by John Kinsella
At the heart of Southeast Asia, Thailand, the "Land of a Thousand Smiles", is a country proud of its unique culture and famous worldwide for its Thai cuisine. In addition to good food and lots of smiles, Thailand also offers miles of tropical beaches, lush rainforests, exhilarating cultural attractions and excellent scuba diving.
With more than 1931 kilometres/1200 miles of coast, divers have two main choices: the Gulf of Thailand or the Andaman Sea. Take your pick from a bevy of dive profiles, too: fringing reefs, deep drop-offs, wrecks, walls, caverns, tunnels, pinnacles or open ocean seamounts.
Many live-aboards begin their adventures in Phuket, and some of the top Andaman Sea dive sites are within easy reach. Phuket itself has a rich diversity of dive sites and tropical marine life to offer.
HOT DIVE SITES
This area has an advantage over other parts of Thailand, as it is not usually subject to the monsoonal winds that grasp both the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea. So, diving is great all year round. Wreck diving is definitely a highlight here, particularly the HTMS Khram and Petchaburi Bremen. Pattaya also offers easy access to other island dive sites.
Find a PADI Dive Center or Resort near Pattaya
Close to the Cambodian border, is home to the Koh Chang Marine National Park, and part of another beautiful archipelago in the Gulf of Thailand. It offers some of the most beautiful and unspoiled diving in the Gulf, parading hard and soft coral gardens, a wealth of parrot fish, banner fish, groupers, barracuda and turtles.
Find a PADI Dive Center or Resort near Koh Chang
Southern Gulf Coast
Forty minutes north of Koh Tao by boat lies one of the Gulf of Thailand's best known dive sites. Here, huge anemone-studded granite pinnacles are ringed by a series of smaller ones – all of which are attended by throngs of batfish, trevally and giant schools of both barracuda and snapper. The occasional whale shark and manta ray also visit. The pinnacles run from north to south in 14-38 metres/46-125 feet. As a bonus, just south of the main pinnacle is Barracuda Rock, where large schools of great barracuda congregate.
Find a PADI Dive Center or Resort near Chumphon Pinnacle
This small, uninhibited island immediately southeast of Koh Tao is rich in biodiversity and surrounded by colorful hard and soft coral reefs which range from 9-18 metres/30-60 feet. Reef denizens include blue-spotted stingrays, filefish, harlequin sweetlips, starry pufferfish, grouper and titan triggerfish. Fish Junction – at the northern end of Shark Island – is a great location for underwater photography.
Divers of nearly all skill levels can enjoy the site most of the time, but strong currents may render the site suitable only for advanced divers.
Find a PADI Dive Center or Resort near Shark Island
North of Koh Pha Ngan is Hin Bai, otherwise known as Sail Rock, one of Thailand’s best wall dives. But it’s more than just a wall and features a number of interesting pinnacles and a swim through chimney. Critters here include bearded scorpion fish, sea anemones and pink anemone fish while yellow margined morays, reef crabs and painted shrimp also abound. It isn’t unheard of for divers to spot schools of great barracuda, big-eye jacks, tuna or rainbow runners so thick they eclipse the sun.
Find a PADI Dive Center or Resort near Sail Rock
One of Koh Tao's premier wrecks, the HTMS Sattakut, which started out as the USS LCI -739, was sunk on 18 June 2011 in about 30 metres/100 feet of water. The Landing Craft, Infantry, or LCI, was one of several amphibious assault ship classes deployed during WWII. This particular 48 metre/158-foot LCI was built in Portland, Oregon, USA in 1944 and subsequently involved in the operations on Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945. After that, the ship was transferred to Thailand and commissioned into Royal Thai Navy with the new name, His Thai Majesty Ship (HTMS) Sattakut. Today, the artificial reef is home to thick schools of fusiliers, yellowtail barracuda, snapper, wrasse, groupers, trevally, rabbitfish, moray eels and blennies.
Find a PADI Dive Center or Resort near Koh Tao
Koh Dok Mai
This is a superb wall and drift dive, with hidden caves and crevices lurking in its rock face. The beauty of this site becomes illuminated with the sun’s beam above, and it is home, in season, to baby nurse sharks and whale sharks out in the big blue.
Racha Noi and Racha Yai
Racha Noi has plenty to explore and experience, including mantas and whale sharks when in season, blue spotted lagoon rays, chevron barracuda and large schools of tuna and jacks.
This site ripples with scorpion fish, lionfish, lots of puffer fish, angelfish and a few resident leopard sharks. They all weave their lives among vibrant pink and purple soft corals.
Find a PADI Dive Center or Resort near Phuket
About 200 km/120 miles north of Phuket, this horseshoe-shaped rock in the Andaman Sea might just be Thailand's most famous dive site. Divers descend in throngs to see the big stuff – giant, lumbering whale sharks, barracuda tornadoes, barrel-sized grouper and clouds of tropical fish. You'll also find bannerfish, snapper, lionfish, Moorish idols, titan triggers, shovelnose rays, stonefish, seahorses, pipefish and cuttlefish. For underwater photographers, the hardest thing about diving this site is deciding whether to go wide angle or macro.
Find a PADI Dive Center or Resort near Khao Lak
Krabi, Koh Lanta Yai and Koh Lipe
The South Western coastal town of Krabi is the jumping off point for the enchanting Koh Lanta archipelago, and stunning Koh Lipe, which are both accessible by ferry. Here, on the east side of Phang Nga bay, local marine life is both prolific and varied. The region facilitates access to the Phi Phi islands, Hin Daeng, Hin Muang and Shark Point.
Meaning Five Islands in Thai, Koh Haa offers something for every diver to explore: swim-throughs, pinnacles, drop offs, caverns and chambers. Marine life varies from the elusive ghost pipefish, to abundant octopus, occasional hawksbill turtles and marble rays.
On the edge of Tarutao National Marine Park, comprises more than 30 islands, countless reefs, and access to vibrant seas full of marine life.
Find a PADI Dive Center or Resort near Krabi
Breathtaking both above and below the water, this site crawls with sea snakes and hawksbill sea turtles. Moray eels, piles of wrasses and more leopard sharks keep the action humming, whilst soft corals, parrotfish, and giant clams remind you that Mother Nature’s creativity knows no bounds.
Find a PADI Dive Center or Resort near Phi Phi Island
Depth: Depths vary from site to site, but typically don't exceed 36 metres/120 feet.
Visibility: It is generally good throughout the country and averages around 30 metres/100 feet.
Currents: While they can vary, they are usually mild.
Water Temperature: 28-30° C/82-86° F year-round.
Dive Season: The diving is typically good all year, but the Gulf of Thailand is at its peak from May through September while the best diving is from October through April in the Andaman Sea.
Weather: Its tropical Southeast Asia location ensures that Thailand has hot and humid climate year-round. The country is warm and wet during the May to September monsoon, then dries out from November to mid-March. Air temperatures range from 30–35° C/85-95° F.
Acess: You can only reach many of Thailand's best dive sites by boat.
Skill Level: With warm water, clear visibility and relatively shallow depths, the diving here is suitable for all skill levels. This varies with the specific dive site, check with local dive operators.
Scuba Gear: Most dive centers and resorts provide gear rentals, but it’s always good to pack as much of your own gear as possible.
Length of Stay: One or two weeks should do the trick.
Featured Creatures: Typical Indo-Pacific reef fish and critters are well represented and there's a good chance you will see morays, puffers, triggers and Moorish idols, as well as mantas, leopard sharks and possibly whale sharks.
Language: Thai, although English is widely spoken in the major tourist areas.
Currency: Thai Baht (THB)
Major Airports: Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok (BKK) and Phuket International Airport in Phuket (HKT) are the two main international airports.
Documents: Visitors from many countries may enter Thailand for a holiday for 30 days. Details are available from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Kingdom of Thailand. Visitors must carry their passports with them at all times.
Electricity: 220V/50Hz (American [Type A] and/or European [Type C] plugs).
For more information, visit the Tourism Authority of Thailand web site.
Want to know more? Visit www.scubaearth.com for further information on thousands of dive sites, marine species, destination essentials and more.