Scuba diving has been right at the top of my bucket list for the majority of my life.
The idea of scuba diving has always equally fascinated and frightened me. While I loved the concept of exploring an underwater world, and I’ve always been very comfortable with swimming and snorkeling, the idea of being trapped underwater with a heavy tank on your back was kind of scary to me. Also, my failure with surfing in Taiwan didn’t make me too confident either.
But when I learned how ridiculously cheap it is to get a scuba certification in Thailand, I knew I had to give scuba diving a try.
Get Certified in Koh Tao
There are a few different places you can dive in Southern Thailand. While the diving off of Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta is incredible (trust me, I dove there too!), Koh Tao is by far the best place to get your scuba certification.
1. It’s super cheap
Firstly, the diving in Koh Tao is extremely cheap. An Open Water certification in Koh Tao during high season will run you about 9,800 baht ($300 USD). While that might sound expensive to many of you budget travelers backpacking southeast Asia, that is literally as cheap as it gets. This $300 gets you the diving course and certification (PADI, SSI or RAID), and also covers the fees for your instructors, the boat, and all of your equipment.
A half-day fun dive in Koh Tao should cost you roughly 1,800 baht ($55) for two dives. That same trip in Koh Lanta cost me double!
2. The diving is right offshore
Unlike Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta, where you’ll sometimes have to take a boat over two hours to the dive site, most of the diving in Koh Tao is right offshore. By the time I set up my tank and organized my gear, we were usually already there! For a first time diver, it really settled my nerves because it didn’t give me much time to psyche myself out or get too nervous.
Another awesome thing about Koh Tao is the amazing snorkeling and shallow water diving right off the main beach. While most first time divers learn to dive in a pool before heading out to the open ocean, I learned right off the beach! I even saw an octopus within minutes of my first dive. How crazy is that?!
Since the diving is right offshore, it costs dive companies less gas and less time to transport you to the dives. In Koh Lanta, we sailed for two hours to get to our dive site, meaning two dives took almost a full day, and the boat could only make one daily trip, rather than two. Close dive sites in Koh Tao= cheaper diving for you!
3. It’s a divers paradise
Koh Tao is a mecca for divers. In the afternoon you’ll see hordes of people studying for their diving certification test over tropical smoothies. The phrase “I can’t drink too much, I’m diving tomorrow” is common, and at the end of the day everyone sits around and compares all the cool fish they spotted.
With a ridiculous amount of dive companies on Koh Tao, it was almost impossible for me to choose where to get my certification. I literally spent hours pouring over blogs and travel forums. My goal was to find a small company with very serious and experienced divers.
While diving is fun, I wanted to make sure I was learning from the best so that I’d be safe and feel comfortable diving anywhere after I got my certification.
Diving with Koh Tao Divers
After a ridiculous amount of research, I decided on Koh Tao Divers. Their 5-star Trip Advisor rating (out of 171 reviews!) first attracted me. I liked how people mentioned their professionalism, expertise in tech diving, and laid-back teaching style. Koh Tao Divers is actually one of the main advanced tech diving schools on the island, which made me feel much more comfortable getting my Open Water certification there. These guys don’t mess around!
I knew pretty much right away that I had made a good choice. Firstly, the classes were way more flexible than I could have ever imagined. I thought I would have to let them know at least a week in advance when I would be arriving, but when my travel plans changed and I had to push Koh Tao back a few days, it was absolutely no problem.
Once I arrived in Koh Tao I felt right at home. I was a bit worried about feeling lonely since I was literally the only solo traveler on the ferry to Koh Tao. It seemed like everyone was traveling with a partner or friends. But Koh Tao Divers made a huge effort to make sure I had a great time. They set me up at a really social hostel (shoutout to Taco Shack!), and I’d usually spend the afternoons chilling at the dive shop where I’d steal their internet and coffee.
I had heard from other divers that some of the dive schools on Koh Tao are a bit snobby towards newer divers. I definitely never felt that way at Koh Tao Divers, and I had a great time hanging out with the instructors. We even took a ton of photos together after I completed my course. Unfortunately, they were all on my phone which was stolen on Koh Lanta a few days later… I guess I’ll just have to go back?
Koh Tao Divers also does PADI, SSI and RAID certifications, giving you tons of options. While I had only ever heard of PADI, many dive schools are actually less than thrilled with PADI’s old-school methods and boring training videos. SSI and RAID are new competitors to PADI and offer the diving classes online so that you can complete most (or all) of your classroom training before you even arrive on the island. It made for great reading on those long train rides!
Update August 2017:
Koh Tao Divers now specializes in only SSI certifications. Having received my SSI Advanced Certification in Malapascua, I’m a huge fan. No matter which certification you do (SSI or PADI), it should be accepted at any dive shop. However, I would probably steer clear of RAID since most people haven’t heard of it. I didn’t have any issues, but I’m glad I switched to SSI even though the RAID course was really great. Apparently, they didn’t take off like many dive centers hoped they would. Oh well!
Small school= private diving lessons
That’s right. I was the only person in my Open Water diving course. At first, the idea made me really nervous. I thought that having a few other divers around me (failing with me) would make me more comfortable. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
Learning to dive one-on-one with the instructor is the best way to learn. I learned so much more quickly than I would have in a large group, giving me extra time to explore and look around at all the beautiful fish. I can’t even imagine trying to learn to dive in groups of six like some of the larger companies have. That’s so many people! Koh Tao Divers will only ever pair four divers to one instructor.
I also wasn’t the only one getting private time at Koh Tao Divers. I met another girl who had just completed a “Discover Dive” (you spend a day learning to dive without the certification) on her own. She also raved about her experience, saying she felt much more comfortable in a one-on-one environment.
I can’t say enough how important it is to ignore the lure of the huge popular schools and go with a smaller dive place. You get so much more individualized attention, and you’ll learn much faster.
Learning to Dive
Like I mentioned before, I was pretty nervous to learn to dive. But the sheer professionalism of both my teachers Ivan and John made me feel so much better. Both of them are extremely advanced divers who have been instructors for a long time. I always felt like I was in good hands, and I’m very glad I wasn’t taught by someone who had only gotten their instructor’s license a few months prior, like some of the other people I met who dove with different companies.
Not once was I ever worried about dying or running out of air because the Open Water course trains you exactly what to do in case of an emergency. All of the underwater drills and training made me feel much more comfortable diving, and I never panicked or became frustrated once. Who knew that you can take off and replace your mask underwater?!
Exploring an Underwater World
I’m happy to say that unlike surfing, I am completely in love with scuba diving. I’m already plotting my next trip to a place I can dive. I even passed up the opportunity to go rock climbing in Krabi so that I could try diving off the coast of Koh Lanta. I’m that obsessed!
Diving is like being a tourist in a bustling underwater city. Since divers aren’t natural predators, if you move slowly and observe quietly, none of the marine life mind your presence. You’re just like another big fish swimming around.
In my dives around Koh Tao, I saw an octopus, tons of puffer fish, a HUGE titan triggerfish, a moray eel and a spotted stingray so colorful it looked like a cartoon. I had never seen such fascinating fish in my life! My instructor John was always sure to grab his booklet and tell me about all the fish we saw afterward. It made me want to study up and learn all the fish myself.
Don’t make me leave!
After three full days of diving, I didn’t want to leave Koh Tao. I honestly don’t know why I just spent $20,000 on a master’s degree because I really just want to move to an island and become a dive instructor through indentured servitude.
Before learning to scuba dive, the only thing in the world that could instantly make me happy and carefree was dancing. Whether it was on a stage, at salsa night, or in a club, a good song can always put a smile on my face. For me, dancing brings me more joy than almost anything in the world.
At twenty-four years old I am now adding scuba diving to the list. After a day of diving, there’s nothing that can wipe a smile off my face. Under the water I’m so full of joy and wonder, any problems or worries I have completely go away.
If you’re planning a trip to Thailand, I would 100% recommend going to Koh Tao to get your scuba license.
Then, when you head south to Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta or Krabi, try some diving there as well. The diving there is slightly better (and slightly more expensive) than Koh Tao, making it a great place to test out your new skills on a fun dive.
To keep you from being a lame-o with zero photos like me, consider hiring a professional photographer through Koh Tao Divers to take photos of you on one of your drives. A half-day with a professional photographer is only 1,300 baht ($40 USD)!!! If you’re new to diving, you definitely don’t want to be fumbling around with a camera underwater. It’s not safe and your pictures will be bad. For $40, I think the price is well worth it, and maybe you can split the cost among your group.
Are any of you thinking about learning to scuba? Have you been before?
Thanks so much to Koh Tao Divers for hosting me! I had the time of my life and I can’t recommend this company highly enough. Trust me, this place is awesome.