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A Complete Guide to Scuba Diving in Ao Nang, Krabi Thailand

Ao Nang is a lively tourist hub located on Thailand’s Andaman Coast in Krabi province. Some tourists just pass through on the way to the Koh Phi Phi Islands. But many decide to stay in Ao Nang as well, and for good reason. There are many activities to suit all tastes, in a beautiful setting. At some point in the future, we will make a series of blog posts to explain the many tours and activities available in Ao Nang. But for now, we will focus solely on our specialty: scuba diving in the Ao Nang area.

The Basics of Scuba Diving in Ao Nang

Map Ao Nang area - Sea Gypsy Divers, Ao Nang area, Krabi Thailand

Dive trips from Ao Nang go to either Koh Phi Phi or the Ao Nang local islands

There are currently about 10-15 dive schools based in the Ao Nang area. Most shops are PADI-affiliated, but there is also representation from other organizations such as SSI and CMAS. Ao Nang is somewhat unique on the Andaman Coast of Thailand, because here you can scuba dive year-round. The best diving conditions are generally from November to May, with flat seas and visibility up to 30 meters. From June to October is rainy season, where conditions can be slightly more unpredictable. Water temperature ranges from 27-30 degrees Celsius year-round.

Dive Destination #1 – Koh Phi Phi

Dive trips from Ao Nang often go to the Koh Phi Phi islands and nearby surrounding area. It takes a typical dive boat around two and a half hours to reach Phi Phi from Ao Nang.  A speedboat can make the trip in 45 minutes. Here there are as many as 20 distinct dive sites. Many have conditions perfect for beginners, but some others have potentially strong current. Visibility is often good, as the islands offer protection to many sites from prevailing weather conditions. Most dive sites are close to the islands, either the bigger Koh Phi Phi Don or smaller Koh Phi Phi Ley. There are various wall-diving opportunities here, but access to shallow sandy areas also provides ideal conditions for training. A few sites are set away from the islands in the open ocean, including two excellent wreck dives. Although currents can be stronger in the open ocean and visibility more unpredictable, these sites offer perhaps the greatest varieties of sea life on display in this area.

Typical sightings in the Koh Phi Phi area include hawksbill turtles, blacktip sharks, giant moray eels, and huge schools of fusiliers. Divers can spot leopard sharks as well at certain sites. Even whalesharks, dolphins, manta rays, and spotted eagle rays have been known to pass through from time to time. Macro life includes many varieties of nudibranch, durban dancing shrimp, banded boxer shrimp, mantis shrimp, pipefish, and even an occasional seahorse. Colorful soft corals blanket many of the sites of Koh Phi Phi as well.

Dive Destination #2 – Ao Nang Local Islands

The Ao Nang local islands provide spectacular scenery which gives this area much of its reputation. Sheer limestone cliffs rise out of the sea to create beauty not easily matched anywhere else in the world. These islands also offer a unique brand of scuba diving. Only a 40 minute ride by longtail boat or 10 minute ride by speedboat makes for a quicker journey than Koh Phi Phi. Each small island is generally its own dive site, with approximately 10 sites in the area. Conditions are generally more unpredictable than Koh Phi Phi. The best visibility is around 15 meters, but oftentimes it is no more than 5-10 meters.

Ao Nang Local Island - Sea Gypsy Divers, Ao Nang area, Krabi Thailand

Two common sights in Ao Nang – longtail boats and beautiful island scenery

Macro-lovers will appreciate the wide variety of macro life on display at the Ao Nang local islands. Here are the most varieties of seahorses, nudibranchs, shrimp, and pipefish. It is also common to spot bamboo sharks hiding in the rocks, and blue-spotted stingrays hiding in the sand. For experienced divers, there is the chance to explore a wide variety of caves, caverns, and swim-throughs, some spanning through entire islands. Inside you can commonly spot spiny lobsters, banded sea snakes, pickhandle barracuda, and baby blue-spotted stingrays.

Getting to and from the Dive Sites

Different scuba diving shops will have slight variations, but generally this is what you can expect getting to the dive sites. Your dive shop will pick you up at your hotel around 7-7:30am and bring you to the local longtail boat pier at Nopparat Thara Beach. There you will hop in a longtail boat, which will take you on a five minute ride to where the bigger dive boat is moored. In Ao Nang, it is typical for a few smaller shops to share the same boat, which can fit 30-40 divers but is not always filled to capacity. Usually the big boat will go to Koh Phi Phi. If you are diving the local Ao Nang islands, it is easy to reach by longtail boat.

Key Points of the Dive Boat

On your boat trip to Koh Phi Phi, your dive operator will generally provide you with breakfast, lunch, water, electrolytes, and soft drinks. Boats will have a designated smoking area and marine toilets. During the boat briefing you should be reminded not to throw paper into the toilets since it will just go straight into the ocean! There is a dry area for personal belongings and a sun deck for tanning. Sunscreen is a good idea, as the sunlight reflected from the ocean is stronger in intensity. Safety is essential, so all boats should be equipped with life jackets, emergency flotation, oxygen, and first aid kit.

If diving in Koh Phi Phi, the trip will take approximately two and a half hours each way. This means if you are taking a course, there is plenty of time to review theory with your Instructor on the way to the dives. Usually the day consists of two dives, up to an hour long on each dive. Some days you will also have the option to make a third dive. On a two dive day, expect to be back in Ao Nang around 4:30-5pm. A three dive day will arrive back usually around 5:30-6:30pm. Of course, diving the Ao Nang local islands will shorten your day significantly. Whether two or three dives, you should be back on the mainland by early afternoon.

Dive Sites

Here you can read about some of the dive sites at Koh Phi Phi and Ao Nang local islands. This is not a complete list of dive sites, as between the two places we have more than 30 to choose from. These are a few that we feel are worth highlighting.

Koh Phi Phi Dive Sites – Suitable for beginners and experienced divers

Viking Bay

Located off the northeast corner of Koh Phi Phi Ley, Viking Bay is an ideal site for beginners and experienced divers alike. Closer to the coast, there is access to shallow sandy areas which are perfect for practicing skills during a course. For the fun diver, Viking Bay offers a varied mix of topography and sea life. A typical fun dive will start towards the southern end of the site, where there is an artificial coral reef called The Pyramid. Ranging in depth from about 10-20 meters, The Pyramid is a collection of giant cement blocks piled on top of each other that provide a surface for corals to grow. Started after the devastating 2004 tsunami to help coral regeneration, The Pyramid has seen extensive coral growth and multitudes of fish. Batfish typically find shelter here, along with giant moray eels, scorpionfish, boxfish, and pufferfish.

Moving north along the site and shallowing up a bit, divers can explore thriving coral gardens. Here one can spot hawksbill turtles, cuttlefish, and many varieties of clownfish (nemo). Usually there is also a school of hundreds of fusiliers which, if approached slowly, can surround divers for a truly surreal experience. Don’t forget to glance in the sand. Hundreds of shrimps and gobis symbiotically coexist all over this site, along with mantis shrimp and blue spotted stingrays. Finally, take a safety stop at the far north end of the site along the wall of the island. Here is one of various places around Phi Phi that you can spot blacktip sharks. They are not at all dangerous, if anything extremely shy which can make them harder to encounter.

Maya Corner

Hawksbill Turtle - Sea Gypsy Divers, Ao Nang area, Krabi Thailand

Maya Corner is perhaps the best chance to spot a hawksbill sea turtle

Moving to the western coast of Koh Phi Phi Ley, we can find one of the most famous beaches in the world: Maya Bay. This is the spot Leonardo DiCaprio made famous with the movie The Beach. Exiting the bay and turning just a little north along the coast is the dive site Maya Corner. Another site good for both beginners and experienced divers, this is arguably the best place to spot a turtle in all of the Koh Phi Phi area. Many hawksbill turtles make their homes on the shallow ledge closest to the coast at the northern end of the site, around 6 meters deep.

If you are lucky enough to see a turtle, continue by dropping off the ledge to 18 meters depth. Here you can find colorful soft corals, along with excellent macro life. Look here for many shrimp varieties, including durban dancing shrimp, banded boxer shrimp, and mantis shrimp. Bent stick pipefish also reside here. Moving south and shallowing up slightly, you can usually encounter yet another massive school of fusiliers. Giant trevaly often lurk in the area, waiting for a quick meal. If you make it far enough south, you can shallow up to 5 meters depth for a chance to see blacktip sharks. Your guide will take care not to get too close to the Maya Bay entrance, where constant speedboat traffic means divers should steer clear.

Bida Nok and Bida Nai

Off of the far southern tip of Koh Phi Phi Ley rest two small islands known as the Bidas. Bida Nok, the outer island, and Bida Nai, the inner island, provide some of the best diving around the Koh Phi Phi area. Divers can frequently spot blacktip sharks at various shallow water spots around the islands. It is even possible to spot a leopard shark resting in the sand. Bida Nok boasts perhaps the largest school of fusiliers recently seen in the area, easily numbering in the thousands. Giant trevaly often put on spectacular hunting displays, working together to create confusion in the school and catch a quick meal. As well, the macro life is abundant and varied. Many nudibranch varieties, shrimps, and pipefish make their homes here. Other common sightings at the Bidas are giant moray eels, cuttlefish, banded sea snakes, turtles, blue spotted stingrays, pufferfish, and trumpetfish.

Open Ocean Sites Around Koh Phi Phi for Experienced Divers

King Cruiser Wreck

One of two wrecks in the Koh Phi Phi area, the King Cruiser sunk off the west coast of Koh Phi Phi Don in 1997 in an apparent accident after colliding with the shallow pinnacle of Anemone Reef. In the twenty years since, the wreck has been transformed into a thriving reef. Tremendous coral growth, along with the collapse of much of the original vessel, make it almost hard to tell at times that this is indeed a wreck dive. A mooring line is tied to the shallowest point of the wreck, around 16 meters deep, with the rest of the wreck dropping as deep as 30 meters. The depth, along with sometimes challenging conditions, means this site is suitable for Advanced Divers or above. In addition to the coral growth, thousands of fish have flocked to the area. Divers commonly spot big schools of jacks, barracudas, and snapper. A closer look at the wreck will reveal many scorpionfish trying to blend in to the background. Lionfish reside here as well. In November 2016, a lucky group of divers spotted a whaleshark passing over the wreck.

Kred Gaeow Wreck

Lionfish on Wreck - Sea Gypsy Divers, Ao Nang area, Krabi Thailand

Lionfish are common sights at each of the two wrecks near Koh Phi Phi

Purposely sunk in 2014, the Kred Gaeow was formerly a Thai Navy vessel that now provides another fabulous wreck dive opportunity in the Koh Phi Phi area. Off the east coast of Koh Phi Phi Ley, the wreck has seen excellent coral growth during its short time underwater. The shallowest point of the wreck is around 14 meters deep, and extends to around 30 meters at its deepest, making this site for Advanced Divers or above. There is an abundance of life, including barracudas, fusiliers, scorpionfish, and lionfish. If you have really good eyes, scan the mast area for the possibility to see a frogfish, this site providing one of the rare chances to see this camouflaged angler.

Anemone Reef

As its name suggests, this site boasts loads of anemones on its submerged pinnacles. The amount and variety of life makes this site one of the best in the area. The majority of the site is made up of a single underwater pinnacle, reaching around 20 meters at its deepest and rising to 5 meters at its shallowest. The depth makes the site accessible for Open Water Divers, but the open ocean setting means currents can be strong at times. It is located near the King Cruiser wreck west of Koh Phi Phi Don, as colliding with the top of the pinnacle is the reason the King Cruiser sank in the first place. Leopard sharks have been spotted at Anemone Reef, along with giant moray eels, seahorses, and of course numerous clownfish to occupy the anemones.

Ao Nang Local Islands Sites

Koh Yawabon

The main feature at Koh Yawabon is a tunnel-sized swimthrough spanning the entire island. Qualified divers should make a point to visit. About 50m long, at a certain point you can actually surface to see brilliant cave formations inside the island. Underwater, the biggest attraction is that the tunnel serves as a nursery for baby blue spotted stingrays. At times they cover the sand completely no matter which direction you look. Also keep an eye out for meter-long pickhandle barracuda who use the cave as a hideout during the day, before hunting at night. Outside the cave, there are plenty of chances to see the macro life that the Ao Nang local islands are known for. Look for seahorses, pipefish, and nudibranchs.

Koh Sii

Koh Sii provides a great opportunity to see a variety of life that the Ao Nang local islands are known for. Only about 15 meters at its deepest, go slowly to spot macro life such as seahorses, nudibranchs, bent stick pipefish, and shrimp. Bamboo sharks often hide in the rocks, and even little babies no more than 20 centimeters long have been spotted. There is a short swimthrough where it is possible to see banded sea snakes and spiny lobster.

Koh Talu

Koh Talu is yet another site at the Ao Nang local islands that has a great swimthrough for qualified divers. As with Koh Yawabon, this one also spans the entire width of the island, but it is considerably shorter. Inside you can spot a unique and beautiful kind of nudibranch, a flabellina variety that is purple and yellow. A tigertail seahorse usually resides at the mouth of the cave, along with a pair of bamboo sharks hiding in the rocky outcrops. Keep an eye to the sand for blue spotted stingrays, and be sure to look for macro life, which is abundant. Most of your dive here will be around 12 meters depth or less, allowing for a long dive to enjoy the life on display.

We hope this information has been helpful as you consider planning your scuba diving trip in the Ao Nang area. Year-round accessibility and wide varieties of life make this a great destination for your diving holiday. We are more than happy to help with any questions you may have. Feel free to leave a comment below, or contact us here on our site and we will respond as soon as we can.

Tips for Better Buoyancy Control - Sea Gypsy Divers, Ao Nang area, Krabi Thailand

Tips for Better Buoyancy Control

As we get closer to opening our dive shop in less than a month, we will be writing various blog posts on different topics that may be of interest to both novice and experienced divers.  For our first post, I would like to discuss the topic of buoyancy.  I will first explain why good buoyancy control is the most important skill you can master as a scuba diver.  Then, I will review basic scuba diving theory as it relates to buoyancy. Finally, I will give you some of my key tips that I use in training to help divers better control their buoyancy.

The theory sections are long and detailed, so that inexperienced divers can be reminded about concepts they may have forgotten or never properly learned.  If you are a more experienced diver and would like to skip the theory to go straight to the tips, please click here. For any questions, comments, or critiques, feel free to submit a comment on this post.  I will respond as soon as possible.

The Importance of Good Buoyancy Control

When I first started diving at age 16, it was not something I fell in love with straight away.  The truth is that for my first 10 or 20 dives, I felt somewhat uncomfortable under the water.  Most of the time, I was that unlucky soul who had to end the dive for everyone else because my air supply was low.  I would struggle to control myself, constantly worried about bumping into coral and damaging the reef.  Even though I enjoyed scuba diving overall, these frustrations weighed heavily on me each time.

As you could probably guess by now, my prior struggles underwater had everything to do with buoyancy control, or in my case lack thereof.  Later on we will see specifically what was happening, and what I did to correct the problem.  But for now let’s talk a bit about what buoyancy control is and why you should consider it to be the most important skill you can have as a diver.

For a diver, buoyancy control is the ability to control your body and relative position underwater. Good buoyancy control allows you to maintain a constant depth without worrying about unknowingly sinking to the bottom or floating to the surface.  Many new divers can attest to how easy it can be to lose our orientation underwater if we aren’t paying attention.  We may be at 10 meters depth, completely absorbed the beauty around us, then all of a sudden we are at the surface!  This can be dangerous for a variety of reasons, including passing boats overhead and physiological risks of a rapid ascent.  On the opposite extreme, I have seen cases of even experienced divers who unwittingly sink well below their planned depths.  Good buoyancy control helps us avoid these problems.

An added benefit of having good buoyancy control is that we will expend less effort underwater. It helps us enjoy the dive more by maintaining a peaceful and relaxed state throughout. We not only feel more comfortable, but also we will use less air and be able to dive longer.

The Physics of Buoyancy

So how can we start to understand how to improve our buoyancy?  In order to do that, let’s take a quick refresher on the physics of scuba diving (and see if you were paying attention during your Open Water Course!).

When we jump into the water for a dive, the first thing we do is push the inflate button on our BCD.  This will add air to our BCD so that we are floating at the surface.  In this case, we say that we are positively buoyant.  When we are ready to descend, we hold up the BCD hose and push the deflate button.  Now the air rushes out of the BCD until we start to sink, making us negatively buoyant.  It is worth the reminder here that this is also why we wear a weight belt when we dive – to be able to sink.  If we didn’t, the bulkiness of the BCD, westuit, and tank would keep us positively buoyant still. Also keep in mind that we should exhale as we start to descend. Less air in our lungs means we will sink easier (more about this soon).

Once we start to sink, then what happens to our buoyancy?  As we sink deeper, we will become more negatively buoyant.  In other words, we will start descending faster and faster as we reach greater depth.  Why?  The answer lies in the fact that we are generally wearing a wetsuit when we dive.  There is a small layer of air within the neoprene fabric of the wetsuit that helps provide thickness and warmth.  When we sink underwater, we are exposed to pressure. The pressure increases quickly as we sink deeper. This means that the air inside our wetsuit compresses, making it thinner and less buoyant. As a result, we will become more negatively buoyant as we sink deeper, all else being equal.

Boyle's Law - Sea Gypsy Divers, Ao Nang area, Krabi Thailand

If you remember Boyle’s Law, you were paying close attention during your Open Water Course!

So what must we do to establish our goal of being neutrally buoyant underwater, so we are neither sinking nor floating uncontrollably? As you probably know already, we must add a little bit of air back into our BCD. This will provide positive buoyancy to counter-balance the increased negative buoyancy, theoretically making us neutral. Keeping in mind that if we go deeper, we may need to add a bit more air to compensate for the increased pressure. Vice versa, when we go shallower or make our final ascent, we must let some air out of the BCD. Otherwise, we will float up uncontrollably because the air already in our BCD, along with our wetsuit, will expand under decreased pressure.

That is the physics of buoyancy in a nutshell. Easy then, right? Problem solved and good buoyancy control achieved? Well, not exactly. I knew all of this theory just fine by the time I completed my Open Water Course, yet my buoyancy control still sucked. So now that we are refreshed on the basic physics, let’s get to the good part: tips for better buoyancy control!

Tips for Better Buoyancy Control

1. Pay attention to your breathing!

I will preface this point by stating very clearly that this is what I consider to be the most important factor in good buoyancy control. Ignoring it is the reason I had bad buoyancy control at the start of my scuba diving career. But fortunately, once I started paying attention to this concept, my buoyancy got much better, and very quickly.

Have you ever tried to float in a swimming pool? If so, you will probably notice that you’ll have an easier time of it when you inhale a deep breath into your lungs. Your increased lung volume will provide positive buoyancy, making it easier to float. Exhale and you will notice yourself start sinking below the surface. When we are diving, we can use our breathing in much the same way. In a state of neutral buoyancy, we will float up a little bit when we take in a deep breath of air. Conversely, when we breathe that air out we will sink down a little bit.

My mistake, the same mistake I have seen many divers make, is that I would always try to adjust my buoyancy through use of the inflate/deflate buttons on the BCD. If I felt myself floating up at all, I would quickly raise the hose to release some air. Then I would inevitably feel myself sinking more than I wanted, and quickly rush to add air back into the BCD. I was entirely ignoring the fact that the cause of these minor changes in my buoyancy was likely nothing more than my breathing!

In reality, a diver should rarely need to adjust the air in the BCD during a dive. It is especially necessary when we change depths drastically, including on the descent and ascent. It may be necessary to compensate for increased buoyancy of the tank as it gets lighter on air during the dive. But besides that, we should rarely need to touch the inflate/deflate buttons of our BCD during a dive.

Instead, we can really fine-tune our buoyancy by paying attention to our breathing. If we are approaching a coral that we want to go over top of, we can time our breathing to inhale deeply right before the moment we want to float up. Then, we can exhale deeply to come back down on the other side. Be careful not to hold your breath! We know from the most important rule in diving that we cannot do that for risk of lung expansion when ascending. But if you time your breathing the right way, you will be able to master buoyancy control with little to no effort involved.

Keep in mind that it usually takes a second or two after the breath for your body to react, so try to get a feel for the timing. With a little practice, the technique becomes so natural that you won’t even have to think about it. You will simply adjust your breathing naturally based on what you want your body to do.

2. Use a proper amount of weight

We touched previously on the purpose of the weight belt, namely to make sure we sink when we let the air out of our BCD at the start of a dive. Does that mean you should strap on as much weight as you can find to make sure you will sink? Of course not. In reality, we should strive to use just the right amount of weight to allow us to sink below the surface with a deflated BCD, and no more. As we already reviewed, we will only become more and more negatively buoyant as we sink. So no more weight is necessary other than the amount that will get us under the surface to begin with.

There are many divers, even experienced, who are constantly diving overweighted. There are significant drawbacks to this. For one, you will have to add more air to your BCD to achieve neutral buoyancy at depth. This means that if you change depth even slightly after that, there is a lot of air inside the BCD that will expand or compress. Therefore, you will have to continue adjusting the BCD a lot more than if you were properly weighted. It also means that since you need to add more air to be neutrally buoyant, you will be bulkier underwater. As a result, you will need to use more energy during the dive, potentially getting low on air quicker. As most divers wear weights on their hips, overweighting has the added drawback of dragging down the lower half of your body, making it harder to maintain proper trim (body position) underwater.

How do we know how much weight is the proper amount? You should have done something during your Open Water Course called a buoyancy check to address this. During a buoyancy check, you float vertically and motionless at the surface, holding a normal breath of air in your lungs. Then you let all the air out of your BCD. If you are properly weighted, you should: 1) float at eye level, and 2) start to sink when you exhale the breath. That tells us exactly how much weight we need to descend, and no more.

Keep in mind that if you do a buoyancy check with a full tank, it may be necessary to add an extra kilo or two to compensate for the fact that the tank will lose buoyancy as you use air during the dive. Otherwise, come time to make your safety stop at the end of the dive, you may find yourself starting to float up a bit. Also keep in mind, if you ever change diving conditions, diving equipment, or have been out of the water a long time, it is best to do another buoyancy check as your optimal weight may vary based on those factors.

3. Maintain proper trim

Good trim - Sea Gypsy Divers, Ao Nang area, Krabi Thailand

Maintaining good trim and buoyancy control allows us to get close to the reef without risk of damaging it

Trim is referring to a diver’s body position. Underwater, our ideal trim as divers is that we are in a completely horizontal position with our arms stationary. That way, we can easily kick ourselves through the water maintaining constant depth.

Oftentimes, I see divers whose legs are dragged down below the rest of their bodies. For some newer divers, this is because the horizontal position may feel unnatural at first. Or, it could be due to overweighting your belt, as we mentioned previously. Whatever the reason, the result of such bad trim is that we may kick the bottom, damaging the environment or impeding visibility by stirring up sand. Or, we may constantly kick ourselves up in depth, making it necessary to adjust buoyancy frequently throughout the dive.

If you are having issues maintaining proper trim, try redistributing some of your weight to your upper body. You can use the tank strap for this, either by threading a weight directly on to it or using specially designed weight pockets that clip to the tank strap.

4. Use visual references

It is important to use our visual references effectively to ensure we are aware of our position and surroundings. This way, we will notice slight changes in our buoyancy before we float all the way up to the surface, or sink below our intended depth. An important visual reference to use is your dive guide and/or dive buddy. It can be easy to lose yourself in the beauty of your surroundings underwater. But you should be constantly aware of the divers around you as well. It is not only to keep the group organized and together, but also to notice if you unintentionally change depth in relation to the other divers. That way you can adjust your buoyancy before your depth changes even more drastically.

It is also useful to use natural visual references. For example, if you glance at the bottom every now and then, you will be able to know if you are floating up too much or sinking too close to the floor. If you are on a wall dive, use visual references on the wall to help maintain constant depth.

5. Notice when you are kicking chaotically or flailing your arms

Most divers know that scuba should be a relaxing and peaceful experience. When we see divers underwater who are constantly flailing their arms or kicking chaotically, it is obvious that something is wrong. But do we notice these same tendencies in ourselves?

The first time I saw a video of myself underwater, I could not believe how much I was doing this without even realizing. These jerky movements in our arms and legs are futile attempts to correct bad buoyancy. In reality, we should never need to use our arms when we dive. Doing so is simply a waste of effort. Additionally, we should strive for gentle, relaxed, near-effortless kicking. Our fins are powerful enough that we should not need to do anything more than this. If we find ourselves wasting energy unnecessarily, it is likely we need to revisit the previous points to correct the underlying issue of bad buoyancy control.

Hopefully these tips help you to perfect your buoyancy control. In our opinion, it is undoubtedly the most important skill you can have as a good diver. Any questions, comments, or clarifications, feel free to leave a comment and we will address it!