The History of Shipwreck Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand.
Wrecks have always been a passion of mine, I learnt to dive in South Africa where there are many and I loved the somewhat spookiness of them. The way they materialize from the depths as you descend and their histories and stories make for a more enriched dive – well that’s my point of view anyway. I came to Koh Tao passing through maybe around 9 years ago, made a few dives and then returned a couple of years later to take my Dive Master and Instructor qualifications. I loved the diving and the lifestyle here but the only thing missing for me were wrecks.
After traveling and teaching and diving all over the world, I returned to Koh Tao some years later to find a bunch of wreck divers had got off their neoprene clad bottoms and gone to see if they could find something a little more tantalizing. They were all technical divers who created their own niche simply to ensure that they could keep searching for and diving on wrecks. Their home and base was Master Divers and really how I first encountered the shop that I’m now a partner in.
By the time I had met them they had scored the wonder goal in terms of wreck diving and found the USS Lagarto a WWII Submarine – not bad eh? I wanted in, but I certainly needed more training first so Tech Deep was next. On this course one of the wrecks I visited was the Unicorn which was, at that time, the closest wreck to Koh Tao – just an hour away. (The closest unless you counted a tuk tuk or a small catamaran. To be fair the catamaran has lots of life on it and but hardly merits more than 10 mins of exploration on the dive around the coastline) Although you can dive this at 40m, and a few more experienced divers do go along for a day trip for something more challenging, it was more used for technical training and experience dives for the Tec 50 course. It certainly makes for an interesting dive, the bow is a strange and confusing affair when you find it and there’s a monster jew fish that stalks the wreck too. He always made me jump. Over the years its been interesting to see this wreck slip and lean steadily into the sand proving that the salt water wrecks that we dive now will be just a memory by the time our grand-kids are diving – toting the latest in CCR technology no doubt.So now fully trained I really wanted to jump on one of the liveaboard trips and check out some of the wrecks I had been hearing about.
The HTMS Phangan is a great wreck to cut your teeth on. She was a Thai Navy vessel built by the Japanese before WWII. She’s around 60m in length and approximately 3000 tons. She lies on her port side in 60 metres of clear water, the top of the wreck is at 48m.
She was allegedly overcome by big waves but there is evidence of fire damage everywhere and given that she was carrying munitions for dumping it seems likely that someone was not telling the truth. Shes a great dive with lots to see and I was more than happy to put my training into practice over a few days and explore her.I worked up my experience and gradually introduced my camera to the tec diving realm too. Photography at any depth is a challenge but below 40m with the extra equipment and processes that the dive alone requires its even more so. With all this wonderful tech diving on my doorstep, I rarely passed up an opportunity and was soon signing up for the Trimix Course and a visit to the infamous USS Lagarto.
Wow – what a dive ! My photographs were included in DIVE Magazines 100 Essential Wreck Dives and I was invited to write about my experience for, amongst others, Scuba Diver Austral-Asia too. There are many more wrecks out there and I still want to dive and photograph the infamous Tottori Maru. I have dived her – twice now – but I never take my camera in on the first dive of a wreck. I use it more as a scouting dive and circumstances have always conspired against me ever making that second dive…. She just doesn’t want to be photographed but what a wreck! She was a WWII Hellship used for transporting prisoners.
Three torpedoes courtesy of the USS Hammerhead took her to her watery grave, thankfully devoid of captives . She lies on her starboard side and is the epitome of what a wreck dive should be. Her stern is fully intact and porcelain peeps out of the sand and silt everywhere you look. From close to the wheel house the massive damage wrought by the devastating torpedos has twisted the metal like it was no more than a can of coke. The bow is twisted out and stands almost vertical and glassware can be seen half buried in the silt of the forward compartments. Oh to get my camera onto the wreck ! The Seacrest Drill Ship is another monster dive. She went down in Hurricane Gaye amid a whole load of controversy that still rages to this day. She lies almost upside down and you enter the wreck through the moon pool on the hull. A veritable wreck divers playground – this is not one for the faint-hearted. Hurricane Gaye wreaked havoc everywhere in this region and one of its much much shallower and easier to access victims lies just a few minutes from Master Divers in Mae Haad Bay in the front of Sensi Paradise Resort.
This small wreck is perfect for snorkeling and great for families with kids too and it already has its own blog post with pictures and video too. However Koh Tao still didn’t have its own, dive-able, closer to home wreck.
There was some excitement when in 2009 a tiny dive boat succumbed to the weather and sank. She was moved to just outside of Japanese Gardens for all to enjoy.Being wooden she very quickly attracted life and growth and her yellow colour was quickly cloaked. She wasn’t very big though and one of the ferries would moor up to her. Soon she was dragged into the channel and lost, probably broken up and never to be seen again.
So that spelt the end of wreck diving until the aforementioned wreck pioneers decided the MV Trident has served her dues and it was time that she made her final voyage to the great scrap heap in the sky… Or maybe not? Wouldn’t it be fitting that the vessel that cruised the waters looking for wrecks became a wreck herself.The Save Koh Tao Group took ownership of the project and many dive schools donated money. A huge fund raising event was organised and the money was raised for her purchase and stripping. She was laid to rest in Sept 2010 close to Shark Island amongst local controversy.
Some felt that they had been duped into giving money to support a wreck project that was too deep for Open Water Divers to enjoy. In reality she was always planned to be deep so that she has something to offer both more experienced divers and training tech divers too.
She’s certainly great for a 30% Nitrox dive, the Deep Diver Course and also for Tec 40 and Tec 45 too and those that fancy something a little different to colourful reef dives. She sits slightly askew and is home to large schools of fish already. She is in quite a currenty area so it is essential to check the tide charts and plan your dive accordingly. Which brings us nicely to the present day when the Thai Navy donated the HTMS Sattakut to Koh Tao diving. Regular readers will know I have written many blogs about this exiting event – starting with the first time we saw her back in June this year. Bad weather hampered the sinking but we were there to document her final moments afloat.
The bad weather caused the vessel to not only not sink where planned but also to fall over on her side. A lot of time and effort was then spent in July trying to right and move her to to where she should’ve been. Clearly the wreck itself never got the memo because as soon as she was upright and a handful dived her, she slipped back over again. Not to be beaten, the team involved once again stood her up and here she has remained. She now lies extremely close to Hin Pee Wee. In my mind too close – just a few fin kicks from the bow- which has added pressure to Hin Pee Wee, rather than relieving pressure – which is a definite goal of any artificial reef. But you cant please all of the people all of the time and she is a great dive.
She’s certainly a lot of fun, with her bow and deck guns still intact shes a perfect first tour of a wreck for any diver and great for the Wreck Adventure Dive on the Advanced Course her depth makes her great for Nitrox too.
The penetration is free of the usual hazards making it great fun for the already trained and perfect for those practicing their skills on the Wreck Course too. We do go quite often and its just 10 mins on the longtail from the beach too which makes it a perfect nip-out-and-dive site. You can see more pictures from our visits on our Daily Diving Reports. Check out the 18th Aug when we dived Chumphon and the HTMS Sattakut (Whoa !) and then again on the 25th Aug too. More recently we have produced a video tour of the inside and outside of her - you can see it here.
So there you have it a not-so-short history of wrecks around Koh Tao. Whatever your level if you love the metal then its here!
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