If you haven’t tried scuba diving before then you’re in for a real treat. As you descend down into the water you surround yourself with a different world. Colourful coral, schools of fish, dangerous predators, underwater caves and tunnels, shipwrecks, drop-offs into the void, night dives, complete weightlessness as you float along the current trying to take everything in.
Where to start
The best way to get started is with an Open Water Dive Course with PADI or SSI. From there you can progress to your Advanced Open Water and even your Dive Master with enough specialty courses and logged dives. Koh Tao is the most popular place for diving in Thailand, and the island itself is a fun place to spend a few weeks or even months while you try to visit every dive spot.
If you’re not keen to dive you can still snorkel your way around some amazing spots with a chance to get up close with blacktip reef sharks and turtles at Shark Bay along with many other great spots. Rent a motorbike and explore the different beaches or join in on one of the tours that take you to the most popular spots.
Choosing the right dive center
There are a huge number of dive schools on the island all with competitive rates and most include free or cheap accommodation near the dive shop. There are a few things to think about while choosing your dive school:
- Talk to the staff: it’s important that you get along with your dive instructor and other staff on your boat, that they make you feel comfortable and that you’re not just another face giving them your money to dive.
- Find out what your course entails: how many days it takes, the number of dives, which equipment is provided, what you’ll be learning, any exams you have to take, the total costs including books, etc.
- Check out the equipment: check masks and snorkels, BCDs and regulators for any visible damage, if you don’t know what you’re looking for ask how new the equipment is and they will be happy to tell you what each piece is for.
- Check out the facilities: do you get accommodation with your course? If your accommodation isn’t nearby you may want somewhere to shower and change, you may need somewhere to store valuables, or to buy a piece of your own equipment if you don’t want to borrow theirs.
- Ask any and all questions you have, no matter how small or silly they seem: if you’re nervous about diving you want to feel confident about it before you take the plunge, and you want to know that your dive instructor will be willing to take the time to listen to your queries and look after you.
I decided to do my Open Water and my Advanced with Phoenix Divers. Our instructor Stephan was awesome and made every dive feel safe and enjoyable. We had a small class of four people and very nice accommodation across the road from the shop at AC Resort. I would definitely recommend this dive shop!
*Update part 1: You can now do a wreck dive off the coast of Koh Tao! They purposely sunk an old ship to create a habitat for all that sea life, I got to dive it three days after it had sunk, and I hope to go back there in a few years to see how much it’s changed!*
*Update part 2: I finally went back, after 9 years, and dived the HTMS Sattakut, and it was pretty great. It hadn’t changed as much as I expected but it was an incredible experience seeing it again after so many years, with more coral and a lot more fish!*
Open Water Dive Course
Doing your Open Water teaches you the basics of diving and gives you the confidence to enjoy it. With your OW you can descend as deep as 18 meters (60 feet) which is deep enough for many dive sites. It’s usually a three-day course with a pool dive and four ocean dives.
Day 1 – Our first day was spent watching videos, going over the equipment and getting into the pool to practice some techniques such as losing your reg, breathing without a mask and what to do if you run out of air. It was great to practice these things in a controlled environment and even though I was nervous it was all fine by the end of the day. We were set homework to complete with our SSI dive book.
Day 2 – We watched a video that explains the dangers of lung over-expansion, nitrogen narcoses and decompression sickness and how to avoid getting yourself into trouble before completing a written exam. Our first two ocean dive went smoothly, they were mainly to practice the techniques learned in the pool on our first day.
Day 3 – We had two more ocean dives, with a little bit of time spent on our skills from the last two days to complete the course successfully. The rest of the time was spent surrounded by huge schools of barracuda and spotting giant groupers, clownfish, angelfish, butterflyfish and many others. An underwater videographer followed us around for both dives and put together an amazing movie, which is very pricey but makes for a great souvenir of your now completed Open Water Course!
Advanced Open Water Dive Course
People who choose to do the Advanced Open Water will do a Deep Dive and a Navigation Dive so, when qualified, you can descend as far as 30 meters (100 feet). You also have a choice for your remaining three dives from many other Adventure Dives including night dive, wreck dive, underwater photography or fish identification.
Day 1 – Our first day of the Advanced consisted of our Deep Dive and a Buoyancy Control dive which gives you a big confidence boost. We then met back up at the boat just before sunset for the Night Dive, it’s well worth choosing this as one of your options, it’s a whole other world down there in the dark!
Day 2 – Our first dive of the morning was our Navigation Dive which included compass navigation with our own dive computers. For the final dive, I chose an Underwater Photography dive which was great fun and a good skill to have if I ever invest in a decent underwater camera!
Congratulations you little scuba diver you! Now that you’ve qualified you can take your bad self to any dive shop in the world and get into the water; whether it’s an ocean dive, a lake dive or even an underwater cave dive! Keep your logbook safe as a record of what you’ve accomplished, you’ll need 40 logged dives to start your Dive Master!
Back on dry land
If you’re starting to turn into a prune from all that time spent underwater then there are plenty of other options to keep you entertained. Relax of any of the pristine white-sand beaches. Watch the fire shows at Lotus Bar every night. Get the best budget food and smoothies at The Coffee Boat. Get involved with the Ladyboy Cabaret. Drink buckets at one of the many bars. Find kittens to cuddle. Watch the sunset. Enjoy life!
Leaving Koh Tao
Two words: slave ship. That is your best option for leaving the island. Two floors of an old, old wooden ship crammed full of way too many people sleeping on thin mats on the ground with a squat toilet at the back. Leaves Koh Tao at 9pm and arrives into Suratthani at 5:30am. Valium will help… as will a bottle of whiskey. If the seas are rough you’re in for a real treat, maybe avoid it if you get seasick easily.
*Update part 3: there’s actually a regular night ship that does the same route now, it’s cheapish and much safer and more comfortable, with blankets and pillows in big beds with enough room to actually get up and walk around.*
You can view the full album here.