So the diving bug has bit and you’re itching to plunge into one of Thailand’s best diving spots. Koh Tao, with its plentiful shallow bays, offers novices to intermediate divers great value for money and plenty of opps for underwater photography. On the surface, we’re talking white sandy beaches, palm trees, steep and rocky terrain covered in thick jungle. But, it’s what lurks below that puts this island on the top 10 must-see destinations of the word.
The diving industry on Koh Tao has only been going since about the mid-1980s, so the island and its surroundings still have exquisite pristine beauty. We’re talking vivid colours and an amazing diversity of marine life that just pops out at you through crystal clear waters. It’s popular – only Australia rivals Koh Tao for the numbers of PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) student divers certified.
Where is it?
You’ll find Koh Tao in the Ko Pha-ngan District of Surat Thani. It’s roughly 70km off the east coast of Central Thailand and in the Gulf of Thailand. Koh Tao island is just 21 square kilometres, so you can zap around it in a boat within an hour. There are about 15 different dive sites you can access from the island so there’s oodles to explore. We recommend you set aside five days to really get to know this island.
However, don’t expect to find many shipwrecks or even drift dive there – that’s when the water’s current or tide whooshes you along decent distances and you feel like you’re flying through water. Nup, not going to happen around Koh Tao. But you won’t be disappointed. Expect to find a range of reasonably priced day trips to easy diving sites around the island’s coastline. For the experienced diver, check out offshore pinnacles of Chumphon and South West Pinnacle for larger fish and possibly whale sharks.
Not the Teenage Mutant Ninja type. After all, Koh Tao is Thai for ‘turtle’ and that’s what you can expect to see when you’re diving there. Here’s a top-ranking YouTube video featuring the Hawksbill Turtle gliding in the sea near Koh Tao at the Wrek Sattakut, Twin’s Rock and White Rock. The island is the place to dive if you want to see turtles, says blogger, Janine Good of ‘Fill My Passport’.
Whether you snorkel or scuba dive off Koh Tao, the visual feast is spectacular. Apart from Hawksbill or Green Turtles, you’ll take in stingrays, reef fish, sea snakes, squid, moray eels and plenty more. Amongst the isolated granite pinnacle diving sites you’ll find giant grouper and sharks in these deeper waters. Look out for great and chevron barracuda and even whale sharks.
Taking the plunge as a novice
Don’t let your lack of diving certification stop you leaving home for a trip to Koh Tao. To scuba dive in open water, you really need to get certified, that is, get your PADI, the world’s most popular and recognised scuba diving course. Find your nearest dive shop here. Pump in ‘Koh Tao’ if that’s where you want to get certified and you’ll have a choice of about 30 operators to help you.
To get PADI certified, you’ll need to successfully complete book and pool work, and obtain a referral to do the open water dives, usually in a lake, quarry or ocean. You’d do these over two days and it’ll take up to five successful open water dives to get your piece of paper. There’s solid competition amongst operators who certifier newbies to the world of diving. You could check out the island’s award-winning dive centre, Crystal Dive, which has PADI diving courses from beginner to advanced, even internships and training for dive masters and instructors. Simple Life Divers also offer scuba internships too.
Certification course costs vary, so check the prices, but at the time of writing this, you could do a try dive for 50 Euros and an open water dive for 250 Euros.
Here’s some common mistakes rookie divers make, according to Megan Denny on the PADI blog. They rush, don’t invest in personal gear, get schmucky about asking questions, multi-task and delay diving after certification. You PADI certification won’t expire, but it could get dusty. If it’s been too long between dives for you, there’s the PADI ReActivate program to refresh your skills and knowledge online or you can trot into a local dive centre for a water skill review session.
Jump in, the water’s gorgeous
Around Koh Tao, the water temp’s usually between 27 and 30 degrees Celcius on average, is calm but can be a bit choppy offshore. Expect gentle currents, but you may experience stronger ones at particular sites. You can go down five to 35 metres and visibility is excellent – usually five to 20 metres. Get a visual – check out this YouTube vid, or Fat Fish Movie’s Top 10 Things to See Scuba Diving in Koh Tao. Just magical. Gotta be there!
Short of time? Fly from Bangkok and you’ll be there in under four hours – that involves flying to the nearby island of Koh Samu and boating it to Koh Tao. Other options include taking the overnight bus from Bangkok to Chumphon, then a high-speed catamaran, which takes just two hours to reach Koh Tao. If the bus isn’t your style, there’s also a train from Bangkok to Chumphon.
Whoa! Before you open your wallet, some words of caution.
You’ll need more than just common sense
Sorry to dampen your enthusiasm, but you’ll need to “exercise extreme caution” holidaying in Thailand. That’s the official word from the Australian Government’s Smart Traveller website. For starters, cross these places off your itinerary – Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat and Songkhla. Risk travelling there and you’d be voiding your travel insurance. Yep, we’re serious. Good news, though, is that Koh Tao hasn’t made the ‘no go’ list.
However, across Thailand be super wary of the possibility of civil unrest and, ahem, of terrorist attack. That includes Bangkok and Phuket. In August 2016, improvised explosive devices featured in about two dozen incidents killing four people and injuring more than 30. Authorities managed to detonate IEDs elsewhere – often in areas where tourists hang out. Tourists are also a drawcard for scams, serious criminal activity, food and drinking spiking. We could go on. Oh, and curb your curiosity and don’t gawk at demonstrations, political events, rallies, processions or large-scale public gatherings – they can turn violent. Don’t hand over your passport as ‘security’ for hiring scuba diving equipment either. If there’s a dispute about damage, the operator could try to hang onto your passport until compensated. And another risk to take on board: Thailand has the among the highest traffic-related deaths in the world, says the World Health Organisation.
Make sure you get Thai travel updates by registering for your own Smart Traveller account. And while you’re in Thailand, monitor the media including social media for updates. If you’re aged between 18 and 35, you’ll be in good company as a tourist to Koh Tao.
Getting the nasty stuff out of the way
Ok, you know Thailand’s a tad risky for travel and you might have heard about a couple of British tourists who were murdered in late 2014 on Koh Tao, and another four since. To get a perspective on the holiday isle’s “dark side”, have a squiz at The Guardian’s bent on it. The article gives you a decent insight into how Koh Tao society operates and mentions, strangely enough, its residents reckon it’s safe because they’re got a vested interest in keeping tourists happy – it’s their economic lifeblood. Keep in mind that reportedly there are only six police officers protecting Koh Tao’s 2,000 residents plus thousands of tourists. Do the sums. Bottom line is – take care!
What you do have control over is your health – getting vaccinated and being wary about mozzie-borne diseases such as the Zika virus. Get savvy about what your home country advises about health. The Australian Department of Health recommends postponing non-essential travel if you’re pregnant, for example.
Speaking of health
Thinking of travelling on the cheap and ditching travel insurance? Check out the insurance cheat sheet from consumer advisory organisation, Choice. As they say, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel. About eight weeks before you fly out, see your GP or travel clinic for a health check up and get an update if you need any specific vaccinations.
Just to put it into perspective, Thailand is a nation of 68 million people that the World Health Organisation ranks high for tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and malaria. About half of men smoke, compared with just three per cent of women.
When to travel
Thailand is hot and humid most times of the year – now if that doesn’t make you want to scuba dive, what will? Get a handle on the weather from this site. Tourism sites say the dive season is year round, but it depends what your goals are. Want to see whale sharks? Get there between February and May as there’s more plankton in the water which also attract the manta rays. Keen for warm water temps? That’s February to May, so avoid the coldest temps from June to October. That’s all good, but monsoon season rears its head between November to March. Then, on the Thai Peninsula you’ll encounter severe rips – undercurrents – and don’t expect lifeguards to be on hand. In Australia, we’re cautioned to swim between the red flags, but in Thailand red flags warn swimmers against entering the water. If you’re not sure, check with local authorities and definitely don’t go for a dip after dark or drinking alcohol.
On Koh Tao, the peak diving season is July and August, meanwhile from October to November monsoon winds will make it harder to see and you’ll be battling sea swells, but diving trips will still operate. The island’s not much fun to be on during the heavy rain and winds of November to February, so avoid that time. Another time to cross off your list is from March to April when the Titan Triggerfish get narky during breeding season. Don’t go above their nests, their ‘protection zone’ as these fish can see upwards. Males guard the nest.
How to annoy (another) local
Bet you didn’t know that showing the soles of your feet of touching the top of a person’s head cause “grave offence”, according to Smart Traveller. Yikes. Consider it a nudge to take time to familiarise yourself with local customs and respect them.
Keep it clean
Do you reckon you can get away with a small quantity of soft drugs for rec purposes? Not worth it. That could land you a lengthy jail sentence. Thai courts dish out severe penalties including death for possessing larger amounts of drugs. Keep drugs off your travel plans.
What to bring
As a novice, you’ll want to pack light with summer clothing, sunglasses, sunscreen, camera (especially one you can use underwater) and your mobile phone (coverage on the island is good, so just invest in a Thai SIM card to get you connected). There’s a lot of stuff you buy cheaply on the island, so if in doubt, leave the heavy stuff at home.
But you might have a favourite set of fins, mask or snorkel that you want to bring with you. If you’re a snorkler, here’s a guide to the gear, by the way. Do you prefer to be the only person who’s used your face mask for diving? Then, BYO a high quality and low volume one.
There’s a lot of info out there about what and when to buy your scuba gear. This site is really comprehensive talking about dive computers, the choice between a wetsuit or dry suit and the all-important BCD – buoyancy control device – aka your diving vest.
If you’re going for an instructors’ course, you’ll really need a laptop computer to access the digital files/manuals.
Doing your bit for science
If you’re just as keen to dive into oceans as data, consider taking part in a citizen science project. Yep, boffins are interested in recording sea and ocean temps around the world and have called on divers to help out. There’s actually a few projects you can hook into. In one, the Big Dive Project, recreational and commercial divers wear decompression computers. They can record pretty accurate ocean temps, a study shows, as reported by The Guardian site. Why’s that so important? Global warming raises temps – more than 90% of that heat is trapped in oceans causing hurricanes and disrupting fish stocks not to mention impacting on corals. Nasty all round. You can measure the surface temp of oceans with satellites when the skies are clear, but it’s tricky and pricey to get underwater temps. The Dive into Science project has already collected thousands of temp readings – consider adding to it when you take the plunge at Koh Tao. Generally, though, if citizen science projects are your thing, keep tabs on this Wikipedia page for a comprehensive list.
Taking part in citizen science project while diving Koh Tao is a nice way of giving back and gloating about your experience diving one of the world’s top dive sites.