Arriving for a month in Thailand with an open itinerary we had many thoughts about how we would spend our time, but top of the agenda was the question of whether we would take our advanced scuba diving qualification in the country.
A month earlier, we had completed our PADI Open Water qualification in Bali, and between that and landing in Phuket, we did nine more dives in the Philippines – six in Moalboal and three in El Nido. We certainly felt ready to take our addictive new hobby to the next level.
As Open Water qualified divers, we could only descend to a maximum depth of 18 metres. By taking our advanced qualification, this would increase to 30 metres, opening up a whole new world of possibilities for ocean exploration, and we could also learn many more exciting skills like night diving and wreck diving.
The difficulty for backpackers like us is that while diving is a highly enjoyable activity, it’s also an expensive one. Thailand provided a potential solution for this. The island of Koh Tao, which we were planning to visit anyhow, is one of the cheapest places in the world to take scuba courses. Given that it was not a question of if, but when and where, we would eventually take our advanced course, it made sense to do it while the opportunity was there.
Dive centres in Koh Tao offer PADI advanced courses for as little as 7,900 baht (around 180 pounds sterling at the time of writing). I have found nowhere else that comes close on price. But, as you may expect, there are reasons for that.
We heard wildly mixed reviews about the quality of diving and learning at Koh Tao. It first came up months earlier when chatting with the manager of our hostel in Buenos Aires, who used to work there as an instructor many years ago. “When I was there, they used to take groups of 12 people out with one instructor,” he told us. Having had one instructor for the two of us in Bali, this did not sound ideal.
But maybe things had changed, or maybe that was just a bad centre. We did hear some positive stories from friends who have dived and taken courses in Koh Tao in the last few months, and from other travellers on the road; one, who we met in Kuala Lumpur, had seen whale sharks there. One of our good friends from the UK had a good experience and recommended a Koh Tao dive centre, and when we checked out the reviews, they were glowing.
These good vibes, however, were repeatedly counterbalanced by words of caution from other sources. Our instructor in Bali previously worked on a different Thai island – Koh Phi Phi – and she advised us that the quality of diving on Koh Tao was somewhat notorious within the industry. A travelling friend who dives frequently warned us that the sites there were full of dead coral, and overflowing with divers. The latter was our biggest concern; as novice divers still gathering confidence, we were nervous about not having comfortable space in the water to learn.
Nevertheless, we kept our minds and options open, and contacted Koh Tao dive centres to find out more. In Phuket, we popped into a dive shop on Kata Beach to inquire as well. Their PADI advanced course would be 14,400 baht each! Back to square one.
The next day we took a ferry out to our first Thai island destination, which happened to be Koh Phi Phi. After taking a good half hour to locate our hostel, we saw that it was just around the corner from a dive centre, Princess Divers. After checking in and dropping our bags, I mooched over to investigate.
Outside the centre I was greeted by a friendly woman from Mexico called Clara. Sure enough, they offered advanced courses, and it was a little cheaper than I was expecting: 11,300 baht for a PADI course, or 10,400 baht for an SSI course, each plus 600 baht in additional location fees. While PADI is the world’s largest dive organisation, SSI is not far behind and is also recognised worldwide; if we chose to take our qualification through SSI, we would emerge with the same credentials.
Clara told me about the sites we could visit with Princess Divers. They included a 27-metre deep shipwreck, and a spot with a 98% chance of seeing black-tip sharks. We would also be able to do the night-diving specialty, which is not always offered by dive centres (the above-mentioned place at Kata Beach did not, for example).
This was promising! I asked Clara about the advantages of learning in Koh Phi Phi over Koh Tao, and why the prices were so different. She explained that at Koh Phi Phi there were only 15 dive centres, whereas Koh Tao has over 100. An obvious result of this is that there would be a lot fewer divers in the water. But also, the 15 shops at Koh Phi Phi had a price agreement; they all charge the same for their courses and packages, and do not compete. This meant they could ensure that high standards, quality equipment and no corner-cutting. It also meant that Princess Divers could set a maximum of two divers per instructor for the advanced course, so once again we would effectively have private tuition.
I hurried back to the hostel excitedly to tell Lisa. I cross-checked the other Koh Phi Phi centres for prices, and sure enough, they were all the same. So now we had a choice. It would be about 40% more expensive for us to take the course there, and it would have to be SSI rather than PADI to make it feasible with our increasingly tight budget.
It came down to this: was the advanced course a means to an end, so we could get our rubber stamp to dive to 30 metres in the future? Or were we also doing it for the experience while travelling? The answer was absolutely the latter. We didn’t even need a drink to mull it over. We could start the next morning as well! Our decision was made.
We went back to Princess Divers’ shop together, filled out the necessary forms, and within a few minutes we were already working on the online theory modules. Between dodgy wifi and weary heads (a day earlier we’d had an exhausting time riding a moped around Phuket) it took us an hour to complete the first two sections before retiring for some dinner.
The following day we rose early for a 7:30am meet at the centre for two morning dives; we would begin with peak performance buoyancy and navigation. The former was probably the most crucial learning for us; once you have mastered buoyancy it makes other skills so much easier to learn, you get a lot more out of your diving experience as you become more aware of your surroundings, and you are far less likely to cause harm to the underwater ecosystem.
On the morning boat we met Sacha, our instructor for the course, who happened to be from El Bolsón, a small town in south-west Argentina which we had visited a few weeks earlier. Just as we had been in Bali, we were very lucky to have an excellent, friendly instructor who explained everything very clearly and made us feel comfortable.
The buoyancy exercises were lots of fun. After some searching we found a calm, current-free spot on the ocean bed, and Sacha suspended a small square from a weight on the floor. We took it in turns to swim through it forwards and upside down, and somersault through it.
With the exercises complete, we swam on; just minutes before we made for the surface, we encountered a roaming pack of black-tip sharks. It was amazing to see them so close! Contrary to our expectations (fears?), they didn’t appear the slightest bit menacing – they just minded their own business like all the other fish around us.
The only slight hitch on the first day was finding out that we might not be able to do the wreck dive the day after, as one of the centre’s captains was away on holiday, and so they only had one boat. It would have been a disappointment to miss out on that, but again, we got lucky. Sacha arranged for us to take a wooden longtail boat early the next morning to the wreck site, and we would meet up with the main boat afterwards.
This turned out to be an adventure in itself. With just the three of us and a captain on board the longtail boat, we made for the wreck site, which we found deserted. There were no other diving boats in sight. Choppy waters wrenched the boat from side to side, making it tough to put our gear on, and even tougher to find the correct location. After a tense few minutes Sacha and the captain found two buoys on the surface marking the spot, and two other boats arrived, confirming we were in the right place.
As we descended from the surface we could see only oblivion below. But a few metres down it emerged magically into view: the 50-metre-long wreck of Kled Gaeow, a decommissioned transport support and stores vessel. Like many wrecks around the world, it was sunk deliberately to create a new dive site, and has formed an artificial coral.
We reached the ocean bed and knelt next to the huge wreck, while Sacha showed us a selection of objects to demonstrate the change in colour visibility from the surface. A packet of Skittles, which appeared bright red above water, now looked a deep murky purple. After this, we each completed a simple memory exercise, making us aware of the effects of gas narcosis in deeper waters. With our brains working slower, it took longer than it had on the boat.
The second dive of the day was a less intensive one; we learned about fish identification. We were also treated to another close-up view of a black-tip shark, at a site they do not usually pass through. With this complete, we had one dive to go – the most exciting of all – our night dive! And our timing was impeccable; it would be a full moon.
After completing our theory modules in the afternoon (no exam is required on the advanced course), we met back at the centre at 6pm, buzzing with nerves and adrenaline. We would begin our dive in low twilight, and by the time we emerged it would be completely dark. Sacha supplied us with our dive torches and briefed us on how we would communicate.
The sensation of descending into pitch-black water is like nothing else I can describe. You become deprived of your senses; you cannot see, smell or taste, you touch only the water, and hearing is muffled. In compensation, your general awareness is heightened, resulting in a feeling of exhilaration.
We swam through testing currents and saw giant barracudas hunting prey, and crabs scuttling about on the ocean floor. At one point we gathered together and extinguished our torchlights by pressing their bulbs against our wetsuits. For these few seconds we were in complete and utter darkness, except for the fluorescent plankton floating around us. It was amazing.
We clambered back onto the boat exhausted and a little dazed, but we had made it. The course was complete, and we were qualified advanced scuba divers! We celebrated in our usual fashion with some spicy local food and a few beers.
We will never know for sure how Koh Phi Phi compares with Koh Tao, but we were satisfied with our decision. We had another brilliant scuba learning experience, and saw some beautiful dive sites with marine life we had encountered nowhere else. Sacha and the team at Princess Divers really went the extra mile, and did a fantastic job of supporting us through the course.
So now we are left with the question that I suspect we will always be asking: where are we going on our next diving holiday?
More on southern Thailand from other blogs
Are you planning an island-hopping trip to southern Thailand and want to explore away from the typical route? Find some inspiration here from Resrutt, the travel blog, on snorkelling in Koh Kradan, exploring the forgotten island of Koh Libong, and more.