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Thailand and Burma Dive Sites

Similan Islands
Northern Isles
Southern Isles


The Similan Islands

The word Similan comes from the old Malay for nine - sembilan - for there are 9 islands in the Similan Island chain. The eastern side of the islands, protected from the SW Monsoon that influences western Thailand during our summer, have bays of virgin white sand enclosed by headlands of tumbling boulders. The western and exposed sides of the islands offer few beaches, but instead are dominated by these huge granite formations. Beaches are almost non existent. Underwater the islands mirror what can be found above. On the eastern side of the islands can be found beautiful fringing reefs of hard corals, while on the western side the granite formations continue into the water to form wonderful seascapes covered with soft corals and seafans. There are few places in the world that offer such varied diving in such a small area.

    Diving is generally done from north to south through the Similans. One of the finest dive sites in all of Thailand is to be found on the south-eastern corner of Koh Bangu, Island 9. A sweeping reef called Breakfast Bend is usually done as an early morning dive (hence it's name) when the sun hits the wall of the reef square on. Tough as it is to get up so early, entering in the water just before sunrise allows you to be in position to see the reef come alive as the sun rises above the horizon. Rush hour suddenly springs into action - fish scurry to and from, so to work, some to avoid that work. The side of Breakfast Bend is covered in magnificent seafans that are used by schools of glassfish as shelter from currents and predators. To these seafans gravitate large numbers of lionfish who sit, motionless on coral outcrops, waiting for the unsuspecting glassfish to come to close. Suddenly - gulp! - and a glassfish or two are engulfed in the concertina like mouth of the lionfish. Bannerfish, Moorish Idols, 4-line snapper and head-band butterflyfish can all be seen schooling along the reef. Where the reef slope ends and the sandy bottom starts, at about 110 ft you can often see stingrays and eagle rays. The sandy floor is home to hundreds of garden eels. The top of the reef, that starts in about 20ft of water, is comprised of a large expanse of and interspersed with coral heads and staghorn fields. Leopard sharks have occasionally been seen relaxing in these shallows. This was always one of my favourite dives in the Similans due to the intense action on the reef first thing in the morning; the seafans and glassfish make for fabulous photo opportunities.

    Continuing south west round the corner from Breakfast Bend large granite boulders are tumbled into the sea from the southeast corner of Koh Bangu. Here you can clearly see the change in topography that is to be had while diving the Similans. The hard coral formations of Breakfast Bend give way to black coral trees, whip corals, sea fans and sponges grow all over the rocks, and on close inspection can be found lobsters, octopuses, nudibranchs and flatworms. The large pile of boulders nearer the shore line are worth inspecting. Dive down under them and you come up inside a grotto that is open to the sky above.

    Across the channel for Island 9, Koh Similan, the largest of the islands, is location of the most famous landmark in the Similans, Donald Duck Bay. If you are located in the right place a large boulder sitting atop a rock outcrop looks like Donald Duck' head. The hike to the top is hard work but offers rewarding views of the sea and islands and Donald Duck Bay itself. The bay is an excellent night anchorage, and as a consequence is a popular night dive. It has suffered some degradation over the years but notably it is an excellent place to find Spanish Dancers. I have seen quantities of these in my time. I was also lucky to find a sleeping Emperor Anglefish who seemed unperturbed by my flash.

    Located south of Donald Duck Bay and about 300 yards off shore, Fantasy Reef is one of the best dives in the Similans. A massive jumble of huge boulders forming the edge of a deep slope form a series of caves and swim throughs that require more than one dive to do them justice. The entire area is covered in soft corals, seafans and staghorn corals. Pairs of stunning blue ringed angelfish guard their territory well! Everywhere can be found a myriad of multicoloured coral trout, sweetlips, lionfish, snapper and butterflyfish. I recall on one dive many years ago managing to video Matt Hedrick, owner of Pelagian, attempting to entice a moray eel out of his hole, only to be bitten on the hand. I suspect he has not done that since! Between Fantasy Reef and the shore line is Fantasy Channel; a relatively
    flat area of granite and coral, the currents are strong though here and as a consequence the soft coral growth is exceedingly lush.

    On the opposite side of Koh Similan is Beacon Beach, one of the most beautiful beaches in Thailand. A classic tropical beach, shaded by lush trees and flanked on either side by the fabulous granite headlands that are so typical of these islands. Warm waters lap the golden beaches, and run out over the shallow reef flat to the edge of the slope before plunging down a magnificent wall of hard corals. The reef flats at the edge of the slope are at about 40ft in depth and dominated by a series of large coral heads or bommies. These are an excellent place to look for critters, as are the sandy
    areas between. I recall find a huge mantis shrimp hiding in his hole in the sand, using his huge claws as a sort of lid, like a dustbin. The walls of Beacon Reef are dominated by hard corals, but there are some soft corals and sea fans. Fish life is prolific along the wall, but out in the open water you can see eagle rays, leopard sharks and large schools of jacks and snapper. The wall levels out at about 00ft and disappears into the gloom. Here, sand eels can be seen sticking out of the sea floor. At the southern end of Beacon Reef the water gets deeper, and the coral gives way to the granite slopes that are an extension of Beacon Point. At their deepest point, about 140ft , the boulders are of enormous proportions, and growing on them are some of the largest seafans you are ever likely to see. As you move up the slope the boulders get smaller but they are covered with soft corals and yet more seafans. In the shallows lettuce corals are particularly prevalent.

    I am sure that if you drank enough of Thailand's locally brewed Mekong whisky I am sure you could see the elephant head. Well, one of the rocks has a sort of groove in it that divides it into a body and a trunk. Maybe. Regardless of the vague pachyderm connection this is a spectacular boulder dive. The largest are over 100ft across, lying in a tumble mess against each other like a giant's toy building bricks. You can swim through numerous tunnels and arches, into caves and along sand-filled gullies, looking out for sweetlips, Moorish Idols, Titan triggerfish and fusiliers. The rocks are covered in a carpet of soft corals, sponges, cup corals and seafans. If the visibility is good, and it usually is as this dive site sits in open water between Koh Similan and Payu, this dive takes on cathedral like proportions.

    On the east coast of Koh Payu, East of Eden - called Morning Bend by some - is one of the best dive sites in Thailand. A fringing reef similar to Breakfast Bend, the reef starts in about 20ft of water close to shore, and slopes away to a sandy bottom at between 80 -100ft. The reef consists mainly of plate and some staghorn corals, but sprouting out of the reef at various intervals are some spectacularly large seafans. The largest is perhaps 20ft around the rim, and always acts as home to a school of glassfish that shelter in its embracing fronds. This seafan offers outstanding photographic opportunities, particularly if the glassfish are sheltering on the same side as you are, but the sun is behind. The effects can be spectacular. But the piece de la resistance of East of Eden is one of the most beautiful bommies in the world. Starting at about 60ft and rising to about 20ft, this bommie reminds of the way ancient Chinese painters interpreted mountains and clouds - tall pinnacles shrouded in swirling clouds, pine trees taking precarious hold on the sheer mountainsides. This bommie is the same, except the clouds are clouds of glassfish and the trees are seafans and soft corals of breathtaking variety and form. The bommie is essentially a series of domed heads heaped on top of each other, each creating a little cave between. The bommie is hollow inside. The profusion of life on this bommie is some of the most concentrated I have seen anywhere in the world. Pantone would be envious of the variety of colours offered by the soft corals alone! If you can fight your way through the glassfish you will find coral trout, big fat juicy lionfish, humbugs, fairy basslets, hawkfish, gobies, juvenile triggerfish and rabbitfish, pufferfish, boxfish and cowfishes. Close inspection of the reef itself will unearth frogfish, nudibranchs & flatworms of infinite form & variety; I have seen upward of 25 species of nudibranch on one dive on this bommie. There are large silky anemones with a number of clownfish species in them, plus a host of harlequin shrimps and anemone crabs. Pocking out of many holes can be seen moray eels, many being tended to by cleaner shrimp or wrasse. Some of the holes are home to little blennies, poking their cute little heads out, to dart back in when you approach too close. This bommie is what can be described as a "nursery"; where adult fish come to lay eggs and protect their young; it is a safe and secure place for small fish to live their first few days and weeks before adventuring into the big wide world. What a cracking dive!

    This dive shows of the wonderful granite construction of the Similan Islands better than any. Located southeast of Koh Payan,Island #3, and exposed at low tide, Shark Fin Reef is a great whale back of rock about 500 yards long and 80-100 yards wide. It has a stepped structure and in places looks almost man-made; you can imagine walls and roads – or was that narcosis?!! At the southern end there is a large swim through which provides access from one side of the reef to the other – saves you having to swim over the top! Coral life is not particularly prolific here – some staghorn and plate corals, plus soft corals and some seafans. The fish life makes up for that, with leopard & whitetips sharks being regular visitors, schools of batfish and unicorn surgeonfish, bannerfish and snapper. On the sandy bottom at about 130ft you can often see stingrays. You may very occasionally see whale sharks or mantas, but don’t count on it. If the visibility is good – and I have seen 150ft here no problem, then the magnificent vista of the granite formations makes this one of the great dive sites of the Similans.

    Hobbitland, or Coral Gardens, is a wonderful shallow fringing reef on the east coast of Islands #1, Koh Huyong. From the shallows of the beach down to only about 40ft this site is a wonderful display of staghorn, fire & plate corals, with anemones, soft corals and seafans thrown in for good measure. There is also the remains of a wooden fishing boat that is slowly being encrusted with corals. Beyond that depth the reef slopes down to about 70ft and is dominated by large porites corals; the topography then levels off to sand, but you can see stingrays and shovel-nosed rays here. These are often hollow underneath, and I have seen sleeping nurse sharks in some of the holes. Hobbitland is also a great location to see large lionfish – they are very approachable. I have also seen sea snakes here. This is a great end of the day dive – a "pootle" through this delicate coral fairyland as the day light fish are tucking up for bed and the night hunters are coming out to feed, makes a great finale to the day’s activities!

    I had to put Chocolate Charlie’s Rocks in because I named them! While aboard Sai Mai many years ago there was a German (or maybe Austrian, I can’t remember!) couple aboard – he (Charlie) was rich and very large, she was small and petit! One night he regaled us stories of how he liked pouring molten chocolate over his wife and licking it off – hence the name I can up with of Chocolate Charlie. We had heard rumours of a large rock pinnacle off to the south of the Similans, that fishermen often snagged their nets on. In fact we had heard one story that a fishing boat had been trawling so fast that it was pulled under as it snagged these rocks. If there was a rock pinnacle out in open water then it would be a magnet for fish life. We had to investigate! After talking to some local fishermen we ascertained that the pinnacle would b about a mile or so south of Koh Huyong. With the echo sounder we scanned the bottom for an hour or so. Suddenly the sea floor rose vertically on the scan, from about 300ft to about 50ft. Perhaps this was the famous pinnacle. Donning dive gear we leapt in to be confronted by a towering column of rock perhaps 100ft across that dropped away into the deep. The visibility was awesome – there was nothing around to make it murky, so we could see almost 200ft clear through the water. The column was a series of giant steps, with ledges as about 80ft, 120ft and 170ft. I stopped at 170ft, but the column just carried on going down. The whole, edifice was covered in old net, now encrusted with algae and coral. I saw no sign of the fishing boat, but then maybe it was deeper or maybe it had never sunk at all! The column was shrouded in a vast array of fish – swirling schools of surgeonfish, banner fish, snapper, sweetlips, fusiliers and bass. Smaller schools of barracuda and jacks also hung in the open water. I saw no sharks, but a few turtles. I remember looking up from well over 100ft and seeing divers clearly suspended in open water, the hull of Sai Mai unmistakable on the surface. We only ever did one dive, and to my knowledge no one has dived it since, but in honour of Charlie and his fondness for a nice cup of cocoa in the evening, I named them Chocolate Charlie’s Rocks! I look forward to returning one day to see how they are, and I hope Charlie still enjoys chocolate!


The Northern Islands

About 4 hours sail north of the Similans towards the Burmese border, start a series of island markedly different in geological formation – gone are the granite boulders and instead are limestone islands similar to those found east of Phuket (James Bond Island being a typical example.)

    The first island you reach north of the Similans is Koh Bon. This crescent shaped island has an archway in the middle through which you can see the other side of the island. The northen side of the island has a coral reef that slopes down into deeper water. There has been consistent dynamite fishing along this reef and it is very badly damaged. The only creature of note that I ever saw there was an octopus! The western tip of the island drops into the water and runs as a ridge down to about 200ft. This is where the best diving is to be had. Descending on one side of the ridge to a depth of about 130ft, huge barrel sponges, some large enough for a man to sit in, door-sized seafans and whip corals, dominate the scene. I have seen leopard sharks here on numerous occasions, and on one occasion got some great video footage of a leopard shark swim though a vast school of 4-line snapper. The shallower you are on the ridge the less seafans and sponges there are, but you will see many more soft corals. The end of the dive can be had on the wall that drops down from the edge of the sheltered bay within the crescent shape of the island. Here a natural fissure in the rock near the surface acts as a blow hole – as water is forced into the hole by wave action it jets out again in a massive explosion. It is great fun to stick your head in the bubbles and get blown about! Banded seasnakes are very common at Koh Bon, especially in the shallows past the blow hole. If you are lucky you may well see whale sharks here – this is one of the points through which these animals migrate on the way north into Burmese waters. Mantas are also sometimes seen.

    Further north still and you come to Koh Tachai, with its wonderful beach. The best dive is off the south point of the island, where rock ridges run down into the deep. There are some good coral formations here, and plenty of fish life, including schools of pickhandle barracuda and batfish. But this site is best known as an excellent place to see manta rays. In fact, I am convinced there is manta cleaning station at Koh Tachai as I have seen mantas on more than one occasion resting against near same coral outcrop being tended to by cleaner wrasse. With good visibility you can enjoy mantas barrel rolling above your head in your exhaled bubbles. I have seen upward of 8 mantas at Koh Tachai at any one time.

    What can one say about Richelieu Rock? It is one of the world’s great dives – a vast coral mountain located south east of Surin Tai, and exposed at low tide, the rock falls away in a series of ridges and grooves in all directions, to the sea floor some 130ft below. The northern side is steeper, with some gullies running up to the surface. Here you will find schools of fusiliers, snapper and bass, and also a wonderful school of batfish off from the reef. If there are nutrients in the water you will also see schools of barracuda, rainbow runner, jacks and tuna. The south-western portion of the rock has a slightly shallower aspect and here can be found some lovely green anemones with porcelain crabs and shrimps, juicy fat chromodoris nudibranchs, flatworms, stonefish, scorpionfish and, within the crevices in reef, lots of lovely red & white striped hingebeak shrimps. Further down into deeper water the coral gives way to rock, but here you can often see shovel-nosed rays, leopard sharks and stingrays. But Richelieu Rock is most famous as one of the world’s best locations for spotting whale sharks. Between late March and May, when the plankton builds up in the water, whale sharks come from the south and enter Burmese waters. They use the underwater pinnacles & islands of the west coast of Thailand as markers for their journey. In fact, a whale shark seen at, for instance, Hin Daeng, will generally appear at Richelieu Rock a few days later. My theory is they do a circular tour of the Indian Ocean in any given year. They head through Thailand in March, April & May, when the plankton is at its most prolific, into Burmese waters, possibly to mate or even give birth amongst the sheltered waters of the Mergui Archipelago. The whale shark is the world’s largest fish; attaining a maximum length of about 55ft, the largest I have ever seen in Thailand was about 35ft; most are between 15-25ft in length. Even so, to be nosing in a hole in Richelieu Rock and to look up as the sun is blotted out by a 20ft shark is a site to remember! Never as "interactive" as mantas, they tend to just cruise on in the direction they were travelling – if you give chase they invariably give a swish of their tale and swim off. Occasionally they become highly inquisitive. I recall relaxing on the sundeck of the Sai Mai between dives when a 20ft whale shark swam past. We got in the water with mask and snorkel to watch the shark dive down and then come right up to the duckboard at the back of the boat, almost resting its chin on the platform. It then dropped back in the water and swam away. I have seen upward of 5 shale sharks in a day at Richelieu Rock, and the great thing about this place is that if there are no whale sharks around then you can enjoy the beautiful reef and the schools of fish instead!


Burma only opened it’s waters to divers in the early 1990s. It was blatantly obvious to all and sundry that if the diving was good around the islands off the west coast of Thailand then it would be good in Burma! And without, perhaps, the commercial pressures that had been placed on Thailand’s waters. Over 800 islands, some as large as the Isle of White, and the majority uninhabited, offer huge potential for divers, yachtsmen and naturalists alike. The islands close to the mainland are lush, but the shallow waters surrounding them are murky due to the number of rivers running into the sea. There may be some excellent muck diving here. Further off shore there is less rainfall and the water is deeper – here lush coral growth similar to that in Thailand’s waters can be found. The one overriding difference is the profusion of sharks, which make for much more exhilarating diving. The dive sites can be split easily into two kinds, their topography affected by the type of island to which they are adjacent. Islands like North & Twin Island are similar to the Similans – multicoloured corals and seafans growing on tumbling boulders in clear water. Otherws, like Black Rock & Western Rocky Islands have sheer cliff faces that plunge straight into the sea. Here you can find numerous caves and swim throughs full of lobsters and nurse sharks. In all these areas you can find grey reef sharks, rare in Thai waters, bull sharks, makos (rather you than me!) and spinner sharks (or black whaler). They have had little interaction with humans so are inquisitive without being too aggressive. Burma offers a wealth of new opportunities for divers – as the

    About 90 miles and an overnight steam northwest of the Similans the Burma Banks are true oceanic reefs, rising from the depths of the Andaman Sea to within about 50ft of the surface. In the good old days you didn’t need permission to go there – they are legally in international waters, but in 1995 the Burmese decided they fell within the Burmese Special Economic Zone and Thai dive boats subsequently required permission from Burma to access them. 4 banks are dived at present – Silvertip, Roe & Big Bank & Rainbow Reef. To be honest, they are all pretty similar – large coral and sand banks with fairly steep sides. There are no sheer drop-offs into the whoop-whoop, and the tops of the banks, because they are in open water that is exposed to the vagaries of the SW Monsoon, have only sporadic coral growth. Mainly some hardy – but exceedingly large – plate corals, a few brave staghorns and some seafans. There are some large boulder corals to be found, with soft corals growing beneath overhangs. Sleepy nurse sharks can often be spied under these large formations. Strong currents sweep these reefs, and a reef hook is a necessary device if you are into photography. On one occasion I had to rescue a journalist from being swept down the side of one of the banks by a very string down current; after all, I had to get him to write his story! The principle reason for diving the Burma Banks is to see sharks. Being open ocean reefs they attract large quantities of fish, including barracuda, snapper, surgeonfish, jacks & bass. All tasty morsels to the local shark population! On most dives you will see numerous nurse sharks, often swimming in family formation, nose to tale, along the top of the reef. Occasionally you see silvertips, blacktips and white tips. Once I saw a tiger shark swimming off into the open sea. With controlled shark feeding you can get a very nice feed going! We would get divers in a semicircle on the reef top, and with a rope and pulley contraption haul dead fish down in a wire basket in front of the divers. This would bring in large numbers of silvertips and nurse sharks, who would fight for the food in the basket. The sharks would circle round and come back in again time after time. I have counted upwards of 20 silvertips and 30 nurse sharks on a feed. This makes for some great photo opportunities! Sometimes the current can change direction without notice, and I remember one dive where I almost got pushed into the feeding frenzy! It was only by gripping onto a large coral lump with my knees (I needed my hands free for photography!) that I saved myself from becoming potential lunch! It may be an overnight sail to the Burma Banks but it’s worth it!

The Southern Isles

The majority of dive sites to the south of Phuket are popular with day trippers – Anemone Reef & shark Point are two examples. To be brutally honest they do not offer much to the seasoned diver, but there are some dive sites further south still that offer spectacular opportunities.

    A large limestone pinnacle that breaks the surface as a triptych of rocks is the marker for this dive site. On the southern side a vertical wall drops to about 200ft – the deepest single drop to be found in Thai waters. While coral growth is sparse on the wall, you will see large schools of barracuda and tuna along this wall. The eastern side of the rock slopes more gently – tow large ridges run down into the blue. They are covered with red soft corals (hence the name of the rock – in English, Red Rock) and here can be found large schools of jacks, needlefish and fusiliers. The shallows are carpeted in anemones, full of clownfish, crabs and shrimps.

    Only a few hundred yards from Hin Daeng is a submerged rock called Hin Muang, Purple Rock. It is a sausage-shaped structure about 250 yards long and 50 yards wide. The sides are steep, and drop down to about 220ft. The marine life on this rock is mind-boggling. It is truly one of the world’s most intense dives. Huge swathes anemones carpet the upper margins of the rock – clownfish, porcelain crabs and shrimps can all be observed. As the rock starts to slope downwards the anemones give way to a mass of soft corals, seafans, and huge heads of brain, porites and acropora coral, all shrouded in a swirling mist of glassfish, humbugs, fairy basslets, butterflyfish and the lie. There are few spots in the world where I have seen lionfish in such concentration. They are everywhere, under ledges, nestled on coral outcrops, free swimming across the open reef! They will allow you to approach until they are fed up with you; they then turn their back to you and reverse towards you, their pectoral & dorsal spines splayed out in an obvious warning – "Time you went way, or I’ll spike you!" Whale sharks pass Hin Muang on a regular basis; the largest I have seen in Thailand was here. You will also see grey reef sharks, very rare in other parts of Thailand. The journey to Hin Daeng & hin Muang is long, particularly if you are on a Simialn/Burma trip, bt if the cruise is long enough it is well worth the journey. In Thailand, only the coral bommie at East of Eden can match the prolific marine life to be had at Hin Muang.

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