Learning to dive on Ko Tao

Learning to dive on Ko Tao

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So you've made the decision – you want to learn to dive on Ko Tao. Congratulations! Here is an outline of what learning to dive on Ko Tao actually entails along with some guidance regarding the common questions you're most likely to encounter.

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The process essentially boils down to three steps, which are firstly deciding if you want to do PADI or SSI, then deciding on a dive centre, then doing the theory and getting in the water. Once you're certified, what about if you want to do another course afterwards? We'll cover that too.

Should you do PADI or SSI?
Ultimately, it’s more important that you have chosen the right dive centre than the “right” course and importantly, both PADI and SSI are internationally recognised meaning you can dive anywhere in the world with either certification. You can switch and change too — you don’t have to stay with the agency that you pick for your first course.

Smile for the camera. : Ayesha Cantrell.
Smile for the camera. Photo: Ayesha Cantrell

The science, skills and techniques don’t change with whatever agency you choose but the methodology can be a little different. As an example, a PADI course runs in a set order, meaning the student must complete skill A before moving to skill B, whereas an SSI course flow can be altered to suit the student. If you were having trouble mastering a skill with SSI, then your instructor is allowed to move on, get you comfortable and build your confidence with something else, and then return to that challenging technique.

While price should not be an overwhelming factor in choosing where to dive, consider that most centres do offer SSI a little more cheaply than PADI. They can do this as SSI allows students to borrow books during their course whereas with a PADI course it’s compulsory to own one. Both PADI and SSI offer online learning so you can save some time by completing the theoretical part at home before you come to Ko Tao. There is a review with your instructor upon arrival, so any concepts that need further explanation can be covered. Again SSI’s online learning is free, whereas PADI will cost US$130.

Lastly, SSI has an office on Ko Tao, so you will get your certification card straight away, while with PADI, centres have to either send off certification details or process them online and the card is mailed to your address. You can still dive straight away though and you do get a temporary card that is valid for 90 days.

Choosing a dive centre on Ko Tao
Ko Tao has dozens upon dozens of dive centres, so choosing one can feel daunting, particularly if you have never dived before. As with any choice, you need to keep in mind what you are looking for – don’t waver or compromise, and you should get what you want.

Hi Mum! : Ayesha Cantrell.
Hi Mum! Photo: Ayesha Cantrell

Ask about group size. Classes are allowed to have up to eight students in a course but this can be increased if more dive professionals are assisting on the course. This is an important thing to consider if you want a more personalised course, but also if your priorities are more geared towards meeting and socialising with new people. Do consider that the beginning Open Water course runs over three and a half days, and this is standard whether there are eight or more in your class or just two. Clearly you are going to get more time and attention in a smaller class. If you are looking for a private class, ask — some centres will offer this for a little bit extra.

Ask about boat size, too. Some quite large dive boats on Ko Tao take 60 or more divers; if you would like a quieter experience then the smaller operators’ boats carry around 25. Operators hire many multilingual instructors, so if English isn’t your first language look for a centre which speaks your language.

Check precisely what is and is not included in your course. Find out what the centre’s refund policy is if you can’t complete the course. Ask what happens if you need more time to practise something: do they give you more time, charge you more or put you back to the next day? Some centres have accommodation, and some help you select and book your accommodation, but do consider its location. Learning to dive is tiring so you want to be ensured a good night’s sleep.

Online forums can help you with reviews and feedback from centres, so do your research ahead of time. Also keep an eye on the blogs and social media of the centres that you like online, which should give you a flavour of their personality and passion. If you have not booked in advance, you can simply wander in and talk to the staff. Have a look at their equipment and facilities while you are there; you may not yet recognise good from bad, but you will recognise care and their willingness to spend time with you to explain answers to your queries.

Just passing through... : Ayesha Cantrell.
Just passing through... Photo: Ayesha Cantrell

While it’s not directly related to the quality of your course, in these days of responsible travel you’d be remiss if you didn’t check a centre’s commitment to the island and ocean environment on which they rely.

If you're travelling with kids and you'd like to have your children learn to dive on Ko Tao, that is possible with some restrictions. From eight years old, kids can make a shallow dive to a maximum depth of two metres. Once they turn 10 they're allowed to do most things but they're initially certified to a maximum depth of 12 metres. Once they turn 12 years this extends to 18 metres. Most dive centres offer courses for children and apart from the usual advice about how to choose a dive centre, it’s wise to check on a few more points too. Being comfortable is key to diving so do check that the centre does have small equipment, small tanks and regulators with shorter hoses too. Ask about the centre’s experience with children diving and gauge whether the centre is a family orientated place or caters more to the younger crowd.

In such a competitive market, discounts and incentives are offered, but don’t let these sway you. Getting what you want from the course is more important than saving a few hundred baht. You are only going to learn to dive once, so make sure you choose right. You wouldn’t sky dive with the cheapest operator just because they were cheap – would you?

Learning how to dive
Firstly, you will be asked to complete a medical questionnaire. If you have any of the conditions listed on the form this doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t dive, but you will have to get medical clearance before you can. If you have asthma or any circulatory or respiratory conditions you will be better off getting a dive medical before you leave home. There are various other liability forms to complete too.

Strike a pose. : Ayesha Cantrell.
Strike a pose. Photo: Ayesha Cantrell

Most openwater courses on Ko Tao run for three-and-a-half days, starting after lunch on the first day with a dive centre and course orientation. Here the dive centre facilities and general operation should be explained to you. The course schedule should be explained and outlined too. Next you will progress to some basic theory. Course theory is taught through the use of videos and a book plus review sessions with your instructor and the practical application of the concepts that you learn. The PADI course is split into five sections, the SSI course into six. This initial session will involve learning the first concepts you will need to understand to become a diver. The next three days will be split between more theory and water work. Your theory will build and be overlaid during these sessions and as you apply them they should consolidate.

Before you jump into the water for the first time, you should be fitted for your equipment and comfortable with both the size and quality. You will be shown how to put your kit together and how to check it all works and dismantle it too. You should repeat this so that you are comfortable and practised with all the steps. Everyone is nervous when approaching their first time underwater so don’t worry, this is quite normal.

You will either be in very shallow water or a swimming pool — either is acceptable. Shallow water is better as you don’t have chlorine to worry about, you get used to salt water straight away and you will see some reef life too. During this session you will learn the skills and techniques you need to master. You’ll learn essential dive skills such as how to clear your mask of water and how to control your position in the water. You will also be taught emergency skills too — although it’s unlikely that you will need them, you need to know, just in case.

Compass training: No signage underwater. : Ayesha Cantrell.
Compass training: No signage underwater. Photo: Ayesha Cantrell

Over the next few days you will make two dives on each day. The first two will be to a depth no deeper than 12 metres and the final two to a maximum of 18 metres. During these dives you will not only learn how to swim correctly with the optimum position but how to control your depth. You will also be asked to demonstrate the skills you learned during the first session.

While there is no practical exam, your skills will be assessed at each point. You will get feedback and development every time you practise skills and go diving so the next time is not only easier for you but more perfected. By the end of the course you should achieve mastery of each technique, but this is a gradual process built up throughout the course. Theory wise, whether you take PADI or SSI, there is an exam which takes the form of a 50-question multiple choice test. In the unlikely event that you miss the pass mark, your instructor will review the concepts that you have misunderstood and you will be given another exam.

The diving learning curve is steep but very quick; you’ll be hooked! Most are surprised at the amount that they learn and master during openwater and most also fall in love with the ocean and diving. So if you're coming to Ko Tao with a plan to learn to dive, make sure your schedule is flexible so that you can stay and do some more diving — or even your advanced course.

Which diving course should you take after Open Water?
So what should you do next? There seems to be a dizzying array of options. Here’s a rundown of your choices on Ko Tao.

How many times do I have to tell you? Turn your phone off. : Ayesha Cantrell.
How many times do I have to tell you? Turn your phone off. Photo: Ayesha Cantrell

The simplest thing by far would be to go diving. You’re not on a course, there are no skills you need to perform, so why not simply go for a few dives and enjoy being underwater? Most dive centres offer a special price for fun dives for those who have completed a course with them — it’s likely to be around 700 baht. You can of course however continue your training and Ko Tao is one of the cheaper places to do this. No matter whether you’ve chosen to take the PADI or SSI Open Water, you can continue your training with either agency — you don’t have to stick to the same one.

With PADI the next course is Advanced Open Water. This course is five dives and usually lasts two days. There is another book that comes with the course, which means some reading and theory sessions, but this is usually just a few hours each day with your instructor. Each dive within the course is the first dive of any speciality course that PADI offer, so it’s like a bundle of taster dives. PADI states that you must take the deep dive and the navigation dive, and the other three you can choose. Most choose a night dive, and you can also choose a fish identification dive, a wreck dive, a buoyancy dive and many others. This certification will licence you to dive to 30 metres. Expect to pay 8,500 to 9,500 baht for this course.

SSI offer a similar course called Advanced Adventurer. The main differences are that you get to choose all five dives on this course and there is no book. This not only makes the course cheaper, but means no homework either. The course is run practically with sessions from your instructor. Expect to pay around 7,500 baht for this course.

You can also skip these courses and continue straight to specialty courses. With the SSI system, no matter who you did you first course with, you can do any speciality straight away and what’s more, you can combine them too. As an example, if you wanted to learn about deep, wreck and nitrox diving, you can do this as a combination instead of in separate courses. Combinations range greatly in price depending on what you choose to do, but in the long run they will save you money over individual specialties and/or a taster type course.

PADI offer a similar range of specialty courses too but not all of them are available to you after your open water — deep for example can only be taken after the Advanced Open Water. PADI specialties cannot be combined and must be completed as separate courses. However if you have completed the PADI Advanced Course prior to taking a specialty, then you can credit the dive from your Advanced Course to the specialty.

Reviewed by

Ayesha ditched her power suit in favour of a wetsuit and ventured to Ko Tao to indulge in her passion for scuba diving.

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