Learning to Scuba Dive in Koh Tao

Adventure rating 3

Did you know scuba diving is, like the only sport  in the world where you can move just by breathing? Sounds like my kind of exercise…

It’s a rite of passage on any Southeast Asia backpacking trip to peel on that wetsuit, slap on those fins and learn to Scuba dive. The place to do this? Unmistakably Koh Tao.

Koh Tao, just off the east coast of South Thailand, and close to Koh Samui and Koh Phangan (of Full Moon Party fame), is an absolute Mecca for those who want to experience the underwater world for the first time.

roctopus group yes

Photo Credit: Fat Fish Movies

But why dive in Koh Tao? Why not any other Thai island?

Actually it’s because Koh Tao has incredibly clear, shallow waters, tons of marine life and a microclimate which means storms are more infrequent here than other places in Thailand, so the seas are almost always flat and calm.

Plus it’s one of the cheapest places to learn to dive in the world, costing less than half the price of doing the same course in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It’s no wonder that thousands of travellers flock to Koh Tao (Turtle Island) every year to find Nemo.

The incredible underwater world of Koh Tao

The incredible underwater world of Koh Tao

I decided that all these people can’t be wrong, and it’s about time I learned the ropes myself, so after plenty of research I booked onto a 4 day Open Water Diver course with Roctopus Dive in Koh Tao.

Roctopus have a great reputation for being the best dive school on the island, and their glowing Tripadvisor reviews consistently talk about small dive groups with a fun, relaxed atmosphere and amazing safety standards, so this really sealed it for me.

To be honest, safety was my number 1 concern… Those who read my blog regularly know that I’m not exactly the luckiest traveller around (see when I got food poisoning and then got electrocuted in India, or bitten by a spider in Honduras), so making sure I minimise any risk of something going wrong is, for me, the most important thing.

underwater in koh tao

I also wanted a dive school with an internationally recognised qualification, and so it was a toss up between PADI and SSI (the two leading dive organisations in the world). In the end, as I plumped for Roctopus, they teach the SSI course so my decision was made for me.

So that was it. I was going to learn to scuba dive…!

Getting Started: Open Water Course

The Open Water Dive Course is 4 days long (well, 3 days really, but spread over 4) and is a mix of classroom time, pool dives, open water (sea) dives and a final exam. Here’s how it’s roughly split:

Day 1: A two hour orientation in the afternoon. Meet and get to know your dive instructor, get a briefing on what’s coming up and watch a couple of really cheesy SSI videos. Homework: Read 3 chapters of the course book and answer the questions.

SSI course book

Day 2: Go over your homework answers and spend some time in the classroom learning more dive theory. Gear up and go into the swimming pool to learn some basic skills like buoyancy, clearing your mask and emergency procedures. Homework: Read the last 3 chapters of the course book and answer the questions.

Day 3: Check through your homework answers, ask any final questions you might have, then take a 50 question, multiple-choice exam. If you pass, you’ll head out on the afternoon boat to do your first open water dives… Get ready for the absolute amazingness that are the Koh Tao reefs!

Day 4: Take the morning boat (this is an early 6a.m. start so definitely no boozing the night before!) and do your final 2 open water dives, completing any skills that you haven’t yet done. These dives are also a little deeper than day 1, with a maximum depth of 18 metres. Finish up around lunch time.

In the evening of day 4, if you’ve chosen to have a videographer on the last 2 dives with you, you can watch it on the big screen in the bar with the other Roctopus guys. I absolutely loved my video – here’s the final edit (thanks to Fat Fish Movies for the amazing work – check them out on YouTube).

The Dive Sites

Koh Tao is legendary for having some of the best dive sites in Southeast Asia, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise to me to see all the incredible varieties of coral and the fish… just everywhere!

On day 1 we went to a couple of dive sites near to Nangyuan Island, just off the west coast. Actually, if you’re in Koh Tao you should definitely rent a longtail boat and go out to Nangyuan Island. It’s technically 3 islands connected by sand banks and is really one of the prettiest beaches in Asia. Just make sure you go before 10am or after 3pm to avoid the crazy crowds of Chinese and Korean tourists which flock there daily.

Photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org

Photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org

The dive sites are called ‘Japanese Gardens’ and ‘Twins’ (sometime known as Twin Peaks). Japanese Gardens was a great introduction to diving, as it’s shallow, clear and has some great fish to look out for including Sergeant Major, Banner fish and the territorial Titan Trigger.

roctopus scuba

Twins was just beautiful. Shoals of tropical fish including Batfish, Angel Fish and even the odd Barracuda, and a huge coral shelf, which you could swim around and through. It was so rewarding getting my buoyancy right and being able to float above the coral weightlessly!

It also has a family of clownfish (Nemo fish!) living in a small nest which divers have marked out with rocks, so it was a real-life Finding Nemo moment!

On day two we went a little further afield. The original plan was to go to Chumphon Pinnacle, one of the best dive sites off Koh Tao, but a spate of bad luck and some very windy (and therefore choppy) weather meant that we had to keep things closer to home.

Photo credit: Fat Fish Movies

Photo credit: Fat Fish Movies

And so we went to Hin Wong Pinnacle where we saw more of the same (bat fish, banner fish), but also rabbit fish and yellow tail fusiliers, along with a couple of weird looking sea slugs. The huge purple boulders here made for some seriously beautiful and serene underwater scenes.

Our last dive on the Open Water course took us to Hin Pee Wee, which has a deliberately sunken shipwreck to explore. I saw it from afar but we didn’t venture inside this time. Something to save for the Advanced Course, perhaps.

…And we were done! I was now a qualified Open Water Diver!

roctopus group shot

Taking it Further

By the time I emerged from the water on my 4th dive, I knew I would never be the same. Diving has taken a hold on me now and I’m hooked. I decided to extend my stay on Koh Tao and take my Advanced Adventurer Course with Roctopus too.

The advanced course is no homework or exams this time… Just sweet, sweet diving.

Photo credit: Fat Fish Movies

Photo credit: Fat Fish Movies

Becoming an Advanced Adventurer

It’s strange to think you can be classed as an advanced anything after only a few days, but with scuba diving it’s like when you get it, it really clicks, you know? The Advanced Adventurer course gives you an introduction to advanced skills, so over 2 days and 5 dives, you can choose what interests you.

I chose 5 skills: Deep diving, boat diving (including perfect buoyancy), a night dive, navigation and a wreck dive (with an actual shipwreck!).


Day 1 (morning) – Deep Dive and Boat Dive: We were really lucky as day 1 of our advanced course was a Sunday and this meant we had the option to go to Sail Rock, a small pinnacle between Koh Tao and Koh Phangan which juts right out from the sea bed to above the water. It’s well-known for being one of the greatest dive sites in eastern Thailand so we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pay a little extra and make a day of it.

Sail Rock is about 2 hours by boat from Koh Tao, so plenty of time to set up your gear and then chill on the sun deck until you get there. Thanks to the 6a.m. departure, we were the first boat to arrive at Sail Rock so we had the whole place to ourselves!

First up, the deep dive! This took us to just about 30 metres under the sea, and I didn’t really know what to expect from a dive that deep, all I knew was I was pretty nervous!

Minty, our dive instructor took a packet of Malteasers down to the bottom of the ocean to show us just what being this far underwater does to the air inside and also the colour of the packet. The air had been compressed so much that it looked like the packet had been vacuumed! Also, the red had disappeared from the colour spectrum, so it looked a kind of greyish-brown.

malteasers underwater

Crushed Malteasers – red filter used on the GoPro. In real life it wasn’t that red!

We also saw how a bottle filled with air at surface level can be completely flattened. You can then add air to in underwater and when you get back to the top and unscrew the lid, it turns the lid into a bullet, shooting it out at a MASSIVE speed!

We surfaced for a cuppa and then returned to the blue, this time for a boat dive, which was really the same as before, but with a slightly more complicated ‘roll’ technique to enter the water. We also spent some time working on getting perfect buoyancy in the water.

koh tao diving

Sail Rock itself didn’t disappoint. It was an epic dive site with loads of cool fish, like chevron barracuda, queen fish and trigger fish to name a few. There was also an epic natural ‘chimney’ which was like a vertical cave which you could enter from the bottom and float up through!

Roctopus is one of the only dive schools to go there every week, so make sure you take the chance if you’re ever in the area.

Day 1 (evening) – Night Dive: Oh. My God. A night dive. I actually didn’t really want to do this at all, but kind of gave in to peer pressure once I found out that the rest of my group were keen. The thought of slipping below the surface in pitch darkness completely filled me with dread, and I had visions of just not coming up again… Which is ridiculous when you think about it, but the fear felt very real!

We set out at sunset, and by the time we had set up and entered the water, the last rays of light were disappearing into the distance. One giant stride, and I was in the water ready to descend.

night dive

What began as one of the scariest things I’d considered doing in a long time quickly became one of the most impressive experiences of my travels so far. I’m not exaggerating when I say that. Being suspended underwater in the dark with only a torch to light your way was the closest thing to exploring space that I’ll ever experience. Totally mind-blowing!

The marine life was different to the daytime too, as all the day fish went to sleep and the night fish came out to play! Blue spotted rays, hermit crabs and white eyed moray all stared back at us from the black nothing.

But the highlight was sitting on the seabed, turning off our lights and playing with the phosphorescents – tiny particles in the water which when you move them, sparkle like glitter!

I really can’t begin to explain just how incredible that 34 minute dive was. It was really one of those moments where you look around and just think ‘woah’.

Day 2 – Navigation and wreck dives: When I was about 15, I took my ‘Duke of Edinburgh award at my school. If you’re not familiar with the DofE, it’s basically an award given for showing different skills… Charity work, organisational skills and finally, navigational skills, tested by a 20 mile walk through the English countryside.

navigation watch

On my final exam, my group of intrepid hikers and I struck out into the wilderness with so much confidence. We were strong, independent 15 year old women and we knew what we were doing.

Approximately 10 hours and 30 miles later we rolled into camp having got completely lost in the woods. Dehydrated and exhausted, we used the last few minutes of daylight to put up our tent on the only piece of land not yet claimed. A steep hill near the toilets.

Fast forward almost 15 years and my compass skills haven’t improved much. Still, with Minty’s patient guidance, I was able to just about scrape a pass for the navigational dive.

Our final dive took us to nearly 30 metres below the surface to explore a deliberately sunk shipwreck. Definitely one of the cooler dive sites in Koh Tao, it’s kind of eerie how it appears from the blue from nowhere. The visibility was amazing too!

shipwreck appears

wreck diving

roctopus wreck

You can’t go inside the wreck unless you’ve passed a special course, but seeing it from the outside was just as exciting, and if I ever come back to Koh Tao I know I’ll be working on that as my specialism. Hmmm… Maybe night diving too!

After exploring the ‘deep blue’ for the last couple of weeks, it’s safe to say I’m a diving convert… I absolutely adore it! I can’t wait to explore the reefs of Indonesia in a few weeks’ time. Stay tuned for more!

Disclaimer: I was hosted as a guest of Roctopus Dive for my Open Water certification. All views are, and remain, my own (as if you could expect anything less).

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Hayley is the author behind A Life of More, a travel and lifestyle blog with the goal of helping you to live a happier and more fulfilled life, whether you're currently travelling or happily settled.

Latest posts by Hayley Griffiths (see all)

Comments 9

  1. Arianwen

    Just reading this I’m itching to get back in the ocean! I’m glad you had such a fantastic time. The advanced course really is a lot of fun isn’t it?! It’s a bit scary seeing the effects of going so deep. Congratulations! 🙂

  2. Post
    Hayley Griffiths

    Thanks, Arianwen! Even days after finishing my course I’m itching to get back in the sea too! So much to see! Congrats on your rescus course, too. I think that could be fun / terrifying! 🙂

  3. Estrella

    I wish I went scuba diving when I went to Thailand a few years ago. I don’t know if I could have done it though, I have a fear of drowning and I think I’d freak out once I was lower than a meter underwater. Maybe one day!

  4. Post
    Hayley Griffiths

    It’s probably not an obvious activity to try if you have a fear of water, for sure. Maybe next time you’re there just go and talk to a dive school and I’m sure they will be able to put you at ease. It would be a shame to miss out on such an incredible experience if you can force yourself to face your fear 🙂

  5. Becka

    Such a detailed post! I lived on Koh Tao for a year in 2013 and it is by far one of my favourite places. I recently wrote about my experience learning to dive there too. I was with Big Blue though. So interesting to read about your ‘home’ from other people and other peoples points of view on similar experiences you’ve shared. B x

  6. Birthe (from Wandering.World)

    We learned to dive with Roctopus on Koh Tao as well! I was scared to go in the “open water”, having all of these worst case scenarios in my head. I’m so glad our fantastic instructor Emma put me at ease and convinced me to give it a go. I love it and can’t wait to dive again when we’re in Bali next month! You already went diving in Indonesia? Can’t find any blogpost about it yet. 🙂

  7. Post
    Hayley Griffiths

    Ah, no I sprained my ankle on my first day in Bali so I never got to go diving! Sad times indeed! You’ll have to let me know what you think! I saw your instagram earlier, it looks like Cambodia is beautiful this time of year! 🙂

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