The beautiful tiny island of Koh Tao, AKA “Turtle Island”, is nestled in the Gulf of Thailand. It is part of the Chumphon Archipelago. It is easy to reach by ferry, either from Chumphon or from Surat Thani where you will stop first at Koh Samui and Koh Phangan before finally reaching the diving destination of Koh Tao.
It’s not really known why Koh Tao has so many dive centres but as a result of so much competition, it is the cheapest place to dive in the world, which means it attracts thousands of tourists a year to do just that. There are some great dive sites around the island like Green Rock, the wreck dive of HTMS Sattakut, White Rock, Mango Bay, Chumphon Pinnacle and Japanese Gardens to name just a few. On Koh Tao, you can either qualify as an SSI diver or a PADI diver. From my research, and asking at the centres there really is no difference between the two. They are both internationally recognised and once you have qualified with one, you may dive with the other, anywhere in the world. I carried out some online research, checked Trip Advisor reviews and consulted with a friend before settling on the highly recommended Mojo Divers SSI registered school.
I was in Koh Tao in May, the shoulder season so I was fortunate to experience the island and diving when the crowds weren’t around. I’m sure this made my diving journey far more enjoyable. I was one of three students undertaking the Open Water Diving Course with two instructors. The course lasted for 4 days, which included a mixture of classroom learning, a multiple choice exam at the end, water skills and dives down to 18m on the final two dives.
I had wanted to dive for years but never really had the opportunity to or been in the right place for long enough. I have snorkelled since I was a child in various beautiful locations around the world and although I felt super comfortable with my head beneath the water I knew diving would be completely different. I was also acutely aware of the mask skills you needed to accomplish to be a certified diver and this was enough to give me nightmares.
Koh Tao is a great location to learn to dive; the waters are crystal clear, the water mimics the temperature of bath water and you are guaranteed to see tropical fish at the very least. The instructors in Koh Tao are from all over the world, they are travellers like you and me who came here to learn to dive and ended up staying month after month sucked into the tranquil setting and doing what they love day in day out. Before they know it they’ve completed all courses and are fully fledged dive instructors. My dive instructors’ were a girl from Oz and a guy whom funnily enough was from my home town back in England!
Day 1 – Course Orientation
An easy hour or two in the evening, meet the instructions, download the SSI app on your phone and get comfortable with the basics of the course.
Day 2 – Theory and confined water dives
A morning in the classroom learning the theory.
A few hours break in the middle of the day to read, read and read some more theory!
Afternoon; all aboard the dive boat and sail to the shallow waters of Mango Bay. Once we’d got ourselves familiarised with the diving equipment and had completed the buddy checks we jumped in and made our way to the shallow waters to practice the basic dive and training skills. These are the fundamentals to diving and the skills you must learn just in case your mask gets knocked off your face or you get into any difficulties, mid dive… These are the skills I knew I would struggle with!
Being underwater is a completely unnatural feeling because you can’t compare it to anything else we do on a daily basis. Underwater you have to completely rely on your breathing apparatus to breathe and survive, the majority of people (like me) won’t open their eyes underwater so without your mask you are blind and nor can you hear underwater; as such your senses are taken away from you. However, fear not, once you’re familiar with being underwater it becomes natural and is a thoroughly relaxing and peaceful experience.
Kneeling on the white sand at the bottom of the shallows we got used to breathing through the apparatus and watched the instructors go through the skills; drop the mouthpiece, retrieve it, put it back in your mouth, blow the water out and then breath normally. Then repeat the same but this time with the spare mouthpiece (practising a scenario where your main mouthpiece may stop working). Then we were shown how to let a little water into our masks and then with a little tilt of the head and pressure on the mask, how breathing out through your nose sharply would clear the water from your mask. I just about managed to do that but to be honest, it completely freaked me out and it felt such a strange and almost suffocating thing to be doing. Next came letting the mask fill completely up before clearing it, and then taking the mask off altogether before putting it back in place and then once again clearing it. Both of these mask exercises felt like an epic challenge and took me many stressful attempts to do
Once I’d finally completed these, the final mask challenge needed to be fulfilled. This consisted of once again removing the mask and then swimming for ten meters (all underwater) before kneeling back in the sand to put your mask back in place again before clearing the water. This whole episode was one step too far for me leaving me in somewhat of a flap. It was agreed that tomorrow was another day to re-attempt and hopefully achieve this final skill!
Day 3 – Theory, exam and x2 12 meter dives
A morning of theory and our exam (pass!)
Back in the water at a different dive site and this time we were to descend using the rope, then get comfortable having a little swim around before repeating some of the mask skills at the new depth of 12m. Just hearing this piece of information about mask skills was enough to make me fall apart! I got halfway down the rope before I panicked and rose rather swiftly to the surface! The instructors were supportive and encouraging but by this stage, I was bottling it! I jumped back on board the boat and let them finish off the dive.
We sailed a short distance to another dive site where the instructors took the other two students back down whilst I had a snorkel around on the surface of the water just getting my confidence back in the water!
Day 4 – Final x2 18m Dives (but not for me)
On the normal course, you would go back out to sea in the morning to another dive site and do two dives down to a depth of 18m, which is exactly what the other two students did to successfully complete their course.
However, I went back out in the afternoon with the instructors where they gave me fabulous one on one tuition to give my confidence with the dive skills, which after a short time I conquered and repeated one after the other. From here we swam out along the bottom of the sand to get to the 12m depth and then repeated the mask skills at the deeper depth, which this time I comfortably performed without any panic. We sailed off to another dive site and did the same exercise again.
Day 5 – My extra diving day – 2x 18m dives
Feeling excited to get in the water this time I was able to complete my final two dives at the depth of 18m. There had been a storm overnight and the sea was rough, sailing out to the chosen dive site was a bumpy business. It was actually a relief to get off the boat and under the water, as once beneath the surface of the water everything seemed still, visibility was still surprisingly good and we had a great dive seeing plenty of tropical fish. We sailed to another dive site for the second dive of the day.
Unsurprisingly for me now the fear and anxiety had worn away, I was now thoroughly pumped by the whole experience and couldn’t wait to dive again. My new found excitement resulted in me signing up for the advanced diving course!
Qualified and ready for the advanced diving course…
The advanced diving consists of fives dives; navigational, buoyancy, wreck dive, deep dive to thirty meters and a night dive. It was full on and exciting. The navigational and buoyancy are both skills dives teaching you to become better divers. The buoyancy was a mix of skills removing and adding on weights to see how you could control your breathing to control yourself in the water. It was fun but quite hard. The navigational taught you to use a compass and look out for noticeable landmarks under the water such as rocks and coral that stood out so these could be used as markers. It was a good experience but slightly nerve-wracking taking the lead across the big open blue following a compass point until we reached a site of coral, which my instructors had assured me that after 10 minutes or so would arrive! On my navigational dive, I had the unfortunate experience of coming face to face with a rather large Trigger fish who are particular territorial!
The night dive came next which set off a real mix of emotions and nerves. Jumping off the boat as the sun set it was the strangest feeling descending into the darkness of the depths below. Pushing the fears aside I switched on my torch and followed my dive buddies to explore the coral. Diving at night is a very different experience mainly due to the visibility being greatly reduced. However, it does give you the chance to see various types of underwater life that aren’t about by day; there were many Blue-Spotted Stingrays hunting and diving into the seabed for their prey. One of the best experiences of my night dive was seeing the bioluminescent plankton, which can only be described as fairy dust under the water!
The next day I had my final two dives; the 30m dive and the wreck dive at HTMS Sattakut. This time I was armed with a dive computer so I could keep an eye on how long I could spend at depth due to the level of nitrogen in my body. Descending to 30m felt like an awfully long way down, but once I’d calmed my nerves and concentrated on what was around me instead of the many meters of water that was between myself and the surface I relaxed and had a great dive. We had great visibility and saw plenty of tropical fish and some really huge grouper which look quite menacing. Much more confident underwater now and in better control of my own body, I was able to swim much closer to the coral and through some narrower gaps allowing me to see so much more. I found the ascent slightly trickier this time as I was diving with fewer weights so I really felt the lightness of my nearly empty oxygen tank on the way up which made it difficult to take the ascent slowly and stay still on the controlled safety stop.
Sailing back towards Sairee Beach we stopped at the dive site of HTMS Sattakut ready for the wreck dive. This dive was consistently around 20m although at times we did go deeper. Although I thought visibility wasn’t great I was told it was far better than normal as this particular site never normally gives ideal visibility. Diving around the wreck was a great experience, something which I can only describe as being “very cool”! I was really surprised at how many fish had made the wreck their home, especially the very large Groupers. As such it was like a new type of coral. HTMS Sattakut gave me a great taste for wreck dives and it’s something I hope to be able to do more of in the future.
Climbing off the boat and paddling assure to Sairee Beach I felt very sad my diving experience, for now, was over. It was along awaited Bucket List item ticked off the list but it had definitely ignited a new passion and a desire to experience more of underwater life…