The thought of learning to scuba dive would normally have given me PTSD from failed swimming classes and water up my nose in my early childhood. However, it was a trip abroad to Thailand, I was feeling adventurous and…yeah, you get the picture.
Before my trip, I did some research and learned that one of the cheapest places to get scuba certified was on a tiny island in Southern Thailand called Koh Tao. Further feedback indicated that the island was also a really fun place to meet other solo travelers. With a lot of time and no concrete plans, I decided to get my scuba diving certification in Koh Tao. I also hoped to see some cool marine life in the process.
SSI or PADI?
Some dive schools are affiliated with SSI and some are PADI. If you are not familiar with scuba terminology, these are the two largest associations that offer international certification programs. SSI stands for Scuba Schools International, and PADI stands for the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. While there are subtle differences, the two are largely similar. The main thing to know is that it doesn’t really matter if you get an SSI or a PADI certification; it’s more important to choose a dive school that has good instructors and small class sizes. Either certification will teach you the skills you need to be a successful diver, and enable you to dive anywhere in the world.
Choosing a Scuba Diving School
Upon arriving in Koh Tao, you’ll realize that there are dozens of scuba schools to choose from. It’s almost like looking at a menu with too many options – overwhelming and kind of frustrating.
I knew that in choosing a dive school, I couldn’t really go wrong as long as the reviews were good and the price was reasonable. The main three criteria I inquired about when researching dive schools (in order of importance) were:
- Small class sizes – I wanted to get as much personalized attention as possible. Like I mentioned earlier, being in the water gives me a little bit of anxiety, and I wanted to ensure I wouldn’t be splitting my instructor’s time with too many other people.
- Stellar reviews – As with many things in travel, I carefully researched reviews of different dive schools to ensure other travelers had good experiences. Most of the places I considered had at least 4.5/5 stars and spoke highly of their instructors.
- Fair price – I wasn’t looking for anything luxurious, so my main task here was simply comparing the different prices across a handful of schools to make sure I got a good deal.
After doing a fair amount of research and asking friends who had been before, I went with a dive school called Roctopus. I chose Roctopus for its good reviews and its recommendation by a fellow blogger, Alex in Wanderland. The prices were very good, the class sizes were small (there were 4 in my cohort), and my instructor was fantastic.
How Much to Budget
I knew taking a diving course wasn’t going to be cheap. In my research, I learned that Koh Tao is one of the least expensive places in the world to learn. Originally, I budgeted USD $300 for an open water course – I ended up spending ~$260 (~8,600 THB). While taking my course, I stayed at the Spicytao Hostel, which I don’t actually recommend for several reasons. If you’re looking for a hostel experience, there are plenty of great ones on the island at ~$10-15 per night. If you’re looking for a higher-end option, there are plenty of beach resorts, such as the Sairee Cottage ($50+ per night).
Once I decided on taking my course with Roctopus, I arrived on my first day and met my fellow divers. Our instructor, a bubbly Finnish woman named Païvi, introduced herself and escorted us to a classroom. Here, we spent a few hours watching instructional videos teaching us the mechanics. In the evening, we had “homework” to complete to reinforce what we learned.
After a day of classroom instruction, we finally took to the waves. Païvi paired me with a motorcycle-driving, beer-drinking Finnish dive buddy named Aapo. Before we went on our first true dive, each one of us took a swimming test, where we were asked to swim 300 meters. For me, it was surprisingly difficult, but I managed to finish the test successfully.
Before jumping in, Païvi taught us about each piece of scuba diving equipment, from the mask to the fins. Our first dive was in very shallow water, where we learned how it feels to be underwater and control our breathing and buoyancy. To me, diving felt like floating on air, and I quickly fell in love with it. We spent the next two days of the course exploring the nearby reefs and learning the mechanics of scuba diving.
The Final Test
On our last day, we had to take a skills test to show what we’d learned. This included diving to 18 meters, taking our masks off and putting them back on, “losing” our regulators and putting them back in, and more. Briefly, I felt my fears about the water resurface. However, the test was pretty quick and easy, and once I returned to the boat, I was officially scuba certified!
Being certified means that I can now go on “fun dives” alongside a certified divemaster. After the open water certification, divers can dive to a depth of 18 meters (60 feet).
…Just Don’t Get Stuck in Koh Tao
Koh Tao was itself a paradise. After I finished my open water course, I gave into my diving addiction and went for my advanced open water certification ($240 USD; 8,000 THB), which enabled me to dive down to depths of 30 meters. I also spent some time hanging around the island, going out at night, and making friends from all over the world.
Because it is mainly a tourist island, I admittedly didn’t get a lot of interaction with Thai culture here, but it’s a beautiful little place to hang out and unwind for a while. Koh Tao is definitely one of those islands that sucks you in!
Featured image credit: Johannes Zielcke (Flickr)
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