Without doubt, the best diving site in Thailand is Richelieu Rock. Ever since Jacques Cousteau first discovered this underwater pinnacle several decades ago divers from all around the world have agreed that there is no better dive site in the Kingdom. While some local diving professionals have a soft spot for Koh Tachai or Hin Daeng, the general consensus is that Richelieu Rock has just too much good stuff on any given day to be knocked off of its throne. There are several factors why Richelieu Rock is so special, but it is worth noting its few drawbacks.
Soft corals and resident marine life at Richelieu Rock are always there. Regardless of what day of the diving season you visit, you’re guaranteed to be in awe of so much colourful life. The red and purple soft corals are what you notice first and most. But after a few minutes underwater, you will see plenty of healthy hard corals and abundant marine life species that have made Richelieu Rock their home. Right from the surface down to more than 30 metres deep, there are hundreds of species and hundreds of thousands of individuals. These include bony reef fish, invertebrates and the occasional reptile. The resident Yellow Thorny Seahorse (Hippocampus histrix), which is normally around 32m. deep, is possibly the most-photographed individual here, closely followed by the Ornate Ghost Pipefish (Solenostomus paradoxus) which is a few metres shallower. Even diving professionals who have visited Richelieu Rock plenty of times still get excited about what may be in store when they step into the crystal-clear warm water.
Visiting pelagic species are what most divers hope for, especially those who haven’t been here many times or seen many big fish. The Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus) is the largest fish in the world, and they are often seen here during the diving season, although reported sightings each year have been getting fewer and further between. Manta Rays (Manta alfredi) are very graceful, large filter-feeding rays that are always very popular among scuba divers. Although they tend to be seen more at Koh Bon than at here at Richelieu Rock, sightings are not uncommon. There are other rays, sharks and bony fish that swim around the Andaman Sea all their lives and sometimes pay Richelieu Rock a visit on their travels. The problem is that with so much to see on the reef, turning around to look out into the blue isn’t easy.
Its location is perfect for great scuba diving experiences. Richelieu Rock is located far from the mainland or any other islands, and it is surrounded by deep water. Therefore, currents push cooler nutrient-rich water up to the reef’s pinnacle, and that enables the marine life here to flourish. Also, with nothing else around, life condenses here as it is a home, a haven, a cleaning station, and somewhere for predatory species to feed.
Its size ensures that not only lots and lots of life can flourish here, but also divers can visit Richelieu Rock up to three times in one day without getting bored. Also due to its popularity, there are usually several dive boats here but the large area that Richelieu Rock covers means that divers aren’t bumping into each other because there’s plenty of space for everyone.
Sea conditions don’t affect its appeal because even if the visibility or currents aren’t ideal, you can still have a wonderful dive at Richelieu Rock. Starting with visibility: because there is so much life at Richelieu Rock, even if the sea isn’t as clear as normal, there is so much to see, such as smaller reef species. Many other dive sites can be boring or even dangerous if the visibility is reduced to less than 10 metres, but at Richelieu Rock it’s no problem. You can just focus on the thousands of animals in all the nooks and crannies. And low visibility is usually caused by plankton blooms, which of course are food for filter-feeding giants. So, the chance of a Whale Shark or Manta Ray being in the area is greater. The shape of Richelieu Rock means that even if there is a medium or even strong current, divers can easily find shelter from the main pinnacle or surrounding topography.
Its location is of great benefit to the marine life, because so many species make Richelieu Rock home or visit it regularly. However, for humans, it’s not the easiest or most enjoyable place to get to. Richelieu Rock is quite far from any mainland or other islands. Even by speedboat, the journey from Baan Nam Khem is over an hour. Liveaboard diving boats take several hours to get here. With no islands for miles, there is obviously no beach and the open sea is prone to wind & waves. Finally, divers on a liveaboard diving trip to Richelieu Rock will have come from Koh Tachai. Richelieu is in the Surin Marine Park and Tachai is in the Similan Park. Therefore, each guest on the boat needs to pay an extra $15 entry fee for the Surin Park.
It’s not for novice divers because of the depth and potential currents. Even though some dive centres take new divers to Richelieu Rock, it’s better if you have more than 20 logged dives. The reasons for this are hard to explain, because the reef is healthy and colourful right up to the surface and currents can be sheltered from. However, it is generally considered that more experienced divers are able to better enjoy The Rock, and stay underwater for the full dive time of one hour.
It’s a victim of its own popularity because so many dive boats want to visit. During the high season, it’s almost impossible to be the only scuba diving boat at Richelieu Rock, and that means you will almost certainly meet divers of other boats while you’re diving at here. Like all of the best places in the world, as soon as word gets around, the place becomes so popular that you may end up meeting more humans than the nature you came to see.