Quieter than its brash neighbour Phuket, this friendly town offers accessible underwater attractions including an approachable member of the shark family
Alex Frew McMillan
On safari in Africa, people search for the ‘Big Five’: buffalo, elephant, lion, leopard and rhino. Many divers’ equivalent list would surely feature sharks: the whale shark, great white and hammerhead, most likely. In the waters around Krabi in Southern Thailand, though, lurks a less obvious contender, an underwater leopard – the leopard shark.
The Krabi area is more commonly thought of as a climbing spot or simply an away-from-it-all venue for beach-lovers. Its stunning above-water limestone stacks and cliffs drop into the clear, warm, shallow waters of Phang Nga Bay that are a perfect playground both for snorkellers and for divers early in their careers. Begging to be explored, these inviting waters reward those that do with sightings of sea snakes, turtles, cuttlefish and sea horses, as well as those leopard sharks.
To dive the area, you base yourself on Koh Phi Phi Don – the bigger of the two Phi Phi islands – or else on another nearby pair of islands, Koh Yao Yai and Koh Yao Noi. It is also possible to stay at the resorts on the mainland coast near Ao Nang, home to around 15 dive shops.
Confusingly, leopard sharks are also known as zebra sharks – making them sound like both hunter and hunted – thanks to the patterns of black and white bands they display when younger. These leopards do change their spots, though, developing more cat-like markings in their adulthood.
Whether young or old, they’re not considered dangerous, with the only people ever bitten by leopard sharks being those who try to touch them. Typically found resting on the sandy bottom, gills slowly fluttering, they make good ‘beginner’s sharks’ and perfect photo subjects as they often let you get to within a metre or two of them without becoming too disturbed.
Koh Bida Nai
Style: Easy-going dive across a slope
Depth: 20m max, 13m average
Although larger Phi Phi Don has all the accommodation options and a number of good dive spots, Phi Phi Leh has the best sites. The channel between Phi Phi Leh and next-door Koh Bida Nai offers a fantastic dive that yields a string of interesting encounters, not least a good chance of coming across a leopard shark.
My own first encounter – with a 1.5m shark – saw us able to approach to within a metre, allowing for an inspection of the two sucker fish that were calling the animal home. There was also a giant moray peeking out from the reef and a huge grouper, as well as a longnose emperor and 10 blue jacks, with their distinctive bars.
Moving to an outcropping called Fantasy Reef, we came across two cuttlefish striking curious poses while hovering just off the reef. Wearing their emotions on their bodies, they pulsed with neon colours, surely as close to any imagined alien as can be found on earth. One of the cuttlefish again allowed us to get close, holding its tentacles in front of it as if to say “I am unarmed. Take me to your leader”. Or possibly simply “Let’s be friends.”
Next came an old, algae-covered hawksbill turtle that is a common sight for divers at Bida Nai, then a banded sea snake hunting through the coral, which gave us a wide berth. Blue-spotted ribbontail rays, a regular feature of Krabi waters, made good photo subjects against the sand. At the end of the dive, we came across a spiny devilfish, walking on fin ‘fingers’ across the sea-bottom with a pugilistic swagger, flashing the colourful inside of its ‘wings’ at anyone who came close.
It was one of those dives where you thought “Man, we’ve already seen a lot of stuff – can it get better?” And then it did.
Note though that the site is also sometimes called Phi Phi Shark Point, which is a confusing name because of the more famous site called Shark Point, found north of the Phi Phi islands.
Best of the rest
Shark Point/ Hin Mu Sang
Style: Coral-covered pinnacle
Depth: 24m max, 14m average
Many good near-to-shore dives off the coast of Thailand are around rocky coral-covered outcrops that stretch up towards or reach slightly above the surface. These pinnacles attract both reef and ocean-going fish, providing protection and a food source.
Hin Mu Sang (Musang Rock) is a case in point. Properly not one but three outcrops, only the tallest of these breaks the surface and is today crowned with a small lighthouse.
Again, there is a good chance of spotting leopard sharks resting on the sand just off the pinnacles. Shark Point Two also has mantis shrimp around its base, colourful tunnel dwellers with a kick powerful enough to break a finger. Good dive guides will warn you not to risk any digits near their homes, which have a front and a back entrance so the shrimp can shuffle to either end to escape danger.
Also among the coral are plenty of eels. We found a group of 18 white-eyed moray eels twined together like Medusa’s hair, with a fimbriated moray nearby and blue-spotted ribbontails resting in the sand.
At the end of the dive, we were joined by a school of rainbow runners and then watched needlefish at the surface during our safety stop. Rainbow runners are sometimes harbingers of the appearance of a whale shark, but sadly that wasn’t the case for us.
Style: Coral-covered pinnacle
Depth: 23m max, 16m average
Within sight of the lighthouse that marks Shark Point lies Anemone Reef, or Hin Jom, an entirely submerged pinnacle. As the name of the site suggests, there are many anemonefish in the shallows, where the top of the pinnacle can be as little as 4m below the surface. At least three species were seen: clownfish, pink anemonefish, and western skunk anemonefish.
There are often several big schools of fish here, with separate clouds of fusiliers, snappers and the small yellow-tail barracuda floating around the pinnacle. At 18m, we found a congregation of lionfish, looking like a small Spanish armada of galleons with their brown-and-white striped bodies and many ‘sails’ set in the current.
We also came across a strange sight at the base of the pinnacle, where two porcupinefish seemed to be so inseparable that these normally skittish fish stayed hovering off the bottom even as we approached them. On closer inspection, we realised that one had a hook in its mouth, and the attached fishing line had become caught around some coral. It couldn’t move if it wanted to, and its companion was too loyal to leave it.
Together with my dive companion Peter Schreck, a German native and long-time Thai resident who owns a dive shop in Ao Nang, I cut the fish free. It puffed up only slightly – perhaps realising our intention was to help it – and Schreck says he has subsequently often seen the pair at the site.
Phi Phi Leh Wall
Style: Wall dive
Depth: 14m to base of wall
This pleasant wall dive along the outside of Koh Phi Phi Leh has decent soft corals and some gorgonian sea fans, often a beautiful salmon pink colour that you don’t typically see elsewhere in Asia. It’s not the only local oddity in this part of the Andaman Sea – the western skunk anemonefish found here have distinctly orange pelvic fins, and the peacock groupers, normally covered with purple spots, typically show five or six dark stripes here.
Given the shallow depths around the Phi Phi islands, this wall is not a vertiginous one disappearing into the darkness – it’s possible to see the bottom most of the time, making it a good introduction to wall diving. Pufferfish and small catfish are two of the main attractions, with other reef fish nestled in among the table corals.
Notable sites nearby
Hin Daeng, or ‘Red Rock’, and Hin Muang, or ‘Purple Rock’, are world-class dive sites due south of the Phi Phi islands, out in the open ocean and therefore deeper than any sites in Phang Nga Bay.
Almost 100km from Ao Nang, they’re the furthest sites the dive shops there will venture to, and then only upon special request and at extra cost, for fuel. Better to base yourself on Koh Phi Phi Leh if you want to visit. Hin Daeng in particular is known as a good place to see whale sharks and manta rays.
The King Cruiser, a well-known site often mentioned in dive books, is the wreck of a huge ferry that ran aground on Anemone Reef and once made for interesting penetration dives. Now smashed up by big storms though, it is no longer safe to enter.
The ‘local Krabi islands’ such as Koh Si and Koh Talu immediately off the coast of Ao Nang are the most easily reached dive sites from the mainland. Visibility can be terrible though, and they are particularly shallow dive sites, so it’s more of a muck dive in sandy or silty water.
It’s also worth noting that Koh Phi Phi Leh has a sheltered cove called Phi Phi Leh Bay. There’s a shallow entrance but the bay is otherwise surrounded by steep, jungle-covered limestone walls, making it a beautiful setting in which to snorkel or even, as Schreck likes to offer, to take the confined-water section of the open-water course. Be warned, though, that it’s best to go in the morning to escape the crowds that buzz back and forth from the island on longtails later in the day. ??
When to go
High season runs from November through April. Low season is still warm if less reliably sunny, with squalls and tropical rainstorms blowing through periodically. The water stays warm all year but the visibility in summer is impacted by the run-off after rain. Avoid September and October when the Andaman Sea is too rough to reach most dive spots and many dive shops take a break to fix their boats.
How to get there
Air Asia flies from Kuala Lumpur to Krabi, or else take a domestic flight from Bangkok. Phuket’s airport offers more international connections, from where Krabi is a three- or four-hour drive or bus ride. You can also cross from Phuket by ferry, changing boats in Phi Phi.
Absolute Diving (www.absolute-diving.net), run by Peter Schreck, has a high-speed boat that puts even Hin Daeng is within reach.
There are plenty of other dive shops in Ao Nang, and also a good selection on Koh Phi Phi Don including The Adventure Club (www.phi-phi-adventures.com) and Viking Divers (www.vikingdiversthailand.com).