Diving In Koh Tao, Thailand
Diving in Koh Tao is an adventure that you’ll find scribbled into most itineraries for a trip to Thailand, and for good reason. It’s known for having beautiful dive sites, and also for being one of the cheapest places in the world to scuba dive.
If you find yourself reading this post, then you’re probably on the fence about separating from your hard earned money to dive for the first time, or you’re already certified and just want to get the lowdown on diving in Koh Tao.
In whichever position you find yourself, I believe that you can gain some solid info. For the first time diver, you’re in luck; this post is primarily about how to find the right school and save as much money as possible while doing so. For you veteran divers I have a rundown of some of the best dive sites in Koh Tao towards the end.
Why Koh Tao?
The island of Koh Tao lies in the Gulf of Thailand just off the coast from the town of Chumphon. Also known as ‘Turtle Island’; it is second in yearly scuba certifications only to Cairns, Austrailia. It is no question why the diving in Koh Tao is better than all the other islands dotting the coast.
The diving in Koh Tao isn’t the only thing the island has going for it either. The vibe is some of the most chill you’ll find in SE Asia. There is a mixture of shirtless two-day tourists and dive masters in training; lazing around the soft sand beaches lined with palm trees and lively bars, just enjoying life.
Calm Waters At Sairee Beach
So why is diving in Koh Tao so cheap?
It’s simple; location,location,location. Being situated in a part of the developing world that has rooms costing only ฿300 or $10 USD a night and meals that cost only a few bucks, it’s easy to see why the diving courses would follow suit.
How Much Does Diving In Koh Tao Cost?
The prices of an open water course and diving in Koh Tao vary widely. Two major factors control this costly divide.
PADI or SSI?
There are loads of scuba diving training systems out there, each with its advantages and disadvantages. PADI and SSI are the two leading companies on Koh Tao and arguably the most universal for world travelers.
PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) – The leading scuba diving company in the world. If you want the ability to work any place in the world as an instructor or divemaster at any shop on any remote island, then PADI is for you.
SSI (Scuba Schools International) – The second largest scuba diving training organization in the world. While the costs of SSI courses are minimally cheaper than PADI courses; if you have dreams of becoming an instructor or divemaster, you will be restricted to only teaching at SSI approved shops. Why would you want to limit your options for future employment?
A PADI course on Koh Tao Should cost ฿9800 or $315 USD with accommodations included and ฿8600 or $275 USD without.
An SSI course won’t exceed ฿9,000 or $285 USD with accommodations included and ฿7,800 or $250 USD without.
Fun Dives – If you’re already a certified diver and just want to go diving in Koh Tao; the average price of a fun dive ranges from ฿800 – 1,600 or $25 – 50 USD, depending on if you have your own gear and how many dives you wish to do.
How Do I Choose The Right School?
Your experience diving in Koh Tao will, of course, depend on if you actually like diving or not, but another major factor is the school at which you decide to take your open water, advanced or any scuba course.
Warning: I highly recommend researching schools before you get to the island. If you don’t, you will be bombarded by locals right off the boat demanding that you come to there school (often not the best ones). Check reviews on TripAdvisor and swing by this post that I used to pick a good one.
There are over 50 schools on the island, and they’ll vie for your attention with big signs and promises of eco-friendly practices.
The Beautiful Koh Tao Sunsets
Here are some questions that need to be answered before deciding on a school:
- Do they have instructors who speak my language? (obviously important)
- What dive sites does the school take its students to? (It would suck to miss all the good spots)
- Are they an eco-centric company? (preserving the reef)
- Do they keep their equipment up to date and in good order?
- Do the instructors know what they’re doing? (first-time teacher or veteran diver)
- How nice are the school’s facilities?
- Do they have proper diving boats? (enough room for dawning gear)
- Do they have a dive purposed swimming pool for training before the big show?
Dive Purposed Pools
The final question is not crucial, but it could have a big impact on your overall experience diving in Koh Tao.
Size Does Matter
I’m sorry fellas, I know no one likes hearing those words, but I promise it’s not what you think. As I previously mentioned, there are over 50 schools on the island; some of them more popular than others. What used to be a small quality dive shop with a class size of less than five has now turned into a mecca mess of ten or more drunk half-assed students or instructor.
Not all big schools are like this, and if you’re in a group, maybe a larger class size seems appealing, but if your a solo traveler or a couple, a smaller class is always better. It’s like being part of an overcrowded tour versus a private guided one.
With fewer students, you get extra special attention from your instructor. While it’s annoying having every mistake noticed; it’s much better to correct it while you’re with a pro than to put you and a buddy in serious danger down the road.
Two; Going Down Please
What To Expect From The Course
Whether you’ve chosen to go PADI or SSI, the course itinerary should be the same. The biggest difference now is the school you choose. Following the tips above should land you with a good instructor and the best training for your money.
A regular three to four-day open water course will look something like this:
Day 1: Meet your instructor and discuss your expectations and limitations of the course. In the afternoon you will watch a couple basic dive theory videos while filling out open book questionnaires.
Tip: Don’t worry too much about the academics. The tests were designed so that a 12-year-old could figure it out.
Day 2: In the morning you will be fitted for your scuba gear and head down to the training pool. You will practice basic underwater skills such as hand signals, buoyancy, equipment removal, emergency out of air exercises, and clearing water from your mask.
Tip: Take your time and stop your instructor anytime you are uncertain about a skill. You will have to do them again in the ocean and it’s better to have it down.
In the afternoon you will watch the remaining two or three instructional videos while filling out the questionnaires.
Day 3: You will load up on the dive boat for your first and second open water dives in the Gulf of Thailand. This is where diving in Koh Tao starts to get interesting. You will practice some of the skills that you learned in the pool the day before.
The Simple Life Dive Boat
In the afternoon you and your instructor will go over your questionnaires and take the final exam.
Day 4: Open water dives three and four; usually done in the early morning. You will complete all of your skills and finish the morning off with a fun dive. And that’s it; you will be an open water diver, able to dive down to 18m/60ft anywhere in the world.
What Are The Best Dive Sites?
It a good idea to know what sites are worth visiting when diving in Koh Tao. You want to make sure that the school you choose not only uses the right gear and environmental practices but also shows you the best dive sites around the island. Here are a few of the favorites from my time diving in Koh Tao.
The Twins is one of the more popular dive sites for first time divers and veterans alike. Located northwest of Koh Tao just off the coast of Koh Nang Yuan; the shallow waters are a great place for the first two dives of the open water course.
If you are lucky, you might see some saddleback clownfish living in a nearby anemone, or some vibrantly colored saltwater angelfish.
Salt Water Angel Fish At Twins
The White Rock dive site is the largest in the area and a popular spot for dive three or four of the open water course. Large white crusted pinnacles cover the site; hence the name. It’s common to see blue spotted stingrays hiding on the seafloor.
Blue Spotted Ray At White Rock
Shark Island was one of my favorites; not because of the aquatic life but because of the challenge it presented. Located on the East side of the island; a large pinnacle shaped like a dorsal fin rises from the sea floor. The area is known for strong current and for this reason; less attractive to most first time divers.
You might get lucky and have a moray eel pop out at you from the darkness (I realize this might not seem lucky to most).
Moray Eel At Shark Island
A favorite of most of the instructors at my dive school and quickly becoming mine. The Chumphon dive site is one of the furthest from Koh Tao, so boats usually leave early in the morning.
Lucky divers might be able to experience whale sharks depending on migrational patterns. It’s also a great location for deep dives to 30 meters.
No Visible Reds At 30 Meters
The Sattakut Shipwreck
The HTMS Sattakut is a WWII era Navy troop carrier. It was gifted to the Thai government after the war and later sunk just off the coast of Koh Tao. An advanced open water certificate or being part of the advanced course is required to dive this site. I decided to stick around on the island a few extra days to get a chance at diving the HTMS Sattakut shipwreck.
The HTMS Sattakut
Those are just some of the many dive sites that surround the island of Koh Tao. While I only covered the ones I dove at; which happen to be the most popular; it is by no means complete; check out this site if you want a more detailed list of all there is to see while diving in Koh Tao.
So now you know what to look for in a diving school, how much it costs to dive, and what dive sites to visit. All that’s left is finding a place to rest your head.
If you’ve managed to grab yourself a room at your school of choice, then as the Aussies say; “good on ya.” If you decided that the accommodations provided by the school weren’t quite sufficient and wanted more of a traditional hostel vibe; not to worry.
The main walkway along Sairee beach is packed to the gills with places to sleep.
While I can’t make any personal references to a particular hostel because I stayed at my dive school; I have heard of a few good ones from my buddies who were on the island at the time.
Good Time Beach Hostel – The ideal place if you like to burn the candle at both ends. While being a little pricey, I’ve heard that the staff here are top notch and the nightly activities like quiz night and the pub crawl make the extra few bucks worth it.
Koh Tao Central Hostel – A place to enjoy some peace and quiet after a long day of diving. It is a little removed from the main street action but that is what makes it great. Also great for couples looking for space away from the crowds.
Finding a place to sleep is always important and normally the softness of the beds, A/C or no A/C, and ample room are a top priority. But let’s be honest. I don’t think you’re going to be spending much time in your room once you get a look at the island paradise you just plopped yourself onto.
What School Did I Choose?
So far I’ve taken a wide-scoped view of how to find a school and what to look for/ what to look out for. Now I’ll share a bit of personal experience and reviews. This is my opinion and in no way a fact that my school was the best on the island.
Pssst…it definitely was.
Simple Life Divers
The school I chose to take my first breath underwater with, was Simple Life Divers. I can’t say enough about my instructor Lucas. He was an unbelievable teacher with the ability to make things understandable (underwater at that) and made the course really enjoyable.
It seemed like Simple Life understood the importance of sustainable and safe diving while keeping things upbeat and fun. Their dive boats are enormous and have hidden surprises onboard like delicious butter biscuits and crazy jumping squirrels (watch the video below).
The open water course cost me ฿8600 or $275 USD and ฿7200 or $230 USD for the advanced. So the going rate for open water, but a massive discount on the advanced. The quality of service they provide, however, is worth so much more.
Life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows though. The only thing that wasn’t perfect; keeping in mind, I wasn’t bothered at all; was the room. It cost ฿300 or $10 USD which is a reasonable price. But for that price, I certainly didn’t get what the other places in town were offering. The bathroom was like a broom closet with the shower hanging directly over the toilet and somehow as cold as the glacial water I’d hiked through in Patagonia the month before.
It wasn’t all bad though. This may surprise you, but I’m a pretty severe introvert. I had the whole place to myself for the week, and I couldn’t have been happier. I understand this might drive some people crazy.
But I digress. My time at Simple Life Divers and on the island was something that I will always remember. Even now as I write this post, I can’t stop daydreaming about taking the ferry back across the gulf and diving in Koh Toa until I entirely run out of money. Does that make me an addict?
It’s Time To Dive
I know that it’s a lot of information, but I believe that you now have all the right tools to find a dive school that works for you while saving you some serious money. Who knows you might even find yourself advising other travelers who are in the same boat you were before you did your research.
If you have any questions or just want to share your experience diving in Koh Tao leave a comment below and I’ll try to answer as best I can.