Koh Tao (“turtle island”) in Thailand has long been one of the 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. 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 novice divers.
A scuba diving certification course costs around $300 USD. 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 useful tips:
1. You really just need one course
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 recreational 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 18 meters deep, but this is enough to see lots of amazing creatures and coral reefs.
2. 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 of course, as your safety and the quality of the lessons is obviously important.
But it still pays to look around for discounts. 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 also give you free or discounted accommodation if you buy a package with them.
3. It’s not just PADI!
PADI has almost become synonymous with diving; the logo of this organisation appears everywhere, and “do you have your PADI?”, is an oft-heard question on the travel trail. Even Lonely Planet often uses the word PADI as though it’s the same as saying ‘scuba certification’.
But 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. Consider the Advanced certification
The best reefs and wrecks are often beyond the 18m Open Water maximum depth limit, and so they are only available to Advanced divers. The advanced course is 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 guided 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.
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 dive recreationally pretty much 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 about enjoying the scenery and amazing marine life.
Koh Tao diving has a great variety of fishes, and you’ll probably encounter a sea turtle or two. But the sites are also busy and you can find much better diving elsewhere.
The great dive sites around Koh Tao include Chumphon Pinnacle, Shark Island, and White Rock, but for truly spectacular dives you may wish to go to the Similan Islands in Thailand, or dive in other countries in Asia. Malaysia (in particular Pulau Sipadan), the Philippines and Indonesia are also known for their incredible dive sites.