Don’t let the title of this post scare you, it really is an incredible feeling to experience diving with the largest shark species out there, the whale shark. There are a few places in the world where mother nature allowed us such a close encounter with these humongous, yet peaceful, plankton eating creatures. One of those places is a small island off the east coast of Thailand, called Koh Tao. English translation, would be the Turtle Island. Koh Tao is the smallest of a 3 island group in that area. The other islands are Koh Pha-ngan, known for its full moon parties and Koh Samui. The best diving is, however, right by Koh Tao, so if you are going to Thailand to dive, forget about the other islands as the diving centers there will just take you on a dive close to Koh Tao anyway.
To get to Koh Tao from Bangkok is quite simple. You can book the whole journey from Bangkok to Koh Tao in any of the diving center offices close the backpacker district by Khaosan Road in Bangkok. There is a very comfortable early morning bus, which takes you to Chumphon where there awaits a large catamaran boat which will take you to any of those 3 islands. Be careful though, the boat ride gets a bit choppy, so it is not for the light stomachs out there. Luckily, the staff of the boat is prepared, so everyone will get a handful of puke bags for entertainment during the journey. The boat trip does not take that long, however, about 1-1,5 hours. There is also an option to take a sleeper train from Bangkok and then a ferry to Koh Tao.
Once you get to Koh Tao, you will be amazed at how many diving centers this small turtle island is a host to. Ideally, you’d already have a booking at one of the diving centers before you arrive, so when you get to the dock in Koh Tao, an appropriate diving center driver will pick you up and take you to the center. One of the best centers, which comes recommended again and again, is the Buddha View diving center. The center is ran by a veteran course director Mark Soworka, who also teaches the more advanced or new lifestyle design individuals who want to become instructors or dive masters. The Buddha View guys will give you free accommodation for the duration of your PADI certified course and have an awesome bbq every night. Even if you do not want to do any courses, the accommodation is very cheap ($10/night). Buddha View offers almost all courses available from PADI, of course, not the ones you require dry suit or ice :). You can learn to night dive, deep dive, how to control your buoyancy, using dive computer, and the proper treatment of your scuba gear.
The life in Koh Tao is indescribably wonderful and relaxing. You can enjoy the infamous banana pancakes from local street vendors, morning milk shakes or light lunch with home made pad thai. All you need to worry about is getting yourself to a diving truck on time. The rest just runs on its own schedule. If you want to dive, eat, sleep, dive, sun tan, have a massage, dive some more during the night, Koh Tao, is the paradise geteway you are looking for.
So, you must be now wondering, what about the whale sharks dude? Well, there are 3 dive sites in Thailand where they are spotted. Chumpon pinnacle by Koh Tao, Hin Daeng by Koh Phi Phi and Richelieu Rock north of Similan Islands. Whale shark encounters are not on a daily agenda for all dive centers, however, they do appear only a few times a year in these locations. So, obviously, a whole hell of a lot of luck and also some foresight planning is needed to see a whale shark. Whale sharks are in a constant migration and they always go where food is, so it could be assumed that during the coral reef spawning season March/April, could be a good time to see them.
Have you seen a whale shark? Why not share with us how was the encounter?