There are many great things to see on Koh Taos local reefs and dive sites, and turtles are definitely one of the coolest creatures to spot while scuba diving or snorkeling. Koh Tao literally translates to turtle island, and there's lot's of them around. The Thai's care greatly for their turtles, and the Queen Sirikit personally started a turtle conservation project back in 1979 to help protect these majestic animals.
Out of the seven species of sea turtles that exist in the world today, Koh Tao is home to three of them. The Olive Ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) is the rarest among the three, being occasionally spotted in and around the waters surrounding Koh Tao. They are classified as vulnerable by the IUCN and are listed under Appendix I of CITES, making them illegal to trade internationally.
Green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) is the largest of the three species of turtles in the waters surrounding Thailand. They can grow up to 150 cm long and weigh 300 kg or more. Several resident green turtles inhabit the waters surrounding Koh Tao and Shark Bay is the best place to spot them.
The turtle in highest abundance here is the Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata). It's considered critically endangered, however we have more recorded individuals of Hawksbill turtles then any other turtle species here.
While the DMCR (department of marine and coastal resources) and Thai navy overlooks the Queens turtle conservation project nation wide, locally the marine conservation center New Heaven takes on a lot of the work with studies and programs. They run the facebook page Koh Tao Turtles, where they collect images and observations from local scuba divers to help identify individual turtles and their habitat range. This has helped identify more then 50 hawksbill and green sea turtles so far! If you have images of sea turtles from Koh Tao or anywhere else in Thailand, please get in touch with the staff on the page and help contribute to turtle conservation!
Another turtle project that the people over at New Heaven is perhaps more famous for, is the turtle head start program. The program receive baby turtles from the Thai navy to raise for the first months of their lives. When turtles are born on local beaches, they have an extremely low survival rate. It's estimated that 1 in every 1000 turtles reaches adulthood. So some of the weakest baby's are scooped up and distributed to various conservation centers around the country to increase their chance of survival. Once the turtles reach a certain size they are released into the wild to hopefully grow up to become adult turtles.
You can watch the turtle feeding everyday at New Heaven Dive School in Chalok Baan Kao at 4:30 pm. This is a great activity and highly recommended for kids, a great way for them to learn about marine life first hand.
Where to find them
As mentioned, you don't even have to get wet to see turtles on Koh Tao if you head to Chalok. However if you want to see adults in their natural environment, you can do so either snorkeling or scuba diving.
For snorkelers, some of the best places to spot them are Shark Bay on the south of the island and 3 Rocks to the west. Here the turtles are normally in quite shallow waters so you can even spot them while on the surface. Keep in mind that turtles need to come up to breathe, so make sure you are not directly above them if they are on the move.
For scuba divers, there are many dive sites around the island where you may spot turtles. Although it's a very shallow dive site, 3 Rocks is a good place to spot them. The 4 dive spots around Koh Nang Yuan also see regular visits, and White Rock is another good place nearby to spot them. Shark Island on the south-west tip of Koh Tao is another great place they frequent.