Phuket is the main hub for diving in the Andaman Sea, with dozens of dive shops offering day and live-aboard trips around the region. Competition for customers has resulted in some good deals on offer, but also some over-packed trips of reduced quality, so be careful when selecting an operator. Many of the dive sites on offer are actually in other provinces, but all the daytrips are reachable within two hours by speedboat.
Two-dive trips are usually offered for about 3,000 baht, not including equipment rental. Add 400-1,000 baht for each additional dive site. The cheapest “backpack level” live-aboard trips to the Similan islands are around 18,000 to 19,000 baht for four days. For a higher quality boat be prepared to shell out 30,000 to 40,000 baht. Better deals might be found with dive operators based in nearby Khao Lak.
Ko Racha Yai is just off the southern tip of Phuket Island. Surrounding the whole island is a beautiful reef with a large variety of sea life — hard corals, moray eels, feather stars, puffer fish, stingrays, schools of barracudas and the occasional octopus. Dive depth is 18 to 30 metres, with plenty of shallow water areas ideal for first time divers.
Ko Racha Noi is a bit further south of Racha Yai, and has several great dive locations with excellent visibility most of the year. There’s no reef here, but the draw is mainly the underwater topography — the sea bed is strewn with huge granite boulders, covered with corals, offering some crowd-pleasing drop-offs and swim-throughs. It’s also a great place for spotting sting rays, manta rays and whale sharks. Dives can go as deep as 40 metres, but shallower diving is also possible. Both Racha Noi and Racha Yai – also known as Raya Noi and Raya Yai – are good sites for beginner divers.
Ko Doc Mai
Ko Doc Mai is a unique site, offering a good variety of diving experiences: it’s basically a huge rock in the open water in between Shark Point and Phuket. The eastern face drops off 30 metres down, where there are two caves to be explored. The western side features a series of steps up to the top, covered with hard and soft corals and giant gorgonians fan corals. It’s a notorious hangout for lobsters, crabs and shrimps, as well as numerous seahorses — best viewed during a night dive. Dives here reach a maximum depth of 30 metres. Usually visited as part of a trip to Ko Phi Phi, or to the King Cruiser/Shark Point area.
It’s easy to forget, but Phuket is an island too, and there is some decent diving right off the western coast. Most dives head to Kata Beach, and to the seamounts off shore: Ko Puu and Karon Rock. The dives here are hardly world class, but they are shallow — about 12 metres max — and offer an easy, relaxed experience for newbies. And there are still plenty of sea critters on display.
Shark Point is a rock jutting out of the water not far from Anemone Reef. It’s frequented by leopard sharks, but it’s also a great place to see smaller marine creatures, such as seahorses and nudibranches. Even if the sharks are a no-show, there is an enormously rich variety of fish life — including sea snakes, moray eels, and squid — as well as soft corals and anemones. Dives can reach a depth of up to 24 metres.
King Cruiser is a ship wreck that’s been sitting on the ocean floor since it foundered against Anemone Reef in May 1997. It’s been collapsing a bit in recent years, but it’s still a sight to see — 85 metres long, lying at an angle, with the propellers at 30 metres depth and the wheelhouse at 12 metres. It the short time it’s been there, a surprising variety of fishy-things have taken up residence, such as gigantic barracuda, lionfish, scorpion fish, jackfish, nurse-sharks, and massive schools of smaller fish.
Anemone Reef is a stunning seamount not far beneath the water in open sea (the King Cruiser, no doubt, never saw it coming). It is fully covered with brilliantly coloured anemones and soft corals, and there’s a load of fish-life — it’s not uncommon to see huge moray eels, trevallies, rainbow runners, angelfish, batfish, jackfish, and barracudas. Dives go down to approximately 22 metres.
Hin Daeng and Hin Muang
Hin Daeng and Hin Muang are usually visited out of Phuket on a three-day live-aboard, these two ‘five-star’ dive sites are actually two undersea mountains standing side by side — Hin Daeng just breaks the surface, and Hin Muang peaks 15 metres below it. The names mean ‘red rock’ and ‘purple rock,’ and that’s not just hyperbole — they are covered with brilliant, vividly-colourful soft coral formations from which they get their names. On any given day, majestic manta rays are bound to be swirling around the area. Strong currents can be a bit of a problem here, so it’s not recommended for absolute beginners. The water is too choppy to get out here in low season, so you can only visit from October through May.
The Similan Islands are closer to Khao Lak, but also within easy reach of Phuket. Daytrips are one way to go, but the Similans are a popular destination for live-aboard diving excursions — longer dives will often include the Surin Islands as well. The Similan trips typically include Ko Bon, Ko Tachai and Richelieu Rock, offering lots of different dive-sites — shallow dives among lovely coral formations, deeper dives swimming among huge boulders, and good spots for catching site of manta rays and sharks.
Lana Willocks is a freelance writer from Canada based in Phuket. Her love affair with Thailand began on a university exchange programme in Bangkok, then she returned to Phuket on the auspicious date of 9-9-1999 and never left.
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