When I was researching my trip one of the topics that came up quite often was getting SCUBA certified in SE Asia. Before now I had never once thought about this for two reasons: costs associated with it and being bat shit scared. The latter has been the all prevailing reason, but since everything in SE Asia was cheaper it became less of a good one. I’ve talked to friends who are PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certified and have informed me it can cost upwards of $850 just for the class! Diving into the New England water wasn’t really all that enticing either.
Insanely affordable – even on a backpacker’s budget.
Fast forward a couple of months into my trip and you’ll hear me singing a different tune altogether. I chopped it up with Verena in Cambodia just right before I flew back into the south of Thailand about getting her OW (open water) certification. She told me of a school, Ban’s Diving Resort, that she had a great time with on the island of Koh Tao. Her stories of night dives, swimming with whale sharks, exploring ship wrecks had my undying attention. Needless to say all this left me salivating at the mouth. When she told me the cost was only $350 made it a no-brainer.
Oh that price also included a PRIVATE ROOM!
Sign me right up!
Without wasting time I booked my stay at Ban’s while both emotions of anxiousness and excitement filled my body. Remember when I said I was still bat shit scared of being underwater? Well that ship has sailed, literally.
A speed boat from Koh Samui is the fastest way to get to Koh Tao, so I went with this route. When my boat docked I grabbed my bags, said hasta luego to my friends, and made a beeline toward the resort. Ban’s claim to fame is being part of an elite group (two others to achieve this feat) of having certified more than 100K divers. Saying they definitely know what they’re doing is an understatement!
Some of the best dive sites around the world.
If I haven’t sold you on the price point and the notoriety of the resort then let me sell you on Koh Tao as the place to be. The island is simply a diver’s paradise! The water is crystal clear, winds are generally low making every day almost a guarantee for a dive. The beaches are pristine, and the dive sites are among the top in the world. People come from all over just to dive here and for good reasons. The locals, tourists, and expats are all insanely nice and it never really feels overcrowded. There are a few bars and good eateries on the island, but it’s in no way a party island like the notorious Koh Phangan.
Koh Tao was a perfect chill spot for me to kick my feet up, dive on in, and grab a beer or two, or three.
The resort can get super busy with many classes running simultaneously and a lot of guests staying there daily. You can easily get overwhelmed when you first arrive, but they make the check-in process seamless, and got me situated pretty quickly. They structure the course over the span of a few days depending on what courses you chose, from OW to the advance, rescue and even dive master certification. Groups can vary from large tourist groups to a handful of small souls backpacking through.
Great people from around the globe to learn from.
My dive master, Hampus, was of Swedish descent and found himself living in paradise (why not!?), teaching the next crop of would be divers, myself included. The class size I was placed in was very small, and intimate, consisting of myself, a Bornean, a Malay, and a couple on vacation from Canada. We also had a backup instructor in the form of Mats and both of them were incredible teachers. How far we travel to do adventurous things.
The course is broken up over the span of three days (OW) and goes like this:
Day 1 Afternoon
- Course introduction
- Watch about two hours worth of informational PADI video
- Follow along with text book materials
Day 2 Morning
- Poolside for swim testing
- Familiarizing yourself with your BCD and gear
- Into the pool for drills and exercises
- Classroom for more video materials and textbook work
Day 2 Afternoon
- Set out on boat to first dive sites
- Initiate first dive in ocean
- Go to a max depth of 12-16m
- Drills on ocean floor
- Back onto ship to next side (1 hour break)
- Initiate second dive in ocean
- Go to max depth of 18m
- Initiate climb back to surface
- Do a SAFETY STOP
Day 3 Morning
- Classroom for final preparation and testing
Day 3 Afternoon
- Initiate third dive in ocean
- Practice using wrist watch dive computers
- Initiate fourth and final dive of the day
- Practice using wrist watch compass
- Finish the dive briefing with instructors
- Log dives in dive book
CELEBRATE WITH BOOZE BUCKETS AT THE BAR BECAUSE NOW YOU’RE A SCUBA DIVER!
Dangers of diving are always present.
I won’t lie to you though as it wasn’t ALL peaches and cream during my certification. Our second dive when I was trailing behind my buddy, Ash, I caught a sensation of over anxiousness. The rule is always dive with a buddy, but mine has swam so much farther ahead I was left to myself, and my anxiety, 15m under water. I made the grave mistake by looking up and realizing just HOW MUCH water was actually between myself and the surface. It’s funny how my fear of heights literally turned itself on its head in the moments I was looking up rather than down.
My face mask started becoming a main point of agitation for all I wanted to do was breathe fresh air out of my nostrils. The want grew more and more into a ravenous need as the seconds flew by. The sight of Ash’s flippers disappearing into the water ahead. There I was alone on the ocean floor, my knees digging into the sand, my eyes looking up at the sunlight peeking through the water, my anxiety festering into full blown panic.
I did the rookie of all rookie mistakes and surfaced alone. Add to the fact that I didn’t bother doing a safety stop, although at 15m you are safe without stopping, when surfacing. Once I breached the surface I ripped off my face mask and inhaled gulps of fresh, sweet air. My body ingested all it could and then some, leaving not an ounce to spare for anyone else.
YOU NEVER DIVE ALONE. Period.
When I felt comfortable enough, when my panic subsided, I geared back up and descended back down. ROOKIE MISTAKE NUMBER TWO! Never do what I just did; go back down alone. This can prove to be deadly if things hadn’t gone the way they did. The rules are to always never ascend or descend ALONE, always with your buddy.
Once back on the sea floor I scanned my surroundings, but I couldn’t find my group. Obviously they had moved on in the span of five minutes that this all took place. I thought to myself at what they taught in class, better now than never I figured, and remembered if you surface alone then you should remain atop and not descend again. Anyone who is still below will search for a maximum of one minute and then they will surface.
For a second time I ascended alone to the top and just waited. Minutes pass as I look frantically around on the surface until I heard Hampus shout out my name from a distance. Relief took over my face as I swam towards him. With a thumbs up, face mask on, we both descended once more, finally reuniting with my group. After our dive I talked to Ash about the situation and how I felt after we finished that day. The experience was a good exercise in what NOT TO DO when out diving. Happy to say after 15 dives I’m now more comfortable than before.
Now that you’re certified dive everywhere around the world!
Don’t let my experience make you fret. Diving is an INSANE joy to be experienced and extremely safe when done correctly. Follow all the basics you were taught along with implementing safety protocols and you’ll be rewarded with our underwater world. Animals of the life you could only possibly dream of or watch through a Blue Planet special; it’s just amazing down here!
Diving gives me a sense of weightlessness like I’ve never felt before. You’re not really swimming hard, but rather gliding through the water while the fishes swim by. From natural corals to man-made ones, from oil rig dive sites to WWII carrier wrecks, from the shallow beaches to descending sea walls, what you see down there will have you coming back for more.
My first dive down to 22m had me BUZZING with excitement.
At the time of writing I have already clocked dives in Thailand, Borneo and the Cayman islands, with Hawaii in my sights next. Diving is one of those activities where you can meet total strangers and have a bond over the love of the ocean, sharing your stories and experiences. I’ve met a ton of great people on my dives and some I have stayed friends with to this day. In ways it parallels my love of motorcycling, and I am definitely happy I found diving.
Think about your carbon footprint in and out of the water.
Diving also makes you think about your impact outside of the water. Everything we do affects the world around us and that very evident with our oceans. From our carbon footprint, to global warming, and especially plastic pollution the ugly side is very real and saddening. I don’t think I have ever seen pollution on such scale as it was when I was diving in SE Asia. It’s very disheartening when you see an endless litter of plastic bottles on the ocean floor, sea creatures either choking on or digesting our garbage we pour into the sea, and miles of bleached coral due to rising global temps.
What was clear was my attribution to the problem and made me adamant on becoming a part of the solution. Since then I have cut my plastic use in any way that I can, treated myself to the slowest forms of mass transportation, and advise others all in an effort to cut down my own carbon footprint. I never thought I would have taken this problem as seriously as I have until I went under.
If you didn’t think about adding diving to your list of adventures when in this part of the world I really hope you consider it now! Any destination I travel to I make sure I can get a dive or two in as part of my overall experience. Happy to say I haven’t been disappointed yet! Get certified, make new friends, enjoy our oceans, and above all protect them! Safe diving everyone!