The Surin Islands

An Introduction to the Surin Islands

Secluded and prisitine beaches of Surin Islands

The world renowned Surin Islands form part of the Mu Koh Surin National Park. The park is located about 60 km from the west coast of Phang Nga province. Or about 100 km north of the Similan Islands. The Surin Islands are an archipelago of five islands. Namely, Koh Surin Nuea, Koh Ri, Koh Khai, Koh Surin Tai and Koh Klang.

Leopard Shark Surin Islands
Harmless bottom-feeding Leopard Shark (Surin Islands)

Most visitors to the National Park come for the crystal clear turquoise waters. Other’s come to snorkel or dive the most extensive coral reef in Thailand. The Surin Islands have relatively low numbers of visitors. It’s also rich in marine life. These two factors combine to make the Surin archipelago one of the best diving and snorkeling sites in the world.

Where in Thailand are the Surin Islands?

Map by Phukhao Advertising Hatyai-Phuket 2002

The Surin Islands proximity to the deep ocean waters of the nearby continental shelf make it the perfect spot to see larger marine life. During the season, it’s a great place to encounter giant Whale Sharks and Oceanic Manta Rays. Numerous species of endangered sea turtles nest on the islands. Though relatively uncommon species, divers and snorkelers on multi-day liveaboard tours, have a higher chance of seeing these majestic and iconic creatures.

Oceanic Manta Ray
Oceanic Manta visit Surin from Dec-April each year

As well as the excellent diving, many visitors also enjoy hiking the rugged main trial on  the largest island. It’s the only track that runs over the mountainous jungle-covered interior. Much of the inland forested areas are off-limits to visitors. The Parks primary aim is to provide a sanctuary for wildlife rather than easy access to humans! Nonetheless, it’s not too difficult to encounter troops of monkeys, large lizards and numerous bird species near the park office or on many of the beaches.

For some visitors, Koh Surin provides the perfect backdrop to simply relax on a picturesque deserted beach and experience a rare moment of perfect isolation and tranquility..

Koh Surin is an important nesting site for Green and Leather-back turtles

Due to its minimal development, the islands are perfect for anyone wanting to escape the large crowds of tourists you’ll encounter in busy tourist towns like Phuket, Ao Nang and Khao Lak. Due to the lack of “development” on the islands, the Mo Koh Surin National Park is really not suited to tourists in search of a luxury island escape. It’s better suited for nature lovers and visitors wanting to avoid the many tourist traps.

Nemo Clown Fish Khao Lak snorkeling
Clown or Nemo fish of Surin

The Surin islands are also far less busy or crowded than other islands closer to the mainland, such as Hong Island or Phi Phi. For those who simply can’t travel without 5 star comfort and luxury, expensive liveaboard cruise boats do also visit the pristine waters of Koh Surin.

The largest island of the archipelago is Koh Surin Nuea. The island has several bays, with one of the prettiest being Ao Mai Ngam. This sheltered bay has a nice long, soft sandy beach and some nice snorkeling spots. It’s also where a small National Park’s office, camp grounds, shop, restaurant and visitor centre are located. It’s also the only place where you’ll find a 2km walking track where you can legally hike into the rugged rainforest interior.

Rich marine life of Surin

Further to the west, you’ll encounter the calm waters of Ao Mae Yai, a safe anchorage for boats visiting the islands. To the southeast is the bay of Ao Luek, home to colourful coral reefs teeming with marine life and excellent for snorkeling. Near the northern tip you’ll find Ao Chak, yet another heavenly bay with extensive coral reefs and fantastic snorkeling.

Moken spear fishing from a 'kabang'

About 150 Moken or “sea gypsies” call the bay of Ao Bon Yai on the south island of Koh Surin Tai home. The Moken are a semi-nomadic sea people that have roamed the seas of the Andaman for thousands of years. They learn to swim even before they walk, and can hold their breath and free dive deeper than almost any other people on the planet. Interestingly, the Moken people have no linguistic notion of time or how to measure it! The Moken spend a great deal of their lives on boats known as “kabangs”.

Moken Village (Surin Islands)

For the last few decades, they have lived a precarious existence in a small village on the island, which accidentally burnt down in February 2019. It has since been rebuilt, and many visitors shop for Moken hand-made gifts crafted from drift wood and sea shells. This tourist trade has become an important source of income for the Moken today, surpassing fishing as their main means of survival.

Moken man
Moken elder (Surin Islands)

 Unfortunately, UNESCO has listed the Moken culture as under threat, slowly being lost to the trappings of modernity. Responsible tourism can however play a part in helping preserve aspects of Moken culture. Several tour operators, including Surin Tours, are working alongside the Moken community. They run Moken tours and visits that give value to cultural traditions facing extinction.

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Blacktip reef sharks

The majestic black tip reef sharks of Koh Surin & Richelieu Rock

By David Castro

The Black tip reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus) has a wide distribution. It’s found in shallow waters in many parts of the world, including the Surin Islands and Richelieu Rock. Here in Thailand it is relatively common, along both the coasts and islands of the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. Both Koh Surin and Richelieu Rock contain healthy populations of these harmless reef sharks. Despite its relative wide distribution, the species is now listed as Near Threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It’s greatest threat is over-fishing and habitat disturbance, leading to widespread regional declines of this slow-reproducing shark.

Distribution Map of the Black-tip Reef Shark

Distribution map of blacktip reef sharks
Map by By Chris_huh - Compagno, Leonard; Dando, Marc & Fowler, Sarah (2005). Sharks of the World. Collins Field Guides

Despite the decline in black-tip populations, the Surin archipelago is still a great place to encounter these noble creatures. Black-tip reef sharks can grow to 1.8m (5.9ft) but more commonly reach a maximum 1.5 -1.6m in length. The single biggest individual on record, weighed in at 13.6kg (30lb). It prefers shallower waters to other reef sharks, most notably the grey and white-tip reef sharks. Its preference for shallower waters, makes it the most commonly seen shark when snorkeling Surin. The best places to find them is along the coral reef ledges, but they do occasionally swim into the shallow sandy flats.

Black tip reef shark - Koh Surin

Blacktip reef shark’s preferred prey species are mullet, groupers, grunters, whitings, jacks and wrassers. They also feed on octopus, cuttlefish, shrimp and squid. Blactip reef sharks, especially the juveniles, tend to fall prey to larger fish. They are preyed upon by tiger sharks, grey reef sharks, groupers and even members of their own species. It’s important to note that sightings of tiger sharks are extremely rare in Thailand, as they prefer cooler waters to the warm waters of Surin.

As a general rule, blacktip reef sharks are harmless to humans, and will never attack you when swimming.

Some care needs to be taken when wading through shallow water however. Blacktip reef sharks can mistake your feet for their natural prey. Keeping your body submerged in water is advised to avoid the extremely unlikely situation whereby a blacktip shark accidentally bites your feet! Rest assured in the knowledge it’s far safer to swim near a blacktip reef shark than walk next to one in shallow water.

Surin Islands
Blacktip Reef sharks - Richelieu Rock

Koh Surin is important habitat for blacktip reef sharks

Juvenile or young blacktip reef sharks often form large groups in very shallow waters not much deeper than their body size. During high tide, they can be found in flooded coral platforms or seaweed beds at Koh Surin and Richelieu Rock. They are fast swimming, and can be found alone or in small groups as adults. Blacktip reef sharks are very territorial and tend to stick to particular areas, often for several years. The Surin islands or Koh Surin as they are also known, are an important nursery for the species. Though not considered a commercially important shark species, they are a common by-catch of Thailand’s coastal fisheries. The consumption of shark meat (particularly their fins) along with their slow reproductive rates, is increasingly threatening the long term survival of this iconic species.

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