Only twenty-one kilometers in area, the variety of sights offered by Koh Tao is impressive. The vibe here is different than other islands. Yes, there’s still bars and plenty of people drinking Sang Som, but it’s almost entirely confined to Sairee Beach. Visitors begin to slip into ‘Koh Tao time’: backpackers call it a night early after a week of nonstop traveling, divers in-training skip the Leo or Chang and prepare themselves for a sunrise adventure. Offering fewer carnal distractions than other, more party friendly islands, Koh Tao presents itself as the perfect place to go exploring. And with a name like Shark Bay, the South Western Coast of the island is bound to peak the interest of those adventurous spirits interested in snorkeling with sharks.
No matter which direction you’re coming from, before you reach Koh Tao – Shark Bay, you must first traverse one of many steep and stubborn hills — this is when a motorbike or scooter comes in handy. The entire bay can be taken in from the top. Sicilian looking cliffs and houses of spectacular color surround the bay, the beach itself is reminiscent of the ones Sean Connery lurked around in the first Bond movie, Dr. No (as it would happen, Dr. No was actually filmed not too far away, on the island park of Ao Phang Nga also known as ‘Bond Island’, but ignore that tidbit, everything’s more fun when you think you’re 007). It embodies all the praise and cringeworthy cliches one might hear before coming to Thailand: “Pristine”, “crystal clear”, the works. Those snorkeling in Shark Bay Koh Tao float out with their heads submerged like ostriches in the sand.
Despite bearing a Bondesque name, Shark Bay is actually pretty tame. There’s been four recorded shark attacks on Koh Tao in the last hundred years and the victims have all been fisherman — no divers or snorkelers. Sharks, like most animals, are much more afraid of you than you are of them. In truth, there’s usually only baby sharks to be found, but the occasional momma Jaws will make an appearance if you’re lucky — luck, you’ll soon find out, is everything when it comes to shark spotting.
Despite it being rainy season, the sun still bears down unflinchingly. I made the amateur’s mistake of running straight for the water without applying sunblock to my back — learn from my error! Lest you end up with a giant V of sensitive, red, blotchy skin that keeps you awake and wincing at night.
I suggest leaving your flip flops on as you set out, the coral is unpleasant to tread and at some points it’s all there actually is to tread on — this was my second mistake of the day.
As I mentioned, snorkeling with sharks all comes down to chance. The friends that were accompanying me on this, my first visit, had gone three times before. One friend, Ricardo, had seen nothing but sea cucumbers and coral, while the other two attested to witnessing what sounded like the entire cast of the Little Mermaid. If you feel like you’re in lady luck’s good graces, swim out to the back of the bay just before the light water transitions to the deep blue ocean.
The water chills the farther you swim, the sea floor drops beneath you. Your eyes will be treated to an underwater delight, a kaleidoscope of fish dressed in combinations of color you hadn’t thought possible on any living creature. The coral itself can be a treasure chest; take a deep breath and swim down to inspect what’s hiding in its crevices. I did this a few times but had to stop. My cheap pair of rented goggles refused to keep water out and there was a capricious splosh of water that refused to be blown out of my snorkel tube.
I’ll admit that after thirty minutes of nonstop swimming, a brief surge of panic shot across my mind like the starting shot of a race. The shore was a good fifty meters away, the sun beat down, and my lungs felt overworked. Serious shark snorkeling in Koh Tao isn’t recommended for serious smokers. I turned on my back and tried to float while I caught my breath. The break didn’t last long. There was sudden splashing by my side. My three friends were hot in pursuit of something. Not wanting to end up like poor Ricardo, I cut through the water to catch up. I dipped my head and managed to see a faint, dark silhouette, like an ant under a magnifying glass, before it swam out of sight into the deep blue. I swam up and broke the surface to the sound of my friends raving.
“Did you see it?” “It was huge!” “Must have been over a meter!”
They were satisfied. I wasn’t. Giving in to my persistence, we stayed a while longer. My persistence paid off in spades. Lady luck seemed to have loosened her grip, I was out of the dog house: Three sharks in a span of twenty minutes, each bigger than the one before. The closest you’ll get to a shark is swimming right above it — they’re are quick and can vanish off as fast as they appeared. The outing was capped off with a run in with a lime green sea turtle that looked to be sleeping as it went by. All in all, a success.
Finally, the sun started to set. The stunning visibility that had made for such great shark spotting began to dissolve. We made our way back to the shore. One friend hoped out loud that our belongings, among which were two cameras, three smartphones, and a wallet, were still on the shore. Luckily, nothing had been taken; it would seem that there is honor among shark hunters.
We exchanged a few words with a pair of girls who had been swimming longer than us and had still not seen a single shark. They seemed more upset about it than the situation called for. We tried playing down the experience. “It wasn’t all that great.” I found this to be more difficult than I expected. The sun, the white sand, looking glass waters, a fish for every color of the rainbow, the sharks, the sea turtle … snorkeling with sharks was that great. What can I say? Better luck next time, ladies.
And good luck to you, reader.