There’s a quaint and charismatic little island in the Gulf of Thailand called Koh Tao, and it happened to be only an hour and a half ferry ride from our island home on Koh Phangan. This bustling little Island may be SMALL in size, but it’s BIG on diving. In fact, not only is it one of the most busy and beautiful dive sites around, but it is one of the CHEAPEST in the world! Where diving in most places in the world would set you back $60-150 per dive, in Koh Tao, it only costs you around $45 per dive! In addition, if you take any kind of certification course, you also may get free or discounted accommodation as well.
James and I both were previously PADI scuba certified before arriving in Koh Tao, but only with the basic open water certification. After researching different dive centers and available courses around the island, we decided to go for our Advanced Open Water certification since it was the most bang for our buck. With this course, not only would we get an additional certification at an insanely low price, but we would get to experience five dive locations all around Koh Tao at the same time.
There are SO many dive centers around Koh Tao, it was quite overwhelming to try to pick just one! We searched around online to find a mid-sized company (too large a company and it ends up feeling like a “dive assembly line” and too small, there aren’t as many openings available), and we checked reviews online as well as prices to find the best fit. In the end, we chose the company, “New Way Diving,” because for a mere $260 USD each, we got five dives over a two day span, equipment rentals, advanced certification, our own dive master (there were only the two of us in our group), and FOUR days of accommodation (in a modest hostel room) included!!! Man… I LOVE Thailand!
Most of our five dive options/sites were chosen for us (and a couple of them were mandatory for the certification), but we had a choice in one or two of them. The first day, we started with a navigation dive, where James and I swam around underwater with compasses, attempting to navigate around a site solely on north-south-east-west and using underwater landmarks. Let me tell you: it was NOT easy!! Next, we practiced “Peak Buoyancy” where we had to swim through hoops upside down and around, as well as hover in the ocean upside down and cross legged. Again, not the easiest things to do, and I struggled quite a bit because my weights were off balance, but it helped us both practice and master our buoyancy skills a bit. We ended our first day with A NIGHT DIVE! For those of you who have never dived at night or for those of you who aren’t divers: YES… Night diving means being dropped into the middle of the ocean IN COMPLETE DARKNESS!! Pretty freaky, I do have to say! However, we are given pretty powerful underwater flashlights, and with neon colored fins, it’s relatively easy to keep an eye on each other. So you may be thinking WHY in the world would you swim underwater in complete darkness?? Well, apparently at night there are many different and amazing things you can see that don’t normally appear during the daytime (such as manta rays swimming, fish sleeping, fish eating other fish, and more.) Unfortunately… We really didn’t see much of this “amazingness!” Instead, I spent most of the dive shivering in the cold water, keeping an eye on where James was, and trying to fend off HUNDREDS of teeny little fish that seemed to thoroughly enjoy the taste of my skin. Ahhh!! Lovely. As the boat motored us back to shore that night, James and I both agreed: night diving just is NOT one of our passions!
The next day, the dives were much more enjoyable. We did our first deep dive, which took us below 20 meters (60 feet), and we saw all kinds of colorful fish and coral, and practiced our safety stops as we ascended to the top. We ended our day and our certification course with a wreck dive! We actually got to swim around a sunken ship, peer inside the windows with a flashlight, and explore the gun deck seat up front! It was really cool to see just how nature and sea life can completely take over a sunken ship in a matter of a few years!
Overall, our diving certification experience in Koh Tao was fantastic! It also was lovely to explore the island and beaches a bit by foot, enjoy some lovely meals out on the town, set out on a crazy hard kayaking adventure in the north, and meet up with our friends, Andy and Liz, who were also diving on Koh Tao at the same time.
And just to make our whole scuba experience even BETTER, James and I decided to do some additional fun dives out to “Sail Rock” which is known to be THE best dive site in the area. We actually launched from Koh Phangan (you can get to Sail Rock from either Koh Tao or Koh Phangan) through a company called “Sail Rock Divers” (go figure) a few days after we returned from Koh Tao. We did two dives at the site that day, and they were some of the BEST dives we’ve ever done! As we descended down into the depths of the ocean next to this “Sail Rock” pinnacle, we swam through HUGE schools of fish that were lingering EVERYWHERE! Pretty much under every larger rock overhang, there was a HUGE brown spotted grouper hanging out, and we also spotted some moray eels as well. On our second dive, we also swam down and then back up through a “chimney” in the rock, which was really cool and definitely tested your boyancy capabilities. We left the second dive and headed back to the boat feeling inspired and fulfilled…. And THEN SOMETHING MOST AMAZING HAPPENED! Just before we got back into the boat, we heard commotion from other divers and looked down into the water… About 50 feet below us, a majestic whale shark slowly glided along through the water… WOW!! We could barely believe our eyes. It was about twice the length of the divers swimming nearby, and a huge
school of fish gracefully and poetically sailed around the creature as if they were dancing. It was an incredible sight, we were sad we didn’t have enough air in our tanks to go back down for a closer look, but we enjoyed just peering down from above. We were just LUCKY to have this experience at all! Spotting a whale shark is pretty uncommon… In fact, one of the girls who worked on the boat said that in the past TWENTY dives she has done, she has never gotten to see one!
So yea… That was the perfect ending to our experience in Koh Tao, Koh Phangan, and scuba diving in the Gulf of Thailand. We left the islands feeling refreshed, invigorated, inspired, and lucky… And ready to take on the rest of our crazy, adventurous trip!