A giant trevally punctuates a swarm of silversides over Richelieu Rock’s stunning soft corals
Thailand’s most famous dive site is Richelieu Rock, a submerged pinnacle in the Andaman Sea, located 11 miles east of Surin Island, 20 miles from mainland Thailand. Its isolation makes it a magnet for marine life that is further enhanced by falling under the protection of the Ko Mu Surin National Marine Park. Mainly accessed via liveaboard—though day trips on speedboats are an option—Richelieu Rock is normally the most northerly point on the itinerary, following on from the Similan Islands, Koh Bon and Koh Tachai.
Leaving the best site till last is the norm, as hitting Richelieu first is setting the bar high for subsequent dives. But from personal experience, albeit from a photographer’s perspective, having your last dives of a trip at Richelieu make you think you have somewhat wasted previous diving days and wonder why you just didn’t come here sooner. The last photography expedition that I led aboard The Smiling Seahorse, I scheduled 10 of the 15 dives at Richelieu Rock to really maximize its photographic potential. Suffice it to say, there were no complaints of repeat dive sites from the guests—the site is simply that good!
A giant frogfish blends in with the reef
Longnose emperors on the hunt
Richelieu Rock is a horseshoe-shaped pinnacle, the inner side facing to the south, with a few small rocks in the middle; depth ranges from 50 feet to 80 feet plus as you swim out south. The outer side of the horseshoe has a satellite pinnacle to the east at around 85 feet, and a scattering of small rock formations on the west side at a similar depth running around to the north east corner. The top of the pinnacle in the center of the site sits a few feet underwater at high tide, becoming visible at low tide when it breaks the surface. The ends of the horseshoe on each side are at around 30–40 feet before dropping off steeply to the sand below.
Currents tend to run more or less south to north on the flood tide and then reverse on the ebb tide. This provides a sheltered lee even when it’s running hard over the full moon period, so you don’t have to battle a strong current armed with a hefty camera for the entire dive. For optimal photographic conditions, I would suggest diving away from this moon phase, which will allow you to explore the whole site and open up the myriad photographic opportunities. But saying that, a little bit of current is good to get the marine life active and align the numerous schools of fish for more pleasing images. Photogenic subjects can be found at all depths right across the site, so the dive plan is flexible based on intended subjects and the direction of the current.
A painted lobster scuttles across a teeming reefscape
Schools of fish, like these bigeye snapper, are another big draw for wide-angle shooters
Traditionally the best months to dive are January through to April when seas are normally calm and visibility excellent, though earlier in the season the conditions are still normally excelletn, with 100 feet plus visibility. In general, expect water temperature to be a comfortable 82°F (28°C). Colder upwellings can pass through, but these are temporary, lasting only a minute or so. A 3mm suit, dive skin or even board shorts and a rash vest are normally sufficient to keep you warm enough to concentrate on your imaging.
As you can shoot both big and small at Richelieu, your setup will depend on the intended subjects, though given the amazing wide angle opportunities, it is hard to dedicate more than a dive or two to macro. A fisheye is the lens of choice, but an ultra-wide rectilinear or Nauticam WACP-1 will also do the job nicely. Visibility is normally very good and with Thailand being in the tropics, it gets its fair share of sun, so a pair of powerful strobes is preferable to overpower ambient light for good color in your wide angle images. Still, there are always shady areas in the mornings and afternoons, if your flash guns are struggling. If shooting macro, a 60mm on cropped-sensor cameras and a 105mm on full frame (or equivalent) will suit the size of most subjects.
Your wide-angle lens will get a serious workout at Richelieu Rock
Take a (little) break from the reef scenics and hunt some critters, like this pretty peacock mantis shrimp
What You Will See
Boasting colorful reefs and pelagic action, Thailand is considered more of a wide-angle destination. But if you slow things down, you will be surprised as to what macro life can be encountered. Richelieu seems to have at least one pair of beautiful harlequin shrimps at any one time, and the same goes for intricately patterned ornate ghost pipefish. Tigertail seahorses are another regular find and a resident giant frogfish has made Richelieu its home for the entire 2020–21 season. There are always tiger cowries living on gorgonian corals, peacock mantis shrimp are regularly spotted scuttling about, and a wide variety of nudibranchs can also be found, making up enough life to keep most macro enthusiasts happy.
But following Thailand’s reputation, it is the colorful reefs, schooling fishes and pelagic species where Richelieu really shines. It is hard to find an area not blanketed with hard coral, anemones, vibrant gorgonian sea fans or purple and pink hued soft coral. There are also many coral groupers sporting a bright red livery to add even more color to the reef scenics. At the start of the dive season, pharaoh cuttlefish congregate for mating, whereby the males put on a display for the females in an attempt to impress a future mate. For underwater photographers, this makes the decision to opt for a macro dive a real dilemma, as wide-angle FOMO is ever-present!
The always-photogenic harlequin shrimp
A 60mm macro lens captures a pleasing environmental portrait of an ornate ghost pipefish
The schooling action is always prolific, with longfin batfish in the shallows around the top of the pinnacle, and just below in the crescent protected from the current, there is a resident school of bigeye snapper that intermix with a smaller school of twospot snapper. Both pickhandle and blackfin barracuda are seen congregating further out where there is more water movement, and then there are schools of fusiliers that sweep across the reef. A huge school of bigeye trevally are normally found out on the deeper satellite pinnacle to the east, occasionally venturing closer to the main pinnacle or across to the western side when the current is running.
Richelieu is also renowned for attracting some of the bigger creatures seen on the reef. Great barracuda patrol the top of the pinnacle, giant and Malabar grouper are both encountered, as are occasional appearances from guitar sharks, but the star of the show has to be the biggest fish in the ocean, the whale shark, which are a regular visitor. Rhincoden typus can grow to lengths in excess of 40 feet, though individuals of this size are not encountered here; it is the much smaller juvenile and subadults, up to 20 feet or so, that visit the area. But a 20-foot fish is still a sight to behold, dwarfing any diver, and it is always a privilege to spend time in the water with one of these graceful elasmobranchs, and even more so to bag some images.
Richelieu’s mind-blowing reefscapes are what make it such a wonderful wide-angle destination
Brightly colored coral groupers are as vibrant as their namesake surroundings
They may not be the largest individuals you’ll ever see, but Richelieu’s whale sharks still make fabulous photo subjects
Tips and Techniques
Many species gather at Richelieu to hunt the vast schools of silversides. On numerous occasions, I have seen longnose emperors working their way around the site, rounding up prey like a pack of hungry wolves. When in hunting mode, their usual silver-colored flanks are replaced with a checkered pattern for a more interesting image, and they are commonly accompanied by cornetfish and groupers that are hoping to capture any stray fish as they try to escape the ravenous pack.
Rainbow runners, yellowtail scad and bluefin trevally also take advantage of this bountiful food supply, hunting in small schools, the peak times to witness them being early mornings and sunset dives when low light levels favor the predators. At these times, the action gets frantic as hoards of giant trevally attack the silversides, which do their very best to avoid becoming the prey, with hundreds of individuals moving in unison in an attempt to mesmerize the predators. The fast-paced action on a sunset dive means you need a set of freshly charged batteries in your strobes so they don’t run low at a pivotal moment. Skipping this dive in favor of a cold beverage to end your day would be a rookie mistake!
Giant trevally race after the silversides
When shooting the fish schools, use a diver to add an extra element and provide scale
Try a slow shutter for a more creative take on schooling fish, like these bigeye trevally
Planning a Trip to Richelieu Rock, Thailand
When: The marine park is open from mid-October to mid-May. Traditionally, the best months to dive are January through April when seas are normally calm and visibility excellent at 100 feet and beyond
Subjects: Schooling fish, colorful reef scenes, frantic hunting action, whale sharks, ghost pipefish, tigertail seahorses, harlequin shrimp
Equipment: Wide angle is a priority, but macro is also an option
Who to Dive with: Numerous liveaboard options are available, but the Smiling Seahorse is very photographer friendly with a camera room on the dive deck. Also check out the Deep Andaman Queen and the Giamani
A giant silverside cloud dwarfs a lone coral grouper
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