snorkeling day trip.

A gazillion little “tour shops” tucked into the sides of the main sandy street in Mae Haad town (a 10-minute walk from our beachfront bungalow resort) hawk these Koh Tao snorkeling and diving tours. We thought we’d be clever and check out TripAdvisor and other online sites as to what would be the “best” snorkeling tour. No luck though – the Internet was slow (island life!) and helpful sites seemed woefully lacking.

Maybe we should ask?

koh tao snorkeling

Go ahead :-). Pin the above pic to Pinterest!

Koh Tao snorkeling tours are all the same

Same same,” said our enthusiastic tour seller.

And she was right. It doesn’t matter what Koh Tao snorkeling tour company or boat you pick.

The colorful wooden boats (which have shade) are all the same, and they cost the same too (though you might be able to bargain $5 off the cost).

They all go around the island, tying up side-by-side at the same snorkeling stops, hitting Mango Bay, Shark Bay (no sharks) and other “same same” spots. And they all serve the same simple “Thai” box lunch in a plastic container onboard – warm rice with a fried egg on top, accompanied by a ground pork concoction from a plastic bag, all eaten with a plastic spoon.

You’d think someone would tweak a tour so it’s a little different :-).

Koh Tao snorkeling - island

Koh Tao seen from our snorkeling tour boat

Where are the fish?

The snorkeling was a bit disappointing as the water wasn’t crystal clear and much of the coral is dead (it looks brown and uninteresting underwater). And we didn’t see the galaxies of fish we’d expected – just a relatively few fish.

A French couple we met on our tour also commented that their Koh Tao diving experience the previous day wasn’t very inspiring – certainly compared to what they’d seen in Mozambique and the Dead Sea around Egypt.

Too many people!

Our last stop was a small private island, Koh Nang Yuan (which is actually three little islands connected by sand spits), where you have to pay an extra fee.

Koh Nang Yuan is stunning in its natural beauty.

And it has a shady bar and restaurant, very popular for its welcome cold beer and drinks.

But it was BUSY! There must have been over 1,000 people vying for space to drop a towel on the sand or hide from the burning sun under one of the limited numbers of teeny umbrellas.

Koh Tao snorkeling and diving - Koh Nang Yuan

Huh! We managed to get a photo of Koh Nang Yuan with relatively few people in it

snorkeling Koh Tao

Beautiful, yes? But Koh Nang Yuan was just too crowded with tourists when we visited – photo Irumge

koh tao snorkeling and diving - Koh Nang Yuan

Look at all the people visiting Koh Nang Yuan!

Overall, what we got was a pleasant scenic boat tour around the whole island of Koh Tao (very good value for about $25 USD p.p.). And if we hadn’t signed up for the snorkeling, we’d forever wonder what we had missed there…


Have you been to Koh Tao? What did you think?

Janice and George Signature

Comments

  1. I am visiting Koh Tao with my wife and 1 year baby girl. I am in for diving and wifey needs some good snorkel. Hoping for a good trip. Quick question: which part of the year did u visit Koh Tao? Coz we are visiting September and have read that the sea is quite good that time with less crowds.

    1. Author

      Sorry for the belated reply! (We just moved to Victoria – new blog posts on that coming soon…) To answer your question – we visited in February, when conditions are generally described as “okay” and “changeable.” July to August is said to be the best time for diving and snorkeling with the best visibility. So your visit should be great! Have a great trip! (Let us know after how you enjoyed it…)

  2. Seemingly a pretty negative post, I am in Koh Tao at the moment and having hired a bike to visit majority of the beaches and snorkelled I couldn’t disagree anymore. We went to shark bay and within minutes was greeted by 5 black tip sharks no further than 4 meters off steps. I do agree that the coral isn’t pretty but it still attracts bundles of colourful fish which on a good day set up for a nice time. As for it being overcrowded – a lot of the tourist/day boats do the same route so it does get over crowded but this can be avoided by taking a taxi boat earlier and missing the crowd. For anyone thinking of coming to Koh Tao – don’t let this put you off, it’s a beautiful island with so much to offer.

    1. Author

      Hi Aaron,
      Thanks for writing in! It’s great to hear you’ve really enjoyed Koh Tao – and were greeted by no less than 5 blacktip sharks :-). Your tip about taking an earlier tour or taxi boat to avoid the crowds is a good one. We recently wrote about snorkeling at Santa Maria Bay near Cabo San Lucas (Mexico) and how by visiting on your own, you can go earlier before the snorkel tour boats arrive, and so get to see lots of fish (maybe even whales too!): http://www.sandinmysuitcase.com/santa-maria-beach-cabo/

  3. I haven’t been to Koh Tao too but after your post… I want to go :) Great

  4. Now a days, it is a very popular travel destination, but it is still amazing!

  5. Beautiful Koh Tao photos! Really want to go there some day! Thanks for sharing your experience with us!

  6. This second trip to Koh Samui.
    In 2014 I come for Samui bike week so no time to explore this beautiful island so much.

    18th Feb 2016 I repeat again exploring the koh samui..

    Just back for snorkeling in Mango Bay,Koh Tao and Koh Nyang Yuan..not so crowded that moment ..about 145THB include buffet lunch in Koh Tao eat all u can.
    Agent say we are lucky because that date, water are calm and no big wave compare to other days.

    If have extra time and money I wish to explore other island near koh samui again one days..

    Sorry my English not so good.

    Penang,Malaysia.

    1. Author

      Thank you for giving us an update on Koh Tao! Sounds like you had a good day – glad you were blessed with calm waters, and nice to hear that Koh Nang Yuan wasn’t too crowded for you :-). Fewer people to share Koh Nang Yuan with would make all the difference to your experience, because it’s a beautiful island!

  7. Thanks for this post! We’re planning to do a similar boat trip to Koh Tao and Koh Nang Yuan on a Thailand trip soon. It’s good to know that we should expect some nice scenery and fun swimming but not much in the way of fish & coral. Hopefully if we go in with moderate expectations we’ll be pleasantly surprised :)

    1. Author

      That’s the attitude :-). When we’re disappointed in our travels, it’s usually because of expectations that haven’t been met. We once went on a Fiji cruise touted as “five-star.” It turned out to be three-star by North American standards. But if the cruise company had said – “Hey, just pack your swimsuit and shorts, and you’ll get to enjoy some fabulous white-sand beaches and have a simple air-conditioned cabin to sleep in” – their marketing would have been more accurate. We ended up having a great time, but we had to shift mental gears first.

  8. Pingback: Travel Bloggers on Tourist Traps and Disappointing Places - and where you should go Instead. - The Travels of BBQboy and Spanky

  9. I can’t believe I’ve never been to Koh Tao – I’ve spent so much time down in southern Thailand. That one shot of Koh Nang Yuan looks stunning, but with too many people … yikes. Oh, I love Thailand, though.

  10. I love your honesty. It’s funny about tours, how they are all the same in some places. In Mauritius, you either get the North or South tour, no one seems to offer a bespoke one depending on what you’re interested in!

    1. Author

      Koh Tao definitely could do with a more bespoke boat tour offering :-). Now, Mauritius, don’t know much about that island – but it sure sounds exotic!

  11. Would love to snorkel there, so far the most beautiful sea I have been to is the red sea, amazing corals… hopefully will be in Thailand next year at about the same time :) A little dream of mine… Anyway, you are welcome to visit my site as well, give your opinion, on what I should/could improve, as your site seems very cool :)

    Followed you on facebook btw ;)

  12. I haven’t been to Koh Tao but I thought it was considered the “Mecca” of snorkelling and diving in Thailand – at least – like you said – that’s how it’s described in the guidebooks, so I can understand why you would have been disappointed! I lived on neighbouring Koh Phangan for a few months and as the island is not particularly famous for its snorkelling I went on a boat trip with no expectations, and was happy just to see a few colourful fish and corals!

    Apparently the best diving and snorkelling site in the Gulf of Thailand is at Sail Rock though, so maybe take a trip there next time? I am planning to test it out next month, so I’ll let you know if it’s any good!

    1. Author

      The way you did your snorkeling trip on Koh Phangan is probably the best way to do it – go with no great expectations :-). We hear Koh Phangan is a lovely island too. Must have been wonderful to live there for a few months. And yes, we look forward to hearing what the snorkeling is like at Sail Rock!

  13. I haven’t been to Koh Tao Janice and George but heard great things about it. Sounds like it was swamped and that things maybe weren’t too pristine for you guys. I found Koh Lanta to be stunning. Mind you, I didn’t dive, but we visited during high season and if we went south enough we had large, private beaches to ourselves basically because everybody chills at the beaches in the north. As for snorkeling I don’t know. Diving is supposed to rock but that’s way out at sea. I didn’t see many snorkelers there though, just swimmers, and some fishing from the locals with their large throw nets.

    Beautiful photos guys!

    Ryan

  14. Funnily enough, I did my very first big boat snorkel trip on a Thailand around 4 months ago but it was Ko Lanta rather than Ko Tao. I enjoyed it overall though I hear Ko Tao is great for diving and snorkelling as you say! It helped that our snorkel guise happened to be a friend who lives there! Your photo of Koh Nang Yuan looks beautiful despite the crowds you mentioned ☺

    1. Author

      Koh Lanta is another dream island :-). And, yes, being shown the best spots by a friend who lives there would be a real boon! We have really fond memories of our stay on Koh Lanta a few years ago. It’s larger than Koh Tao, but it didn’t seem as busy with tourists, at least where we stayed, which was at Pimalai. They say one should enjoy Koh Lanta now, because there’s talk of building a bridge between Koh Lanta and Krabi, which would increase the visitor numbers on the island. Don’t know if that’s true or not, but…

      1. Fell in love with the country and my beloved gf living the majority of the 2 years living there on Lanta. Unfortunately every time I go (at least 3 times a year) it is slowly evolving into the next Koh Samui. Now besotted with Koh Yao- you should book a week of purest perfection at the 6 Senses Resort. They have finally finished the bridge between Koh Lanta Yao and Koh Lanta Noi about a month ago. But unless they build a 2nd much larger bridge to the Mainland I don’t think that it will significantly increase the number of tourists. The bridge will be most useful for the locals.

        1. Author

          Yes, we love Koh Lanta (and pretty well all of Thailand). Good to hear the bridge to the mainland hasn’t been built (yet) and may not be ?? Koh Tao we were less impressed with though, as you can tell from this blog post. And we have been to Koh Yao Noi and stayed at the Six Senses Resort (it’s lovely!). Thanks for taking the time to write in :-).

    1. Author

      That’s true. For us, what was needed was just a little “truth in advertising” for the snorkeling tour. Had our expectation been – pleasant scenic boat tour, cool off at some spots with a swim, see a beautiful island (though be prepared, it’s so beautiful that everyone else wants to see it too), oh and we’ll feed you a bit too (though don’t expect anything much, as it’s hard to prepare food on a boat, so we brought in a little something premade on shore) – we would have been very happy. It’s like whale watching. If you go expecting to see whales, you’re disappointed if you don’t see them, even though you might have seen sea lions, dolphins and fabulous scenery. And as we noted, what you get on these Koh Tao boat tours really is a bargain at $30 odd p.p. Whack us with a wet noodle! Here we were in paradise, and we were disappointed because we didn’t enjoy the snorkeling experience expected :-).

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