Koh Tao (“turtle island”) in Thailand has long been known as one of the best, cheapest and easiest places to learn how to scuba dive. There are over 50 internationally accredited dive schools on the island and so competition is fierce, which keeps quality up and prices down.
Some of the dive sites around Koh Tao have gotten a little crowded, and at some of them you will definitely be bumping into other groups of divers. But that’s okay, especially if you are still learning the ropes. On your first dives you will be more focused on learning the techniques than on the underwater sightseeing, and Koh Tao’s reefs are relatively shallow with little current making it ideal for the novice diver.
A scuba diving certification course costs around $300 USD, and it’s an investment that is very unlikely to leave you disappointed! As a diver you can get up close and personal with marine life in a way that you rarely can with wildlife on land. There is also nothing like experiencing weightlessness or the sheer miracle of breathing underwater.
I got my basic and advanced scuba diving training on Koh Tao, and have since done another 50 dives in different countries around the world. If you are thinking of learning to dive too,here are some important tips:
1. You really need only one course to become a diver
Some diving websites make it seem difficult to become scuba diving certified: acronyms abound, and there are seemingly so many courses and levels that entire flow charts are dedicated to them (see image below). However, becoming a diver is actually not difficult nor does it take an endless string of courses.
To become a certified diver you only need to take the Open Water course. It typically takes 3 days and gives you to all the essential skills you need to dive safely. You will be limited to diving only 12 meters deep, but this is enough to see lots of amazing creatures and corals.
Charts like these make it seem difficult to learn how to dive. But you only really need to take 1 course.
2. Be sure to look around for the best deal
The price of Open Water courses will typically be in the $300 – $350 range. It’s not worth going with a shabby or poorly reviewed dive shop just for a slightly lower price, as your safety and the quality of the lessons is obviously important. However, it still pays to look around for discounts. For instance, many dive shops offer a discount on the Advanced follow-up course if you do it with them after completing the Open Water course. Many dive schools on Koh Tao will give you free or discounted accommodation if you buy a package with them.
3. PADI is not the only dive organization!
PADI has nearly become synonymous with diving. You are guaranteed to see PADI logos in dive shops and on signs wherever there is any diving to be had, and “do you have your PADI?”, is an oft-heard question at hostels. Even Lonely Planet often uses the word PADI as though it’s synonymous with ‘scuba certification’.
However, PADI is just one of many organizations, and there are many other ones that are just as good (and sometimes cheaper). Don’t be fooled into thinking only PADI-affiliated dive shops are worth considering!
Choosing a diving certifier is not like choosing between, say, an iPhone and an Android phone. You won’t be locked out of one system by choosing the other, i.e. if you are certified with one organization you can still dive with companies that are affiliated with another. All the major dive certifications are also cross-compatible, and conform to general criteria set by an umbrella organization. That means that you can even get your Open Water certification with, say, SSI or NAUI, and then take further lessons with PADI, or vice versa.
Learning with an SSI school can actually be cheaper, as unlike PADI they don’t require students to purchase the reading materials.
4. Don’t worry too much about the exam
The course comes with some homework and a written exam. It may seem strange to have an exam on your holiday, but rest assured it is very easy. All key points will be repeated multiple times, and you can also read them in your instruction book. As long as you pay attention (which is advisable as this is really about your own safety), you will pass the exam.
5. If you really like diving, get the Advanced certification
The very best reefs and wrecks are often beyond the 12m Open Water maximum depth limit, and so are only available to Advanced divers. The advanced course is actually not more difficult; in fact, it’s quite a bit easier than Open Water, and you won’t have a written exam to worry about. It’s more like a series of recreational dives during which you also pick up some new skills. For instance, you might be doing a wreck dive and visit the wreck of the HTMS Sattakut. Doing a night dive is very exciting and lets you see marine life that is hidden during the day, not to mention you’ll be able to wave your hand through the water and see bioluminescent plankton sparkle around it.
Once you have the Advanced you can dive up to 30m. Most recreational divers stop training here, unless they want to become a Dive Master or Instructor. With the Advanced in your pocket, you can pretty much dive anywhere.
6. Go elsewhere for better Fun Dives
Me getting photobombed by a turtle
When you are certified you can go on so-called Fun Dives, which are simply all about enjoying the scenery and seeing amazing marine life. Koh Tao diving has a good variety of fishes, and you’ll probably encounter a sea turtle or two. But it’s not that great for finding other big species like sharks or pelagic fish, nor does it have the greatest variety in terms of macro (small creatures).
While Koh Tao has some great dive sites, including Chumphon Pinnacle, Shark Island, and White Rock, you’ll want to go elsewhere in Thailand (or elsewhere around the world) to find truly spectacular dives. A popular place in Thailand to go after you’re certified is the island of Koh Lanta on the west coast, where you can experience some of the best dive sites Thailand has to offer. Malaysia (in particular Pulau Sipadan), the Philippines and Indonesia are also known for their incredible marine life. Use communities like ScubaBoard.com to find the best dive locations.