Koh Tao is a perfect place to start a diving adventure. In fact, it holds the 2nd place in the world regarding the number of diving schools. For many reasons, it’s one of the safest places to learn diving. Competition forces schools to really take care of their equipment and there are representatives of overseeing bodies residing on the island. Furthermore, the water is always around 30 degrees and -in the right season (March-October)- there are no waves and no currents. The coral reefs are teeming with life and the deeper water around the island attract whale sharks. Last but not least, Koh Tao is one of the cheapest places in the world where you can learn diving. The Open Water Course costs anything between 7500 and 9000 baht.
One of the main reasons we came to Koh Tao was to learn how to dive. When I read about a chance of spotting whale sharks, other species of shark and sea turtles I simply couldn’t resist even though I knew this particular trip wouldn’t really be budget.
PADI or SSI – which one to choose?
The expense of a diving course is huge and definitely didn’t fit in our budget but we treated it as a future investment. A basic, Open Water Diving Course is a 3-day long course which provides a life-long license, valid world-wide for dives to the max. depth of 18 meters. There are two main international bodies accrediting the diving courses: PADI and SSI. We chose an SSI course because it was cheaper than PADI one and because an experienced diver who stayed at our guesthouse assured us there was no difference in the quality between the two. We carefully selected the cheapest among the reputable and well-known schools, having first confirmed our choice with our diver guest house mate.
We were lucky to be the only people who signed up. Throughout the course, not only a certified diving instructor but also a dive master were present so we couldn’t possibly get more personal attention.
We’ve never done anything similar to diving and even our snorkeling experience was minimal so we didn’t really know what to expect. As it turned out, the course involved a lot of learning, both in terms of theory and practice. It was quite an intense course so don’t do it if you’re not going to be serious about it.
The theoretical part involves reading online 6 chapters packed full of knowledge from fields such as physics and anatomy as well as completing a 50 questions multiple-choice test. The practice is divided into three days with all sessions taking place in the sea. Some of the schools teach the basic and safety skills in the pool, but most (ours included) do it in the shallow water on the beach.
Four unforgettable dives
We went for our first dive (or rather practiced the basic skills) at the Japanese Gardens near Koh Nang Yuan and for the second dive to the Twins, just on the other side of those islands. The diving schools cut the expenses of petrol by visiting only the nearest diving sites. Sometimes, when there are a lot of people (both in training and doing fun dives), the school’s boat would go to further locations but that wasn’t our case at all. If you’d like to explore a specific diving site, make sure you choose the diving school closest to that site.
My first dive was cut short due to a little panic when I got some water in my mouth and already managed to forget how to expel it while under water. I must confess I didn’t feel very comfortable breathing through that whole machinery. I wasn’t very fond of swimming with tons of equipment on me either- it made me feel quite constrained. During the dive, our teacher was pointing to us some interesting fish and other marine creatures which I really appreciated. Unlike many people, for whom diving is fun in itself, I treated it purely as a means of getting closer to the marine fauna. The third dive was more technical again so we couldn’t really enjoy the surroundings.
For the last, ‘fun’ dive we went just a bit further than usual, to the White Rock. The dive wasn’t as long as I wished it to be. Sayak’s inefficient breathing pattern made him finish up the oxygen quite quickly (half an hour), so we had to resurface. During the dive, we swam around and above the corals and as I still struggled with buoyancy (keeping same level when moving underwater) I scratched my leg against the coral at one point.
The factor reducing the joy of watching underwater world was the constant need to focus on buoyancy and on following the teacher. I guess the real enjoyment comes with practice. On our last dive, we saw a tiny moraine eel and a single barracuda fish but it was a far cry from what I was expecting in terms of wildlife spotting.
Overall, I found completing the Open Water course a major achievement and an investment in the future. It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting but it was definitely a unique experience and I don’t regret trying it out.
Having been slightly disappointed with the outcome of the dives, I insisted on taking a snorkeling tour which would give me another chance to see fish and corals. As a bonus, I’d be also able to explore those parts of the island which we couldn’t reach by walking.
Normally, I steer away from mass tourism and organized trips but the reviews of the boat company we used were so good and so many people had the luck to spot whale
sharks, sharks and turtles that I simply had to give it a try.
Which one to choose and when to go?
The whole day tour cost 600 baht per person including lunch which I found very reasonable in terms of value for money. There were around 40 of us on the boat. Normally it would be even more. We simply wisely chose a lull moment just after the Moon Party on Koh Phangan when Koh Tao becomes virtually deserted.
We had a Western guide, Francois, which was a blessing: he was fun, informative, really took care of our safety and made sure everybody had a great time. We had full freedom whether we wanted to use the life jackets. As a confident swimmer, I used one -just in case- only for the first dive in the middle of the open sea and enjoyed exploring the bays unencumbered.
Snorkeling spots on Koh Tao
As soon as we set off, Francois got tipped of about a whale shark spotted in the Green Rock area. A large amount of boats concentrated in the middle of the sea was a sure sign that indeed something interesting was going on underwater. At the guide’s command, we quickly jumped into the sea.
Whale sharks- those graceful giant creatures- were a mere few meters below us. Although there were dozens of people swarming on the surface and another dozen of divers below us, it still couldn’t diminish the dramatic effect this encounter had on me. I kept on following the shark wherever it swam. There were just two or three people around me when the whale shark disappeared into the blue. Meeting this peaceful, giant creature brought tears of joy to my eyes. This 15 minutes was already more than I could have dreamed of but it was just the beginning of an amazing day.
We took the entire day to encircle the island, stopping at the best snorkeling spots. We headed first to Koh Nang Yuan, small twin islands off Koh Tao’s coast often listed among the most beautiful islands in Thailand. There was a separate, rather expensive ticket just to set the foot on the islands. The islands were undoubtedly very beautiful but they were also insanely crowded which – in my opinion- stripped them of most of their charm.
Our guide strongly discouraged us to climb to the viewpoint due to a long queue to the top and advised to search for the sharks in the shallow bays instead. Having already paid for the ticket, I couldn’t miss the chance to see the islands from above. In fact, a path to the viewpoint wasn’t as crowded as it was pictured and after just a few minutes, our turn to get on the top of the rock came. The view was breathtaking and definitely worth a short climb. After going down, we still had enough time to get inside the water, along with hundreds of others, mainly Chinese groups. Unsurprisingly, we haven’t spotted any sharks and we soon carried on to much more peaceful locations.
The over-hyped Mango Bay was OK but no match for our favourite Hin Wong Bay. The boat dropped us off in a slightly different location than we snorkeled on our own and there was plenty of colourful fish to watch. Aow Leuk bay, in contrast, boasted by far the most beautiful coral formations. In between of the stops, we could just relax and admire Ko Tao’s rocky coastline.
The last stop- the Shark Bay -was our last chance to see blacktip reef sharks and green turtles. The corals in the Shark Bay unfortunately all died out so the chance of spotting those two species was the only reason to visit the bay. And yet again we were lucky. Francois quickly located a turtle and I swam furiously towards him as soon as I heard him shouting. I soon regretted, though as there were already 15 people encircling the poor creature and diving only centimeters away from it to take close-up photos. It must have been so stressed!
The same situation repeated when the second, much bigger turtle was spotted. At least nobody touched the turtle which was specifically forbidden by our guide. Even though we bothered the turtles for 15 minutes each at most, it surely must have been pretty stressful or at least disturbing for them. There was another tour boat closely following us which meant the whole situation would be repeated. I was very happy to see green turtles from that close but I also felt I really shouldn’t be doing it.
The environmental impact
The visit to the Shark Bay made me fully understand the negative impact of mass tourism on marine environment. Our diver friend told us not to believe in ‘zero-impact’ diving. With such a huge amount of divers, particularly learners, the coral destruction was inevitable. We knew he was right, as both me and Sayak unwittingly touched the corals at least once during the 3-day course. Despite my remorse, the snorkeling tour was an absolute highlight of my visit on Ko Tao. Ultimately, you’d have to make a decision according to your own conscience whether to visit this island and what to do once there.
How to get there?
You can get to Koh Tao only by a ferry, either from Chumphon (closer to Bangkok) or Surat Thani (closer to the west coast/ Khao Sok). Surat Thani is a major transportation hub with buses to Krabi, Khao Sok, Phuket, etc. The ticket from Chumphon is cheaper than from Surat Thani since the distance is much shorter.
You can combine the visit to Koh Tao with the visit to neighbouring Koh Phangan and Koh Samui. Bear in mind that island hopping would increase the cost of your travel a lot.
The cheapest ferry is the overnight car ferry from Chumphon. Much faster and more convenient option is Songserm or high-speed Lomphraya service. Only those two companies have connections between the three islands of Chumphon Archipelago.
You can read more on Bangkok- Koh Tao journey HERE
Prices on Koh Tao [in Thai baht as of April 2018]:
8000 THB SSI Open Water Diving Course
1000 THB combined ticket train/bus/ferry Bangkok-Koh Tao
700 THB whole day snorkeling boat trip (lunch included)
400 THB budget double room with shared bathroom on Sairee
400 THB budget hut on Sain Nuan beach
400 THB sunscreen
100 THB entrance fee to Koh Nang Yuan
80 THB meal in a budget restaurant, far from the beach
55 THB 5-litre water bottle
50 THB beer
50 THB snorkel set hire for the whole day
50 THB entrance to Hin Wong beach
40 THB smoothie
40 THB 1kg laundry (with drying and ironing)
30 THB one mango