Now no-one would call scuba diving a bargain deal. Unlike many other sports, scuba-diving has a tendency to empty wallets as costs around gear, fun dives and instructors pile up around you. So, it’s always worth finding places where you can explore the seas ‘on the cheap,’ and Koh Tao, Thailand is famous for being ‘the world’s cheapest place to dive’ and a red-hot zone for spotting whale sharks! So, what do you need to know about diving in Koh Tao?
While Koh Tao doesn’t always offer the best underwater visibility at some times of the year, it does serve up a plethora of marine life. We’re talking turtles, angel fish, anemone fish (hello Nemo!), barracudas, blue-spotted rays and, if you’re totally lucky: the majestic whale shark.
The whale shark is the largest living fish, growing up to 15 metres in length and weighing over 40 tons, so a sighting of one of these is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for any diver…
Where is Koh Tao, the Turtle Island?
Koh Tao, which loosely translates as ‘Turtle Island,’ is nestled in the crystal-clear waters of the Gulf of Thailand, a stone’s throw away (well, 55km) from its slightly more famous neighbour, Koh Samui and nearby party mecca, Koh Phangan.
“Discovered” in the early 1980’s, the island has transformed from a row of ramshackle beach huts and primitive roads into a scuba diver’s paradise. But has retained its down-to-earth, casual feel – you’re more likely to see barefoot travellers traipsing the streets in search of a smoothie than you are a 5-star resort with high-class amenities.
It also means that the island has become world-renowned as the cheapest place to learn to dive (or just do fun dives) in the world.
When to go to Koh Tao – the perfect all-year diving destination
Firstly, it’s worth mentioning that Koh Tao can be visited all year round. While the weather might not be perfect for sunbathing, it’s definitely good enough to go diving in most weather conditions.
The island is tropical, which means it’s sunny all year round, although, of course, has some heavy rainfall during the monsoon season in November. That doesn’t bother the diving teams too much though – while the weather can affect your underwater visibility, it usually doesn’t rule out diving altogether.
It’s also known that the whale sharks are more often seen in November so while it might be raining, you could just spot that elusive one…
How to get to Koh Tao
So, Koh Tao doesn’t have an airport, bus or train stations – it’s a small island in the Gulf of Thailand, remember? That said, it’s relatively easy to make your way there by boat, depending on your route.
If you’re already on Koh Samui or Koh Phangan, just hop on a ferry (Lomprayah is the fastest at one hour) and you’ll arrive at the Mae Haad pier on Koh Tao. From here, most accommodation is walkable or, if further afield, your hotel or hostel will usually organise a transfer for you.
A quick travel tip? If you’re travelling from Bangkok to Surat Thani, most people take the overnight train. If you do, make sure to pack heaps of snacks (the options on the train aren’t great), and also very warm clothing since the air-conditioning can get icy cold at night!
How much does it really cost to dive in Koh Tao?
The golden question. How cheap is really cheap?
Well if you’re looking at a fun dive, it’s about 1,000 THB (33 USD) per dive, which can plummet even lower if you’re planning a few of them.
For the PADI Open Water certification, you’re looking at between 11,000 and 13,000 THB all in – that’s only 360 -430 USD for your entire course, all the necessary dives, equipment and a discount on your accommodation if staying on-site.
Finding your perfect dive site
Luckily, in Koh Tao, you are pretty spoiled for choice in terms of dive sites. There are about twenty on the island, ranging from beginner level sites to the Pinnacle sites for Advanced level and wreck diving as well as caves and swim-throughs for the more adventurous. Let’s take a look at a few of the best:
For newbies / open water divers:
Twins: Usually most of the training dives for Open Water certificates will take place here, since it’s relatively shallow. It’s not the most exciting for advanced divers though!
Junkyard: This reef is actually man-made – it was cultivated by the dive schools themselves as a way to regenerate the area and the corals! Think massive steel pieces of ‘junk’ now absolutely teeming with corals and marine life like angel fish and anemonefish.
White Rock: Another training site, White Rock has heaps of angel fish, bannerfish and even blue-spotted rays!
Shark Island: So, unlike its name, Shark Island isn’t full of sharks but instead looks like the dorsal fin of one. It’s got huge amounts of gorgeous, wavy soft corals unlike the predominantly hard corals on the rest of the reef surrounding Koh Tao.
Geared to advanced and wreck-certified divers
HMS Sattakut: Here you’ll find the eerie wreck of this former US Navy ship, which sank in 2011. You’ll need an Advanced certification here but it’s well worth it – you’ll probably see barracudas and whiprays, plus there is another dive site, Hin Pee Wee, just 15m away which usually has a family of turtles out to play.
Sail Rock: The best for last, this is known as the pre-eminent site in the entire Gulf of Thailand. Including the swim-through “the chimney,” there is also a deep ocean pinnacle that breaches the surface, giving it its name: Sail Rock. Sail Rock is also one of the best places to come face to face with the mysterious whale shark…
Finding your dive shop on Koh Tao
As the epicentre of diving in Thailand, Koh Tao really does boast some of the best dive resorts and shops in the country. Many an avid diver has arrived on Turtle Island, been transfixed by the place and has decided to make a living as a divemaster or instructor. This means you’ll have international standards at local pricing; what a win!
That said, two of the dive shops stand head and shoulders above the rest.
The biggest and best on the island, many divers you meet across the globe will tell you that they got bitten by the scuba bug by getting their Open Water at Crystal Dive. Boasting dedicated facilities, two of their own dive boats (that most of the other operators seem to use), top-notch equipment and friendly, insanely qualified instructors, Crystal Dive is an obvious choice for most flocking to the island. They also ensure a 4:1 divemaster ratio on fun dives, which means you have top-notch dives every time.
An Open Water certification costs around 11,000 THB (360 USD) and 6 fun dives will cost around 4,500 THB (150 USD) for the package.
Want to go a little more ‘boutique’ with your dive shop? Sairee Cottage is where very serious divers like to test their abilities, although this diving outfit also does cater to beginner levels.
If you’re passionate about eco-friendly diving but also like very personal instruction, then Sairee Cottage holds very small classes (maximum 6 students) and focuses heavily on sustainable diving.
An Open Water certification (including instruction, equipment and dives) costs about 11,000 THB (360 USD) and a 6 fun dive package will set you back around 5,100 THB (170 USD).
Travel Tips for Koh Tao
If you’ve travelled in Thailand before, there’s not much to know about Koh Tao – you’re going to feel right at home! That said, here are a few pro tips for you…
1. Don’t worry too much about dress code. Unlike Bangkok where you need to dress conservatively for temples, you can really dress down on Koh Tao. Shorts, singlets and crop tops are all acceptable wear on the island.
2. Be safe on the roads. The islanders laugh about the ‘farang tattoo’ which translates as ‘foreigner tattoo.’ They’re referring to the bandaged wounds that many tourists sport after crashing their scooter or motorbike! If you are renting one, please drive carefully, wear a helmet and always drive sober.
3. Eat at Pranee’s Kitchen. There are a number of good, affordable restaurants on Koh Tao but eating at Pranee’s is an institution. In our opinion, they offer Thailand’s best chicken fried rice and banana milkshakes for sure!
Is Koh Tao safe?
This might seem like a strange question to ask, but a few years ago there was a couple of murders on the island. Essentially two backpackers were found dead and it sparked some untrue rumours in the international press. The truth is that Koh Tao is entirely safe for tourists and you don’t need to worry about media speculation.
So, have we convinced you to do your next dive trip in Koh Tao? Whether you’re heading there after partying it up on Koh Phangan, a more frenetic jaunt in foodie heaven, Bangkok, or just chilling and doing island life, it’s the perfect place to kick back, relax and – hopefully – spot a whale shark, or two.