Scuba Diving on Koh Tao
When I was mapping out my plans for Thailand, I knew that I wanted to get certified for scuba diving on Koh Tao, in the Gulf of Thailand. While a smaller island, especially considered to Koh Samui and Koh Phangnan, Koh Tao has a plethora of PADI and SSI dive shops, all with very affordable prices, almost half of what you’ll pay to get certified in most Western countries. Scuba diving was always something that intrigued me, so it seemed like a good of time as ever to give it a try.
The first step was to choose from the over 50 dive shops which one I would entrust to teach me the skills to be a successful diver. I decided to go with Roctopus Dive, a member of SSI. Not only were they recommended by Lonely Planet, they were ranked #1 on Trip Advisor, and were known for small group sizes, usually no more than 4 per instructor. I initially did not know what SSI was, having only been familiar with PADI. A quick google search taught me that the courses run through the same materials and skills as PADI, and the certification is recognized by all dive shops. I knew that my choice was made.
After 24 hours of travelling from Siem Reap, Cambodia, I finally made it to the island of Koh Tao. A Roctopus taxi met me at the ferry dock, and drove myself and a few others to the dive shop to fill out some paperwork and other clerical tasks. The Open Water course would take 3.5 days, involve theory and 4 open water dives and upon successful completion, would allow me to dive up to 18 meters. After completing the requisite forms and grabbing a bite to eat, the first day was about to begin! Day 0 was only a couple hours of orientation where we watched a few videos and were briefed on the schedule of the course and what to expect. Here I met the other members of my group; Deik from Germany, and Pedro and Aurora from Brazil. We’d meet our instructor the following morning, as he was busy teaching another class that day. Just like traditional school, we had some readings and homework to complete that evening. It wasn’t too bad, taking only a couple hours.
At 8am, we reconvened at the dive shop and met our instructor, Alex, from England. The morning was spent reviewing what we had read the night before, as well as discussing the more important topics. In the afternoon, we switched from the theoretical to practical aspect and boarded one of the Roctopus boats to Mango Bay, on the north coast of Koh Tao. Another thing I liked about Roctopus was that they conducted the practical skills in the ocean, as opposed to a swimming pool like some schools. This eliminates the fear of the first dive, as one is already used to being in the open water with all of the equipment.
First up was the swimming test. We had to swim about 200 meters and then tread water for 10 minutes, to prove that we are comfortable in the water. Luckily, everybody in my group was confident being in the water and it was not a problem. We then donned all of the equipment for the first time and swam to shallow water, only about 2 meters deep. We started with the very basics, learning to breathe comfortably with the regulator underwater, and equalizing the pressure in our sinuses when descending underwater. After mastering some of the basic skills, we moved to the more complex skills, such as retrieving a lost regulator, clearing our masks from leaked water, and helping a buddy who ran out of air. Some of these skills were more difficult, and a few are not likely to happen on a normal dive, but I understood the importance of learning them now, so if the situation would ever arise, we would feel confident to perform it with ease.
The morning was once again spent reviewing and discussing the previous night’s homework. Then the theory portion was completed and it was time for the test. The test consisted of 50 multiple choice questions and was pretty straightforward. Everyone in the group passed with 90+%! It was then that Alex informed us that he wouldn’t be able to join us for our first 2 dives that afternoon, as he had come down with a sinus cold the night before. It is heavily discouraged to dive when one has a cold, as it is too difficult for your sinuses to equalize and deal with the added pressure of being underwater when they are blocked up.
David, an easy going German, would be taking over for the afternoon dives. Our first two dives would be held at Japanese Gardens, off the coast of Koh Nang Yuan, (see post here). For these dives, we would only be descending to a maximum depth of 12 meters, and would be “tested” on a lot of the skills we had learned the day before. We performed the skills one at a time on the base of the ocean floor. A few of them were a bit scary, such as removing our BCD (buoyancy control device or life jacket) and attached tank, and removing our masks. David was patient with us and ensured that we were able to successfully complete them all. Finished with the skills portion, we then explored the dive site, practicing the different fin strokes and enjoying all of the different sea life the area had to offer. Diving underwater is definitely a surreal feeling, its hard to describe it or compare it to something on land, but it is very calming and relaxing.
All we had left for the last day was 2 more dives, and then we would be Open Water Certified! Because this was a busy time on the island (close to the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangnan), there were a lot of prospective divers, and Roctopus’ business was busy. David would be unable to lead us on our last two dives, so we had 3rd instructor, Rachel, from England. As the groups were usually referred to by the instructor’s name, our group was now called Team Alex/David/Rachel, which was bit humorous (as well as an unusual situation). The positive thing about having multiple instructors was that we were able to pick up different tips and tricks from each of them, as they all had slightly different philosophies.
At 6am, we met again at the Roctopus dive shop and were transported to the pier. An underwater photographer would be accompanying us and filming a video of the two dives for a small price. As I was not bringing my Go Pro out on these first dives in order to focus more on learning the skills, our group opted in for the video. All of the actual diving pictures on this post are actually screenshots from the video, which turned out great!
Our first dive of the morning was at Chumphon Pinnacle, one of the more famous sites near Koh Tao. Unfortunately visibility was very poor that morning, and we weren’t able to see more than a few meters. We were still able to see quite a few fish including clownfish, grouper, trevally, and a spotted ray. We were able to enjoy this dive more, as we only had a few skills to go over, and enjoyed posing for the camera a bit.
For the last dive, we moved to a different site, White Rock. During the last dive, we had one last mask removal test while remaining neutrally buoyant (neither on the surface nor on the ocean floor). After each of us completed the task, Rachel gave us enthusiastic high 5’s as congratulations. Once again we were able to see several cool different types of fish and even a spotted sea snake.
And with that, I was now officially certified to dive up to 18 meters in depth! That evening the whole class (about 20ish) and the instructors met up at a local bar to watch the dive video and celebrate our accomplishments! Since I wasn’t in a rush to leave Koh Tao and was enjoying myself, I decided to sign up for the Advanced Course, which would allow me to dive down to 30 meters. Rachel explained that this would give me more opportunities to dive, as many sites have maximum depths between 18-30 meters.
The Advanced Course was only 2 days long, and would only consist of 5 dives, focused on building and strengthening skills. I decided to take the following day off to relax a bit before starting the Advanced Course. Normally it is possible to have the same instructor as the Open Water course if their schedule fits. Unfortunately, all three instructors had other obligations, but my 2 other instructors, Dante and Fergal, ended up being great as well. The 5 dives I ended up completing were:
- Deep Dive-going down to 30 meters of depth
- Dive Computer-practicing using a dive computer to monitor depth and ascent rates
- Buoyancy-practicing remaining neutrally buoyant while adding and removing weights to our weight belt, as well as swimming through and around a man made course underwater.
- Navigation-practicing using an underwater compass (Difficult!)
- Night Dive-diving during the night, with only a flashlight to provide light
After another whirlwind 2 days, I was now able to dive to 30 meters! I can’t thank Roctopus and the many different instructors I had enough for being great and patient teachers and fueling my love of diving. A few of them had mentioned the great diving off of the Similan Islands in the Andaman Sea. I decided to look into some liveaboard options there (post TBD) to do some diving for fun!