Richelieu Rock is widely considered the best dive site in Thailand and used to be super crowded. In 2022, you can dive it without almost anyone else around.
Glassfish and soft coral bommie, Richelieu Rock, Thailand © Chris Mitchell
Between January 22 to 27 2022 I did a 6 day liveaboard on MV Smiling Seahorse where we spent a superb three days at Richelieu Rock and then moved on to Koh Tachai and Koh Bon.
There was a smorgasbord of macro life on Richelieu Rock – several seahorses and ghost pipe fish of various colours, a ribbon eel and harlequin shrimp were among the highlights – but I was all about the wide angle during our three days there.
Batfish school, Richelieu Rock, Thailand © Chris Mitchell
Watching the endless dynamic shifts of movement of the glass fish amongst the abundant soft corals is something I never get tired of – or trying to capture in photos (with varying degrees of success). Being there all day for early morning and sunset dives gave the Rock a whole new perspective with the differing light. We had such great visibility for the three days we were there it was perfect conditions.
Pink soft coral and glassfish bommie, Richelieu Rock, Thailand © Chris Mitchell
Best of all, for the first day and a half we had the dive site entirely to ourselves, which would be unbelievable in pre-Covid times.
Cuttlefish, Richelieu Rock, Thailand © Chris Mitchell
While none of the Big Stuff turned up during our time we had a fantastic school of batfish schooling at the top of the rock on one sunset dive and the usual resident yellow snappers inside the bay of the horseshoe shaped rock. There was also a pair of cuttlefish who weren’t too skittish.
Fishbowl, Richelieu Rock, Thailand © Chris Mitchell
The bay itself was often a literal fishbowl with 100s strong schools of rainbow runners racing through with trevally and jacks chasing around, all within the shadow of the rock and the sunlight pouring down through the clear water.
Fan corals, Koh Tachai, Thailand © Chris Mitchell
Our couple of dives on Koh Tachai also had great viz but there were some very cold thermoclines. Our guide Camille expertly navigated us through the currents to Tachai’s second pinnacle where there’s some fantastic fan corals in a relatively sheltered spot. A big school of barracuda passed by too.
Glassfish and soft coral, Richelieu Rock, Thailand © Chris Mitchell
Koh Bon was quite quiet by contrast – Koh Bon pinnacle was a bit murky which was a shame as it didn’t show off the bright yellow coral on the pinnacles big rocks. Koh Bon itself had a couple of sea snakes around the ridge but otherwise there was some pleasant noodling over the reef which found an octopus.
Clownfish anemones, Richelieu Rock, Thailand © Chris Mitchell
The trip was also a photography workshop with presentations by photo pro Alex Tyrrell in between dives on how to improve your technique. I found these recaps very useful at focussing the mind on trying new things. On most Similan liveaboards, you get a day at Richelieu Rock if you’re lucky. So this was a chance to take shots, review mistakes and return back to the same locations to have another go. Alex was also extremely helpful in reviewing people’s camera setups and suggesting improvements.
Yellow snapper sunball, Richelieu Rock, Thailand © Chris Mitchell
The reason why we had Richelieu Rock almost to ourselves is because Thailand temporarily shut its borders during December 2021 and January 2022 due to fears over the Covid omicron variant. (Thailand has now re-opened to tourists as of February 1st 2021 – you can apply to enter via the Thailand Pass website).
Fan coral, Yellow Rock, Surin Islands, Thailand © Chris Mitchell
About The MV Smiling Seahorse Liveaboard
With the downturn in Thailand dive tourism due to the Covid pandemic, there are currently only a handful of liveaboards regularly operating in Thailand. The Smiling Seahorse has managed to depart for every scheduled trip this season, even with guests having to cancel due to visa problems and so on. If you’ve ever had a boat cancel a trip last minute due to lack of customers, you’ll know this is an impressive achievement.
Glassfish and soft coral closeup, Richelieu Rock, Thailand © Chris Mitchell
The husband and wife team that own and run Smiling Seahorse, Franck and Camille Fogarolo, are celebrating their 10th anniversary of starting their company this month, and it’s easy to see why they get a lot of repeat customers, myself included: the boat has a maximum of 16 divers so there’s always plenty of space, the en-suite cabins are basic but clean and comfy, the showers are hot and the food excellent. There’s a dedicated camera room which is a huge bonus if you’re a photographer. Most of all, the boat staff are great – super helpful and very well versed in getting divers in and out of the water, handling cameras, and dealing with the hundreds of tasks to run a boat smoothly that customers rarely see.
Yellow snapper at sunset, Richelieu Rock, Thailand © Chris Mitchell
Franck is on every trip and having one of the boat owners on board means that there is a remarkable attention to detail. Having been on a lot of different liveaboards over the years, and on Smiling Seahorse three times now (each time as a paying guest), it’s obvious a lot of thought and love has been put into running the boat. Problems happen, things go wrong (it’s always worse at sea), but Franck and Camille really care about trying to make sure the trip is as enjoyable as possible. It’s most definitely worth considering the Smiling Seahorse if you want to do a liveaboard in Thailand. You can see their website for more info at thesmilingseahorse.com.
Fan corals and glassfish, Koh Tachai, Thailand © Chris Mitchell