Last month, we went on an adventure a lifetime in the making – Kevin and I traveled down to the Southern Thai island of Koh Tao and got Scuba Certified! Both of us have wanted to do this for years, and the warm, crystal clear waters and low price tag finally enticed us to get ‘er done.
Why Koh Tao?
It’s easy to argue that there’s no better place to get scuba certified than Koh Tao, Thailand. During the dry months when the visibility is at its best, you can see as far as 30 meters underwater. Koh Tao is surrounded by over a dozen awesome dive sites, and the sunny weather means the water is so warm you don’t even need to wear a wetsuit. The biggest draw to us, however, was the bargain basement price tag to get scuba certified. For less than 10,000 Baht (about $310), you can get your open water certification, and that price includes accommodations! As a comparison, the same course in Seattle would cost at least $430, doesn’t include accommodations, and you’d freeze your tush off in the cold Pacific Northwest Waters. No thank you.
Which Dive Shop?
We chose Roctopus, a small Dive Shop with fantastic ratings on Trip Advisor. We were drawn in by the reviews describing the small intimate class sizes and the high quality of instruction. We’d definitely recommend this place to friends.
All the Roctopus instructors we met were super friendly, incredibly patient, and very professional while also being fun. They seem like a great crew – if we ever go scuba diving in Koh Tao again, we’ll definitely go with Roctopus.
During our week of diving, we stayed at the new Roctopus Hotel. We knew going in that it wasn’t going to have air conditioning before we got there – anything to save a buck, right? The first two nights, I felt like I was sleeping in the 7th circle of Hell. After that, I’m not sure if the weather cooled off or if I just died a little bit inside, but things got better. The room was actually really big, pretty clean, had a comfy bed, and was in a quiet area. I have but one major complaint – for our entire 6-night stay, we were only given ONE ROLL OF TOILET PAPER. One! I dare you to try to make a single roll of toilet paper last for an entire week, especially if it’s the one-ply loosely rolled joke of a toilet paper roll that is so common over here. It’s possible that I stole a couple rolls of toilet paper from the Roctopus Dive Shop. Seems fair, right? If you’re reading this, Roctopus, you reduced me to stealing toilet paper. #rockbottomatroctopus #rockingacleanbuttatroctopus
We Are Apparently Super Old
Somewhere over the course of our week with Roctopus, Kevin and I learned that our dive instructor Jack was born in 1992. I had the same kind of heart palpitation I usually get when I see the latest “You must be born before this date to buy cigarettes” signs in stores in the United States. You know which sign I’m talking about, that pesky sign which always makes me think “Wait what decade is it?!”
Over the next day and a half, we kept finding ourselves muttering things like “OMG we’re so old” and “kids these days…” and I couldn’t stop looking for new face wrinkles. Sigh. The problem only intensified when we discovered that a couple other folks (or should I say “kids”?) in our dive class were in their very early 20s. This is becoming a thing with us – for the first time in our lives, we are regularly finding ourselves to be the oldest people in various tour groups. I AM NOT READY FOR THIS.
Anyway, all age jokes aside, Jack was a superb instructor, and we way overestimated his age because of his scuba skills and level of professionalism. In fact, Jack exhibited extreme restraint by not killing the incredibly annoying guy in our class. Let’s call this incredibly annoying guy “Frank” (not his real name). Frank was a solo traveler and is the type of person who has only three stories to tell, but keeps telling them over and over and over and over. Frank also managed to somehow show up everywhere – Kevin and I are out at a bar for happy hour cocktails? Frank shows up! We head to the 7-11 Store for a couple beers? There’s Frank. Frank was also not good at diving and held us all back, which was a bummer. Everyone in our class wanted to get rid of him. And somehow, Jack made it through the 4-day course without killing him. If THAT doesn’t speak volumes about the patience of the Roctopus dive instructors, I’m not sure what does.
If you’re not sold on Roctopus already, this next fact will do it. They have this seemingly bottomless ginormous tin of delicious cookies onboard their boat at all times. Go ahead, book your trip to Koh Tao right now…
Open Water Certification
Open Water Certification at Roctopus takes 4 days and consists of two morning academic sessions and three half-days of diving. One of these half days is either in a pool or in shallow water near a beach. At the end of the Open Water program, you’re certified to dive as deep as 18 meters.
During Open Water Certification, you have to learn and practice a handful of skills that can save your life by keeping you calm in tough situations. Underwater, we practiced removing our air regulators and recovering them two different ways, we learned what to do if our buddy runs out of air, we removed our entire buoyancy compensator vest and then put it back on, and we learned the most terrifying skill of all – removing our mask COMPLETELY from our heads underwater, putting it back on, and clearing the water from it, all at a depth of 18 meters. Learning to clear water from your mask underwater an important and scary skill to practice, but I’m happy to say we’re pretty much masters at it now. My eyes are still burning from the salt water.
We also mastered the pre-dive buddy check, as seen above. Kevin and I feel pretty confident that we can go on other dive adventures around Southeast Asia now, so that will be fun!
Advanced Adventurer Certification
We definitely didn’t plan to get our Advanced Certification when we headed down to Koh Tao. But as soon as someone mentioned diving a Shipwreck, I was sold. With Advanced Adventurer Certification, you get to try out five specialties, and at the end you’ll be certified to dive as deep as 30 meters. We picked Deep Diving, Wreck Diving, Navigation, Perfect Buoyancy, and Night Diving.
We went diving 6 days in a row, so we were able to hit quite a few of Koh Tao’s dive sites. Some of the sites we visited were:
This is basically an undewater obstacle course! We swam through cages, under cement octopus legs, along a fake shipwreck, and through hoops to prove our perfect buoyancy skills. I knew before diving that controlling your breathing underwater was probably somewhat important, but I didn’t realize it was crucial to your buoyancy. Breathing is one of the biggest things that controls whether you go up or down in the water. I kept finding myself floating upwards when I saw something cool because I forgot to breathe out!
HTMS Sattakut Shipwreck
(This isn’t my video, credit to Elizabeth Lauwerys who posted it on YouTube.)
My favorite dive BY FAR was the HTMS Sattakut. We actually got to swim through the ship down one of the galleyways, which was just unreal. The gun turret is still there, and it was just a super eerie experience.
This dive site is right off the eastern side of Koh Nang Yuan, an idyllic tiny island just next door to Koh Tao. We actually spent some time snorkeling here last year, but never knew we’d get a chance to come back! We hit this site several times, and our last dive there was our Navigation Dive, which meant Jack outfitted us with compasses and sent us out by ourselves! We only got slightly lost.
Pottery Night Dive
Night diving wasn’t even close to as terrifying as I thought it might be. I had imagined getting separated from the group in the darkness and dragged away by a pack of great white sharks, never to be seen or heard from ever again. Luckily, Jack issued us flashlights for the dive, so getting lost wasn’t really a problem. Also, there aren’t really great white sharks around here. The scariest thing about night diving for me turned out to be the Sea Urchins, which puff up at night and are even MORE POINTY than in the daytime. Leave it to Melanie to be terrified of something that is completely immobile, right?
We dived one afternoon at Shark Island, which is named for its shark fin shape, not because it’s a haven for sharks. We never got a chance to see any whale sharks during our diving, and I’m not sure if I’m happy or sad about that. Whale sharks are not aggressive towards divers, but I still don’t think I’d enjoy encountering ANYTHING underwater that bears the name “shark”. Thanks, Mom and Dad, for letting me watch the movie Jaws at such an early age.
We also visited Chumpon Pinnacle, Southwest Pinnacle, Twins, and White Rock.
We saw a ridiculous amount of sea creatures during our diving days on Koh Tao. Snorkeling is effectively ruined for us now, which I think is going to cost us a lot of money in the future. But I think it’s worth it because you get to see so much more diving than you do snorkeling! Here are a few of the things we saw around Koh Tao:
We saw a Banded Sea Snake, which was scary and awesome. After the dive, in which Jack pulled each of to within 3 feet of this snake to have a good look, he told us it’s one of the most poisonous snakes in the world. Luckily it’s not aggressive towards divers – crisis averted. Thanks, Jack.
We saw a handful of these blue spotted ribbontail rays, which are so beautiful! We saw several hiding during our daytime dives, but actually got to see one swimming around during our night dive!
When Triggerfish feel threatened, they pop up a “trigger” spine on the top of their head that they can use as a weapon. Upon hearing that, I decided to call this fish the “Unicorn of the Sea”. It was magical.
If there’s one thing that’ll make you pee your wetsuit underwater, it’s the Moray Eel. We saw a handful of these creepy creatures lurking in the coral during our dives. They definitely are accomplished starers – their eyes eerily follow you everywhere you swim underwater.
Goby Shrimp are an under-appreciated species in the sea. (Never thought I’d hear myself say something like that.) These shrimp essentially have a fish bodyguard! If you swim up to the shrimp, he retreats into his seafloor home and the bodyguard fish retreats into the hole behind him. Seafloor BFFs!
We also saw Yellowtail Barracuda, Chevron Barracuda, Great Barracuda, Longfin Batfish, huge Grouper, Parrotfish and Butterfly Fish. It was a wild week!
Thoughts on Diving
As I mentioned before, I think I watched Jaws at too early an age. That movie, in combination with my landlocked Kansas upbringing, ingrained in me a deep fear of the ocean. I know it’s absurd to think that a shark can singlehandedly sink a moderately sized boat, but we all know logic doesn’t always win out with me – if it happened on TV it can happen to me! In my early days of snorkeling, I used to hyperventilate when I tried to breathe through the snorkel, and refused to swim around without a life jacket or a pool noodle. Luckily, that all went away after spending enough time in the ocean in the last few years. With all that in mind, my advice is this: be sure you’re very comfortable with snorkeling in the ocean before you try diving. Of the nine people who started open water courses the same day as us, three dropped out. It’s important to be comfortable in the ocean before you try to spend time down at 30 meters. No one wants to have a panic attack that far underwater!
Some dive companies offer free “try dives” in a pool before signing up for a course, and many offer very generous refund policies. If you’re on the fence at all, it’s a great idea to check those options out before you sign up for a class.
We Want to Hear From You!
Are you a diver? Where did you get certified? Any diving recommendations in Southeast Asia would be VERY GREATLY APPRECIATED!