You don’t have to be a diver to enjoy the amazing underwater world of Thailand! Snorkeling in Koh Tao is an an equally popular activity and you can see everything from reef sharks to sea turtles on a trip around the best snorkeling spots on the island!
Although there are snorkeling trips which leave from Koh Tao, these are often overshadowed by the availability and popularity of diving trips! The major issue with an activity like scuba diving being so in demand is that the price skyrockets. Granted, you’ll be able to find some companies that offer discounts or slightly cheaper options than most, but when it comes to diving deep underwater, safety needs to be guaranteed and finding the best company can be expensive.
Of course, if you’re on a short term holiday or already certified to dive then the expenses of a dive course might not be a factor. But as a couple of backpackers trying to budget money to travel through Southeast Asia, it was key for us to find an alternative.
At our hotel and all around the island, was a large, very appealing advert for Oxygen snorkeling tours. The offer was for a morning or afternoon trip, both taking up around 6 hours to visit 5 different spots around the island of Koh Tao, including Nang Yuan Island.
Snorkeling in Koh Tao: A Review of the Island’s Most Popular Trip!
We were super keen to explore Koh Tao’s snorkeling scene so we arranged to do both the morning and afternoon trips with Oxygen over the next few days. We opted for the afternoon trip first to get a lie-in, although the morning was only a couple of hours earlier.
A taxi driver arrived at our guesthouse, a little earlier than the 11:20 expected time but luckily we’d been waiting outside for him since five past the hour. From there we drove around, building our group up to 11 in number before driving back to the Oxygen head office by the pier. When we got inside, I was surprised at how busy the office was. Around 40 people were eagerly waiting for instruction on what to do next.
Fortunately, the staff at Oxygen were organised and efficient and kept us in the groups that we arrived in before getting us to fill in some details for insurance purposes. They also collected an extra 100 baht from each person for the island entrance fee. We were then guided back outside, group by group, to two staff members sat at a table, giving us each a wristband that had a dedicated letter and number, followed by a snorkel.
Once everyone had collected their wristbands, we headed out towards the dock located at the end of the road. Nearly everyone from the office was headed there which made you wonder how big the boat actually was. If you’re there for the afternoon trip you’ll be greeted by a large vessel with an upper and lower deck. The morning one provides a much larger ship with an open third tier for those looking to sunbathe. Once everyone was settled, one of the staff got everyone’s attention to deliver some important information.
They introduced the team on each trip and explained to us the general rules of the tour which covered mostly health and safety, as well as the costs for damaging or losing your snorkel and mask. We were also told about the reason for the wristbands, which was to ensure that everyone who came off of the boat could be matched against a checklist of different letters and numbers when they re-entered. After showing us all of the freebies available on the boat including cold/hot water, tea/coffee and a never-ending tub of biscuits, we set off for our first stop: Nang Yuan Island.
Nang Yuan Island
Before we arrived at the dock, we were advised to leave any plastic water bottles on the boat because they would be thrown away before entering the island, regardless of how much water they had left in it. Reusable water bottles and flasks are ok though, something we wish we’d known on the afternoon trip, especially while spending an hour and a half on the island.
Fortunately, we remembered it for the morning trip which was a slightly longer 2 hour stop. You can’t help but feel it may be a little ploy to encourage visitors to buy water from the vendors on the island but once you see how clean the area is, you can see the benefits of having such a strict policy.
We collected our pre-paid tickets at the entrance and had our bags checked for any smuggled plastic. Once past the checkpoint, we headed across wooden walkways until we found a spot on the beach to regroup. We were told that this was also the stop where we needed to be around 10 minutes before the 2-hour mark.
We were given some choices of what to do, one WAS a trek up the hill to a viewpoint and the other options were snorkeling in the bay or exploring the other parts of the island. We decided to try the viewpoint on the first trip, especially due to how busy the bays were.
Nang Yuan Viewpoint
We had to make our way back over the walkway to a side path leading up some stairs. At first glance, the steep stairs didn’t seem like too much of a challenge. After all, our previous travels had taken us up Mandalay Hill in Myanmar and up and down the rice fields in Ubud, Bali.
The hike did prove to be pretty disheartening at first, especially with a lack of water to keep our energy up, but once we neared the top we found ourselves joining the back of a queue of people all waiting to get to the viewpoint.
The break from walking was welcomed, although the waiting did feel a little tedious, especially as you can see the stairs eventually stopping and the rest of the climb exclusively made up of rocks. After 30 minutes of slowly progressing to the large boulders at the top, it’s easy to see why the tour allows for such a long time at the island.
We eventually got to the viewpoint and realised that there really isn’t any regulation up there, meaning you have to wait for everyone to take their photos and head back down to allow more people to do the same. This showed the impatience of some, which can be understandable if you haven’t left yourself enough time to get there in the first place.
We literally climbed to the top of the boulders which also had viewpoints available for those who don’t want to climb up the largest rocks. It was easy to see why people put the effort in. From the rock that I got onto, I could see two of the three parts that make up Nang Yuan Island in all its unfiltered glory. Once we’d spent a good 5-10 minutes capturing photos and taking it all in, we made our way back down the 153 steps, squeezing past the queue of visitors eagerly waiting for their photo opportunities.
The Beaches of Nang Yuan
By the time we got back to the meeting spot on the first trip, we had about 20 minutes left. The last portion of time was spent exploring the other two parts of the island which were connected by waist-high water and a rope to guide the traffic. Once you’ve trudged along the watery path, you’ll come across some bars and more beach areas, although there are a large number of tourists taking up the small areas of sand.
The morning trip surprisingly didn’t have as many people in the water, meaning we had a lot more fun while others decided to brave the hour-long trip up to the viewpoint. You’re immediately greeted by all sorts of fish and for a first time snorkeler, it is a great preview for the rest of the tour.
For me it was a place I felt a lot more comfortable attempting to dive deeper instead of floating around the surface, familiarising myself with the technique of taking a deep breath and then using that to blast the water out of the snorkel when I resurfaced.
Over an hour in, we had done everything we wanted to do so we spent the last 45 minutes watching one of the staff create a work of art in the sand to pass the remaining time. An hour and a half proved to be enough time to see everything on the island and once everyone promptly regrouped, we made our way back to the boat.
The next stop on the tour was Mango Bay which was 20 minutes away and where the real snorkeling would come in to play. Before we got there, lunch was served. On the afternoon trip, tupperware containing chicken and rice (and stir-fried vegetables for the few vegetarians) were handed out followed by trays of fruit, providing a decent meal for everyone. With more people on the morning trip, a lunch buffet seemed like the better option, with 6 options available: a chicken curry, plain rice, stir-fried vegetables, breaded chicken fillets, pineapple and watermelon.
There was more than enough to feed everyone on the boat twice, although some decided to take far more than they really needed. As a vegetarian, the options were a little limited, especially with everyone able to take from it. The stir fried vegetables disappeared pretty quickly leaving only rice and sweet chilli sauce for a second helping. Fortunately, everyone was able to eat at least one full meal and with the bottomless jar of free biscuits, it was easy enough to get our fill.
We were told that each stop would be around 30 minutes long (40 for the bigger group) and that they would signal to us when it was ready to get back on, although we shouldn’t rush back and tire ourselves out. Once the boat had stopped on the afternoon trip, we were given the option of getting into the water from the back or jumping from the upper deck. Of course, it felt rude not to jump in from the top so I made my way up the steps and plummeted into the cool, deep blue.
On the morning trip, we were all excitedly waiting for the call that the two water slides on the back of the boat were now available. Everyone queued up to have a turn and although kids were barging through to get to the front, you couldn’t really blame them for their persistence, especially when you got to experience the same thrill of dropping into the cold water. Once I got over the shock of the salty water entering my nose on each trip, I made my way over to an area that was sectioned off by rope.
Mango Bay (or Lighthouse Bay)
The actual area in which to snorkel is very big and could easily accommodate all of our party with the buoyed rope helping to keep us all in place. Depending on the day you go snorkeling in Koh Tao, it can be hard to see as far as the person in front of you due to poor visibility in the water but it didn’t stop us being greeted by an array of tropical fish.
I’d experienced a bit of snorkeling in the Gili Islands off of Bali so a lot of the fish were very familiar, although they were nearly triple the size. A big difference though was that at the Gili’s, the fish did their best to keep a safe distance. Here the fish were either clueless, fearless or both and it felt at times that you might accidentally bat them with your hands while trying to tread water, though they were definitely quick enough to escape any frantic limbs.
The visibility seemed a lot better on the morning trip, allowing us to follow all the colourful sea life and even see a couple of new fish compared to the previous afternoon trip. Beforehand, I had witnessed the odd barracuda swimming close to the surface of the water, usually too fast to keep up with, but on the second trip, I was able to see a school of them floating around, waiting to breach the water.
Hin Wong Bay
30 minutes was plenty of time to see the various fish, especially when you neared the rocks and the water became clear enough to even see crabs crawling across them! We regrouped on the boat with a member of staff asking us on arrival for our wristband numbers to match us up to their checklist.
The next stop was Hin Wong Bay which is known as the home of a million fish. The name sounded like an exaggeration but there was apparently much more coral to explore, both soft and hard. As I approached the next roped-off section, I did notice a few fish on the way in but underneath the floor seemed to be very shiny.
I got a little closer to find a seemingly endless stream of fish swimming in unison away from the area and realised exactly why the bay was known for what it was. The coral itself was gorgeous, oddly shaped and boasting different colours. There was also a huge amount of sea life attached to each, as well as the fish all feeding off them. The morning trip offered the same, although the million fish were nowhere to be seen.
Next stop on the afternoon trip was Aow Luek. By this point, it was becoming easier to find the fish. One of the staff had jumped in with us this time and was guiding everyone to different spots of coral which showed off the best looking fish.
By this point, it became a great game to look for fish that you hadn’t already seen. I was pleased to spot Gill from Finding Nemo and a fish whose scales resembled the iridescent rainbow style that has become popular in kitchen utensils.
The waves were choppier in the area on both of the trips but once you get into the safety of the roped-off bay it was easier to explore all of what it had to offer. Due to the overcast weather of the morning trip, we skipped this bay to get to the highlight of the tour, Shark Bay.
Shark Bay was the last stop of the afternoon trip, aptly named due to the Blacktip sharks that occupy the area. We were also told that this is the spot we were most likely to see sea turtles, something that we had been anticipating since missing them at the Gili Islands.
As we entered the area, the staff called out to passing boats that were leaving to see if they had spotted any sea turtles. After confirming that there was at least one swimming around, we were hurriedly told to jump off the boat and head to a spot where other snorkelers were floating around. Fortunately, as we were one of the first 10 to get off of the boat, we got to the area and saw the large silhouette first, with fish eating off of the shell.
Eventually, we came close enough to see the glorious sea turtle, disguising itself in the coral and beginning to move away from the growing number of spectators. By the time everyone had come to the spot, the turtle had moved on, followed closely by some of the group trying to catch another glimpse. Once we’d unsuccessfully had another look around for more, we regrouped one final time at the boat.
While we waited for everyone else to be done, another staff member had called over those still in the water and encouraged some more from the boat to take a look at a shark that had been spotted. It was short-lived with the shark moving on as well, bringing the afternoon trip to its end. The morning trip offered much of the same except that when we arrived, there was already another large group tour in the area meaning we had to get off further away and swim to the bay.
One of the major problems with trying to find animals on a large snorkeling tour is how difficult it can be to succeed due to the sheer number of bodies in the water. There were apparently sharks and turtles swimming around the bay on the morning trip but with a separate tour group present at the same time, there were around 100 people in the water. Many of which were thrashing around and shouting when an individual would scream out “turtle” or “shark” to alert everyone.
With so many frantically kicking out trying to get to the area, you might end up with a foot to the face or much more likely, missing the timid creature who would naturally try to escape the mob. I got a glimpse of a Blacktip shark before it whizzed off into the abyss. There was no chance to see the turtle that others had claimed to be in almost touching distance of but luckily we’d had the opportunity on the last trip.
On the afternoon trip, we ended up waiting on the boat for a while longer when it was discovered that the motor had some rope caught up in it. This was the beginning of a 20-minute wait as two of the guides and one of the passengers attempted to remove the obstacle. Of course, they were apologetic for the wait when they eventually freed it up but having stayed in the water until it was dark actually meant being able to witness a beautiful sunset behind the boats and islands along the horizon. The morning trip didn’t end the same, as we had one last stop to make up for missing Aow Luek.
The final stop was Freedom Bay, a picturesque location with rocks spilling out of the luscious trees along with huts partly concealed in the greenery. There were a couple of longboats parked up and for snorkeling there was more coral and barracudas to hunt for.
Most of the boat was focused on spending the last leg of the trip getting as much time on the water slides as possible. After 30 minutes of activity, we regrouped on the vessel and just like we had after concluding the afternoon trip, handed back the snorkels before departing to the dock. The boat landed after about 20 minutes, and we were greeted by members of staff on the shore, all directing everyone’s groups back to the taxi they had originally arrived in. This was based on the specific code of our wristbands, ready to take us back to our accommodation.
Was This Koh Tao Snorkeling Tour Worth It?
Everyone was relatively quiet on the way back to their hotels and homestays and you could tell it was mainly from exhaustion at the long productive day we’d all had. It was nice to have the time to reflect on the experience and just how fun the whole tour had been.
Some of the setbacks, such as the lack of sea turtles and the visibility of the water, were enough to make you wonder whether it would have been worth forking out the money for scuba diving instead. However, for a tenth of the price you can enjoy a fun-filled morning or afternoon spotting sea life and taking in some breathtaking views in the presence of a company that not only delivers a fantastic experience but clearly enjoys doing it.
After experiencing both the morning and afternoon trips, it’s safe to say we couldn’t have got more out of the tour that we did. For sheer value for money, the morning trip provided a lot, though visiting during the high season means that you’ll be part of a very large group, which isn’t great when trying to find some rare wildlife that most book the trip exclusively for.
On the other hand, booking in with the afternoon trip may mean no slide or buffet but gives you a better chance at seeing turtles and sharks without the chaos of excitable children and adults; it entirely depends on what you want to pay for.
Either way, we got everything that we had hoped for from both trips and in terms of organisation and delivery, the company did an excellent job accommodating both. As an alternative to a potentially long and expensive scuba diving course, the snorkeling trip definitely gives you a special experience and Oxygen Tours prove that they aren’t the top snorkeling tour company in Koh Tao out of chance.