Still in a daze, we cycled to the southern settlement on the island of Chalok Baan Kao where we checked in to the budget-friendly Tropicana "Resort" and waited for our pre-researched dive shop to open. We had singled out New Heaven for their extensive conservation efforts and investment in the local community, but unfortunately their customer service was severely lacking when we made a simple request for a 15-liter tank for Matt. Fortunately, our back-up choice came through for us as the amiable staff at Big Blue Diving casually responded, "15-liter tank? Got it, no problem, free of charge." While they also engage in conservation work, we had some reservations about going with one of the bigger and busiest companies on the island, but we signed up for two dives the next day as a test run.
Despite missing a whale shark sighting by opting for sleep over early-morning dives, we had a good experience with some easy shallow dives the following afternoon. We got a sense of the dive scene in Koh Tao as we boarded the biggest dive boat we have ever seen. This was followed by quite a surface swim to get to the actual dive site because of the queue of equally-large boats strung behind one actually tied to the mooring line. Nonetheless, our dive master Nick was enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and particularly good at finding miniscule nudibranchs. Big Blue may be a mass operation, but it didn't ever feel impersonal. While the dives sites themselves were not too impressive, we were satisfied enough with the company to check out deeper and more famous dive sites with them the next morning.
While the whale shark sighted at Chumphon Pinnacle the previous morning had already moved on, we found the site to be one of the most dramatic places we had ever seen underwater. With excellent visibility, we could see "anemone fields forever" covering the angular rock walls, many of them the size of table for two. Little did we know at the time that that would be our last Koh Tao dive with clear water. Our second dive, at the HTMS Sattakut 742 wreck, introduced us to the murkiness of the plankton blooms allegedly timed with the approach of the full moon. Fortunately, our dive master Steven was a character both above and below the surface and kept us entertained with his humor and antics while searching out the small stuff.
The following day, we optimistically committed to an all-day boat excursion to the premier dive site in Gulf of Thailand known as Sail Rock. Unfortunately, the visibility was so poor that our dive master Ben missed the entrance to a vertical swim-through chimney as we descended. Again, our strategy was to stick close to the wall and look for the small-scale diversity of life, but it was a shame to miss the renowned beauty of the big picture. The crew adapted the day's schedule and opted to try Southwest Pinnacle rather than do a second dive on Sail Rock, but the visibility wasn't much better there either. We wrapped up the day at Shark(less) Island, supposedly named for the shape of the island resembling a giant dorsal fin.
Having adjusted our expectations with the lack of good visibility, we wrapped up our diving experience with a couple more pleasant afternoon dives followed by a night dive. Some new and favorite species we spotted over the course of all of our dives were blue-spotted rays, titan triggerfish, scrawled filefish, brown banded pipefish, and my personal favorite--the yellow box fish! While overall Koh Tao may not be the best quality of diving, it certainly is some of the most affordable. After just seven dives, we reached the cheapest price bracket of less than $25 per dive.
All of the diving combined with a hilly bicycle commute between our hotel and the dive shop at opposite ends of the island had not left us much time for relaxing or energy for exploring. We decided to take a non-diving day for some beach time and snorkel time. Somewhat ironically, the snorkeling led to our only sightings of a black-tipped reef shark and tremendous green turtle while on the island. Later that night, we even rallied to stay up past our bedtime in order to go to the Koh Tao institution of the Queen's Cabaret, a nightly show by extravagantly done-up kathoeys, referred to as Thailand's third gender and also known as "ladyboys." From serious to seriously sexy, we were enthralled with the variety of performances. Matt was super relieved that an obnoxious bachelor party group eliminated his personal risk of being selected for any audience participation numbers.
The next day, we put our bikes on a boat for the last time in the foreseeable future and said goodbye to Koh Tao. While we certainly enjoyed our week there, we didn't exactly fall in love with it either. With a younger party crowd vibe, we may have been more enamored had we visited ten years ago. That said, had we stuck around longer--perhaps for a full-length conservation diving course or dive master training program--we may have connected with the established dive community and changed our perspective as well. With the sheer numbers of divers in the water and one-in-the-same tourists consuming scarce water while generating waste on land, Koh Tao is far from pristine. However, with the multitude of dive shops and local economy so dependent on diving, there seems to be a general "before it's gone" awareness. It seems organized efforts are largely spearheaded by dedicated longtimers who have witnessed Koh Tao's exponential development firsthand. Beach and reef clean ups, artificial reef construction, and tree-planting for erosion control might not be enough in the face of rapidly warming and acidifying oceans, but it is more than one might expect from a popular backpacker destination.