The tiny little island of Koh Tao certifies more divers than anywhere else on earth. Chances are if you talk to someone who went to Koh Tao they either got their Open Water certification there or they did a few fun dives on the island. It’s popular for a reason – it’s pretty cheap (and all of the dive shops offer similar pricing based on an island-wide fixed price model – about 10,000 baht for the Open Water course) and the dive sites/conditions are great for beginners as well as more experienced divers. In fact, PADI included Koh Tao as part of its 6 Best Places to Learn Scuba Diving in 2019!
Knowing I wanted to learn how to scuba dive on my trip to Asia, it was an easy choice to do it in Koh Tao. I didn’t even know that this was the #1 place to get certified worldwide, I just had a great reco from a friend of mine that made my decision easy. Little did I know I would stay and become a Divemaster!
If you, like me, are coming to Koh Tao to learn how to dive, the first thing you have to figure out is which dive school. With over 50 dive schools on the island (that is a guess – there are SO many), this can be tricky to sort out. Some dive schools are attached to resorts which could narrow your options if you are staying at said resort. Most of the dive schools are in Mae Haad or Sairee Beach, but if you are staying elsewhere on the island you may pick a dive school closer to your accommodation. Do some research to learn more about the types of schools and their reputations. Maybe you have a recommendation from a friend which helps you narrow down your choices (this is how I found my dive school). But if none of this helps, the best way to figure out which dive school to use is to determine what type of learning experience you want to have.
Big dive schools like Ban’s and Crystal certify tons of divers every day and have resorts on the island. These schools have multiple, huge dive boats and often will teach the basic dive skills in a pool before going out to open water for the first few dives. You will be able to get certified quickly while on your holiday. However, you will likely be in a big group for your course (possibly up to 8 students) which means less time directly with your instructor.
Mid-size dive shops like Simple Life (also with multiple resort properties) may be better if you want a slightly smaller feel, but something attached to a resort experience. Many of my instructors previously worked for Simple Life (and similar dive schools) and had a good experience here.
Perhaps you want more personalized instruction and a smaller group of people on the dive boat. In this case, go for one of the smaller dive schools where you will likely have 3 or fewer people in your course. Master Divers, where I took all of my courses, is a smaller shop and nearly every course I had was one-on-one. The boats are never too crowded (no more than 24 people on the boat) and you can feel the sense of community at the shop. This school also has a reputation for being very professional which means a lot when you are taking on a high-risk activity. I cannot recommend Master Divers enough and highly suggest checking out the shop if you are coming to Koh Tao for courses or fun dives. (And PADI just recognized Master Divers as one of the top eco-friendly dive centers worldwide!)
For non-English speakers, there are plenty of dive shops that cater to other languages (some exclusively) so you can find a dive school that specializes in your native language to make the learning process easier. Some of the schools will offer instruction in multiple languages as Master Divers did, and the big shops will generally have instructors teaching a wide variety of languages to bring in all types of students.
Also, make sure you leave some time for fun dives if you are coming for your certification! It’s so nice to finally get out under the water without being on a course!
What are the Dive Sites like?
There are about 25 dive sites around Koh Tao, but about a quarter of those are super popular and likely to be highlights of your trip to the island. Koh Tao is home to some very beautiful coral which you will see on most of these sites. There is also a great variety of marine life to check out (including the ever-elusive whale shark!). The dive shops typically take boats out twice a day for two dives at a time. There are also night dives offered. Some of the more popular sites are:
Chumphon (deep) – About 45 minutes by dive boat, this is a very popular site for good reason. It includes a few large pinnacles, is one of the deeper sites, and has awesome schools of fish. When the visibility is good, this site is a stunner. But it can get crowded, especially in the mornings.
Southwest Pinnacle (deep) – Another pinnacle site about 40 minutes from Koh Tao, very similar to Chumphon but usually not as busy.
HTMS Sattakut (wreck) – If you are looking for a wreck dive in Koh Tao, this is it. Because it’s one of the only wrecks on the island it has a tendency to get crowded (especially in the morning), but it’s a great place to see some marine life and check out your first wreck. And also excellent if you are doing your wreck spec!
Shark Island – Named because of its resemblance to a shark fin (not due to the presence of sharks). This is a really cool dive site that I liked to call “the aquarium”. There is always an abundance of fish down here and is generally not very busy.
White Rock – Largest dive site on the island, this is where I saw my one and only whale shark while diving in Koh Tao. It’s a great site with a lot to offer!
Because there are so many dive shops on the island, the dive sites can get really crowded. Sometimes the less popular (but uncrowded ones) will be even better – I love Red Rock (with a great swim through) and Junkyard & Twins are great sites for muck diving.
Another popular dive site is Sail Rock though it is closer to Koh Phangan than to Koh Tao. The boat ride will take about 2 hours each way and not all dive schools offer trips there. I found this to be a so-so site, but I didn’t have the best conditions while I was there. Apparently, it can be pretty awesome with great visibility. And it has A LOT of potential for whale shark sightings. If you want to go to Sail Rock, ask around at the dive shops to see when they will offer a trip.
When you are not diving (or if you are traveling with non-divers), there is plenty to do on the island – check out all of my Koh Tao recos! And the snorkeling is great too! PADI mentioned Koh Tao as one of their top dive destinations when traveling with a non-diver.