The Complete Guide To Diving in Koh Tao

By Nomadic Matt | Published February 13th, 2012

people getting ready to go diving in ko taoThis is a guest post by Alexandra Baackes.

Travelers in Thailand like to label their destinations neatly. Intricate island paradises are boiled down to one or two simple words or associations. Koh Phi Phi? The Beach. Koh Phangan? The Full Moon Party. Koh Tao? Diving.

Some of them are fairly well deserved. After all, Koh Tao (Turtle island)  is second only to Cairns, Australia when it comes to number of annual dive certifications. Travelers flock from all over Southeast Asia to take their first breaths underwater in the coral reefs fringing Turtle Island. And it’s easy to see why: the courses are cheap, the dive sites are abundant, the island is beautiful and the lifestyle is easy.

Prospective divers heading to the island are spoilt for choice when it comes to dive schools, dive instructors, and dive sites. But competition for business is fierce (there are over 50 dive shops on this small island!), so it definitely helps to have a few things in mind when making such a big investment of your time and travel budget.

PADI or SSI?

There are over 50 Scuba Diving training systems, but in Koh Tao the choice will almost always come down to two: PADI vs. SSI. Each organization develops their own teaching materials, sets their own standards, and awards their own certifications. However, differences are minimal and no matter what certification card you walk away with you will use the same equipment, see the same fish, and be able to dive at any resort. Certifications are interchangeable and recognized worldwide. No matter which organization you choose to certify with, the most important factors in the quality of your course will be your dive school and your dive instructor. However, there are minor differences you may want to take into consideration:

PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) – PADI is the world’s leading scuba diving training organization with more than 6,000 dive shops and resorts worldwide. If you find comfort in numbers than the agency with nearly one million certifications per year might just be for you! The major benefit to diving with PADI comes at the professional level. For instructors and divemasters, PADI provides far more employment opportunities, and PADI instructors can work independently (while an SSI instructor must teach through an SSI-registered shop.) So if you have dreams of staying in Thailand for good to teach the backpacker masses and you want to be loyal to one agency, PADI is your best bet.

SSI (Scuba Schools International) – This group has over 2,500 authorized dealers around the world. For divers on Koh Tao, the benefit of doing an SSI certification comes down to best bang for your baht. An SSI course will typically cost you nearly 10% less than a PADI course. For those who come to Koh Tao specifically for it’s status as one of the world’s cheapest places to get certified, those extra baht can make a big difference.

What Is The Course Like?

people getting ready to go diving in ko tao
The typical diving course is completed in three days. There are videos to watch, book chapters to read, tests to take, and of course, dives to do! It might sound intimidating, but the course is designed for students as young as twelve. The academics shouldn’t intimidate you.

A rough outline of what your course will look like this:

Day 1: Classroom work in the morning learning about basics skills, equipment, and the effects of diving on the body. Afternoon is spent in the pool or at shallow dive sites doing skills.

Day 2: Morning is spent in classroom finishing knowledge reviews and taking some quizzes. In the afternoon are Open Water Dives 1 and 2. Some skills will be practiced during the dives.

Day 3: You will go out on a morning boat and complete Open Water Dives 3 and 4. In the afternoon the final exam is taken. Congratulations! You are now an Open Water diver.

After three days of hard work and fun, you will receive a certification card that allows you to dive anywhere in the world with a buddy, independent of a professional, to a depth of 18 meters.

How Much Will It Cost?
A PADI course will typically run you 9,800 baht including 3 night’s accommodation, though at smaller schools you can often negotiate down to 9,000 baht. An SSI course will not go above 9,000 baht with accommodation. If you are arranging your own accommodation, you can wrangle a PADI course for 8,500 or an SSI for 7,500.

Many schools will have a videographer come along on dives 3 and 4 and make a 10-20 minute music-video style film of your day. At night ,the class will gather to watch it and depending on how many copies are sold you can take one home for anywhere from 1,500-2,500 baht. If you’d rather be behind the lens, most dive shops rent underwater still cameras for around 1,500 baht.

For divers who have already completed their Open Water course, fun dives cost around 700-1,000 baht each, depending on how many dives you will do and if you have your own equipment. Those on time and money constraints will want to make it a priority to visit at least one of Koh Tao’s premier dive sites.

What School Should I Choose?

people getting ready to go diving in ko tao
Koh Tao ain’t called a mecca for diving for nothing: there are nearly 50 dive schools on this 13 square mile rock! This decision is the biggest when it comes to determining the quality of your diving course. For the most part they can be broken down into a few categories:

Big Schools: Bans, Big Blue, Buddha View, Crystal
These schools are ideal for someone who is confident about going under water (ie, doesn’t need extra individual attention) and wants to make friends and meet people in a big group setting. These schools have instructors for almost every language imaginable. However, groups can be a bit too large for comfort and Bans in particular does not take Open Water students to any of the premier dive sites around the island.

Medium Schools: New Way, Scuba Junction, Simple Life
Medium dive schools generally have the best of both worlds. They have a range of instructors and groups large enough to make friends in, but aren’t as prone to overcrowding or rushing through the course.

Small Schools: Sairee Hut, Roctopus
These schools are great at accommodating special needs and arranging great deals. For example, you might be able to negotiate discounted fun dives post-course. The extra attention with the instructors that small schools and groups allow is key for those who are feeling uncertain about heading underwater, or simply want to be spoiled with attention.

When picking a school and an instructor, there are a few things to consider.

  • Do they have an instructor that speaks your language?
  • How many students will be in the group?
  • What time do they leave in the morning? Those eager beavers that want to be the first on the dive site might not mind being up in time for New Way’s 6am departure, while night owl’s might prefer Roctopus’s more relaxed dive times.
  • Will my course include a visit to one of Koh Tao’s top dive sites? (see list below) Some of the Big School unfortunately do not sent Open Water divers there.
  • Is the equipment up to date and in my size? Schools in Koh Tao have a good record for equipment range and maintenance, but it never hurts to ask.
  • How qualified is the instructor? Some students may appreciate the enthusiasm and up-to-date training of a new instructor, while others may find comfort in a teacher with tons of qualifications and years of experience.
  • Do you like the instructor?

What Are The Can’t Miss Dive Sites?

Chumphon
people getting ready to go diving in ko tao
Chumphon is typically visited for Dive 3 of the Open Water course. The  pinnacle are covered in colorful sea anemones and surrounded by large schools of trevally, batfish, and baraccuda. Lucky divers will spot giant barracuda, scorpionfish, and even whale sharks. For those hoping to fun dive, Chumphon is almost always visited on the morning boats.

Southwest
people getting ready to go diving in ko tao
Southwest is an alternative site for Dive 3 of the Open Water course. This is another dive site carpeted in anemones and the clown fish that accompany them. This is another site where barracuda and giant groupers are found. For those hoping to fun dive, Southwest is almost always visited on the morning boats.

The Wreck of the Sattakut
people getting ready to go diving in ko tao
This former US Navy ship was sunk in June, making it Koh Tao’s newest dive site. Already sea life such as stingrays and a pufferfish have started to make a home here. Most schools will require you to be an Advanced Open Water Diver to dive here, or to do it as part of that course.

Shark Island
people getting ready to go diving in ko tao
Fortunately for those with a shark phobia, this dive site is named for its resemblance to a dorsal fin. This dive site is often less congested than the others listed above due to its location on the West side of Koh Tao. Highlights include a myriad of different corals home to nudibranchs, stingrays, and moray eels. On the downside, Shark Island can have a killer current and very aggressive triggerfish.

Sail Rock
people getting ready to go diving in ko tao
Sail Rock is an ocean pinnacle located between Koh Tao and Koh Pha Ngan. The dive site takes about two hours to reach from Koh Tao. Occasionally you can get lucky and complete dives 3 and 4 of your Open Water here for an extra fee, though generally this is a specialty trip costing anywhere from 2,500-3,500 baht. There are a handful of schools that take trips to Sail Rock but most only go once a week, so if you are interested start investigating the day you arrive

The Twins
people getting ready to go diving in ko taoThis is a common training dive site used for Dives 1 or 2 of the Open Water course. It is just off the coast of Koh Nang Yuan, a tiny island north west of Koh Tao. This site is great for new divers thanks to its shallow depth and simple layout. One standout is the family of rare saddleback clownfish that live in an anemone that’s been clearly marked by divers with a ring of rocks.

White Rock
people getting ready to go diving in ko tao
White Rock is one of the most commonly visited dive sites on Koh Tao, frequently for Dive 4 of the Open Water course. It boasts one of the largest areas of any dive site on the island and a range of sea life, from butterflyfish to angelfish to blue spotted stingrays. Lucky divers may spot a sea turtle passing through.

Green Rock
people getting ready to go diving in ko tao
Green Rock is located north of Koh Nang Yuan. The standout feature of this dive site is it’s many “swim throughs,” which are caves or cut-throughs that divers can pass through. They are great for practicing buoyancy and finding shy marine life. This is also a popular breeding ground for the aggressive Trigger fish, so take care not to lose a chunk of fin!

Learning to dive in Koh Tao should be approached with caution, as it can lead to a very serious addiction to the diving hobby and lifestyle! Many a dive virgin has arrived by ferry with plans to stay a few days and get certified, only to find themselves months later calling the island home and working towards becoming a scuba diving instructor.

Diving is a lifetime skill that you can take with you around the globe. From the Great Barrier Reef of Australia to the Blue Holes of the Bahamas, from the shipwrecks of Micronesia to the Whale Sharks of Mexico, diving will allow you to explore more of the world than most people could think possible. Enjoy it!

For more on traveling to Thailand and diving, with these articles:
Learning How to Scuba Dive
How Much Does a Holiday in Thailand Costs?
The Best Places to Go Scuba Diving

Alexandra Baackes is an enthusiastic diver and underwater videographer, as well as an on-land writer and designer.  She blogs about travel, diving, and living in South East Asia at Alex in Wanderland.  You can find her on Twitter talking about fast food cravings and wanderlust at @WanderlandAlex.

comments 43 Comments

What a great one stop shop for answer my scuba diving questions!

Thanks for sharing

I think scuba diving is one of the best activities one can learn for travel…there are so many different and amazing locales to do it.

Great info, how can anyone resist going diving after reading this?

Frankenjam

What an awesome post! Diving in Thailand is on my to do list for the trip i’m planning later this year and so this post couldn’t have come at a better time.

One question however, is there a right time and a wrong time to go diving, or is it great all year round?

Hi Frankenjam,

Due to Thailand’s two opposite facing coastlines, you can always find a place to dive somewhere in the country! Koh Tao’s official monsoon season is the month of November, though this year it was pretty mild and the sun was shining many days! The seas can be a bit rough though, so if seasickness is a problem, maybe avoid this time of year.

Fantastic post! Since getting SSI certified back in December on Koh Tao, we couldn’t agree more with all the information given. Though it would have made our decisions much easier if it had come out sooner :)

One of the most comprehensive articles on diving I’ve seen! Good stuff :)

I’d also recommend checking out Gili Trawagan, near Bali if you’re interested in diving. I went diving there and saw sharks, sting rays, giant turtles, eels and a shipwreck.

A lot of divemasters say Thailand’s visibility gone down slightly in recent years, while other dive spots like Borneo or Gili have improved. I think for diving, Bali might be slightly better.

Colleen

Excellent post. This info will come in handy. Thank you.

In my opinion a 3 day long course is not for anyone, many people learn slower. If you choose a local dive center in your home country, you can have more pool sessions, more practice. (Anyway, who would travel to a distant destination to learn how to clear the mask and sit in a classroom? There are referral courses: the students do the theory and pool sessions home and the open water dives abroad.)

With a bit more than 400 dives under my belt I know scuba diving is a wonderful activity but the “fast food” courses produce many divers who simply can’t dive safely. I recommend taking up diving to everybody and the 3 day course can be OK but please, take it seriously. Learn how to take care of yourself and the environment. I saw too much newly certified divers who wasn’t able to maintain neutral buoyancy and touched the corals regularly. Or there are the beginners with underwater cameras- bad idea. Scuba diving is a really entertaining recreational activity but it will remain so fantastic only if we don’t ruin the coral gardens.

Be safe and careful diver!

When I first read your blog after you wrote a guest post on Andi’s “My Beautiful Adventures” page, I read about your diving photography. I love your diving posts, especially when you share your remarkable pictures, Alex.

Great one-stop guide here, not just for Koh Tao, but relevant information on diving in general.

Wow beautiful pics! Thanks for the class breakdown as well; can’t wait to do this!

Beautiful pictures and good post; I saw a few species of fish i wasn’t familiar with.

Your post is very much interesting to read.Thanks for sharing.I will recommend your post.I really appreciate your post.

Diving in Thailand is one of the things I’ve been most looking forward to doing on my trip…I think I’ll have to bookmark this post and use it when I finally make it to Koh Tao!! Especially love the name drops on schools and insider info on the best dive spots. Awesome post!! :)

great post Matt, do you think PADI course in Combodia would be slightly cheaper?

NomadicMatt

No, it’s more expensive. Ko Tao is the cheapest in the world.

Kathryn Allen

Even though I know several divers who have done open water courses, I learned a lot from this informative and well-organized post. Great photos!

I learned to dive with Crystal on Koh Tao (one of the big schools), and it was AMAZING. I son’t necessarily agree that the big schools don’t give good individual attention — I felt incredibly well looked-after, especially when I gave myself an underwater asthma attack! My instructor became a friend, and I am extra-amazed at what a good experience I had, given that I used to be TERRIFIED of the thought of diving!

Oceandreamadean

I couldn’t agree more. I paid a visit to Koh Tao for my 1st time earlier this year primarily for the diving & wasn’t disappointed. The island has such a relaxed atmosphere & the people really friendly, & the divings great as well & one of the cheapest places in the world I’ve dived. And yes, I was lucky enough to get the whale shark at Chumphon (April).
There’s also another dive shop on the island not mentioned that I would thoroughly recommend- Alvaro Divers (Chalok Bay). I discovered these on Trip Advisor & they certainly deserve the excellent reviews they’ve had. Very professional, very friendly & very relaxed. Make sure you check them out. I did my Padi Rescue with them & will be returning next year to do my Padi Divemaster course with them & can’t wait.
I can honestly say it’s my favourite destination at this present time.

Lovely article. I am headed to Koh Tao for my first fling with diving at the end of December (just before spending a week in Koh Phangan for the NYE FMP :-) ). This article really cleared a few things up for me!

Francisco Miguel

Excellent post!!! Thank you so so much!

Misbah

Hi Matt, thanks for the information! Do you know if these schools, have simple dive/s for beginners who don’t want any certification?

NomadicMatt

All the schools on the islands offer beginner courses. Everyone comes here to learn to dive.

mike

Hi folks I have just returned from diving on koh tao. I have seen many valid points in the article and the coments I just thought I would add my own, I did my diving at sairee cottage the dive instructor, neil francis, was second to non I discovered part way through the course that he teaches the instructors and it shows. Secondly if you do your open water over 4 days it is quite a lot to take in, I did the advanced course aswell and its a great way to consolidate the knowledge you have been tought also its 2 days of fantastic diving. The only problem I found was that I had to hang up my wet suite and come home to a wet dull uk. My advice is, if you can stay there.

tara

would you recommend booking somewhere in advance to take a padi course if i am travelling in july? also is there a better side of the island to stay on at that time?

Cyrus

Great post just enough information one required will be in Koh Tao in September and looking forward to a couple of dives at the recommended Dive Sites ….. just wondering which dive School to go through ……. any suggestions ???

NomadicMatt

Shoot Alex an e-mail. She can give you a list!

Rocktopus SSI (brilliantly named) are the new up and coming dive school. Crystal Dive are great too…

David

Is the diving as good at the end of December and 3 weeks into January?

I just left Koh Tao to move to Chiang Mai last week.. This makes me want to get back to the islands!

Kyndall

Do you reccomend learning in Thailand or saving the time and learning in the states beforehand? I don’t want to feel like I am wasting time in class while I”m on vacation.

David

Hi, I live (and instruct) on Koh Tao so I’d be biased to recommend dive schools but in answer to Kyndall’s question, if you have a small bit extra cash (I’m guessing this still works out cheaper than learning at home before you come) and want to enjoy the most time of your holiday while there but still do the course there is an e-Learning option available through most schools which cuts down the classroom time considerably, more time for enjoying the dives and making the most of the island.

Gosia

I have recently spent a week on Koh Tao diving with Simple Life Divers. We saw a 6m baby whale shark on one of the morning dives- amazing experience. Warm, clear water, friendly and professional team, just perfect.

Brian

Planning a “bucketlist” family vacation with my wife and our three university age kids. Think a scuba course would be an awesome family memory. We have always been beach and snorkling people. Just have never been able to consider scuba… until now. Any recommendations? Have looked at Davy Jones Locker Diving school on Koh Tao. Impressions anyone? Would like to spend at least one week on Koh Tao.

Donald Micallef

cant thank you enouh for this. Currently in samui and leaving to ko tao tomorrow…. This guide made it as easy as it gets for me :-)

NomadicMatt

Welcome!

Matt Unsy

Hey Matt,

In koh lanta currently and making the trip to koh tao two days from now specifically to get certified. The places that include accommodation with certification do you have to book ahead of time? And if so which ones offer this?

I was planning on showing up on the island and negotiating the price once I get there, like I’ve done before, would this be unwise?

Thanks in advance!

NomadicMatt

You can just show up.

Andaman sea beach the best sea beach in oll over in world The best time to dive the Andaman Islands is February and March. Our peak season is from November until Mid April. The second week of May brings in the monsoon season.

Really enjoyed this article! I learnt back in 2001 whilst staying on Koh Phangan but remember diving at Sail Rock once I’d got my cert. Good times!

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