Mu Ko Surin (Surin Islands), Thailand
IN BRIEF :
Mu Ko Surin is a Marine National Park in South West Thailand. It is about 150km North West of Phuket and 100km South West of Ranong.
I visited for a couple of weeks in April 2013.
The Surin Islands have long been famous as a snorkeller’s paradise, with fields of colourful corals stretching as far as the eye can see. Unfortunately, over 90% of the coral is now dead. The islands suffered huge damage from a temperature-change event in 2010. This resulted in “coral bleaching” and the death of almost all the corals. The coral also suffered in the 2004 tsunami and in another temperature-rise event in 1998. Coral damage on this scale takes decades to recover from.
That said, the Surin Islands are not a write-off. There are still plenty of fish around. And, because of the long distance from the mainland, there are interesting species that you wouldn’t find elsewhere.
Since the demise of the coral, the number of visitors has dropped, making-for a more civilised experience on the beaches, tracks and restaurants of these beautiful islands.
Some of the tougher coral species have survived (mainly the Porites species – “hump”coral). Hump coral is mostly an unspectacular yellowy-brown colour, but it occasionally comes in attractive shades of purple, green and blue. The prettiest snorkelling spots are those with different colours of these surviving Porites corals next to each other.
There is not much off-the-beach snorkelling. The islands are very large and there are no roads, so your range is limited. There are two areas with accommodation. Each one has a reasonable snorkelling spot within a 15 minute swim, but the corals at sites closer to home are generally unimpressive.
Areas 1 and 3 on the map below are the only places you can reasonably reach by swimming. If you are more hardcore and don’t mind a long swim to get there, Area 4 is probably the best snorkelling on the islands.
The National Park department runs half-day snorkelling boat trips morning and afternoon. These cost 100B each (plus 40B mask & snork rental, if you need them). In total, there are about ten available snorkel sites, and these probably have the best sights on the Islands.
Turtles and black-tip reef sharks can sometimes be spotted (Scared about sharks? Read this).
The roots of the mangroves at the West end of Au Mai Ngam (Area 1g on the maps) is used as a nursery by baby blacktip sharks and it is often possible to see up to 30 baby sharks swimming around your ankles in the shallows there.
Accommodation is mostly in tents, though there are a few concrete bungalows at one of the National Park sites. There is good (basic) food and drinks available at both sites. Previous problems with the food quality seem to have been fixed (2013).
The nearest port is Kuraburi (about an hour away by speedboat ferry). Daytrips are available from Kuraburi and Khao Lak (and a more coastal towns including Phuket and Ranong), but the distances involved wouldn’t give you much time on the islands.
All images on this site are clickable for bigger versions.
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All images on this site are clickable for bigger versions
Au / Ao / อ่าว is “bay”
Laem/ Hlim / แหลม is “cape/point/headland”
Hin / หิน is “rock”
Haat / Haad / หาด is “beach”
Ko / Koh / เกาะ is “island”
Most of the outlying islands seem to have multiple names.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM THE CORALS
First, here’s a bit more about coral bleaching:
You probably know about coral polyps – they are the animals that make up the surface layer of the coral reef. They are proper animals – they eat, excrete and spawn, just like you. They sit on top of the reef substrate and, as part of their feeding cycle, make calcium carbonate which is added to the reef structure below them.
Coral polyps live in symbiosis with microscopic algae called “zooxanthellae”. The zooxanthellae live within the tissue of the polyp and support the polyp, providing nutrients such as sugars and aminoacids as by-products of photosynthesizing light. In turn, the polyps support the zooxanthellae by supplying carbon dioxide, which is needed by the zooxanthellae to do their photosynthesis thang.
If the water temperature reaches a certain traumatic level, the zooxanthellae undergo a process change and start producing chemicals which are poisonous to the polyps. When this happens, the polyps eject the zooxanthellae into the seawater.
There is a short period during which the sea temperature might cool and the zooxanthellae might return to the coral and normal life would resume. Unfortunately, this did not happen in 2010 – the sea temperature stayed above the danger-level for too long. Deprived of nutrients from the zooxanthellae, the coral polyps died, leaving only the calcium carbonate skeletons of what had gone before. These skeletons are white (hence the term “coral bleaching”), however, in practice, they soon get discoloured by sediment and algae and take-on a post-apocalyptic grey-ish hue.
Often, in the Surins, the ‘skeletons’ of recently-dead coral are still fully-intact. You could view this fact as either positive or negative.
Corals (dead or alive) provide shelter from currents and predators, so small fish and other vertebrates will come and live amongst the structures, even if the coral is dead. In-turn, these small fish attract bigger fish which feed on them. This supports a whole food-chain of bigger and bigger fish, all swimming around for you to marvel at.
On the downside – the presence of these “skeletons” of recently dead coral make it easy to imagine just how beautiful it all must have been when it was all alive. I never saw it when it was. Maybe that’s for the best. It must be harrowing to go back and see how it is now, having seen it in its glory days.
Like I said at the start, some species of coral did survive the 2010 temperature rise. Generally, the slower-growing, “bulk” corals like Hump/Lump/Porites coral are the more robust.
Faster growing species like Table corals and the branching Staghorn corals always seem to be the first to die.
Over the years, the skeletons of the dead corals will be broken down onto the seabed by waves and parrotfish. They will eventually form the base for new reefs to grown on. In a lot of places in the Surins, you can see the breakdown happening – the coral skeletons sitting, all broken-up, on the seabed. Presumably, those are the casualties of the 2004 tsunami or earlier temperature-change events.
Interestingly, you will find small living clumps of a branching coral dotted about the place (possibly Bush Coral (Acropora humilis)). These clumps are up to 15cm across and bring a welcome bit of colour to all the dead stuff.
But don’t think that this is a sign of regrowing corals. These are survivors, not new colonisers. These corals are in the same family as the beautiful Staghorn coral, but they only grow to a small size. Although they look nice, these little guys are not the great-white-hope for reef-recovery. Recovery will take tens, if not hundreds of years.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM THE FISH:
The Surins have all the common fish species that you can find closer to the mainland, such as White Collared Butterflyfish, Moon Wrasse, Sergeant Major Damselfish, etc.
You will also see some species that you only occasionally find elsewhere. Like Coral Rabbitfish; Virgate Rabbitfish, Blue Ringed Angelfish, Orange Lined Triggerfish, Lionfish, etc.
More interesting are those species that you can only find in the Surins. Well, OK, maybe not “only” in the Surins, but you won’t find them close to the mainland.
If you spend enough time in the water, you can expect to find some of these:
Rare, midsized triggerfish:
Pelagics like the Giant, Bluefin and Bar/Blue Trevally:
And some of these:
Don’t expect to be bumping into biggies like Manta Rays or Whalesharks. Although it’s not impossible (after all, the famous Richileau Rock is nearby), it is highly unlikely, especially in the sheltered bays of the islands.
Just before I get to the snorkelling, here’s a quick bit of orientation, because where you sleep will determine where you start from!
There are two National Park locations. These are where the accommodation is. They are both on the North Island (Ko Surin Nua).
The main site, (where the National Park headquarters is located), is between numbers 3 and 4a on the map. It is called Chong Khad and sometimes called “Camp 1”. This is where boats from the mainland first arrive. It is the busier camp and has more daytrippers and short-termers than the other one. There are a few concrete bungalows and about 40 tightly packed-in tents.
The second site is about 1 km further North at Mai Ngam bay, near the number “1” on the map. This one is more spacious and only has tents (no bungalows). The beach is bigger and the atmosphere more relaxed, with more long-termers staying in this camp. This one has the shark nursery.
There is good catering at both sites. (People have reported problems in the past, but they were both fine in 2012/13).
There is a scrambly ‘nature trail’ linking the two sites. It is about a 20 minute walk. At a push, you could do it in flip-flops, but more robust footwear is advisable.
The second camp (Mai Ngam) is considered to be the more desirable. I stayed there and liked the spot. But (a) the winds were mainly from the North, which messed up underwater visibility there and (b) the best snorkelling spot was South of the other camp (Chong Khad). So most days, I walked the 1km nature trail from the ‘better’ to the ‘worse’ camp before getting wet. Getting between the camps is not a big deal.
There’s detailed info on the camps and the nature trail at the end of this article.
NATIONAL PARK HALF-DAY BOAT TRIPS:
The islands are very big and you can’t reach much by walking/swimming, so the National Park runs two snorkelling boat-trips a day – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. These cost 100B each. Equipment rental is extra: Snorkel + mask is 40B per half day. Lifejacket 40B per half day (correct at 2013). Each trip visits two (sometimes three) snorkelling spots over the course of two hours.
Don’t expect guided tours. The National Park just pays a local boatman who drives you there, moors up, puts you in the water, then gets you out again half an hour later. If there’s current around, you can drift with it and he will motor-over to pick you up at the end. Officially, everyone stays in the same area , but the boatmen seem pretty relaxed about driving around to collect stragglers and explorers.
If an area is one of those visited by a National Park boat trip, it will be marked in my text as “Boat Trip”. If you are only interested in those, just do a browser search (“Edit>Find on this page”) for that phrase.
There are four different itineraries – day1 morning; day1 afternoon; day2 morning; day2 afternoon. Day3 is a repeat of day1; day4 is a repeat of day2, etc. Here’s a list of all the itineraries. The numbers in brackets are the map locations.
Trips leaving from Chong Khad (main camp):
Day1 morning: Hin Kong (50) ; Au Bon (28); Laem Chong Khad (4)
Day1 afternoon: Laem Sai Ean (10); Ko Satok (11)
Day2 morning: Au Pak Kaad (38); Au Sapparod (32)
Day2 afternoon: Au Mai Ngam (1); Au Suthep (20)
(this schedule repeats every 2 days)
Trips leaving from Au Mai Ngam (second camp):
Day1 morning: Au Mai Ngam (1); Au Suthep (20)
Day1 afternoon: Au Pak Kaad (38); Au Sapparod (32)
Day2 morning: Laem Sai Ean (10); Ko Satok (11)
Day2 afternoon: Hin Kong (50) ; Au Bon (28); Laem Chong Khad (4)
(this schedule repeats every 2 days)
You will notice that both camps go to the same locations, just on different days.
If you want to rent a private boat, there are lots of longtail boats and drivers hanging around the two National Park sites. Private charters are 2500B per day or 1500B per half day (max 15 persons). I even met someone who said she was there working as a snorkelling-guide. I never saw her again, so I guess she was based in Kuraburi and hired out of there.
WHERE’S THE POINT ?
When researching my trip, I was confused by the fact that previous visitors had liked the snorkelling at “Hlam xyz”, but I couldn’t find that place mentioned on any maps. This is what I think has happened: The word for point/cape /headland in Thai is แหลม . This is usually represented in roman script as Laem or Lairm. The character ห has two different functions in Thai. Sometimes it sounds like a normal “H” sound and at other times, it is silent and is only there to alter the tone of the word. In the case of แหลม, the ห should be silent. However, someone has done a dodgy job of transliterating it on the boat-trip signs, spelling it “Hlam”. I guess that previous visitors just copied down the mis-spelled version. So, if you see Hlam written anywhere, replace it with Laem and then you might find it on a map.
That’s enough orientation. There are more details on logistics like transport, accommodation etc. at the very end.
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SURIN ISLANDS SITE-BY-SITE.
In the interests of discovery, I cast my net as wide as I could, often doing ten-hour swims to look at far-off locations. Areas 1-4 are the only ones you can reasonably swim to. I also went on all of the National Park boat trips.
Here’s that big map again. You might want to keep it open it in a separate window. The red line shows where I managed to get to. The numbers refer to detailed descriptions further down the page. Remember, Au is “bay” and Laem is “headland/cape/point”.
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Ok, on with the details:
AREA 1 – AU MAI NGAM
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Au Mai Ngam is a biiig bay. It has a good, sandy beach about 500m long. The tents/pitches run along the back of the beach, starting just above the tide line and going back about 40m towards the forest. Here is the NP detailed map for the camp at Mai Ngam.
If you are staying in Mai Ngam, then Area 1, straight off the beach, is your main option for easy snorkelling. Unfortunately, the coral is almost all dead there. But there are some cool fishies to see, including the shark nursery.
You can break Area 1 down into four parts:
-All the old articles on the internet tell you to go over to the right (1a-1b). Presumably this was good in the past, but the corals are all dead there now. Closer in to the rocks on the far-right, you have some attractive algae-feeding fish
-Out in deeper water (4-7 metres deep, about 300m offshore), you have some cool seascapes and towering pinnacles of (dead) bulk corals. This was my favourite part of Area 1– I like a bit of 3 dimensional seascape. Although the coral is dead, it does shelter a wide range of fish. This area is identified by a line of mooring buoys about 300m out, parallel to the beach. Presumably all the boats used to come here because it was a highlight when the coral was alive.
-There is some interesting life to find in the shallow waters close to the beach, although the flat rake of the beach makes for sandy, low-viz snorkelling. It is a popular spot for wading around in the evening, knee-deep in the water, searching for interesting critters under the rocks and corals.
-Everybody’s favourite spot is the shark nursery over to the left of the bay. Baby blacktips (about 40cm long) often hang about the roots of the mangroves there and you can stand ankle deep in the water and watch lots of them swimming around you.
Here’s that again in a lot more detail. With pictures :
Swimming out parallel to the right side of the bay, the first ~70 metres is flat sandy bottom. The only thing of interest here are some fish grazing on the rocks to the right.
That yellow fish in the middle looks like a regular Raccoon Butterflyfish but, unusually, this one has an extra black spot at the top of the tail. Possibly a late-stage juvenile.
As you get into deeper waters (about 2-3 metres deep), and slightly over to the left, the coral starts up. It is all dead. You can see in these pictures some dead finger and bracket corals. Old articles rave about the corals over this side of the bay. I guess this is what they were talking about:
Dismayed by the state of the corals, it’s back over to the rocks near 1b to find a wealth of surgeonfish. There are many species of surgeonfish, most of them quite photogenic. They are algae feeders, so are usually found hanging around big rocks, pecking at the algae that grows there.
They are called surgeonfish because of the sharp blades at the base of the tail – used to keep pursuing-predators at bay. Don’t worry – you won’t be able to get close enough to qualify as a pursuing-predator! Hold your mouse over the pictures for the names of the species Also checkout the SPECIESLIST for better pictures; alternative names and other info.
The bigger, darker ones can be difficult to identify. The subtle yellow masks and the yellow-ish pectoral fins on these suggest they are Yellowfin Surgeonfish (Acanthurus xanthopterus):
They may or may-not have the hoop around the tail.
Surgeonfish which look similar but which don’t have the yellow bits are identified by various darkly-coloured dots and stripes. It’s difficult to even see the identifying features. Still others have some variation in body shape – like the puckered-up lips of the Lined Bristletooth Surgeonfish (Ctenochateus striatus) or the fat-throat of the Dark Surgeonfish (Acanthurus-nubilus). In murky water, they all look like Finelined Surgeonfish (Acanthurus grammoptilus) to me, but the textbooks insist that those only live in Australia.
Either way, they quite often show-up in big schools, which are fun :
I came out to Area 1b twice – once when the weather was calm; and once when it was windy/choppy. It was fun to swim close to the rocks on the East side and watch the waves break over them. This picture is from out past 1b, just before you get to the secret beach:
“Secret beach” you ask? Well, there is a secluded beach out to the right of Au Mai Ngam. You can’t see it from the main beach, so some people call it the secret beach. It’s beautiful, but not very accessible. Firstly, because of the sharp corals in the bay – on a choppy day at lowish tide this was one of the most dangerous approaches I have ever encountered; and secondly, because it is a long swim to get there – over 1 km. For this reason, I have put it in a separate section. See section 15f.
An upside of stormy waters is that, away from the shore, they tend to attract pelagic fish. ‘Pelagic’ means fish which live in the open seas and just occasionally visit the island/reefs (as opposed to Reef fish, which spend all the time on the island reefs).
If you spend time away from the shallows, especially at the tips of headlands, you might see (maybe once a day) a big silver fish flash past you; about 80cm long and 40cm tall and checking you out as it passes. This will be a Giant Trevally. The amount of time it takes to pass you is just less than the amount of time it takes to wake a camera out of sleep mode! I had a visitation here in the choppy waters at 1b.
My dang camera only has autofocus. Who makes make a camera that would rather focus on tiny bits of silt in the water than on the bloody-great fish behind them? Well, Olympus, that’s who.
The crevices between the rocks make good protection for smaller / juvenile fish. It is also a good place to find a micro-thin layer of colourful coral growing on the rocks.
1c – Right-hand buoy
Running parallel to the main beach, about 300m offshore, is a row of mooring buoys for boats. I’m calling these areas 1c, d and e on the map. The water is between 3m and 8m deep, depending how far you are away from the beach and the edges of the bay.
Heading from 1b towards the first buoy at 1c, you are back into dead-coral territory.
Here I saw the first of several Emperor Angelfish. They are real beauties and they flip between two personalities – “quick-run-and-hide-under-a-rock” and “actually-I’d-like-to-get-a-closer-look-at-that -thing-with-the-tube-coming-out-of-its-mouth”. If you’re patient and don’t scare them too much, you can get some nice snaps of their inquisitive sides.
I also saw a few Two-Tone Dartfish, the first of a few Giant Moray Eels, a couple of big Marbled Groupers and a big-snozzed Bird Wrasse.
This Bird Wrasse is green, meaning that it is male and in the later stages of its lifecycle. The grey/pink ones are female and younger.
1d – middle buoy
Continuing West in the deeper water, you eventually reach the middle buoy at 1d,
This was my favourite spot on the North side. I like the seascape here. There are towers, isolated pinnacles and coral bommies here, giving an interesting “3 dimensional” feel to the seascape.
Most of the coral is dead here, but some of the hump coral is holding-on; and in the last picture, you see some living Double-Star coral (under the big Parrotfish).
The seabed is typically 4-7m deep here, but the pinnacles/bommies rise to within a metre of the surface.
There are plenty of nooks and crannies for the fish to cruise or hide in. Mouseover for species names and/or see the Specieslist.
Favourites here are the Longfin Batfish and the Oriental Sweetlips:
Younger Oriental Sweetlips are generally solitary and live underneath coral heads. They are similar to the Emperor Angelfish, in that they have an inquisitive side and you can get a good look at them if you wait-it-out for long enough.
I mentioned the sharp blades at the base of the tail on the Surgeonfish. You can see them in stark contrast on this Bluespine Unicornfish (which is in the Surgeonfish family).
The fact that these vegetarians are hanging around the coral is a sign that it is dead and covered with a film of algae.
One day, just a little further out from 1d, I found an old fishermans’ trap floating at the surface. It was filled with Snappers, Crabs and a brood of the uncommon Unicorn Filefish.
The cage had long-since broken away from its moorings on the seabed, so I tried to open up the slit and let the little critters go. Trouble is, this involved much manoeuvring of the cage (holding open the slit and staying clear of it at the same time). The cage had been had been growing hydroids (Lytocarpus philippinus) – long, trailing plant-like fronds that will give you a sting that will hum for a week. Spinning a hydroid-covered cage around for 20 minutes will get you a lot of stings. And it did.
I did manage to release the Snappers. And two of the Filefish, but, man, are they thick. Most of them couldn’t find their way out of an, err, open cage. Actually, it was quite sweet – the ones that did escape stayed outside the cage, waiting together in solidarity with their incarcerated brothers.
Maybe they all eventually found their way out.
1e – Left Buoy
Further over to the left (West) near 1e is another mooring buoy. This is more-of-the-same, (although not quite as good).
Here are some snaps from near 1e:
Heading back towards the shallows closer to the beach, you can have trouble getting through the patchy coral, especially at low tide. Use the sandy channel towards the West end of the beach.
The channel is also your best route out to the buoys at 1d and 1e at any tidal state.
1f – shallows
The shallow waters nearer to the beach (Area 1f) is a funny mix. Mostly, it is shallow, murky (sandy) water, with tiny isolated patches of not-too-healthy hump corals.
But there is some good fishlife to find there.
There are quite a few Nemos (False Clownfish). I found one patch where there was the anemone home of a family of Red and Black Anemonefish right next-door to a family of False Clownfish.
These Threespot Damselfish also like an anemone:
More common species include Goatfish, small Groupers and Pufferfish:
More interesting are these Moorish Idols, Lionfish, Blackpatch Triggerfish, Honeycomb Moray, Marbled Grouper, Honeycomb Rabbitfish and Squid:
Watch out for those Lionfish – they have a very poisonous sting at the end of each elegant spine. They won’t chase you, but they won’t move away if you bump-into/step-on one. Actually, while we’re on the subject of marine safety – have a read of this.
The shallower parts of 1f are a popular spot for wading around in the evening, looking for goodies under the rocks and corals. I was usually out in the deeper water, but lots of people were regularly seeing baby Lionfish hiding underneath the lump coral and anemones housing Nemos big and small.
Finding Nemo ?
I visited in April at the end of the dry season. There were frequent winds from the North, which were quite soothing at night, but messed up the underwater visibility in Au Mai Ngam. On a couple of days, they blew tiny jellyfish into the bay, making snorkelling here uncomfortable.
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1g – Baby sharks
Everybody’s favourite spot is the shark nursery over to the left of the bay at 1g. Baby blacktips (about 40cm long) often hang about the roots of the mangroves there and you can stand ankle deep in the water and watch them swimming around you. Scared about sharks? Read this.
These ones are really tiny and will divert away from you when they notice your ankle just ahead.
You needn’t miss-out if you are staying at the other camp – one of their boat trips comes over here for a look at the sharks.
Although they are cute, please try and resist the temptation to pet them as they go past. They don’t have the right immune system to deal with the bugs on your horrible human hands.
One interesting thing here is noticing just how much the water magnifies things. Those teeny-tiny babbys can from the surface change into huuuge monsters when you put your mask on and look again from underwater.
(Boring technical point, water’s magnification is actually 25%).
The sharks are not there all the time – they come and go from the open sea. That means you can sometimes see them passing-by in Area 1f, as well.
I saw a Barracuda over in 1g, too (presumably looking to take one of the young pups out for a bite). Although this one was only about 70cm long, the species is the Great Barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda), which can grow up to 1.8 metres.
AREA 2 – AROUND THE CAPE TO THE WEST OF AU MAI NGAM
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This was a long swim out the left side of Au Mai Ngam; around the rocky peninsula and back to the beach where the Mai Ngam longtails park-up (2k on the map).
This isn’t a general purpose snorkel – it took 3 hours (with fins). It was a windy, choppy day, and it was exciting getting into those rocky crevices without getting bashed up against the rocks. This area, being on the open-ocean side of the islands, had a few big Pelagic (ocean-going) fishies to make friends with, including a decent-sized shark. Further round the West side, the big rocks are replaced with coral and some pretty reef fish.
Starting off the beach at Mai Ngam, wade out through the sandy channel towards the left side until you get some depth, then swim out past area 1e and continue West. I played ‘chase the Indian-Triggerfish’ as I passed the last of the coral at point 2a.
The coral stops and the big rocks start at 2b. Under water, the scene is similar to that at the surface.
If the weather is rough, this is where you start feeling very small and alone. You can get an idea of the size of the rocks from the Powder Blue Surgeonfish bottom right, which is about 20cm long.
The big underwater rocks have some patches of hardy Bush Coral growing on them.
The fauna around here is mainly the two most common surgeonfish – the (Yellow) Striped and the Powder Blue. Also, the glamorous Moorish Idol puts in an appearance.
The shallowest rocks are on a shelf 4-6 metres deep and 30m wide. Later, this slopes down to the deep seabed. This rocky outlook makes for some rugged, but not especially interesting, snorkelling.
Searching between the rocks, close into the coastline, between 2b and c, I found this adult Yellow Boxfish.
You sometimes find the cute yellow juveniles hiding in gaps in the reef, but you don’t see too many adults.
Just when I was reduced to photographing Pufferfish,
..out shot an adult Blacktip shark from a crack in the shallows. I tracked him for a while before he disappeared off into the deep.
Shortly after this, at 2d, I picked up a posse of Bluefin Trevally. These are reasonably big at 70cm.
They tailed me for a while. There was quite the ‘hunting’ feeling in the air and I think they were trailing me to pick up scraps of whatever I was going to be eating.
They are pretty wussy though – scooting off into the distance whenever I looked over my shoulder to see what they were doing:
Similarly, I had couple of Coral Groupers trailing me for scraps, but they retired, skulking behind a big rock whenever there were questions to be answered..
After a quick stop for a photoshoot with a Blue Ringed Angelfish:
…I reached the cape (2e). Things were very lively there – there was a lot of chop breaking over the sloping rocks,
and deepwater current /upwells bringing microfood to the surface.
The Lunar Fusiliers and the Blue-and-Yellow Fusiliers were loving the current
And the Bluefin and Great Trevally were loving the little schoolers (?coral whiptails) and the Fusiliers:
At least the Giant Trevally was in-focus this time!
At this point, I was one hour from the start.
Around the cape and onto the West side (2f), was this Longfin Bannerfish with an unusual three-strand pennant:
I’m not sure whether that was genetic or merely damaged.
The Trevally were still philip larkin around, as were some Topsail Drummers (from the Chub family).
and I saw this fairly big (70cm) Snubnose Pompano:
Further on down the coast at 2g, coral started to appear:
Again, none too healthy
But it did bring the return of reef fish (mouseover for names):
A little further down the coast (towards 2h):
(that’s the South Island in the background)
..was this cute little baby Phantom Bannerfish
The highlight of the West side was at point 2h (and the 2-hour counter), where I stopped for a photoshoot with this lovely Semicircle Angelfish.
After a while, I left her preening and posing. Moving on towards 2i, there were some more reef-fish – notably some schooling Parrotfish.
The corals at 2i actually looked relatively healthy, with some living cauliflower coral there.
Round at 2j – the algae feeders returned and I had fun chasing after some schooling Orangespine Unicornfish and Convict Tang.
It was starting to get dark now and the swim back into the beach at 2k wasn’t very notable. I covered the same area on another day (on my way back from Area 20) and I did find some cool stuff between 2j and 2k, including these interesting corals:
..this unusual Urchin – Mespilia-Globulus
..and this cute juvenile Many Spotted (/Harlequin) Sweetlips.
Surprisingly, this was the only juvi Sweetlips that I saw in the Surins. I did see several adults. Usually it is the other way around. To understand the attraction of the juvenile, you have to see the little pookie-dance they do. Here’s some video (taken in Ko Kradan).
Rounding things off, the approach back into the beach at 2k was very shallow with lots of pointy or delicate obstacles to trip over and/or crush.
To avoid damaging things, try to swim, not walk, here and avoid the area entirely at low tide.
AREA 2½ – BETWEEN THE TWO CAMPS (2k to 3a)
This probably doesn’t qualify as an ‘Area’. You wouldn’t come snorkelling here. I was staying at Mai Ngam (Area 1) and wanted to go for a snorkel at Chong Khad (Area 3), so I swam it.
The route (2k to 3) is shallow with a sandy bottom; small patches of hump coral; some sea-grasses and low-visibility. At low tide, the top part of the Hump Coral gets exposed to the air, so is dead. There are a few clumps of Bush Coral there and a few cool fishies hanging-out under/around the coral.
Longtail-park beach at 2k:
One map gives a name to the little bay at 2k – Au Kra Ting – Bison Bay.
The typical underwater scenery looks like this:
Here are some pictures, starting at the beach at 2k and heading towards area 3. Mouseover for the species names.
The second half was mostly sand and sea-grass:
Actually, I think there’s a departing Honeycomb Rabbitfish somewhere in the middle, there.
If you are just wanting to get to from Camp 1 to Camp 2, it is quicker to walk along the 1 km nature trail. At very low tides, you can also walk along the beach/shallows on the East side of this bay:
AREA 3 – OFF THE CAMPING BEACH AT THE MAIN CAMP (AU CHONG KHAD)
All images on this site are clickable for bigger versions.
This is the area where most people snorkel off the beach. Chong Khad (Camp 1) has the most visitors and, of the two beaches right next to it, this is the one you’d pick. The other one (immediately to the South) is mainly used for arriving/departing boats.
Area 3 is mostly flat sandy bottom. There is a deeper channel between the two islands which has the occasional patch of not-too-healthy coral and some reef-fish in it. I didn’t find it too interesting. Areas 1 and 4 are better, IMO.
By the way, on the subject of the name of this bay – most maps use big fonts and don’t seem too fussy about where they write “Au Chong Khad”. I have seen maps that place the name 2 km either side of this spot! But the National Park map has it located here, on the North West side of Camp 1 (just in front of the tents), so let’s take that as accurate.
I have spun my map around so it looks like it would stepping off the beach into the sea.
Stepping into the water from the tents, you have flat sandy bottom in all directions for about 50m (varies with the tide):
Beyond that and over to the right, there was a small head of healthy-looking table coral at 3a (possibly Acropora divaricate).
Not finding much else around there, I headed out to cross the channel towards the South Island. I found that the current in the channel was quite strong and I was swept quite a long way off to the right, past point 3b.
Actually, the current in that channel always seemed to be quite strong. Sometimes it was going North, sometimes South. But it was usually pretty strong. If you’re going across, it’s probably better to start from the middle of the beach and to be prepared to turn-back if necessary. It’s pretty quiet to the North, but there is some daytrip-speedboat traffic to the South.
Maybe it was good luck that I was swept off course, I did find the largest patch of living coral that I found anywhere in the Surins. It was a brown branching coral, in a field about 15 metres wide and 30 metres long and starting around 3b:
The Redfin Butterflyfish are 10cm tall, so you can see it was a decent-sized patch of coral.
Having looked around 3b, I turned back towards the North Island. Slogging back towards 3c, it was your basic sandy-bottom stuff.
There is a trench in the middle of the channel. It’s still not very deep (2-3 metres), but this is where the current is. Either side of this trench, the current is fairly tame.
Back on the East side of the current, this Pufferfish was cowering near a rock. The Mushroom coral was interesting because of the pigment and the fact that you can see its tentacles poking-out from between the splines.
This pic from 3c is pretty typical of Area 3 in general.
Looking back at the tent-beach from 3c:
I spent some time chasing a Snubnose Pompano around 3d. The water was pretty murky and I couldn’t even see what it was – I just saw some yellow/black fins flitting around in the haze. I have cleaned up the photograph so you can see it.
Zig-zagging around, checking out the patches of coral, I concluded that the prettiest spot was around 3e, where there was a bit of life, diversity and colour on show.
Not all that much tho’
Here’s some beasties I found around 3e. Mouseover for species names.
There are many different types of pipefish. One of the distinguishing features of this one is the pink tail.
This one is a Yellow Margin Triggerfish:
I like these guys – they often seem to be more inquisive than their moustachioed Titan cousins – always stopping to check over their shoulders while they are swimming away from you. The official line on Triggerfish is to steer clear, because they can get quite territorial and bitey, especially when guarding their nests. I can’t say I’ve met anything other than scaredy-cats.
On the subject of bitey things – have a read of the Safety section.
There is a water pipe running across the shortest stretch of the channel. I’m not sure whether it is still used, but these Wormfish (?) were certainly using it as a roof to their little burrows. I think that they were just back from the disco, as they still had the 70s disco-glitter on their cheeks.
I’m not sure whether you are allowed to land on the beach on the South Island. Travelfish says that it is strictly verboten, but then again, one of the signs on the official Nature Trail says “when the tide is very low, you can wade to the beach on the opposite side” and the National Park website says “you can walk across to the other island”. None of the boats were landing that side so I stayed in the water at 3f, just in case.
Here are a couple more beasties I saw near 3g on my last traverse back to the North Island:
I ended with a gentle potter just South of the headland at 3h. There were a few of these feisty little White Damselfish. They make their burrows in shallow, sandy waters and are pretty common around the Andaman sea. Even though you are about a hundred times bigger than them, they will still rush at you to try and scare you out of their territory. Bless ‘em.
There was also a Batfish skulking around some rocks at 3h:
You probably wouldn’t want to go any further South than 3h. You are into speedboat territory and it’s not safe.
The beach on the South Side of the main camp is mainly used for boats coming and going and seems an unappealing area for snorkelling.
Here is the NP detailed map for the main camp.
Well, that’s it for Area 3. I have read that the channel between the two islands was full of hard coral before the 2004 tsunami. Here are two pre-tsunami aerial shots.
Picture credits: Kun Barambee Temboonikat; Kun Sakolpan Thopanan
AREA 4 – LAEM CHONG KHAD
All images on this site are clickable for bigger versions. You might want to keep that one open in another window.
This is the area that appears on many of the tourist marketing photos.
Area 4c was the best spot I found for snorkelling on the Surins, It is certainly the best for off-the-beach snorkelling. Actually, all of 4b to 4g is relatively good. But it’s a bit of a hike to get there.
Leam Chong Khad is one of the National Park Boat Trip destinations, so you can get take the boat there every second day. We went to 4b on my trip, but I also saw NP trips moored up at 4e. I doubt you get much choice exactly where they stop.
If you want more independence and more time to spend there, with a bit of effort, you can get there yourself there from the beach at 4a.
It’s almost 1km from 4a to 4b, so is probably not one for the kids. At low tides, you can walk most of the way.
If you’re walking when the tide is level with the base of the rocks, watch out for Moray Eels foraging under the rocks. If they think you are backing them into a corner, they will rush out and bite your ankles. Just back off and give them a wider berth, so they don’t feel threatened. At higher waters, they have plenty more escape routes, and they probably won’t be there anyway.
Anything more than about a third of the tidal height and you will have to swim, not walk, from 4a to 4b. Stay in close to the rocks and you are safe from passing boat traffic.
It’s mostly sandy bottom and a fairly tedious swim,
..but you might be lucky and be joined by some inquisitive fish. Here are some shots from my (many) swims between 4a and 4b. Mouseover for species names.
I can’t identify that last fella. If you know what it is (with the Latin name), do post in the comments, thanks 🙂
Area 4b – the Boat Trip
My National Park Boat Trip stopped here. If you are getting here by swimming, you will probably need to use the moored daytrip speedboats as a guide on exactly where to go.
There is some nice reeftop starting about 50m out from the cape’s shoreline. There are mooring buoys there, but if there is chop/waves (and no boats), you might not be able to see the buoys over the waves.
Here is some of the coral on the reeftop:
Further out into the channel, there is a steep drop-off down to about 7m. There are some rugged bulk-corals around the top of the drop-off but they are fairly unhealthy.
At around 7m, there is a sandy shelf covered in the remnants of long-dead Staghorn coral.
For scale – the Yellowmask Angelfish is about 30cm long.
After that, it slopes off into the deep. There is nothing to see here and it is good place to get your head chopped-off by a daytrip speedboat from Phuket. The speedboats’ motors are very quiet, so you can’t hear them flying along at 30 knots. Stay over the shallow reeftop and you’ll be fine.
Some reef fish pictured around the reeftop at 4c (mouseover for speciesnames):
4c – the best bit
A hundred meters further on, the coral is slightly better. There is more of the living Porites species and in more colours, but there are also some different species that have survived (notably the big patch of Bracket Coral, pictured below). You can wander around here to your hearts delight – I thought the best bit was near to the second buoy back from the tip of the cape.
Here’s some shots of the bulk corals at the reeftop at 4c:
And some of the more interesting coral species in the same area:
Here are some reeffish from 4c:
I saw a little Hawksbill turtle here, chomping down on the corals:
He was there two days in a row, but I never saw him again after that.
The end of capes/points/headlands always seem to attract more life than other places. The next section talks about the tip of the cape. I’ve split it into two parts – one on the shallow water reeftop around 4d and another about the deeper stuff around 4e to 4f.
The shallow waters (1-3 metres) at the tip of the point are generally your standard sandy-bottom-with-occasional-clumps-of-rock-and-coral stuff:
But there were some interesting things to see there, too. . .
Christmas tree worms look like plants, but they are actually animals (and are in the same family as worms). They burrow deep into the coral and stick their frondy heads out to filter food from the water. A passing fish or a surge of current will make them zip back into the coral for ten minutes until the coast is clear.
I think that this is the same species of coral that I saw at 3b. These were the only two spots of it that I found.
Needlefish are pretty common and often follow snorkellers around. Not to be confused with barracuda, although both are mean-looking scaredy cats.
This beautiful Picasso Triggerfish is an uncommon sighting:
And sometimes a boring-looking bit of rock might have a cute baby Yellowmargin Triggerfish sitting on it.
I only saw a couple of Honeycomb Moray Eels at Surin – one was here:
Spot the Hermit Crab ?
The modest character and dark colours of this Phantom Bannerfish make photographing it difficult.
The Meyers Butterfly fish is a real beauty. There are a few around:
And the juvenile Whitepatch Razorfish is an uncommon oddity:
There’s a cute little beach at the tip of the cape. At low water, the kids of the National Park workers had walked out here and were trying to catch crabs from it.
4ef – deeper waters
The deep waters at the end of the cape (4e to 4f) had some densely packed bulk corals
And the corals dramatically plunged down the steep drop-off to 10m+
One of the Surins maps has an icon near 4e saying “Giant Seafan”. I searched a lot for that giant seafan. Looorrd– how I searched for that giant seafan. Hours and hours of giant seafan searching. Maybe it’s at 20m; maybe it is history, but I sure couldn’t find it.
I did find two, disease-ridden seafans here, but they weren’t very giant.
That second one has a Golden Damselfish hanging around it. Seafans (Gorgonians) are a natural habitat for the cute little fellas. It’s a great shame to see their homes perishing away like this.
You can also find Golden Damselfish around drop offs – sometimes singly, sometimes in schools. Here’s one having a bit of a stretch. Click for animated picture.
Other reef fish at the dropoff ;
An adult Many Spotted Sweetlips. These are the bain of my life, photographically. As soon as you see one, it disappears off underneath a head of coral. I guess that’s why they have stayed alive for so long. These are the grown-up versions of the little fella with the picture and video at 2k.
The juvenile Black snapper is a cute and often inquisitive reef fish with very distinctive markings. They are often found out in the open, trying to figure out what you are doing there. When you first see one, you think you have discovered a new species.
If they live long enough to grow up into adults, they become kinda boring:
Brown sweetlips have a distinctive ‘scar’ on their cheeks. They are often found in groups of four or five. They are usually pretty chilled-out and don’t mind being approached, but here in the Surins, they all seemed a bit shy.
Clarke’s Anemone fish are a pretty variation from the rest of Nemo’s extended family.
This Yellowfin Emperor is fairly uncommon and much bigger than other Emperor fish.
Upwells and currents at the end of capes often attract schooling fish. Coral rabbitfish are usually found in pairs, but you sometimes see them schooling.
There were lots of these Narrowstripe Fusiliers
..who were determined to steal the scene in every picture. E.g. with these (probably) Bludger Trevally:
..and these Topsail Drummers:
At the tip of the cape there are quite a few big Coral Groupers. Coral Groupers come a few variations. The one around here is the Squaretail (team photo – male and female, I assume). Those big teeth are good for something, as one Drummer found out.
In the feeding grounds of the deeper waters, you sometimes see a silver pelagic fish flash past you. These include Queenfish and Blue Trevally (Carangoides ferdau aka Bar Trevally).
Area 4g is on the Eastern side of the cape. It is more sheltered than at the point, but has a similarly impressive steep dropoff, covered in bulk-coral. These Longfin/Teira batfish (Platax-teira) are escaping to the depths along it.
It’s OK, they came back for a chat.
I spent a while here playing ‘chase the Indian Triggerfish’ before getting close enough for a picture.
And, at last, I got a reasonable shot of a Giant Trevally:
So, there’s plenty to get your teeth into in Area 4 if you can manage the 1km walk/wade/swim out from the Main Camp.
Btw, I didn’t find any currents around there.
AREA 5 – AU MAIR YAI
Au Mair Yai means “Big Mother Bay” and it certainly is a big mutha alright!* It’s about an hour’s swim across the mouth of it (with fins + overarm crawl stroke; or if it’s a jellyfish day and you need your hands to stop the little beggers going down your shirt, about an hour and a half). I swam across that dang thing five times.
The point here is that it is a very large bay, requiring a very large amount of effort to cover it. Although there are some beautiful, isolated beaches and forest scenery within the bay, underwater-wise, it isn’t worth all the effort.
I read that the middle of Au Mair Yai used to house Thailand’s biggest field of Staghorn coral. From what I could see, it is all long-since dead.
By the way, I mentioned jellyfish there. I only found notable quantities of jellyfish at two places – both of them (5a-5n and 20g) are at the mouths of big bays, where you probably wouldn’t be going anyway.
(* err, turns out to be ยาย not ใหญ่ )
Area 5a is just an extension of Area 4g. Similar to it, you have an OK-condition bulk-coral reeftop at 1-3 metres:
and a dramatic, steep dropoff, diving down to about 10m :
The two Batfish, the Brown Sweetlips and a few Coral Groupers were still hanging around here.
New visitors included a Longnose Tang, a Philippine-Damselfish helping out in an aerial display of White Collar Butterflyfish; a Honeycomb Rabbitfish ; a decent sized Great Barracuda, and a Yellowtail Scad:
Patricularly cute is the juvenile Yellowtail Damselfish (Neoglyphidon nigroris) which pop-us here and there.
…this continues for perhaps 300 metres as you head towards 5b. The steep drop-off is fun to look at, but gets a little samey after a while.
As you get further into the bay, the sandy bottom comes up to meet you and the coral gets more patchy and less healthy.
Around 5b there are some lovely, isolated beaches, but nothing much underwater. There were some schooling Goldsaddle-Rabbitfish in the sandy murk there.
Around 5c – there was a little coral here and a beach.
Old nautical charts show reef here, but I didn’t notice much other than that picture and none of the tourist maps mention this as a notable spot.
In the area going past 5d towards 5e, there was a cute juvenile Titan Triggerfish, some derelict coral and a few small beaches:
This is the North West corner of the bay at 5e:
This is the view from 5e, looking East along the long beach at the back (North) of the bay towards 5f and 5g
I disturbed a few baby blacktip sharks basking in the murky shallows here, but the pictures didn’t turn out.
At 5e, we are right into the shallows of the bay – you have to wade out a couple of hundred meters before you reach the intriguing shadows that look like they might be coral (5f). They are in poor shape.
This is the beach at the North end of the bay, taken from 5f.
The slope of the sand here is very flat and the tide goes out a long, long way. The resulting sand-plains are good territory for millions of these Fiddler Crabs to hang out.
They have evolved the big claw for fighting and attracting females. Who says that size doesn’t count?
My camera battery died at the North East corner of the bay (5g). Here’s the last picture of the day, looking towards an attractive beach at 5h. If you squint off into the distance, you can see rocky Hin Kong (50) on the horizon, next to the Navy ship.
I hopped up the beaches and sandy shallows to 5i . Underwater, it was all sandy bottom. Further out into the bay, it was similar to 5f – there were intriguing looking patches of something about 200m offshore, but when you got there the corals were dead and silted over.
Finding a landmark at 5i that I would be able to return to, I chose my hypotenuse and did the grey, hour-long plod across the bay back to 4k and onward home.
The next day I headed back towards 5k, stopping at a few points near the middle of the channel (somewhere around 5j) to dive down and see what was there. I have read that Au Mair Yai once had the biggest field of Staghorn Coral in the whole of Thailand. What I found was long-dead and all broken up. The remains were sitting on the sandy bottom at about 12-14m deep. It was too dark for (and not worthy of) photos.
Arriving over on the East side of the bay at 5k, there was more Staghorn Coral – somewhat more intact, but just as dead.
There were also some mid-health-range Porites coral there. And a chance for a snap of the ‘difficult-to-focus-fish’ – sorry, I mean the Phantom Bannerfish. He was hanging out with a White Collared Butterflyfish.
Heading towards Area 5m/6, the seascape between 5k and 5l looked like this:
Around 5l there was dancing to be had with a big school of Topsail Drummers
..another Phantom Bannerfish:
..a barracuda (picture too blurry)
…and a persistent little Shark Sucker who was determined to use me as a new host.
Sometimes these get called Ramores (although, technically, Ramores are a different species with the same behaviour). These little, err, suckers stick themselves onto sharks and other big fish, so they can cruise along eating all the free food whizzing past. I’ve seen them trying to attach themselves to Parrotfish that were not much bigger than themselves (and man, did the Parrotfish hate that!).
They’re actually quite cute, and it’s nice to see a fish that’s coming towards you, rather than running away.
Sometimes I give them a ride, but not today.
There was some quite nice coral at 5l itself.
..some schooling Blue and Yellow Fusiliers (Caesio teres, in the background), a Bignose Unicornfish (middle) and some Sergeant Major Damselfish.
Thankfully, the Sergeant Majors were in relatively low numbers. At other, more touristy islands, day-trippers feed bread to fish. The Sergeant Majors are an aggressive species, so they take all the food. The abundance of food leads to their population increasing. Then, when the food disappears (in low-tourist season), that preponderance of Sergeant Majors have to feed on something else. And what gets eaten is the young of the other fish species.
All this results in a distortion of fish species populations – more Sergeant Majors, less everything else. In some places, the only fish you will see are Sergeant Major Damselfish and Moon Wrasse (who have similar behaviour). In the Surins, the natural balance is still good, with just a sprinkling of Sergeant Majors.
Always good for a photo-op is the Oriental Sweetlips:
This one hung around for a while.
Moving on towards the end of the cape, at 5m, the coral was variable, some of it quite reasonable.
Fishwise, I saw this Peacock grouper, a Slingjaw-wrasse and chased around for a while after these Spotted Unicornfish.
AREA 6 – EASTERN MOUTH OF AU MAIR YAI
Area 5 Map link again
I saw some old maps and accounts showing this as a good snorkelling spot, and I sometimes saw daytrip snorkelling speedboats moored-up, so I have granted this place its very own Area number! But really, it’s just a continuation of Area 5.
The National Park boat trips don’t come here.
There is a buoy (numbered 231) at 6a. Beneath it, the coral is nothing special,
….but there was a Yellowmask Angelfish tarting-it-up there.
Heading from 6a to 6b, there were some reasonable quality bulk-corals, mostly in brown.
There was a decent smattering of reef fish. Mouseover for names.
At 6b there was some not-very-healthy looking bulk-corals.
I did have a good session with the elusive Many Spotted Sweetlips here.
..and saw this interesting Orange Lined Triggerfish. Interesting, because their lines are usually straight. I think this one’s parents must have been doing acid during pregnancy, as the orange lines were messed-up, like some kind of 1960s album cover. Maybe its late-juvenile stage. I’m not sure what the juvenile looks like. I’ve seen smaller ones, but they didn’t have markings like this.
I don’t know what these are, but there sure are a lot of them
The long swim across the mouth of the bay is generally just an hour of enduring turbid, deep, blue water. There is a mooring buoy out to the South at Area 5n. On one trip, I took a diversion out there to see if there was anything interesting there. The line down to the bottom had some funky growth on it:
But I couldn’t get down to the bottom (I have since seen from a nautical chart that it is ~40m deep there).
Some tangled, knotted line underneath the buoy itself was providing shelter for some small fish; and these cool Barred Flagtails (Kuhlia mugil) were hanging-out, modelling their go-faster stripes.
I had trouble with jellyfish on two of my slogs across the mouth of the bay. The presence of jellyfish is often seasonal and/or conditional on a particular combination of wind and tide. But here are just a few of the different-shaped things that you could be stung by.
I think that that last one is a colony of Salps. They are TV stars (BBC’s Planet Earth Series, Episode 8 – Shallow Seas; 25 minutes in). .
For more crazy jellyfish species, have a look at area 20d.
AREA 7 – OFF THE TIP OF LAEM MAIR YAI
All images on this site are clickable for bigger versions.
Area 7 is a patchy little 500m stretch of coastline around the corner from Au Mair Yai. There are lots of rocky ins-and-outs, constantly fooling-you into thinking that you’ve reached the far corner, when you haven’t.
On the shallow reeftop at 7a , the Staghorn Coral is structurally intact (but dead):
This is also true of the other, bulk, corals:
Further out, there is a dramatic drop-off:
I picked-up a pack of 20 Bluefin Trevally here for a few minutes:
At 7b, there is a small beach.
Just off it, the corals had a surprisingly good diversity. It must have been good here when it was all alive.
I also had a rare sighting of an Emperor Seabream off in the blue (Lethrinus species – possibly a Spangled (nebulosus) or Spotcheek (rubrioperculatus)).
At 7c, there was a little Roman Ampitheatre shaped into the coral.
It was quite attractive when some fish stopped by.
7d had patchy ‘bad/OK’ reef top:
and a continuation of the dramatic dropoff :
…a nice, healthy seafan, (which the Trevallys flocked back to pose with):
And a few attractive fishies:
You often see these Black Spotted Sea Cucumbers up on their hind-legs, filter-feeding in the breeze:
7e had a patch of colourful seaweed:
..some innovative home-making from a Lemon Damselfish:
Maybe the Lobsters should have followed his lead to get some more elbow-room:
And this intriguing little fella, whom I have not been able to identify.
AREA 8 – BEAUTIFUL SANDY BEACH
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There is a gorgeous white-sand beach at Area 8. The bay isn’t named on any of the maps. I asked a local what it was called. He didn’t seem too sure, but after a while, he proffered Au Orng.
The beach is about 300m long and the sand is very fine. You sink in it at the surfline and the shallows have very low visibility. You can see in the pictures that the shallows are plain sand. I did a couple of sweeps along the beach – one about 200m offshore and the other about 300m. The coral was generally not too special, but there was some good sealife there, including a turtle.
Starting at the South end (at 8a), the water was very murky from tiny grains of sand stirred up by the surf. There were four of five small Spotted Dartfish milling around there, but it was too murky for pictures. See the specieslist for the picture.
Heading out towards 8b, I went past a sea cucumber:
There are lots of these about. They’re not very pretty, but they are important to the ecosystem.
The corals around 8b, about 300m off the beach, were the usual mix of OK-health hump-coral and deceased Staghorn.
there are a couple of Coral rabbitfish in there somewhere, too.
There was a Hawksbill Turtle, chowing down on the coral fragments at 8b.
Here’s a couple of coral states at 8c, plus a Slingjaw Wrasse.
The Slingjaw Wrasse can extend his lower jaw almost half his body length to strike out at a fast moving piece of food. It looks a 3cm long, white battering-ram sticking out the front. Their Yellow Initial Phase variations (seen at 6a) do the same thing. Unfortunately, neither of them do it for long enough to get a picture of! Someone has captured it on slo-mo video in a laboratory here.
There was a nice, colourful, patch of hump corals at 8d.
Further North at 8e, the corals were dead but structurally intact.
And there was a Golden Damselfish hanging around:
Moving slightly closer into shore (about 200m) off the beach, the coral was mostly dead:
..with the occasional patch of living Bush coral:
There was some interesting fauna, with a big Giant Moray Eel hiding under some coral, and a Magnificent Butterflyfish and an Emperor Angelfish throwing some shapes:
Swimming towards the beach didn’t yield much. A soft-sand beach was always likely to be sandy in the shallows. But even 70m out from the beach, there was nothing doing. When a Thumbprint Emperor lends interest to a photo, you know there’s not much in there!
Above the waves, the view was much better, with this shot of the Northern Cape looking pretty tasty.
Underwater – less so. At the same spot, here’s a couple of Coral Rabbitfish hopping away.
Right up, close to the point, there are some interesting rocks.
..with only a passing Doublespot Queenfish to liven things up underwater:
Around the other side of the cape, the coral was still uninspiring
But, here’s an interesting thing:
But you also see quite a few Yellowheads that have quite the darkened-spot on their backs, which is a bit perplexing.
I hear that there are cases of cross-breeding between the two species, which presumably results in offspring with hybrid markings. But one day, at area 8i, I was following a Yellowback around, when it changed into a Saddle right in front of my eyes.
Whaddaya think ?
Probably there were two entirely different fish, but I don’t remember it that way. Either I’m going nuts or I just made a new scientific discovery. Nuts.
AREA 9 – AU SAI EAN
Au Sai Ean is a huge bay.
There was a National Park Boat Trip to the North end (at 9d). I tried to persuade the boat driver to leave me there so I could swim back home, doing my checks on Areas 8 and 7 on the way. But by the time everyone had finished their snorkel at 9d (and I’d got as far as 9a), he’d changed his mind and made me get back into the boat.
The consequence of this is that I only checked-out a straight line across the mouth of the bay, and I didn’t get to look at areas closer/further from the beach. What I saw was a mixed-bag of OK-ish coral at depths around 3-6metres.
From South to North. . .
Area 9a was mostly fairly unhealthy coral patches on a sandy bottom at around 2m depth (with a tiny clump of Bush Coral to brighten things up).
I did see this interesting looking fish here. I think its a Russell’s Snapper, Lutjanus Russelli. Edit: It’s actually a Blacktail Snapper (Lutjanus fulvus) – thanks to the good people at whatsthatfish.
The bulk coral seemed a little healthier at 9b.
That’s an Oriental sweetlips diving for cover underneath some coral.
There was some interesting seascape and coral diversity at 9c
..but the Staghorn corals were still dead:
That’s a couple of Magnificent Rabbitfish off in the middle-distance there.
…and a good angle on the elusive Peacock Grouper.
9d was the point that the National Park trip brought us to. There was a range of different coloured hump-corals here, with some fun gaps between them to swim through.
AREA 10 – AU SAI EAN NEUA / LAEM SAI EAN
Au Sai Ean Neua is another National Park Boat Trip. It’s a small bay at the tip of the Northern cape of Area 9.
Neu means “North”, Laem means “cape”. This location is known both as “Au Sai Ean Neua” and “Laem Sai Ean”
I came here on the National Park Boat Trip. The coral and fishlife was reasonably good here. We just pottered around a small area for about 30 minutes.
The pictures speak for themselves. Mouseover for speciesnames.
Corals are in competition for the same resources and often have feisty (if slow-motion) battles at the edge of each coral-head. You can see here the nomansland where the Double Star Coral and the Porites have been slugging it out.
AREA 11 – KO SATOK
This rocky island to the North East is variously shown on maps as Ko Satok, Ko Stork, Ko Ree and Ko Chee. Satok seems to be the most prevalent name.
This is a National Park Boat Trip and is touted as being a good place to find Turtles and Sharks. I came here twice – once on a choppy afternoon when I saw two of each; and then on a calm morning when I saw none of either. Shared about sharks? Read this.
Its waaay to far to swim here from the camps.
On both trips, the boatman tied-up at buoys off the beach on the North East side.
Generally, on the National Park Boat Trip, you will stay in Area 10a-b, near the beach. My boat driver was sanuk and let me swim off around the island.
Jumping off the boat, the first thing I saw in the main snorkelling area was this sprawling field of dead staghorn coral.
Going Northwards towards 11b (head towards the small weather-data station), the coral quality slowly picked-up and there were some reef fish to be seen.
Here, you’ve got some Nemos, Indian Triggerfish, Cleaner Wrasse, lots of Sergeant Major Damselfish and even some living Blue/Blade coral:
A White Collared Butterflyfish, two Moorish Idols and a departing Filefish:
Someone in the group spotted a turtle in the depths (at about 6m). There was quite a strong current and both the turtle and the snorkellers had trouble swimming against it.
Without human interference, the turtle stayed around for a few minutes before swimming off into the blue.
I moved off towards 11c. Here’s a few things I spotted on the way. Mouseover for speciesnames.
There were quite a few Flutemouths around Ko Satok. I didn’t see too many in other parts of the Surins. They look like the needlefish that hang around the surface everywhere, but the Flutemouths are more slender and swim with a more flexible body motion.
Getting further away from the usual snorkelling area now, the coral was in fairly poor condition.
I bumped into another turtle here, and we hung out for a bit.
There was this attractive scene, coming up to the little cape at 11c
..and this Giant Moray Eel was still wearing her devil-horn deely-boppers from last night’s hen party:
On the headland at 11c, the coral was in poor condition
and these Feather Stars must have been having a feast in that current:
Around 11d, I saw a shark flash past my eyes and off into the blue.
I thought that some of the silhouettes of the distant reef fish looked like the characteristic shape of the Redtoothed Triggerfish. I had never seen these in Thailand, but it was them – there were two or three of them off in the distance. They were very timid, scuttling off towards the depths whenever I tried to take a picture. This is as good as I got, see the specieslist for a better snap, taken in Malaysia.:
I had a good feeling of having seen something new/unusual that day.
Mind you, when I went to the Similans a few weeks later, I saw loads of them!
Up around 11d, the coral stopped and the bottom turned to big rocks.
There were a pair of Blue Ringed Angelfish dancing around here.
At the Northern point of the island (11e), it was still all big rocks on the bottom (you can see the size of them from the Powder Blue Surgeonfish, bottom-left, which is about 15cm long).
Soon after this, I disturbed a decent-sized Black-tip Reef Shark from his hideout between the rocks. As he headed off into the deep water, I grabbed a few snaps through the murk.
Around to the West side, now I had a visitation from four Giant Trevally.
Around here, it was similar to the cape back at 2e – the choppy seas, the big rocks, the deep blue down-below and the upwells which brought the Pelagics here to feed made it all rather exciting.
Here’s a decent turnout of Doublespot Queenfish at 11f:
…and some schooling Yellowback Fusiliers at 11g.
I got as far as the break in the red line on the South West side when the boat trip driver put-putted around the corner to pick me up because everyone had finished their snorkelling over at 11a/b.
The stretch from 11g to my exit point, wasn’t too interesting – just big rocks.
I came back again on a trip the next morning. The weather was much milder. Today’s boat driver wasn’t as chilled as yesterday’s and he directed everyone to stay around the area near the beach. I snuck around as far as 11h to pick-up where I had left off.
The stretch around 11h was a mix of big rocks and sporadic coral growth on their surface.
At area 11i, near the Southern tip of the island, the big rocks gave way to coral again – much of it was dead table-corals.
Another guy on our boat saw a blacktip near here. I didn’t see it, but that’s not surprising, as he was there first, and once a shark has been startled, it’s gone.
One attractive thing around 11j, was a single, large gorgonian/sea fan. Standing about 2 metres tall, lots of fishies seemed to want to pose with it.
Heading back towards the boat moored at 11a, I passed a Blue Ringed Angelfish and a Yellow Mask Angelfish.
Coming back into the main bay, there was a plain of dead Staghorn and Table Corals.
A new development in coral mortality was this patch of coral at 11k, which looked like it had been choked by algae growth. There was a thick green carpet surrounding each polyp. I saw a lot of this in Redang Island on the Gulf Coast of Malaysia, but this was the only instance I saw in the Surins.
The coral between 11k and 11a was like this
I guess that if you you’re not lucky enough to find Sharks or Turtles there, the trip to Area 20a/b can be a bit unspectacular.
Well, here’s a pretty Yellowmask Angelfish to finish off with.
I didn’t visit Areas 12, 13, 14. I’m just including the numbers in case I come back someday and want to add them in later.
AREA 12 – HIN RAP
Hin rap is a small rocky sea-mount (Hin means “rock”, Rap means “flat”). It is marked on one of the maps as being suitable for diving.
I didn’t go there – it’s way too far to swim and the National Park trips don’t go there.
Here’s a picture of it at the surface – taken from a passing boat.
AREA 13 – AU JAAK
Au Jaak is a huuge, long bay/beach in the North East corner. Old trip reports suggest that this used to be one of the best spots to visit. National Park trips used to come here, but don’t any more.
I didn’t go there. It’s way too far to swim.
AREA 14 – AU JAAK TOWARDS AU SAI DAENG
This is a long stretch of coast on the North side of the island. There is another long beach here (possibly called Haat Sai Khao).
I didn’t go there. Hardcore swimmers could maybe reach the Western end of this rocky stretch.
AREA 15 – AU SAI DAENG, EAST AU MAI NGAM AND THE ‘SECRET BEACH’
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Starting at Area 15a, you have about 3 km of rocky, rugged, ‘oceanic’ coastline with some interesting fishlife living between the rocks or frolicking off the capes. Then, heading West, you come in to the Au Mai Ngam; past the ‘secret beach’ on the left and another 1km into the sheltered waters of Area 1; finishing at the camping-only National Park site at Mai Ngam.
Actually, I did this as an out-and-back swim from Mai Ngam, but in the interests of continuity, it’s written here as running from East (15a) to West (15f) only.
Here’s a view of the scene above and below the water at 15a.
That’s Ko Satok (11) you can see far-off to the left.
It was exciting to find this uncommon fish, the Flagtail Triggerfish (Sufflamen chrysopterus).
Interesting sights around 15a were this Oriental Sweetlips
and a sea-snake/krait.
Actually, there were a few sea snakes in a small area here. Sea snakes are very poisonous, but if you leave them alone they will happily ignore you. Just don’t get between them and the surface if they are coming up to breathe.
There was a little rocky cove at 15b.
In its clear, shallow waters, there were lots of Yellowtail-Sergeant-Major Damselfish; some juvenile Mullet and some Bigeye Trevally:
I climbed out at the cove and had a quick peek into the forest. Unsurprisingly, the track didn’t go too far.
Back in the water, the West side of the cove was lined with Lined Surgeonfish:
Continuing West along a long rocky section of coastline
.. I had a visitation from a Giant Trevally and saw some unusual soft coral.
Then a pair of Yellowhead-Butterflyfish
And a run of about 6 Blue-Ringed-Angelfish, in ones and twos, every hundred metres for half a kilometre
..a cowrie shell:
And more pretty reef fish
Washing in and out of a surge-y cave was this pretty juvenile Angelfish. The young versions of all the big Angelfish look very similar to each other, with only small variations in how curved the hoops are. I’m calling this one as a Semicircle.
This was the only juvenile Angelfish I saw in the Surins.
There was a herd of Yellowfin Surgeonfish grazing on the rocks outside Angelfish’s little cave.
Several of the big Tangs/Surgeonfish look quite similar. See if you can sort this lot out.
I didn’t see too many Blue-Lined Groupers.
A Yellowmask-Angelfish was throwing shapes.
In the little crevice at 15c, the usually evasive Dark Surgeonfish was showing his best side:
At 15d just East of the headland, there was a huge school of Yellowback Fusiliers feeding off the food in the upwells.
Another interesting find was this uncommon Wedgetail Triggerfish.
The rocks of the cape looked quite interesting from here.
…and there were some Black-Snappers cruising round underneath.
Having already had one audience with a Giant Trevally this swim, it was an honour to see another one, plus his cousin the Bar/Blue Trevally.
Coming round the headland and towards the big bay, there were some schooling Brown Sweetlips.
They were more friendly than the ones at 4e, but not much more.
Then I passed a range of attractive Angel & Surgeonfish:
In area 15e, the coastline does a lot of in-and-out-ing. At one of the other headlands around here, Bluefin Trevallys and Double Spot Queenfish were enjoying the currents. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many of the DSQs.
Continuing on into the bay, there were some pretty Butterflyfish:
And the first signs of coral:
On the rocks, close to the coast:
In mid-April, the weather was pretty variable:
This is looking into the jaws of Au Mai Ngam. In the middle of the valley, you can just see the phone mast near Camp 2.
It seems that the (yellow) Lined Surgeonfish is higher in the pecking order than the Powder Blue. I saw a few territorial chases going on around here and the Lined one won every time.
…some more fishies spotted between 15e and 15f:
Here’s the state of the seabed, just North of 15f.
Coming round into the ‘secret’ beach on the East side of Mai Ngam, here’s the beach itself:
It’s quite attractive and is certainly very isolated, but it is difficult to get to. Apart from the 1km swim from the National Park camp at Area 1, there is a lot of shallow coral across the whole mouth of the bay. At low-ish tide and with any kind of swell/surf it is impossible to get to the beach without getting shredded on the coral below.
In calmer waters and higher tides, you would probably be OK. Even in the best of conditions, I wouldn’t do it without a mask and probably some footwear. The coral is less thick towards the North end of the bay, so head for that side if you are trying to swim into the beach.
When I was at the Surins, there was a farang staying the whole 4 month season there and he had brought a kayak from the mainland. The ‘secret beach’ was effectively his own private beach, because no-one else could get there. (Btw, there are no kayaks to rent on the islands).
Just outside the line of shallow corals, there was a showing from this Oriental Sweetlips:
..and some unusual softcoral:
Heading back in to the main bay, through areas 1b/1c, there was some good fauna to be found, with a showing from a Turtle and a friendly Giant Moray:
And a few pretty Nemos to finish things off.
– – – — –
Well that’s about it for the North Island.
I coverered much less of the South Island – mainly because the currents were unpredictable and often quite strong.
After this point, there are gaps between the numbering of each area– I’m leaving some numbers spare in case I want to come back and explore more later.
AREA 20 – AU SUTHEP
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Au Suthep is a big bay on the North side of the South Island. It is on the National Park list of Boat Trip s. The coral here is mostly dead Staghorn and rather underwhelming, but the location was a good one because the fish here were strangely friendly. I’m only using the experience of one visit, but I found that the fish here were less likely to flee from snorkellers than anywhere else on the islands. There didn’t seem to be any fish-feeding going on, so I guess the phenomenon is attributable to familiarity/conditioning from the many snorkel trips coming here over the years.
It was the day of Songkran when I came here. Songkran is a big National Holiday and the camp and boats were very very busy, so I swam it. It’s not very practical to get here by swimming– it’s a long way from the camps.
Starting out from the tent beach at Area 3, I hauled it through the currenty channel over to the South Island. On reaching the other side, I soon saw the uncommon and beautiful Picasso Triggerfish.
These are similar in size (~20cm) and incidence (uncommon) to their cousins, the Wedgetail; Flagtail; Blackpatch; Pinktail and Scythe. You can consider a sighting of any of these to be a rare treat.
See the specieslist for the whole family.
The coral around area 20b was pretty unhealthy:
But there was this little patch of living softcoral there.
I only saw this species of coral here and across the bay at 2k. I believe it is Sarcophyton species, common name ‘Soft-Leather coral’.
On the trip from Area 20b to the cape at 20c, there were a couple of Batfish and some schooling Surgeonfish.
Corals were most/all dead:
Foliose corals like this Bracket coral are supposedly the second most robust group of corals (after Hump/Porites species), but very few of them were still alive.
At the little headland at 20c, there were some funky rock formations at surface-level and the coral was a little healthier:
To be honest, at this stage I had no idea where I was ‘supposed’ to be going. Au Suthep is a huge bay and, so far, I hadn’t seen much worth seeing (coral-wise).
Mooring buoys are often good indicators of worthwhile spots. There was one about 200m off the cape at 20c, so I headed out for a look around.
The water was >15m deep at the buoy (at 20d), so I don’t know what the bottom was like. But I did find the healthiest coral in the Surins – growing on the buoyline! :
Heading West into the main part of the bay, there were some crazy, space-ship jellyfish:
.and some more traditional designs:
And this weird one, which was made of jellyfish tissue, but swam like a snake. If anyone know what species that is, I’d love to know.
(btw, sorry about the wobbly camerawork. Youtube seem to have made it even worse). original
The water was too deep to see very much, so I diverted closer to the coast. On the stretch 20d to 20e, when I finally reached coral-viewing depths, it typically looked like this:
Around 20e, I saw some huge skyscraper bommies of (living) Porites/Hump Coral, rising about 10m off the seabed. The visibility was too poor to photograph them, but picture this, (but taller):
Continuing the long haul from 20e to 20f, there was another buoy, about half way.
That’s the South Island on the left and the multi-monikered Ko Klang (Area 24) on the right. If you look closely you can see a second longtail just leaving Area 20f.
Underwater, it looked like this:
By now, several longtail boats had gathered in Area 20f and had offloaded their payloads of lifejacket-clad surface-snorkellers. 20f was clearly the place to be.
By the time I got there, most of them had finished snorkelling and were leaving again. If you come here independently and don’t have any boats to guide you, then head for buoy 147:
That’s the tip of the South Island on the left and Ko Klang (Area 24) on the right.
Boats had been dropping snorkellers in quite a big area (~80m x 50m) around buoy 147. Not that you would be able to identify the target-spot by looking at the coral – it’s the chilled-out fish that are the attraction.
Many-Spotted/Harlequin Sweetlip fish are notoriously shy and will usually scoot-off under a rock the second they see you. The fact that this one was hanging around, waiting to be photographed speaks volumes about this area.
The coral was mostly dead Staghorn.
..with a few other minor players:
I think that this reddy was hard-coral, rather than a Gorgonian. I saw something similar in Ko Ngai, near Trang.
There were a few clumps of hardy bush/Acropora corals dotted around to add some much-needed colour:
…But it’s the fish that you come for. Mouseover for speciesnames:
This was a fun spot. But sooner or later you have to head for home.
On the way back, I took a route closer to the coast, for the sake of variety.
Approaching area 20g, I suddenly found myself in Jellyfish hell.
It was too wide to swim around. Possible to swim under, except for the minor problem of coming up to breathe. I really had no option but to hitch my t-shirt up over my neck, flip over onto my back and plough through the middle of them for 15 minutes.
It could have been worse, I only glowed red for about 2 days afterwards.
Once through the jellyfish, the coral (at 20g) typically looked like this:
Going around the little headland at 20h, I saw a Blackspotted Pufferfish and an Emperor Angelfish.
Here’s the headland at 20h:
And the view of the long beach at 20i:
This beach looked like a top-spot for a visit. Unfortunately, there were a lot of sharp corals in the shallow bay in front of it and it was impossible to reach the beach.
I did see a Blacktip-Shark shooting-out of the shallows as I plodded past.
and there was this Flatworm there:
Actually, I didn’t see too many flatworms or nudibranchs in the Surins. This may have been the only one.
Heading back to the point at 20j, the coral to the West of the point looked like this
The swim back across to the North Island felt like a looong way. I’m sure the current didn’t help. I recommend taking a boat!
Numbers 21-23 are spare, in case I go back someday and explore some new areas
AREA 24 – KOH KLANG / MUNG KON /PALUMBA
All three names for this Island seem to be commonly used. Also mentioned on one map is the Moken name: Jaloh Bunai.
In my dictionary Mung Kon means ‘large penis’ I bet there’s a story to tell there. It also means ‘basilisk’ (a legendary serpent) and ‘dragon’. One of the signposts on the National Park Nature Trail goes to great lengths to point-out that it is an abbreviation of the ‘Mangkorn’ breed of lobster. I expect that there is an ancient legend about a mystical serpent that once had a great dual with a lobster over who had the bigger penis. Maybe not.
I didn’t come to Ko Klang. It was already a slog getting as far as Au Suthep (Area 20). The channel between Surin South Island and Ko Klang is much further than it looks in the pictures and I image it has a good range of currents running through it.
National Park boat trips don’t come here. Apparently, the best snorkelling used to be in a big, shallow bay on the North East side.
I read somewhere that Orcas (Killer Whales) have been spotted off the West Coast of Ko Klang. It seems a little fanciful to me. Are you thinking of going for a look? I contemplated it. But remember that they like to eat mammals about your size. Have you seen that BBC video of them playing volleyball using a half-dead seal before finishing it off? At least on TV, you can change the channel.
Edit: I’ve now found something that says that the Surins see False killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens), That seems far more sensible.
Areas 25-27 are spare, in case I come back later.
AREA 28 – AU BON
Au Bon is a tiny bay at the North end of the huge bay that houses the Moken Village.
This was a National Park Boat Trip.
We lost the metal steps from the longtail boat here. The boat was tied to a mooring buoy and a change in the current span it around, unhooking the ladder from the side of the boat and leaving it to sink down into the deep blue. I spent most of my time here trying to recover the steps from the bottom of the briny. I did it, but damn-near bust my lungs in the process. That’s the last time I climb up a 10m buoyline with a 20kg dead-weight hanging off my back.
My recollection of the area was that it was OK, but not spectacular. We had just been to Laem Chong Khad (Area 4), which is better.
IIRC, at Au Bon there were many clumps of Hump-coral in a few colours, which is the classic recipe for good-snorkelling in the Surins, these days. I only took two pictures and they both look pretty decent.
Other people who went there on other days seemed to like it.
AREA 32 – AU SAB PA ROD
Au Sab Pa Rod is big rectangular bay about half way down the South Island.
This was a National Park Boat Trip.
We moored way-out in the mouth of this big bay. The water was still only a couple of metres deep there.
This was the second stop on my first NP boat trip. Generally, the coral wasn’t up to much
Although there were a few attractive spots.
I just chased around after pretty reef fish.