One of the biggest challenges I set for myself for this trip was to really step outside of my comfort zone and to venture out a little bit. I think I’ve been doing a lot of that — especially in SEA — but I never thought it would involve sharks.
A day after we moved into our beachside bungalow, we met Kamille and Angela, a Danish couple next door to us. I was feeling antisocial as usual but in friendly neighbor fashion, N chatted them up and invited them to have dinner with us. My reservations faded away as we clicked immediately, and we spent the next few days commiserating about the shitty management of the bungalows we were staying in, and who was still able to talk the family running the place to please give us a roll of toilet paper or to please swap out our pillows because their mildewy smell was overwhelming. We told them about magical Tanote Bay, which our friends Ina and Daniel had introduced us to. When the girls finally got fed up with the insufferable owners and moved to friendlier lodging in Tanote Bay, we were surprised to miss these near strangers and decided to head over to hang out with them for the day.
That afternoon of reacquainting ourselves with the beauty of Tanote sealed the deal. We moved the next day and spent the next week hanging out with them in the quieter side of Koh Tao which was more our style anyway. The staff at Tanote Family Resort were still apathetic Burmese (I don’t think there was one Thai person on the island) who didn’t know how to smile, which is weird to me because you’d think that getting out of a poor, highly corrupt country like Burma to end up on a beautiful Thai island would bring them joy but maybe they show their happiness differently.
Snorkeling was amazing even on the drizzly days, and we stuffed ourselves with mangosteens and longsats (affectionately called “potatoes” by the girls) on the beach. Tanote was perfect for us because the snorkeling was great in both the shallow and deeper parts of the bay. We climbed onto the rock jutting out from the middle of the bay and watched people courageously jumping from it into the water below.
We explored the sides of the bay with Angela — a shark lover who was always in search of one — and spotted stingrays but the sharks were nowhere in sight. We gave up and wandered around the rocks, where big black damselfish (a.k.a. Assholes of the Sea) charged and nipped angrily at our shins and feet when we got too close to their territories.
As we were getting ready to finish up for the day, N suddenly started calling out to me through her snorkel and gesticulating wildly. It was a sea turtle. She was slowly swimming towards deeper waters, and I swam as fast as I could to keep up with her. The turtle swam up, popped her head out of the water briefly for air and then dove elegantly down to the deep bottom and under a rock. It was crazy.
A few days later of spotting no sharks, we decided to hire a longboat to Shark Bay, known for its blacktip reef sharks. That morning, N came down with what was later diagnosed by our doctor friend (who we annoy constantly about our health issues as we travel) as an amoeba infection, which landed her on the toilet for the next few days until the Flagyl kicked in. So the three of us popped some magical Thai motion sickness meds (Dramamine) and set off in rocky waters towards the bay. It took about 15 minutes of us bouncing on the waves past smaller bays and secluded bungalows on tiny beaches before we were dropped off in shark bay which was surprisingly full of new, high-end resorts.
We started off on the right side of the bay and were immediately disappointed to find that visibility was poor, making it near impossible to see anything in the shallow area. While Kamille opted to stay around the shallow parts and explore, Angela and I swam out where it quickly got pretty deep. It was still nothing compared to Tanote and I felt bad for the poor people who shelled out $200+/night to have such shitty snorkeling. There were no sharks on this side, but there were plenty of huge sea urchins and bigger, shy fish hiding among the rocks.
Impatient to see sharks, we swam back and moved to the other side of the bay where a man had told us that he had seen a shark. Kamille laid out on sand in her little yellow bikini as Angela and I literally abandoned her in our haste and excitement to spot the unicorn in the water. We had to swim out a little farther out but we slowly made our way out, craning our necks from side to side to scan the cloudy water.
At this point, I was starting to question myself. I knew blacktip reef sharks weren’t known to take any interest in tasting human flesh, but you never know with wild animals. I found myself sticking so close to Angela that I kept bumping into her and getting in her way, my fear starting to take hold. Then I saw it. A flick of a black-tipped tail to our left, and I pointed excitedly and swam towards it as fast as I could. It was nowhere in sight, and I swore to Angela that I saw a shark. It was so quick and cloudy in the water that I wondered if my mind was playing tricks on me. After a minute or so, it was Angela’s turn. She pointed and I turned to see a shark about two meters long as it slowly cruised past us. Its fins were tipped black and big lampreys clung to its sides and underbelly. Not wanting to let it get away, we swam towards it; Angela propelling herself gracefully with her fins, while I fought to keep up rather ungracefully without. I managed to get a crappy photo of it, the only proof we would snap that day.
The shark disappeared, only to reappear once more behind us, cruising past like a stealthy submarine. I followed Angela following the shark, watching as it swam away from us for good before we spotted another one, smaller this time. As we watched it swim along the bottom of the seabed around us, I once again wondered if this was such a good idea. No one else was around us. We were alone with the sharks. Bull sharks had been spotted here recently, and they weren’t as docile as the ones we were swimming with. As if to read my mind, Angela popped her head out of the water. A wide grin was plastered on her face and looked like she was in heaven. “I’m hungry!” We decided to get back to Kamille, and I hoped the sharks weren’t as famished as we were.
In the late afternoon, we got back on a longboat right as it started to drizzle. We huddled under the canopy and watched the rain hitting the water and turning it a dark green. As we sped past the cliffs edging the island, the driver called out to us. “Hello, hello!” I turned and he gestured out to the horizon, where a rainbow arched over the water. Pushing myself past my comfort zone wasn’t such a bad thing.
For more photos of Koh Tao, check out our Flickr album.