Scuba Diving in Koh Tao

Adding to our repertoire of experiences ranks very high up on our list of things to do in life.  Carine has told me a million times that she wants to scuba dive.  Since meeting the love of my life, there’s not many things that I’m not open to trying, but I must say scuba diving brought about a certain fear in me.

For one, I was deathly afraid of sharks.  Even if I’d had no interactions with one (up until snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef a few months prior).  This fear can be attributed to movies like Jaws, that sensationalize shark attacks.  In reality, you are more likely to live to 100 years old or being hit by an asteroid, than you are of being attached by a shark.

A view from above of Koh Tao / © Roctopus Facebook

The next reason that I was sort of afraid of scuba diving is because of the unknown of the ocean.  It’s so vast, with so many creatures that are bigger than us, and that we are just not used to seeing.

I knew that both these fears were unfounded, so wanting to fulfill Carine’s wishes, I said let’s do it.

One of the reasons that Carine had always wanted to scuba dive was to see a whale shark!  For those of you that don’t know, whale sharks are the biggest fish in the ocean.  Also, their name is confusing, are they a whale or a shark?  Well, they are definitely sharks.  Add to that the fact that they are vegetarians (friendly giants as Carine likes to say) and it’s no wonder why she’s in love with them!  They can measure up to 12 metres long, and weight up to 21.5 tons.  Think about that for a minute.

whale shark.jpg
Glorious whale shark / © Roctopus Facebook

She did a lot of research, and I mean a lot (did you know that she is the research queen?).  So after looking into where the best place to get our scuba diving certification was, she found out that a little island off of the Eastern coast of Thailand, called Koh Tao, was renown as being one of the best places in the world.

Not only is Koh Tao a beautiful island that has plenty of marine biodiversity, but it is also one of the cheapest places in the world to get your open water certification.  So she looked into which of the 100+ diving schools we should sign up with.  Again, after much research, we decided to go with one of the best reviewed places on the island, Roctopus.

The best dive school in Koh Tao! / © Roctopus Facebook

Another thing that Koh Tao is known for, is having whale sharks nearby.  But these creatures are not known to be easy to spot.  To give you an idea, there are instructors who have dived off Koh Tao over a thousand times who have not spotted one.

When looking for diving schools, there are a few things to look out for.  Generally, Tripadvisor is a great resource to see what others have to say about a certain school.

A few things to look for are group sizes (do you want to dive with just your buddy and the instructor, or in a larger group?), costs, boat types (if you easily get sea sick then look for a bigger boat), and very important, how is their equipment?

If you are having trouble choosing between schools, I would recommend narrowing your list to 3-5 schools, visiting each one and checking out their vibe and gear.  That is often the most important thing, for me at least.

Roctopus shop / © Roctopus Facebook

Apart from the thousands of 5-star reviews on Tripadvisor, the communication with Roctopus before booking our course was excellent.  They really weren’t pushy, even if we were ready to book with them online before we got there.  They told us to just come to the dive shop when we get to the island, and if we were comfortable with what we saw, we could sign up then.  Talk about confidence in their business!

So we booked our ferry tickets to Koh Tao from Phuket with the idea of staying for about 5 nights.  Roctopus were also great in guiding us to choose which accommodations to book.

We got to Koh Tao and checked ourselves in pretty late at night, and first thing the next morning we were at Roctopus to see what the deal was.  We were shown their facilities by one of their very friendly managers.  He showed us the pool that we would be learning in, showed us all of the equipment that we would be using and how well it was cleaned and maintained (a very important aspect of choosing where to dive).  It wasn’t long before we were officially signing up.  We had the rest of the day to hype ourselves up, because the next day was going to be our first day of orientation.

So the big day arrived, and after a lazy morning, we strolled into Roctopus to meet our team.  First we met John, a British chap who has been living in Koh Tao as a dive instructor for about 2 years.  If you like direct, no-nonsense and a dry sense of humour, John is your guy!  He is also pretty fun to hang around, but don’t tell him I said so!

John’s favorite hand signal!
Lunch with our favorite Swedes

Then we met the other two people who would be doing their certification with us, Carl and Ernst, two Swedish firefighters vacationing in Thailand for a few weeks.

The first afternoon was spent going over the practical side of diving.  We were in a small classroom while John walked us through some of the course material we would need in order to pass the practical exam.  A few hours of this and then it was to the bar with our team and John to get to know each other a little.

We really hit it off with John, Carl and Ernst, but more on that later.  That night, John tells us that we would have some homework for the next day.  I LOVE homework…  Can you sense the sarcasm here?  At least this time it is stuff that interests me, so it wasn’t so tedious.

The next morning we get back to the classroom and discuss our homework, pass some more tests, and then finally we get suited up for the pool.

gear by pool.jpg
Fins (not flippers!) by the Roctopus pool / © Roctopus Facebook

John showed us everything from getting the wetsuit on, to putting together all the gear.  Then we get into the water, and the first thing that he teaches us is how to breathe through the regulator (fancy/technical word for what you breathe through).  This was the first thing that really made me realize how different scuba diving would be.

When you are diving, the way that you breathe is so different than what we are used to.  Without getting into too many specifics, the main difference is how much you are trying to conserve your breath.  The reason for this is to use less oxygen, so you can dive for a longer time.  So the trick is to breath in little breaths, and breathe out for as long as you can.  It’s quite unnatural at first.

It’s pretty freaky when you go under water for the first time and start breathing through the regulator.  You stay below the surface of the water for so long, it was just the nuts, and we are only in the pool at this point!

Don’t forget this! / © Roctopus Facebook

We then go through some drills.  How to retrieve your regulator if it comes out of your mouth, how to get water out of your mask (don’t you dare call them goggles, you will owe John a drink every time you do!), how to start getting your buoyancy under control.

Buoyancy, something I probably had never thought of before going scuba diving, is probably the biggest skill necessary, after learning how to breathe.  In layman’s terms, controlling your buoyancy is being able to control the depth at which you are swimming.  This is important for a few reasons, notably so that you don’t end up crashing into the coral, and also so that you don’t end up going deeper than you are supposed to.

So we get these skills done, and let me tell you we are starting to get really excited to go into the ocean!  But, one step at a time.  Class is over for the day, so back to the bar to take in the beautiful sunset, grab a drink with the group, and to talk about our day.  John tells the 4 of us that we are progressing nicely, and that once again, we have homework to do…

Victors bar / © Roctopus dive

The good news is, this was the last of our homework, and the next morning we meet for breakfast and go over any last minute questions we have before the practical exam.  Well, all of this studying paid off because between us, we scored a 100% and a 98%, but I won’t say who scored which 😉

With the practical exam under our belts, it was now time to do what we came to do.  Back at Roctopus, we load up the pick up truck with our gear, and we head out to the pier.  A group of maybe 20 students, and 5 instructors jumped onto our boat and out we went into the great big blue.

R1, take us out to discover the great blue / © Roctopus Facebook

While we headed out to our scuba spot, Carine and I are now freaking out that we are about to do this for real.  Carine was actually more nervous than I was, and more nervous than I would have thought she would have been.  This was all her idea after all!

We get to our dive spot, get our gear ready, finish up our BRAID pre-dive check, and here we go!  We jump in and gather together at the surface for one last talk before we head in.  Everyone ready, we grab the rope that anchors the boat, and we start our descent.

Maybe I never thought of how you descended before, maybe I thought you just swim downwards (if that even makes any sense), but let me tell you, that is not how you do it…  To descend, you actually just exhale, a lot.  As you exhale, your buoyancy decreases, and you start going deeper and deeper into the ocean.

Just some of the awesome things you can see below the surface / © Roctopus Facebook

After descending to about 10 meters, we just take a moment to take in what is happening.  We are 10 metres, below the ocean, with a tank strapped to our backs, but at least we have each other to keep ourselves calm, and still feel like we are somewhat in control.

We had seen coral reefs before, while we were in Australia on the Great Barrier Reef, but this was something else.  The fish, wow, I mean there were schools of barracuda swimming within throwing distance of us.  And I’m talking thousands, too many to count.  What a scene.

School of Barracuda / © Roctopus Facebook

A large part of our first and second dives on that day consisted of skills training, similar to what we had practiced in the pool.  Taking your regulator out and fishing for your secondary one is a lot more nerve-wracking  when you are out in the ocean though!

We did still get to just swim around in formation with our team and take in the beauty of the ocean around us.

Coral Reefs / © Roctopus Facebook

And just like that, it was over.  We do a quick safety stop, 5 metres from the surface, something the body needs in order to flush the extra nitrogen out of your body, and then we break the surface and just float around for a few minutes.

“Babe, what did you think?  It was so cool”, Carine says.  I agree.  That was like no other experience I have ever had.  The greatest part for me, I’ll get back to that!

So back to the boat, and back to the bar (notice that there is a reoccurring theme here).  We debrief with John and our Swedes, and guess what, we are freaking great scuba divers!  Well, at least as so far as you can say for two people that have been in the water for a combined 60 minutes at least, but it’s a good start!

sail rock
The one and only, Sail Rock / © Roctopus Facebook

Now I should go back a bit here.  Koh Tao has a special dive site called Sail Rock.  It’s special for a few reasons.  For one, it is beautiful.  Two, it is a trek to get there, you have to leave well before sunrise to get there before it starts getting packed with other dive schools.  And three, this is where people see whale sharks…

So, when we were given the option to do dives 3 and 4 at Sail Rock (albeit at a cost) we jumped on the opportunity, because well… whale sharks!  Hopefully.

On day 4 of our open water certification training, in the wee hours of the morning, maybe around 4AM, we set out from our hostel towards Roctopus.  Man oh man, we are not morning people, we would much rather stay up until 4AM than get up at that time, but it was a little easier this time, given what we had in store for us that day.

So once again, we pack our gear into the pick up truck, get to the pier, and get on the boat.  This time we are in for a good hour and a half before we get to sail rock.  One of the perks though, was the beautiful sunrise we got to watch off the top of the boat while having our breakfast.  So peaceful so beautiful.  A perfect beginning to the day.

What was great about our second day in the ocean, was that our skills were mostly completed.  Today, all we needed to do was to swim around and take in the beautiful corals and fish near Sail Rock.

Some more awesome things below the surface, hello ray / © Roctopus Facebook

I’m sure you have heard of coral bleaching, and what a big problem it is.  We did see that while on the Great Barrier Reef.  Luckily on our scuba diving experiences in Thailand, we did not see any bleaching, which was encouraging.

And the fish, oh man did we ever see a lot of fish, and so many different species.  We saw: a huge school of trevelly, pick handle barracudas, parrot fish, angel fish, remora swimming around my leg like I was a shark, butterfly fish, banner fish, trigger fish, grouper, etc.  Now, I didn’t know what any of there were before, but they sure were awesome!

The great biodiversity that Koh Tao offers / © Roctopus Facebook

After the first dive of the day we all had a nice lunch together on the boat.  As a side note, it was the first time I ever had massaman curry.  What was wrong with me, never having it before?  So delicious!

At this point, there were a few people still in the water, just snorkeling, while the majority of us where chilling on the boat, waiting for our last dive.

WHALE SHARK!!!!!  Everyone grab a mask and jump in the water!

Our favorite shark! / © Roctopus Facebook courtesy of @jellyman_uw_photo_video

You don’t have to tell me twice!

We grab a mask, and jump overboard.  We look under the water, and there it is.  A baby whale shark, maybe 3 metres in length, was swimming away from us.

But we knew better than to dispair that we missed our chance.  John had told us that whale sharks usually swim in figure 8 patterns, meaning if they are swimming away, they will most likely double back.  And this time was no different.

The most exciting animal spotting of our lives! / © Roctopus Facebook

I saw it turn around, and this time it was coming straight at me!  I am a big guy, almost 2 metres tall, but this creature, it was just so big, so powerful looking, but also so serene and calm.  At no point was I ever nervous, I was seriously just so thrilled that I was seeing a whale shark, because how many people can say that they have?

We’ve never felt so tiny in our lives / © Roctopus Facebook courtesy of @jellyman_uw_photo_video

After this whole ordeal, we still had our fourth dive to complete.  It was probably the “easiest” of our 4 dives, in the sense that we both felt very comfortable, performed the skills we needed to flawlessly, and were just great underwater buddies.

That’s another cool thing about scuba diving – you always dive with a buddy.  So Carine is now not only my best friend, my wife, and my tag team partner, but she’s now my scuba diving buddy too!  We worked great together!  Communicating underwater is also something I hadn’t given much thought to before doing it.  It is a lot of sign language, most of it taught to us before hand, but sometimes made up on the spur of the moment, and often hilarious!  I wish I could show you how I tried to signal her that I saw a parrot fish… hilarious.

Giddy after our first dive!

Our last dive over, it was with great pleasure that John announced to us that were now certified open water divers!  It was hard work, a lot of studying and understanding new concepts, performing tasks that 72 hours earlier were foreign to us, but we did it.  And with distinction too if I may add.  John told us (and he swears he doesn’t say this to everyone), that we (along with our friends Ernst and Carl) were the best team he had dived with in a long time.

What was the best thing about scuba diving?  For me, it was the sense that nothing else matters at that moment, other than breathing, checking your air supply and depth, checking for your buddy (these are the 3 things you have to do every 10 seconds) and of course take in the beauty of the ocean.  I have never felt so disconnected from any problems I might have, or stresses nagging at me at that moment.  All that matters underwater is that you are scuba diving.

I wish this could be my office! / © Roctopus Facebook

As for our team of John, Carl and Ernst, we couldn’t have had a better time with anyone else!  Laughs, buckets, great times underwater and above it, we will never forget the wanker from the UK and our two cute Swedes – friends for life!

Our next stop is going to be the Philippines, which is exciting because we have been waiting to go diving again.  And from what we hear, it’s one of the best places to go diving.

Until our next underwater adventures!

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