Updated November 2nd, 2018.
There are many places to learn how to dive across Southeast Asia but many backpackers choose the turtle-shaped island of Koh Tao in South Thailand. So why is Koh Tao SO popular for diving? We find out the answer to this question, as well as the answers to the questions: How do I find a dive school in Koh Tao? What time of year is best for diving? What are the best dive sites in Koh Tao? How much does diving cost? And lots more FAQs! But first…
10 Reasons Why Koh Tao is So Popular For Beginner Divers
1. Well, it’s cheap for starters. A typical 3-Day Open Water Course, which is your first diving qualification, costs between $250 – $300 US in Koh Tao, whereas, in other places, such as Bali, it can cost almost double that.
2. There’s a great atmosphere for diving. There are over 60 diving schools in Koh Tao. With so much focus on and enthusiasm for diving, an exciting atmosphere is created for learners.
3. Great, cheap hostels. Accommodation in Koh Tao is very affordable and of a high standard. Many Koh Tao dive resorts and schools offer accommodation and diving packages, but if you want to book independently, there are plenty of choices, from party hostels to cute guesthouses and beach bungalows.
4. Nightlife. Whether you prefer chilling to some laid-back tunes on the beach, or dancing the night away at a club, Koh Tao has a fun and vibrant nightlife scene which attracts backpackers from all over the world – some who come to the island to party, instead of dive.
5. A huge variety of dive schools. Whatever kind of diving you’re interested in, you can find it in Koh Tao. There are big schools, small schools, PADI schools, SSI schools and schools who teach in a variety of different languages! There are even schools that teach Apnea, a growing sport where rather than diving with underwater breathing equipment, you simply learn to hold your breath.
6. Schools in a variety of different languages. As mentioned above. Koh Tao is one of the few places in the world where you can virtually guarantee to be able to find an instructor who can teach in the language you prefer.
7. Diving conditions. The water is clear, warm and calm with very little current making it perfect for beginners! There are also many shallow dive sites, an awesome pinnacle, some cool artificial dive sites and even a shipwreck, meaning that divers of all levels will be entertained.
8. Beautiful Island. The island is great for exploring on foot, by bicycle or motorbike and there are many beautiful beaches, coves and trails. If you get bored of diving, you can try rock climbing, or yoga or a variety of other activities… Those travellers who are accompanying a diving pal to the island will not be bored.
9. Proximity to Koh Phangan. It has to be said that one of the reasons that Koh Tao is so popular for diving is its proximity to the Full Moon Party island of Koh Phangan. Many backpackers get the one hour ferry from Koh Phangan after the party, nurse their hangover for a day or two and them embark upon an Open Water Course.
10. Did I mention it’s cheap? We all know that backpackers love a good deal! Rest assured though, while cheap is not always the best way to go when it comes to booking trips and tours across Southeast Asia, (safety is the number one priority!), the dive schools in Koh Tao manage to offer a good value for money experience without compromising on safety, quality of equipment and service.
Check out this video on the top 10 things to see in Koh Tao whilst diving!
What time of year is best for diving in Koh Tao?
You can dive in Koh Tao all year round but some months are better for visibility than others. In general, here’s a month by month guide to the diving conditions in Koh Tao:
- January-February: Sunny days, calm seas and good visibility. The average visibility is 15 metres, but it can reach up to 20 metres on a clear day.
- March-April: Probably one of the best months to dive in Koh Tao as not only is the weather good and the seas nice and calm, but you have a greater chance of spotting a whale shark!
- May-June: The weather gets a little cooler during May and June, but it’s still a great time of year to dive. Slightly stronger winds mean that your dive school may choose one dive site over another during this time to assure the best conditions.
- July-August-September: Another fantastic time to go diving in Koh Tao with great weather, calm seas and visibility that can stretch to up to 30 metres. Whale sharks have also been spotted during this time.
- October: Although the weather is fairly good and the seas are calm, October starts to get a little quieter on Koh Tao as dive schools gear up for the coming monsoon season.
- November-December: Unlike the rest of Thailand which has its high season in November, Koh Tao gets its rainy season during November and early December. The monsoon usually lasts about one month and during this time the visibility can drop to around 10 metres. If this is the only time that you can dive in Koh Tao, don’t panic, the diving is not completely off limits most days and it’s still possible to take an Open Water Course during this time. The rains usually fall in the afternoons leaving the mornings sunny and fresh with calm seas. One bonus is that there are fewer dive boats and crowds during this time so you may have a dive site all to yourself!
Busy times in Koh Tao
Christmas and New Year – Christmas and New Year are particularly busy in Koh Tao as people treat themselves to the Christmas gift of an Open Water Certificate and come to enjoy the many beach parties and festive goings-on! It’s best to book accommodation in advance online during this time as places get booked up fast. Check accommodation on Booking.com here.
After the Full Moon Parties – Backpackers flock to the island every month, just after the Full Moon Party. In the days following the party rooms can get booked up fast, so either avoid this time if you can or, book your accommodation in advance. You can check Full Moon Party dates here.
Koh Tao Diving Schools – How to Choose?
Wherever you are, your first task when learning to dive is choosing your dive centre, this can seem like a whale of a job as there are lots to choose from! (There are over 60 dive schools on the island of Koh Tao!) Being clear on what you want from your course will make your choice easier. Here are a few things you may like to consider:
- Language: What language do you want to take your course in?
- School Size: Do you want to learn at a large school, a medium-sized school or a small, family-run operation. There are all sorts of dive centers on Koh Tao, each offering a different type of service and atmosphere.
- Group Size: As a general guide, at a larger dive centre you will be in a larger group. The maximum number of students in a group is 8, so if you are a bit nervous, want to take your time and would prefer a smaller group with more personal attention, ask about the group size. If you are travelling on your own, a larger dive centre with larger groups will give you more opportunity to meet new people. A few dive centres offer private tuition, if it’s something you are interested in, ask, there will usually be a premium to pay though.
- Refund Policies & Extra Costs: Ask what the dive centres refund policy is so you know where you stand if you don’t like it or get sick and are unable to complete the course. Find out what happens if you want to repeat a day or can’t complete an exercise and need to practice again the next day, can you simply take your time or will you have to join another course and is there an extra cost?
- Accommodation: A lot of dive centres offer discounted accommodation whilst you are taking your course, so have a look and think about what you want and where you want to be.
- Atmosphere: Dive centres are located in many different areas offering different atmosphere and lifestyle for students. Think about what you want from your environment. Do you want to be on a quiet beach or do you want to have a big choice of restaurants or nightlife? Some dive centres have their own restaurants and bars attached, some are lively and some more chilled. Do you want a dive centre with a pumping after dive social scene or do you want a quiet spot to chill and relax?
Which is the Best Diving School in Koh Tao?
This is an impossible question to answer as each person is different and it just depends on what type of dive school you are looking for and which type of school suits your requirements best. (See above.) I will say, that the quality of dive schools on Koh Tao is excellent. Unlike some other places in Southeast Asia, the safety standard on Koh Tao is high, the equipment is good quality and the dive instructors are very professional. Our advice on finding the best dive school FOR YOU?
- Check Koh Tao Diving Reviews on TripAdvisor – TripAdvisor is still the best source of real, honest information from travellers. Even if a few of the reviews may be faked, when a dive school has thousands of excellent reviews, it gives you a pretty clear indication that they are to be trusted. Don’t forget to read the terrible reviews too.
- Ask in our Facebook Community – Travellers get excellent advice on a daily basis in our Facebook Community which is home to travellers young and old. Don’t be afraid to request to join and once approved ask fellow travellers for recommendations!
- Ask Fellow Travellers – Diving in Koh Tao is very popular and it’s pretty likely that the bloke chugging a beer at the bar in your hostel in Hanoi has just been certified for diving in Koh Tao. Strike up a conversation with fellow travellers in hostels and on buses and ask them their opinion. Did they have a good or bad experience? Would they highly recommend one school over another? A personal recommendation goes a long way.
- Go with our Recommendation – See below for the schools that we recommend in Koh Tao.
- Go to the Island and Check Out Dive Schools Yourself – Many people like to leave their decision about which dive school to book with until they actually get to Koh Tao. This may, or may not be an option for you, depending on what time of year you want to go and how flexible you are on time. (See below).
Koh Tao Scuba Diving Prices
Open Water Dive Courses in Koh Tao usually cost between $270 – $320, however, once you arrive on the island you may find some dive schools offering courses even cheaper! Diving is a big business in Koh Tao and the dive schools can be competitive with each other, always slashing prices and offering extras.
If I could give one piece of advice to all would-be divers it’s not to choose your course based on price alone. Budget is always a factor when buying anything but I would strongly recommend making sure the dive centre is the one you want rather than it being the cheapest. You will only learn to dive once so make sure you’re comfortable with a dive centre that matches your needs.
Plus, Koh Tao diving prices are already the cheapest in the world! Below, you can see how the prices differ slightly in Koh Tao, compared to the much higher cost of the same Open Water Course in Bali, Indonesia.
- PADI Open Water Diver Course - Koh Tao, Thailand (3.5 Days) $283.00
- Learn to Dive, Koh Tao, Thailand! 3-Day SSI Open Water Course $270.00
- PADI Open Water Diver Course - Bali, Indonesia (3 Days) $495.00
Koh Tao Diving Course: To Book or Not to Book?
The Advantages of Booking in Advance
Booking in advance is a good idea at busy times in Koh Tao. (Just after the Full Moon Party in Koh Phangan!) If you only have a few days to spend in Koh Tao before jetting off somewhere else, then it may be important to you to have a course booked on exact dates.
Booking in advance will also secure your accommodation and save you the hassle of touts and taxi drivers upon arrival.
Making your choice before you arrive can be harder though as you haven’t had the opportunity to meet the team. However, a good dive centre will answer all your questions via email promptly, so you can still be assured that they will meet your requirements in terms of accommodation and group size etc.
Talking to fellow travellers and checking out the many travel forums online for feedback and recommendations will give you some pointers too. Remember though that the bigger dive centres have more students so you are more likely to hear about those than the smaller ones.
The Advantages of Booking When You Arrive
If you are more flexible on time, you may decide to book when you arrive on the island. This gives you the benefit of being able to take your time, get a feel for the island and assess the many different dive schools on offer. First off, find yourself a room or somewhere to drop your bags, have a rest, grab a cold drink and then start to have a wander around!
When you approach each dive school, talk to the instructors, ask them about the course and check out the dive centre itself too but keep in mind what it is you are looking for. It’s possible that the person you talk to will be your instructor, but find out and if not see if you can talk to the person who would be teaching you. Find out about their experience and see if they are passionate about diving.
Once you’ve found a dive school that you like, it’s always a good idea to double check the reviews on TripAdvisor!
Booking your Dive Course through South East Asia Backpacker
Here at South East Asia Backpacker, we work with two excellent dive schools in Koh Tao. Over the years we’ve found this schools to be highly professional in terms of both diving and customer service and we’re confident in recommending them to our readers…
Roctopus Diving School – SSI Course, Koh Tao
This SSI certified school gets incredible reviews and we’ve known the guys running the school for years! They’ve certified hundreds of divers over the years and while the experience is 100% fun, they are also serious when it comes to safety, top quality equipment and highly professional staff. Highly recommended. Check out their awesome TripAdvisor reviews! (With over 2,600 excellent reviews, they must be doing something right!)
New Way Diving School – PADI Course, Koh Tao
This small and friendly PADI dive school offer a family atmosphere where everyone shares the single passion – diving. This is reflected through the quality training that we provide and the greatest range of dive sites found on Koh Tao. They are the only dive school that guarantees Sail Rock three times a week and the only school on the island that offers sunset & night dives at Chumphon Pinnacles and Southwest Pinnacles. Check out their TripAdvisor reviews here.
Accommodation is not included in the price of these courses above, however, the two schools will be happy to help you book a great hostel or guesthouse on the island.
Why book through us?
When booking through South East Asia Backpacker you have to pay a 15% deposit to secure your place. This deposit is fully refundable if you change your plans. Booking through South East Asia Backpacker supports this website and helps to keep us churning out the best advice for fellow travellers! We’re happy to help you with any questions that you have about diving in Koh Tao, just contact us.
Discover SCUBA Diver – Testing The Water
If you are looking to test the water or don’t have time for a full course, you can complete a Discover Scuba Diver. This takes a little over half a day and includes at least one dive and you will usually have an option for another too. The cost is around $60 USD for the whole experience which includes equipment, instruction and more often than not, lunch!
You will learn some basic dive theory, be given an orientation to the equipment and then go into the shallow water to practice a few exercises that will make your subsequent dive more comfortable. This is an enjoyable way to see if you like diving and get a feel for how you might react to taking a full three-day course. It’s a wicked experience but it’s not a certification.
If you’re interested in Discover Scuba Diver, you can book the following two on our website below.
- PADI Discover Scuba Diving Experience, Koh Tao, Thailand (1 Day) $65.00
- PADI Discover Scuba Diving - Koh Tao, Thailand (1 Day Try Dive) $57.00
PADI Open Water Course VS. SSI Open Water Course – Your First Certification
PADI or SSI?
There are two certification bodies that grant new divers their underwater licences, PADI and SSI. All of the dive schools in Koh Tao will be certified by either one or the other. While PADI is the most well-known, the two are interchangeable and are as highly respected as each other. Both of them ensure quality in education, equipment and the experience of the dive instructors and you should only dive a school that is either PADI or SSI certified.
- PADI = Professional Association of Diving Instructors.
- SSI = SCUBA Schools International.
Open Water Course
The Open Water Course is your first license and the certification lasts for life. It is offered in exactly the same format by both PADI and SSI schools. The course comprises of theory, taught from videos and a manual, ending with a final exam that tests your knowledge prior to certification. In the water you will learn techniques, first in very shallow water, then you’ll plunge into four dives where you will put all you have learnt into practice. On an Open Water Course, you will dive up to 18 metres.
How Long Does the Course Take?
Allow four days for your course and don’t plan any big nights out! A usual day will start around 8 am, finishing around 5 pm with a break for lunch and will comprise of some theory and some water work each day. You will be asked to swim for 200 metres or snorkel for 300m and float for 10 minutes to demonstrate your comfort in the water. This isn’t timed and you don’t have to be an Olympian but you do need to be able to swim or snorkel before you can learn to dive.
Diving is open to everyone in reasonable health and you will be asked to complete a medical questionnaire. If you have a condition that’s listed you will be required to visit a doctor in order to determine if this will exclude you from diving. This doesn’t take long and will only cost a few hundred baht in most places. (Less than $10 USD) Asthma is one such condition as the cold dry air that is produced by the tanks can aggravate your asthma. If you have asthma, you can take it easy at the beginning and see how you feel breathing the air in shallow water. If there is any problem at the beginning, then you can notify your instructor.
Learning New Techniques
Breathing underwater can feel a bit weird at first and your brain needs a while to adjust to this unfamiliar sensation. It can seem a bit scary and daunting and this is why your first water sessions will be in water shallow enough so that you can easily stand up. This gives you a safe environment to get comfortable in the water and equipment. These sessions can take place in a pool or in the ocean.
Once comfortable, these sessions progress to teach you things you will need on every dive, for example, how to clear water from your mask without having to come to the surface. Your instructor will take you through emergency drills too; this will enable you to correctly respond should you find yourself with a problem underwater. During these sessions, you will gradually move a little deeper into maybe a few metres of water.
Taking to the Ocean
Once you have mastered these techniques it’s time to go play with the fishes and see some of the amazing scenes underwater! During your four open water dives, you will repeat some of the skills you have mastered. On your first two dives, the maximum depth is 12m and your final two dives extend to 18m. This doesn’t mean you have to attain these depths; your instructor should take the course at your pace and match your level to the choice of the dive site and environmental conditions.
Koh Tao Dive Sites
There are over 20 dive sites in Koh Tao and they’re all great! It really depends on what you want to do and what you like to see. One thing’s for sure though whatever you have in mind, there’s something for you! If it’s your first time in the underwater world there are many shallow calm sites to blow your first bubbles and lots to amaze you…
Japanese Gardens is one of the shallow bays located by the island of Koh Nangyuan. It is popular for beginners and training, yet it will still delight the experienced macro critter lovers. The hard and soft corals here will remind you of an underwater bonsai garden!
Christmas tree worms add splashes of vivid colour and you can find many anemones waving gently too. The eagled eyed will spot flabelina (colourful sea slugs) and polka dot nudibranch (another type of sea slug) while angel and butterfly fish more obviously parade their colours.
Twins and White Rock
Twins and White Rock lie west of Sairee beach and like many of the dive sites here are made of huge boulders and coral reefs. These sites again are suitable for beginners and more advanced divers too. Turtles visit these sites as well as other crowd pleasers like moray eels and blue spotted rays.
White Rock is a popular night dive location where divers can stalk the corals alongside barracuda out for their evening meal. The sand around any dive site on Koh Tao is littered with life too. Gobies keep watch over the dens they share with the ever industrious shrimp that build and clear all day long. Approach and they will shoot into their lair but if you wait quietly and motionless you’ll see the goby pop back out.
Keep waiting and you’ll see the shrimp come out too and resume clearing the hole. Industrious work for one so small and a pleasure to see, sometimes lifting chunks of debris any strongman would be proud of. A foray into the sandy areas might just reward you with seahorses and their cousins the pipefish. Lionfish, although rarely seen, add a splash of colour to a sandy exploration and porcupine puffer fish seem to enjoy chilling on the sand too.
Mango Bay is another shallow site which will delight any diver. The huge ball of scad here is the not-to-be-missed attraction! Swim smoothly towards them and they will surround you, swirling so thickly you can’t see through them. Take a moment to watch and you will invariably notice a grouper stalking around the edges eyeing up his next meal.
Buoyancy World (One of Koh Tao’s Artificial Reefs)
In more recent years many artificial reefs have been created on Koh Tao. The aim is to create new habitats and therefore new dive sites which will take the pressure off existing sites. These sites have been created on the sandy ocean floor which also means new divers have some interesting sights to swim around while still diving over sand. This means that new divers still practising their buoyancy have a soft landing and will not harm themselves or the fragile reef while mastering this essential skill.
Buoyancy World was created with just this aim in mind and has many weird and wonderful statues to swim around. Huge batfish, giant octopus and anemones lie near bamboo forests and a buoyancy playgroup. Structures have also been deployed in Aow Leuk too and they make a great navigational practice site.
The site seeing the most growth lies just out of Mae Haad. This site was created with propagation in mind and along with a bamboo palm tree and monkey, sites such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge dot the sand with Bruce the shark!
South West Pinnacle
The furthest flung dive sites which Koh Tao dive shops visit regularly are South West Pinnacle and Chumphon Pinnacle. South West is typified by huge schools of fusiliers and is one of those sites you can just hover by and watch the ocean go about its business, it’s also one of the best places to spot scorpion fish too.
Chumphon Pinnacle is truly where anything could happen. The top of the pinnacle sways with anemones, crabs, little yellow boxfish, morays and shrimp nestle alongside. Walls of barracuda stalk the site and the lucky might even see a sailfish dart in for the kill.
Large groupers lazily lumber around but the true draw here are the sharks! These guys are seasonal visitors that never fail to impress. Debate still flares as to what type of shark they are, some will say that they are large grey reefs whilst others will declare they are a form of bull shark. Maybe they just haven’t been officially categorised as they do show behaviour and features of both. Whatever they are, they are certainly magnificent and are a pleasure to watch.
Both of these deep dive sites (South West Pinnacle and Chumphon Pinnacle) are where you are more likely to spot the graceful giants of the ocean – the whale shark. These magnificent seasonal visitors are most prevalent March-May and Sept and October, but they don’t have calendars so you can be lucky at any time!
Widely regarded as the best dive site in the Gulf of Thailand, Sail Rock (‘Hin Bai’ in Thai) is also known as ‘Whaleshark City’ – can you guess why? The rock itself rises 8 metres out of the water and the dive site drops to 40 metres at it’s deepest point.
Sail Rock is located an hour and a half boat ride from Koh Tao and due to its distance from islands inhabited by humans, the rock is a haven for marine life! The multi-coloured coral here is incredible and the sheer variety of exotic sea creatures, from barracuda to batfish to giant grouper and moray eels, will leave you awe-struck.
For more advanced divers, there’s also a vertical swim-through which is known as ‘The Chimney’ where you swim through the actual rock from 5 metres to 18 metres in depth. It’s a challenge in buoyancy!
Many Koh Tao dive centers offer day trips to Sail Rock which is a highly recommended experience for certified divers. New Way Diving offers the Sail Rock Trip seven days of the week.
Wreck Diving in Koh Tao
Wrecks are always a firm favourite with divers and until recently there was only a small catamaran lying just out of Tanote Bay, a tuk-tuk and a small dive boat which succumbed to bad weather a couple of years ago and lies just off Japanese Gardens. There was nothing in between these and The Unicorn which can be dived at 40m but lies in around 55m.
In October 2010, the MV Trident, which had served as a deep wreck exploratory vessel in the Gulf of Thailand, was decommissioned and sunk just south of Koh Tao. Finally divers have a substantial but more accessible wreck to dive. She lies in 35m of water but is a good dive in the range of 28-32m providing an excellent site for experienced divers, deep and nitrox training as well as the initial stages of technical training.
In terms of dive sites, Koh Tao has so much more to offer, I could go on all day; the schooling butterfly fish, beautiful corals and plentiful yellowtail barracuda at Shark Island, the playground of swim throughs and vibrant trigger population of Green Rock, the Caves of Laem Tian, the shrimps and puffers of Hin Nagm, the nudibranch and Jenkins rays of Red Rock, the turtles of Hin Pee Wee, the solitude of No Name, the flatworms of Pottery Pinnacle and much much more. So if you really want to find out what the best dive site is on Koh Tao, come and look for yourself because it’s different for everyone and only you can decide!
What type of things will you see SCUBA Diving in Koh Tao?
The underwater world is mind-blowing! Here are some of the things that you may experience in Koh Tao…
- Watching a sea turtle glide beside you as it descends from taking a gulp of air from the surface.
- Seeing how hard the little shrimp works to keep the burrow he and the goby live in clear.
- Seeing fish getting spruced up at cleaning stations.
- Accidentally disturbing idle grouper.
- Swimming through schools of fusilier.
- Spotting the fin of blacktip reef shark.
- Stalking barracuda.
- Peering in crevices at shrimp and crabs.
- Finding sting rays slumbering under overhangs.
- Puttering alongside puffer fish.
- Being dazzled by the colours that the angel and butterfly fish bring to the reef.
- Finding Nemo!
All this and more can be seen on any dive and the more you dive the more you will see and the different things you will notice!
Not to mention Whale Sharks – Seasonal Koh Tao Visitors
Koh Tao has some amazing seasonal visitors too, graceful, harmless whale sharks frequent many dive sites between March and May and then again in Sept and October. These gentle giants can grow to 12 metres, they are filter feeders and still very little is known about them. There are only a few places in the world that they visit habitually and we are very lucky to have them grace our waters.
What Next? Advanced Dive Courses in Koh Tao
Many new divers get truly bitten by the diving bug! If this is you then stay a bit longer and take your Advanced Course. It’s designed so that you can continue straight on and it’s perfect for building confidence and gaining more experience.
Dive at night, dive deeper, learn to find your own way around the dive site, use an underwater scooter like James Bond, identify fish or take some photographs. You get to choose three of the five dives to suit what interests you and the other two must be a deep dive (30m max) and a navigation dive. This course is usually completed in two days and is mostly about diving with only a tiny bit of theory compared to your Open Water Course. If this still hasn’t quieted your appetite then there are any number of courses you can take based on your further interests…
- PADI Advanced Open Water Course - Koh Tao, Thailand (2 Days) $267.00
- PADI EFR & Rescue Diver Course - Koh Tao, Thailand (3.5 Days) $392.00
- PADI Enriched Air Nitrox Dive Course - Koh Tao, Thailand (1/2 Day) $173.00
- PADI Deep Diver Specialty Course - Koh Tao, Thailand (2 Days) $226.00
- PADI Divemaster Course, Koh Tao, Thailand (4-6 Weeks) $800.00
If you’ve got a few months and a few pennies in the piggy bank you could soon find yourself qualified to lead fun divers and get paid to go diving. I have many friends who came to Thailand to do their Open Water Course and have never left! Will you get bitten by the diving bug in Koh Tao?
Written by Ayesha Cantrell and Nikki Scott.
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