Diving the Eastern Seaboard of Thailand

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Although nice warm water teeming with fish and healthy coral, the Eastern Seaboard of Thailand is better known for poor visibility so recreational diving is limited to wrecks and some nice “basic” reefs. This of course hasn’t precluded me from checking some sites out to see for myself.

Koh Samet Reef Clean

Within a few weeks of arriving in Thailand, in early June I took part in a reef clean organised by Thailand’s Marine Department at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. The reef clean had several sponsors, including the Thai state oil company PTT and the area chosen was around Koh Samet, an island off Rayong. Here is the smiley PR shot before…

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…and the dive brief, which of course was in Thai, with a few kind English-speaking divers passing on to me the essential elements…

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So I kitted up, grabbed a pair of gloves, a net bag then jumped off the dive deck to join my group.

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It was a pretty full day – we did a total of three dives, with the main focus on the first dive area – a healthy reef to the North of Koh Samet. The visibility was indeed poor. For the first dive, it was around 2 – 5 metres and I spent around 50 minutes filling my bag with fishing line and bits of nets, although the biggest bit of debris I brought up was an anchor. Our group also dismantled and brought up a large abandoned lobster pot. The second dive was similar, although the visibility was even less – around 1 – 2 metres. The third dive was abandoned after 10 minutes as the visibility was atrocious – I couldn’t even see my hand.

Despite the visibility, the day was a success. Around 60 kilos of rubbish was collected, landed and weighed…

Bag2

All the divers had a great day. Most had travelled from Bangkok. As you can see, except me, all were Thai!

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Unfortunately, a few weeks later, in this area there was an oil spill from a transfer facility owned and operated by PTT — one of the reef clean sponsors. Oh dear. It was a massive clean up, but PTT were swift to act. The press is still reporting the impact and potential long-term effects, most recently reported here.

Koh Chang

MapFast forward a few months. With the rainy season finished, I recently researched where else I could dive that was reasonably local. I heard about Koh Chang, Thailand’s third largest island, from some friends living locally. Koh Chang is in fact the largest and most developed island in a 52 island group that makes up the Mu Koh Chang National Marine Park. It lies 8 km off the mainland in the province of Trat, just before you hit Cambodia. Due to its proximity to the Cambodian border, it picks up a lot of backpacker tourists “doing Indochina” as well as catering for Thais and well-heeled holiday makers – there is a Six Senses on Koh Kood. Map accredited to Scandinavian Chang Dive Centre.

Koh Chang is about a three-hour drive from where I live, so when the country went on holiday recently for the Kings Birthday, I decided to check it out, more specifically the diving, which is was in the south of the island. All operators day run out of the former fishing village of Ban Bao. I found a couple of websites that led me to a British owned and run dive operator Scuba Dawgs. They also run a budget guest house called Ban Bao Cliff Cottages. When it comes to day-boat diving, I prefer the minimum amount of transfer time in the morning, so after a couple of calls to the amenable and helpful owner Sean, I booked up and dusted off my dive gear. There are however numerous dive operators in Ban Bao, so booking ahead is not critical if you have an open mind – you can easily “shop on arrival” before making any decision.

The ferry to Koh Chang is a short 30 minute crossing (80 baht) with a further one hour journey to Ban Bao by shared road taxi travel (150 baht). The taxi will drop you off at your accommodation. Koh Chang also has daily flights to and from Bangkok from its relatively new airport.

Unfortunately I went down with a horrible cold as soon as I arrived – my four days of planned diving became only two. So I took time to recover, admire the view from this hammock and read…

Hammock

Diving day 1

By the third day at Ban Bao, I felt well enough to dive. I always wake early and as I peeked through the curtains, I could see it was going to be a wonderful sunrise. I threw on my hoodie and stepped 20 metres outside my room to the beach so I could watch it…

SunriseCollage

After breakfast, all the resident divers headed to the Cliff Cottage pier for our quick boat transfer to the dive boat…

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…2 minutes later we arrived at Ban Bao jetty and the dive boat…

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For the first day of diving, there were around 16 divers and about a dozen snorkelers. It was a good number and mix of people. The last time I had done any larger day boat diving was at Oonas Dive Club in Sharm El Sheikh when I lived in Cairo. I had forgotten how fun it was just to chat to the different people you meet day boat diving. One delightful and modest chap was a graphic designer taking year out and doing all his dream treks around the world. As if that wasn’t interesting enough, I asked him where he worked as a graphic designer. “A fashion magazine in London” was the modest reply. After a bit of probing, it turns out he worked for Vogue, and Harpers Bazaar before that. He came out with some very funny tales. It really is the Devil wears Prada. He was one of only three men on the staff and there were no male toilets on the Vogue floor, so he had to “go down” to the GQ floor. He is also working on a great swimming related book, which I will be buying as soon as it comes out. Very niche but will have appeal to the masses. An utterly brilliant idea. Creative types eh?

Back to diving, after a 90 minute transit, we arrived at our dive area for the day – just off the island of Koh Rang. We dived two shallow sites – Koh Lon and Koh Yak, dropping to around 20 metres max. Both were very similar. Visibility 8 – 12 metres. A combination of reefs and rocks encrusted with coral, as well as sand and various outcrops of whip coral. There were also a lot of giant clams and healthy shellfish in general…

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As well as shellfish on the sand, there was evidence of abundance crustacean life, although many of the shrimp like burrows were without the tell tale goby bouncers at the burrow mouth. Of course there were the old reliable reef favourites too – my friends the anemone fish…

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All in all, it was a very nice day of diving and perfect for the Open Water students and beginner divers on board, which Koh Chang more actively markets itself towards. I was underwater though and happy enough with what I saw – which was healthy and pristine dive sites. It didn’t matter to me that the visibility was low-ish and the marine diversity was limited – it was still good stuff. So we headed back to Ban Bao and I then met my neighbours outside my room..

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All that was left to do was head to the neighbouring Nirvana Resort rock walk bar to watch the sunset – just to complete the perfect day. The bar…

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…the view, in stages. Like the G & T I was holding, the sun (and horizon) went down nicely…

Sunset Collage

Day 2

I didn’t make it up for the sunrise, primarily due to the new moon party revellers trickling back to the resort at various times during the night. One of the drawbacks of paying budget – but at 700 baht a night (£13 or $20) I wasn’t going to complain. When we got to the dive boat, it was soon clear it was a lot busier. I counted 33 BCD’s and regulators attached to tanks. Oh well. Give the operators credit though, it was extremely well organised and staffed for such a big group – just a bit crowded.

Three dives were planned for my group, and the first was a purposely sunk Thai naval ship, HMTS CHANG formerly the USS Lincoln. Being an ex-Navy girl, I am always interested in naval wrecks and after a bit more digging online, I found out that this ship was a tank carrier and had seen service both in WW2 and the Korean War before it was commissioned by the Royal Thai Navy in 1962. It was sunk to its current location just over a year ago on 22 November 2012. These pictures were taken by my dive buddy Zak so are accredited to him (note to self – really must get a decent camera)

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The wreck is 117 metres long and the ships mast area conveniently sits at 5 metres. The wrecks deepest point is the bow, sitting at around 32 metres. We dropped down to around 20 metres and entered the main hold, swimming down to around 29 metres before exiting. The hold was quite silty but already it was home to a number of crabs and clams. We then had a nice swim around, weaving in and out of the decking area before levelling off at about 20 metres. There was also a healthy amount of fish swimming around, including yellow band snappers and glass fish. At one point I was astonished to see a flag still tied and waving in the current. Later we had a good look at the upper decks. Our DM was a couple of metres below and tried to lead us into the wheelhouse, but I was quite close to deco at that point, so that will have to wait to another day. We finished off our safety stop at the mast, where there is a great rail to hold on to if current is a bit strong.

The main deck of the ship already has a nice carpet of clams on it, so I can see this wreck is going to make an excellent artificial reef over time. All in all, a very nice wreck to dive and I will definitely come back in a few years to see how the colonisation has progressed.

Our next two dive sites were reefs close by. Blueberry Hill, or Him Nam Tai was a lovely site full of beautiful and healthy hard and soft corals. Unfortunately the visibility was poor – around 4 – 5 metres, but what I did see was good and I was even proud that I managed to find a scorpion fish – OK it was sat on a coral, but it was a nice find….

scorpionfish

I was also struck by the abundance of sponge corals at all the Koh Chang sites…

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There were also loads and loads of Christmas tree worms! My camera is on its last legs but the light is exactly as I witnessed as the flash has failed miserably last few trips. My dive buddy Zak however had a better camera with fully functioning lighting that captured just how brilliant these colourful little worms are. Here is a comparison…

SheenaWorms

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I have now decided that my new camera and housing is top of the shopping wish list! Any recommendations welcome.

Although I only managed two out of four days planned diving, I was happy enough with what I saw in Koh Chang. It was in line with my expectations and Koh Chang is certainly a great place to learn to dive, or do a few days of shake down chill out dives at the end of a regional touring holiday at Angkor Wat/Ho Chi Min trail/Laos walking etc.

I still have to explore the wrecks in and around Pattaya – the only other dive area on the North-Eastern Seaboard. They are mostly military vessels, but lie in difficult conditions with poor visibility and often strong currents, so will wait for a good reason to go them at the right time.

From what I have seen, as expected, the Eastern Seaboard of Thailand offers limited but reasonable diving in variable conditions. There are other islands and dive areas that offer better diving of course, most notably on the Andaman Sea side of Thailand. Koh Chang however is not so developed and not completely ruined by mass tourism and has a number of other things to do in addition to diving. It is also very laid back, extremely relaxing and good value for money, so if it works in with your existing plans, dive in Koh Chang.

2 thoughts on “Diving the Eastern Seaboard of Thailand

  1. Pingback: Ride a boat across waves and see the Underwater World | Sykose Extreme Sports News

  2. Pingback: Reef cruising – snapshot travel moments | The Coconut Times

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