Keen to play Little Mermaid and find Nemo? If the answer is a definite or maybe just a timid yes, it might be time for you to learn how to scuba dive. There are few places in the world better suitable for beginners than Koh Tao in Thailand with its warm and usually calm waters and incredibly low prices to get certified. Want to know about the ins & outs of Koh Tao diving? Let me take you along my first underwater steps (or jump directly to all my tips on what you will need to know how to get certified)…
I thought I would panic once submerged in water. And if I did what would happen to me?
“I will hold on to you, and you will breathe slowly,” says Erkan, the instructor for my Koh Tao diving course. Not the answer I am hoping for because the only thing worse I can imagine than panicking underwater is panicking underwater while someone is holding on to me in this panic. But of course, he is right, because that is the only thing you can do underwater: keep calm and breathe.
Koh Tao Diving
Luckily it doesn’t come to this because after my initial, slightly shaky giant stride I am hooked. Insert a hook, line, and sinker joke here. I immediately feel like Arielle, but unlike her the underwater world is calling me, pulling me under. I am slightly relieved to realize that the water is not literally pulling me under even though I wear a heavy weight belt around my waist. In fact, it is harder than it seems to get down there and while breathing with my regulator becomes second nature to me within a moment, balancing my buoyancy, something I didn’t even know it existed until a few hours ago, does not. Weightlessness it seems has to be learned just like walking and swimming, and weightlessness is what scuba diving is all about.
The ins & outs of an Open Water course
I decided on an Open Water course with SSI – short for Scuba Schools International. The Open Water, OW, is a two-day course in Koh Tao including theory lessons with an exam at the end, four dives as well as a confined water session to get started. At New Heaven, this confined water session is done in the pool or in very shallow, calm water in the ocean. After getting fitted with equipment – an unflattering wetsuit, fins, and mask – we first get shown the ins and outs of our new BFFs: regulator, BCD, and tank. In short – the tank has the air (not oxygen as so many think, but regular air with 21% oxygen and 79 % nitrogen for starters – pure oxygen would kill you quickly at depth!) and the regulator connects to the tank allowing me to breathe through a mouthpiece. The BCD, short for buoyancy control device, looks a bit like a life vest and is also connected to the air from the tank and in charge of helping me to get neutrally buoyant aka float underwater.
Don’t know much about … physics.
Before I can give that a try, I have to go back to school, and my least favorite subject is in session: physics. I need to learn what pressure does to the body underwater or how that changes when I come up again. All this, so I can not only dive but also avoid decompression illness like the bends or a lung squeeze. The latter sounds scary enough for me to pay attention, something my physic’s teacher never got me to do in highschool. Some things you can learn by doing, others need to be studied and practiced on dry land before as your life may depend on them.
In the pool, we carefully take our first underwater breath. We have already learned the two most important rules of scuba diving: never dive alone and never hold your breath. In addition, we learn how to clear water out of our masks, hover over the ground, and how to recover the regulator should it get lost, a slightly terrifying but very important skill.
Channeling my Inner Arielle
All seems so easy for me until it is time to head to the ocean and actually go down. Buoyancy, that thing that sounded so easy in theory, is a bitch in reality. When Erkan shows us a blue-spotted stingray underneath a big rock, I am too busy not to crash into him or the rock and have no nerve to actually look for that damn fish. Not that it matters, I learn later that buoyancy is a skill which takes its dear time to master and have enjoyed many blue-spotted stingrays ever since. As if I already know there will be others, I focus on enjoying a Nemo, a Parrot- and a Triggerfish instead and see hundreds of Christmas Trees disappear with a wave of my hand. I find myself laughing all the time, laughing in awe and wonder at this new world I am just getting acquainted with. What does it matter that my moves are still clumsy and too hectic at times? This world makes me happy. Happy enough that I catch myself laughing out loud underwater. While it is entirely possible to laugh out loud and breathe at the same time while diving, singing Under the Sea is not (needless to say, I tried!).
During the last dive of my course, I don’t want to come up. After all, there is still 80 bar in my tank, and when Erkan signals us to hold on to the rope and make our descent I want to stomp my feet and shout “I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go”. But there is no stomping feet under the sea, and back up we go.
On the boat I feel inconsolable, like something precious has been taken away from me and not even the deliciously horrible banana cream cookies can help. I know I’m being dramatic, but I can’t help it, and the feeling stays. The next day is the first day I get to spend with my friend Julia since I have arrived and I should be excited about spending a day in paradise with one of my favorite people in the world, but when I see the longtail boat full of happy divers depart I just want to run after them.
With that, it only takes me a couple of days, some emails, and a quick look at my account before it is decided: I have rescheduled my flights, booked an AOW (advanced open water) scuba diving in Thailand, and extended my stay for a holiday affair. I guess it must be underwater love…
Koh Tao diving – Getting Open Water certified
- There are two main scuba organizations in the world – SSI and PADI. The materials they cover in the courses are pretty much the same. SSI tends to be a little cheaper as they don’t require for you to buy your textbook. Instead, you can borrow it or read the materials online. As a beginner don’t worry too much which organization you choose but instead find a dive center with an instructor, you trust.
- If you are unsure if scuba diving is for you, you can book a discovery scuba diving session to start with – this offers most of the fun aka finding Nemo and only the very basic skills and theory. Many dive centers will credit the dives of a scuba discovery to your Open Water if you decide on taking it further.
- You will need special insurance for diving as regular travel insurance does not cover a trip to the decompression chamber. Most divers use DAN, but also companies like World Nomads have the option to cover dive trips.
- You will also need a doctor’s clearance before diving and sign that you are in good health before you can start your course.
- Oddly enough one of the most common questions from people who are interested in learning how to dive is whether they need to be able to swim. The answer is yes. You don’t need to be a great swimmer but passing your OW technically requires you to swim 200m (something I never had to do…ups). In general, I think being comfortable in the water and able to get around above the surface will only improve your overall comfort and performance below the surface.
- Koh Tao is a great place to get certified, but sometimes things can feel a bit rushed. A regular OW course will take you two days and doesn’t allow much room for error. If you can’t manage specific skills ask for an extra session and don’t stress yourself. You are literally exploring a new world, so it is quite normal to get nervous/panicky or have trouble to master certain skills. A good instructor should be able to talk and walk you through them.
- Once you are Open Water certified you are allowed to dive with a buddy to 18m depth. Personally, I think that is a bit crazy especially if both of you happen to be new divers. I recommend doing some fun dives with a good divemaster or instructor first and take your AOW (Advanced Open Waters) next. Scuba diving like anything else is something you need to practice – buoyancy and breathing don’t come naturally to everyone.
- To start with you won’t need your own equipment as scuba equipment rental is usually included in the price of your course. If you like diving and want to build up your own set, I recommend you start with a mask and fins. Then move on to a dive computer. Purchasing your own wetsuit can make a huge difference for comfort, however, the choice of wetsuit will depend on what kind of water you will mainly dive in. As a rule of thumb – the colder the water, the thicker the wetsuit (unless you get chilly easily like me who wears a full 3mm suit even in 30 degrees water temperature). For pieces like BCD and regulator, you will not only need to save a little more but also try a few styles and brands. As you won’t be able to take equipment from a shop to a test dive, I recommend renting for a bit until you know what you like.
- Last but not least – keep your paws to yourself! One of the first rules of marine conservation is not to touch anything in the water. Crashing into things is touching, another good reason to work on your buoyancy so that doesn’t happen. Even if you don’t crash into stuff some people just like touching things and unfortunately that includes experienced divers and even professionals. In a way, I get it – stuff looks pretty and what’s the harm, right? But the reality is that marine life can easily harm you even though it may not look like it (hello, pretty blue-ringed octopus!). Mind you, that’s your business; however, I will make it my business if you touch marine life because even if you are not directly doing any harm, it just seems common courtesy not to touch a wild animal you just met for the first time. If you see someone touching things underwater – please speak up!
- If you decide to do a scuba diving course in Koh Tao ask if the dive shop can include accommodation for you. There is fierce competition on the island, and most offers will include a room or at least give you a significant discount.
Do you have any questions about Koh Tao diving or scuba diving, in general, I didn’t answer here? Please leave me a comment!