Sitting at dinner last night, the guy at the next table was recounting his recent bull shark encounter. Here on Koh Tao, tales of shark encounters abound. Everyone talks about that amazing dive that one time when they came face to face with a bull shark or swam alongside a 5m whale shark. However, as you come to find out after doing a number of dives here, those tales are the rare exception rather than the rule. (That said the diving is still beautiful and well worth it. Just don’t go expecting to see sharks.)
The one place around the island where anyone – divers and nondivers alike – is allegedly almost guaranteed a shark siting is Thian Og Bay, also known as Shark Bay. (Ironically, the nearby Shark Island, a popular dive site, is generally devoid of sharks.) So, one day not so long ago, seeking a cheap thrill we headed down to the south side of the island for a snorkel. Thian Og is known for its reef sharks, friendly, passive fellows who like shallow water and, go figure, coral reefs. I had heard they were quite small, so wasn’t expecting much.
The bay itself is quite large, has a mostly coral-covered bottom and remains shallow very far out. We swam around for a while but had no luck. From the sounds of it, nearby snorkelers hadn’t glimpsed a mini-Jaws either. A local had told me a few days earlier that all of the reef sharks had “gone away on summer vacation,” so I wasn’t too surprised. The water was quite silty that day, so the visibility wasn’t very good, but we saw loads of beautiful tropical fish nonetheless; the excursion wasn’t in vain. After about an hour we started to head back to shore but at the last minute I decided to turn back out for a little more. I just can’t ever get enough of swimming in the ocean.
I headed way out into the middle of the bay, my body nearly skimming the plant life in the shallow water as I swam. I was casually watching a parrot fish peck at the reef in search of lunch, when I caught a sharp movement to the left in my peripheral vision. I glanced to the side, and coming out of the murky water, straight toward my head, was a massive shark. Ok, ok, so maybe massive isn’t the right word. But I had been expecting skinny little guys not more than 2 or 3 feet long. This guy was about 5 feet long (just about as long as me!) and much thicker than I through the middle. I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating when I say he was really, really big, especially in such shallow water and at such close range. He could have been the twin brother of this guy:
The visibility was so poor that by the time he came into view he was only about 6-8 feet away from me. He seemed to see me through the cloudy water at the exact same moment I saw him. We locked eyes for a moment – I swear! – I banked right, he banked left with incredible graceful speed, and we both swam like hell to get away from each other. I beelined across the bay, heart racing, praying I would run into another. Cheap thrill it was.
I’ve seen sharks at somewhat close range before while diving – reef sharks, nurse sharks, hammerheads – but they aren’t usually quite that close. And there’s something about wearing a wetsuit and a large metal tank on your back that makes you feel invincible. Rationally, I knew I had nothing to be afraid of, but in just a bikini and a snorkel, without even fins, I suddenly found myself feeling surprisingly vulnerable…
If you go: The entire beach in Thian Og is occupied by the low-key but luxe Haad Tien Beach Resort. Day visitors are allowed to use the beach. You can reach it by motorbike from a turnoff of the road to Chalok Ban Kao, but if you’re a wimp like me, you may want to park at the end of the paved road and walk from there (about 20 minutes). The easier way to go, if all you want to do is snorkel and don’t need a beach, is take the road to Chalok Ban Kao past that beach and all the way to the end to OK View Bungalows. The rocky coastline there has several swimming ladders into the bay.