Freediving in Thailand’s Similan Islands

Koh Similan

Thailand’s Similan islands gave us a welcome dose of clear water to swim in and pretty fish to commune with again. Thanks to a timely departure from the shipyard in Satun, we got to Phuket in time to meet our friend Dan and take off with him for this limestone chain to the northwest.

Dan isn’t our first repeat visitor, but he’s the first to come twice in ONE year, and to two far flung destinations- Indonesia’s Raja Ampat, and now Thailand and the Similans. He’s a tech consultant with his heart in marine biology, and a freediving instructor to boot, so we have a lot of fun cranking up the underwater action when he’s on Totem. He fits right in, and generally has a kid on his lap (or wrapped around a finger) shortly after getting on board.

dan's here!

We heard the Similans have the best diving in a reasonable range (one-day sail) from Phuket, so that was the obvious choice of destination for Dan’s visit. For picture-perfect bays of soft, talcum powder beaches and turquoise water, the Similans did not disappoint. Under the surface, things were a little different. I’m also glad we had our expectations properly set with regard . It’s nice, but nothing like some of the really outrageous places we’ve been lucky enough to snorkel and dive in.


What the Similans had was stunning, turquoise water and a LOT of fish.

so many fish

What they did not have was biodiversity, top level predators, or coral. We tended to see the same species over and over. There was ONE shark sighting in a week of very, very active diving and snorkling. One. Most of the coral was dead. This was kind of depressing. I don’t understand what’s going on- whether it’s the effect of the Andaman warming a few years back that killed a lot of coral in the region, or lingering fallout from tsumani (silting kills coral too), or the increased pressure of more people- I’ll get to the touron volume, but it adds up to a lot of chemical crap being washed off bodies in the water every day.

There were a lot of parrotfish- pretty big ones, too- with telltale scrapes from their dining on coral, they must be getting something off the dead looking hunks.

parrotfish scrapes on coral

Besides fish, what they had were tourists. A lot of tourists. In the morning, the beach along the bay at the north end of at Koh Similan was just an expanse of beautiful white sand.

Koh Similan

At some point, this starts happening. A lot.

here they come...

It got kind of comical. This isn’t even peak.

tourons attack
There were easily over 1,000 people shuttled on and off that beach in one day, in a series of waves delivered by fast boats from Phuket for the day trip of their tropical dreams.
It’s fine, though. Actually, it was an interesting look at how well the different tour operators cooperated with each other. There aren’t enough moorings to go around, but instead of anchoring on coral, they’d raft up together while their flocks were baking on the beach. There was no marine tweak on road rage as the bay filled up. The park rangers were fantastic. We were fishing around for a mooring for a while, and they came over to tell us which mooring to pick up- and when (in an hour, when the tour boats rafted up to it departed the bay). 
99% of the swimming tourists stayed within 10′ of the beach with life jackets on- other than the occasional SCUBA diving group, we really had the underwater landscape to ourselves. 
When we weren’t diving, we’d just watch the show.
watching the bay
And then, in the evening, the beach was ours again… for a swim, or a little bocce.
evening calms
beach bocce!
We’ll go back in January, when we work our way north towards Myanmar, but our week in the Similans was a great preview. This was just the leading edge of peak season, and with more boats (competing for not enough moorings) and more tourists, we’ll probably be skimming north to the Surin islands instead of spending time here again- but it will be a nice place to revisit.
If you’re reading this on the SAILfeed website, you’ve just tossed change in Totem’s cruising kitty hat. Thank you!