Snorkeling? Scuba diving? Sign us up!
We’re snorkel and dive junkies.
Some of the best snorkeling in Thailand (and diving) is found on Koh Tao.
“Cavort with sharks and rays in a playground of tangled neon coral…”
So teases Lonely Planet about Koh Tao.
Like kittens drawn to catnip, we of course decided to spend a few days on Koh Tao on our last trip to Thailand (we’ve visited the country several times).
Some Koh Tao snorkeling would scratch that snorkel-and-dive itch!
Koh Tao snorkeling
Koh Tao is a small bohemian island (only some eight square miles in size), located about 42 miles away from big sister Koh Samui.
Ringed with coral reefs teeming with tropical fish and other marine life, it attracts thousands of visitors each year who come to learn to dive.
Indeed, Koh Tao certifies so many scuba divers that it churns out more dive certifications than anywhere else in the world, except for Queensland, Australia.
But you don’t have to take the plunge and blow bubbles under the water.
Diving requires more of a commitment than snorkeling. And we’ve found that you often see as much snorkeling as you do diving.
On Koh Tao, we wanted to take it easy and go snorkeling instead.
Love snorkeling? Read our insider guide to the best snorkeling in Cabo San Lucas (and tours)
Snorkeling trip, Koh Tao, by big boat
The most popular way to go snorkeling in Koh Tao is a “big boat” snorkeling day trip around Koh Tao.
You get to snorkel and see the island too.
(You can also snorkel Koh Tao on a day trip from Koh Samui – see “Koh Samui Day Trip to Koh Tao” near the end of this post.)
Mae Haad is the main village on Koh Tao. And a gazillion little tour shops tucked into the sides of the central sandy street hawk the big boat tours.
We tried TripAdvisor and other online sites as to what would be the “best” Koh Tao snorkeling tour.
No luck though. The Internet was slow – island life! No matter. We walked the strip and asked in person.
“Same same” said our enthusiastic tour seller. And she was right.
It really doesn’t matter what tour company or boat you pick.
Close to a dozen companies operate the big boat snorkel trips. Costing roughly the same, they all offer the “same same” itinerary and services.
5 Koh Tao snorkeling spots
The big boats slowly putter around Koh Tao and visit Koh Nang Yuan too, stopping to snorkel at five spots:
1) Shark Bay
Shark Bay, Koh Tao, also known as Haad Tien Beach, is at the south end of Koh Tao.
It gets its name from the small blacktip reef sharks that frequent the bay.
Don’t worry, the sharks are harmless, and there have never been any attacks! If you do glimpse a shark, be kind and give it lots of space to swim undisturbed.
Green sea turtles are sometimes spotted in Shark Bay too.
We, unfortunately, didn’t see a shark or a turtle. Sadly, the shallow coral reef is almost totally dead – a result of global warming and the waters being too warm.
2) Aow Leuk
Also on the south end of the island, Aow Leuk is a large picturesque bay, known for its crystal clear waters. The water wasn’t gin clear for us though – just not our day!
Again, the coral isn’t in the best of shape.
But some artificial reef structures have been placed by the New Heaven Reef Conservation Program to encourage restoration of the reef there.
There are lots of fish to see, however – butterfly fish, trigger fish, needle fish, parrot fish, Sergeant Majors and more.
3) Hin Wong Bay
This is a cute little spot, one of the best places to snorkel in Koh Tao.
The coral is better at Hin Wong Bay than at other spots around Koh Tao, and we saw the most fish there.
Keep an eye out for huge schools of sardines and large groupers!
4) Mango Bay
Ahhhh, Mango Bay.
It’s a pretty pretty place, where the water is almost luminescent in different shades of turquoise.
We loved just gazing at it above the water, never mind poking our heads underwater.
Located on the north end of Koh Tao, Mango Bay is difficult to get to except by boat.
For snorkeling, though, it’s one of the best places to snorkel in Koh Tao, with a shallow reef.
What to see underwater?
Large shoals of yellowtail barracuda are regularly spotted there, along with damselfish and lots of candy-colored wrasse.
5) Koh Nang Yuan
Our last stop was a small private island, Koh Nang Yuan (also spelled Koh Nan Yuan), where you have to pay an extra fee.
Drop-dead stunning in its natural beauty, Koh Nang Yuan is actually three little islands connected by sand spits.
It’s a private island with one 3-star resort – Nangyuan Island Dive Resort.
(It must be quite amazing to stay there and enjoy the whole island to yourself after the day-trippers leave! But bungalow prices are higher than on Koh Tao.)
The water is nice and calm, so the swimming and snorkeling is ideal for beginners.
Lined by large granite boulders, the Japanese Gardens is a good place to snorkel.
Regrettably, the coral bed is also damaged there. But you’ll see plenty of fish.
It was very busy when we went, so it felt like there were over 1,000 people vying for space to drop a towel on the sand or hide from the burning sun under one of the limited numbers of teeny umbrellas.
We took advantage of the shady barefoot bar and restaurant – the cold beer and drinks were very welcome!
Bottom line? Our Koh Tao snorkeling trip
So how do we say this without sounding too discouraging?
The truth is that the snorkeling on Koh Tao was a bit disappointing for us.
The water wasn’t terribly clear when we went.
Also, much of the coral is dead, so we were looking at brown and grey broken bits (not too interesting to see underwater).
And we weren’t surrounded by the galaxies of fish we’d expected.
A French couple we chatted to on our tour also commented that their Koh Tao diving experience the previous day wasn’t very inspiring – certainly compared to what they’d seen in Mozambique and the Dead Sea around Egypt.
Perhaps the snorkeling gods just weren’t with us this day.
Conditions do vary, and lots of travelers report that their snorkeling experience was great. (See comments below at the end of this post.)
Overall, what we got was a wonderful scenic boat tour around the whole island of Koh Tao.
The weather was hot, the swimming fun and the vibe relaxed. The tour was also great value at a little more than $25 USD p.p.
And if we hadn’t signed up for this Koh Tao snorkeling day trip, we’d forever wonder what we had missed!
One of the best Koh Tao activities
Snorkeling is one of the best things to do in Koh Tao.
So maybe just go – and discover for yourself what it’s like to snorkel Koh Tao :-).
Have fun! And if you go, let us know how you enjoyed your trip! (Comment below.)
Other snorkeling Koh Tao tours
If you’d prefer to go out on your own, book a private tour on a longtail boat.
On a private longtail boat, you’re free to arrange your own schedule. You can stop at less busy spots to snorkel and pick a beach to snooze on if you want a break from snorkeling.
On the flip side, you’ll probably have to bring your own snorkeling gear and arrange your own stop for lunch (or bring your own snacks and drinks with you).
And depending on the sea conditions, the water may be a little bumpier than on a “big boat.”
Many longtail boat drivers will be eager to take you.
Ask around and see what price you can negotiate.
Luxury speed boat:
For the ultimate in luxury, snorkel Koh Tao and surrounding islands by luxury speed boat.
A few companies offer tours by speed boat. These can easily be organized from Koh Samui.
Koh Samui day trip to Koh Tao
Koh Tao is close enough to Koh Samui that you can visit the island on a day trip from Koh Samui.
You might like this full-day snorkeling tour to Koh Tao on a motor catamaran (90-minute ride to Koh Tao). It includes pick-up from your Koh Samui hotel.
Or go by speedboat on this slightly shorter day tour.
Best time to snorkel Koh Tao
You can pretty well snorkel and dive Koh Tao 10 months of the year (avoiding the monsoon season of November and December).
The peak Koh Tao diving season is March to September, when visibility can be up to 100 feet or more (July and August are the busiest months).
This is the best time for snorkeling too, when water conditions are at their best.
March and April are the best times to see whale sharks in Koh Tao.
Most of the whale shark spots are suited mainly to divers, but you may be lucky and spot a whale shark near Shark Island (offshore from Shark Bay).
Where to stay on Koh Tao?
We stayed at Sensi Paradise Beach Resort, a beachfront bungalow resort with a cool hippie-chic vibe.
Recommended reading: See our review of the Koh Tao bungalows at Sensi Paradise Beach Resort
Photo credits: 5, 9, 11, 12 and 16 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase