Koh Tao is a small island in the gulf of Thailand that is world famous for its diving. Calm, clear water, plenty of coral reefs, and sea life that include turtles, rays, whale sharks and a colorful array of fish. These natural wonders combined with the ridiculously low cost of diving make it one of the most thriving diving communities in the world, qualifying over 2% of all the worlds DMTs (dive master in training). So it’s no wonder that I decided to make a return rendezvous with this island when I decided to gain some experience as a diver myself.
My pre-existing diving experience came in the form of a Cozumel, Mexico resort about 15 years ago. The, “dive instructors”, at the resort simply handed me the full equipment, showed me how to put it on and promptly escorted me to the ocean and told me to walk in and start breathing underwater. I also took part in what is called “Snuba-diving” at one point during a family vacation to Hawaii about 10 years ago, which simply amounted to being the joke of the holiday. Consensus: Mexican resorts are irresponsible and Snuba is a joke not worth telling. Coming to Koh Tao and immersing myself in the diving community that exists there truly showed me how serious a sport diving really is.
The first step for any aspiring diver is their Open Water Diver certification, which qualifies a person to dive anywhere in the world up to 18 meters deep with the proper equipment and an experienced instructor. Of the multitude of diving outfits in Koh Tao, I chose Big Blue Diving for my training. Big Blue came highly recommended by my friends and is one of the larger diving schools on the island with a typical class size of 10 students. One might also choose to go with Ban’s Dive school, one of the largest in the world or perhaps a smaller outfit with smaller class sizes and more personal attention such as Rocktopus Diving school. It all depends on the experience you want and the level of personal attention you feel you need.
My Open Water Diver course was to take place over the span of 4 days and I was offered free, “dorm room”, accommodations at Big Blue as long as I was enrolled. I enrolled the day I arrived on the island and I was to start class at 5pm. After checking out the dorm room accommodations I was satisfied with the free price and lukewarm shower so I proceeded to claim a top-bunk and have a meet-n-greet with my fellow bunk mates, all of which were also divers of varying levels and solo travelers like myself.
The, front and center, dorms also included the entertainment of all the local pet dogs in the area. To explain; Koh Tao has an abundance of canines, which are readily taken care of by the locals and semi-permanent dive instructors of the island. All the dogs have their own personalities and territories, Big Blue claiming about 4 different pups, most notably the kitchen dog named Sausage, seen here:
The first day was a classroom setting where myself and a group of 10 others learned the basics of equipment, diving physics and sea life, such as the definition of SCUBA (self contained underwater breathing apparatus) and the hazards of improper ascent and descent (the Bends and lung over-expansion). After class we were provided with textbooks and homework, sent home with the promise of actually being under water the next day.
Day two included a bit more classroom activity, but in the afternoon we attempted out first underwater excursion…in a pool. We were fitted for all the equipment (BC, regulator, tank, mask and fins) and were shown how to properly assemble and wear the get-up. We then proceeded to break up into groups and practice the skills we learned in the classroom. My group included a German couple, an Icelandic couple (I still don’t believe their language is real), and myself. I got to partner with the instructor, Guy, from the UK. We all passed the drills smashingly and were all ready for the next day of actual ocean diving.
Before we could step into the ocean however, we had to take our Final Exam. The Final Exam consisted of 50 multiple choice questions regarding all the skills we were force fed over the previous two days. I finished first, very confident that I got 100% (offered the reward of a free beer), only to find out I missed 5 questions. Oh well, I still passed and I think that most of the questions I missed were debatable, seems about par for the course with my academic career. In fact, everyone in the class passed, but no one with 100%, but it didn’t matter since we were all juiced for our first open water dives that afternoon. The only real setback was that my previous instructor, Guy, had gotten himself badly electrocuted right before class by trying to use a defunct electric socket. Apparently plugging your laptop into the wall is more dangerous than diving. After a few hours he was OK, but not in any condition to dive, so I was assigned a new instructor and dive buddy, Luke, also from the UK…where else.
Dives 1 and 2 took place at 12:30pm the same day as the final exam. We were fitted for our BC, fins and mask and taken by long-tail boat out to the larger Dive Boats situated in the bay. After a quick 30 min boat ride to peaceful Mango Bay on the other side of the island, we were anchored and gathered downstairs for assembling our gear and getting in the water.
A little flumbly with the gear and a few hiccups with the assembly, but after our first, “giant stride” entry, we were in the water and descending (we would later learn the “dead Mexican” and “James Bond” entry styles). I was a bit nervous at first, but once my ears started equalizing normally and I realized the beauty around me I was too excited to be scared. Once we reached the bottom around 11 meters deep, we proceeded to get comfortable swimming and then practice a few of the emergency drills we learned in the pool the previous day such as; filling and clearing your mask of water, removing your mask, removing your rebreather and using your secondary rebreather, amongst others. Removing the mask is definitely the hardest one for me, the salt water still burns your eyes and it takes more focus than you think to try and breath only through your mouth without pinching your nose underwater. The total dive lasting about 45 minutes, the longest I’ve ever been underwater for sure, unless you count that old submarine ride at Disney World.
Dive number two took place at Japanese Gardens, a nice outcrop of coral where we once again practiced some skills and worked on our buoyancy and kicking techniques. After skills were complete to Luke’s satisfaction, we were free to explore a bit and take in the scenery. We encountered hoards of Yellowstripe Scad, colorful Bannerfish, tiny Perian Carpet Flatworms and the territorial Titan Triggerfish.
The next and final day if diving in the Open Water certification course took place promptly at 6:30am. So the usual Koh Tao nightlife spots of Lotus and Fishbowl we’re without my presence for at least one night. Bleary eyed but excited I showed up at the equipment shack to claim my gear and hop on the long tail boat to be ferried out to the dive boat. The mornings two dives would be at Liem Thieam Bay and Red Rock, two great spots for seeing aquatic life and staying above our depth limit of 18 meters. The skill tests were over for the most part and this final day was about just having fun and enjoying diving. They even send along a film crew with you on the final day in order to produce a video of your group at the end of the day (in hopes that you will buy it). The final 2 dives did not disappoint, I felt much more comfortable and confident in my abilities and got to see a pair of white-eye Moray Eels, Jenkins Stingray, Orange Spine Unicorn fish, Malabar Grouper, Glass Shrimps, Sixbar Angelfish and a Black Blotched Porcupine fish. There was also a fair amount of goofing off for the cameras.
The diving wrapped up around noon and once our dive books were properly logged I was ready for a nap. Later that evening we were presented with our official “Open Water Diver” certification cards and we all sat down at the Big Blue bar for a beer and the premier of the video that was made for our graduating class. As the video says: Congratulations, Open Water Diver. Next up, the Advanced Diver certification.