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Thailand’s underwater world is an absolute paradise teeming with beauty, energy, and the opportunity for once-in-a-lifetime encounters with some of the world’s most magnificent marine life.
Scuba diving is the best way to experience it all, but with so many options throughout the region, where do you start? We’ve compiled a collection of our best tips and tricks to help guide your adventure under the sea.
From the swimming-pool like Gulf to the currents of the Andaman Sea, Thailand’s waters are teeming with life and scuba diving is available nearly anywhere with a coastline, but different areas boast different opportunity.
The Gulf of Thailand is known globally as a hotspot for training, particularly the tiny island paradise of Koh Tao. Low costs mean anyone can give it a go, and the enormous expat community offers training in nearly any language. Warm, gentle waters, shallow, accessible dive sites, and nearly year-round good conditions ease training at any level, and make for efficiently run dive trips all around. Those after an encounter with a stunning whale shark – this is the region to head to.
Thailand’s western waters offer incredible diversity, even just from one island to the next. Places like Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lipe run daily tours of local reefs, while nearby Koh Lanta offers access to bucket list sites like Hin Daeng and Hin Muang. Those with a bit more taste for adventure can book onto multi-day liveaboard cruises out of Khao Lak to visit the Surin Islands or the Similan Islands National Marine Park, the latter a storied favourite of legendary Jacques Cousteau. During certain times of the year, it’s a near guarantee you can swim among the region’s manta rays.
If your itinerary doesn’t bring you into the southern coasts, there are still plenty of opportunities to dive that aren’t too far from Bangkok’s central location. Pattaya – the perennial weekend destination for weary Bangkokites – offers access to a host of dive spots, and just a bit further lies Koh Chang, which acts as a jumping-off point to other islands of the archipelago. Wreck junkies flock to this region of the Gulf to explore the area’s hauntingly gorgeous sunken ships.
Before embarking on the scuba trip of your dreams, think about what you want to get out of your experience.
For anyone first looking to take the plunge, there are two main options – the “Discover Scuba Dive” or “Try Scuba Diving” experience or the Open Water Course. Note that even if you have completed a “try dive” before somewhere else, unless you have an open water license you are considered a newbie in the eyes of a dive center.
The try dive is typically a half-day experience through which you’re introduced to the concepts of scuba diving, including all safety precautions and basic use of the equipment. Your instructor will guide you through a series of skills that work to increase your comfort level and confidence, before taking you on a guided tour of the reef to a depth that doesn’t exceed 12 meters, helping you to adjust to the new environment along the way.
Typically conducted over a two-and-a-half to four-day period, this training course involves academic, confined water, and open water elements. These are designed to maximize your time spent in the water to ultimately graduate as a self-reliant diver, certified to a depth of 18 meters anywhere in the world, and the certification lasts for life.
Already have your license? Based on your experience level, if it’s been more than a year since your last dive, the Scuba Refresh or Skills Update program may be best for you. This short reboot workshops skills learned during your open water course with a trained professional, re-building your confidence to make diving that much more enjoyable.
Understand that while the open water license certifies you to dive alone – with a buddy – marine regulations in much of Thailand require fun divers to have a professional guide to encourage both safety and responsible interaction with the marine environment. The low cost diving in Thailand may also mean you may be expected to set up and rinse the equipment you use, so know ahead of time what to expect from a dive center and opt for a more luxury outfitter if you’d rather spend your time above water basking in the sun.
One of the best parts about scuba diving is that there are almost no limits to building your skills and experience, entirely dependent on what interests you! Some of the most popular con-ed training in Thailand includes:
Advanced Open Water – Also known as “Advanced Adventurer” or “Explorer 30,” this standardized course is a five-dive menu that introduces you to aspects of more niche, specialized diving. Your instructor will take you deeper, certifying you to depths of 30 meters, teach you navigating skills, help to perfect your buoyancy, and offer other options to complete the course like night diving, wreck diving, marine identification, and more. With this certification, you will be able to join advanced fun diving groups moving forward, exploring deeper waters.
Specialties – While the advanced course introduces you to niche areas, once you find one that piques your interest you can complete a full training regimen to build your expertise. Popular around Thailand are the Deep 40 courses, to reach the maximum depth limit of recreational diving, Nitrox, to safely use different blends of air, and Wreck Penetration, guiding you through the skills necessary to safely enter underwater shipwrecks. Understand that specialties can be limited to what is available within a local area.
So you know what you want to do, but how to zero in on the shop that’s right for you?
There’s PADI, SSI, RAID, BSAC, CMAS… and dozens of other agencies that offer more or less exactly the same product, but just under different branding. Some agencies – like RAID – go above and beyond minimum requirements, or commit to eco-friendly operation such as fully paperless training. Ultimately as a diver the agency does not truly matter, and it will not limit your options for continued education down the line. RSTC, the World Recreational Scuba Training Council, is the governing body under which each of these other agencies is officially recognized, and it sets the standards each must meet. If in doubt, just check to see if the training agency is RSTC-recognized.
Your individual instructor or guide will be the one conducting the actual training, so picking a dive school can be a very personal choice. Here are some considerations to make:
– Will you have the same instructor throughout the whole course?
– What are the maximum ratios of student to instructor?
– What kind of experience do the members of staff have?
– What does the schedule look like? In many cases, you can complete parts the academic training ahead of time online.
When is the best time to visit? Seasons vary wildly across Thailand, and the western coast often experiences its rainy season from May to October while the Gulf endures its monsoon from November to February. In some cases, islands may close completely during rainy months, while in others areas – like the Gulf – diving schedules remain largely unaffected by bouts of rain. Don’t wholly trust weather forecasts, as they’re notoriously inconsistent across tropical areas.
As with many fun activities, there is an element of risk associated with scuba diving. Before any course or fun dive you’ll be asked to complete a set of liability waivers and statements of understanding to certify that you know what to expect from your instructor, and what will be expected of you. But there are ways you can prepare to ensure you have a completely safe, hassle-free experience.
Certain medical conditions can limit your ability to scuba dive, like active asthma, heart conditions, blood pressure issues, or recent surgeries. Consult with your doctor on whether you’re fit to scuba dive. In some cases, you may still be able to dive with a waiver from a qualified physician.
Assess your in-water comfort level. Try-dive experiences do not require any swimming ability as your instructor bears the responsibility to keep you safe, but to receive your open water license you don’t have to be a champion swimmer, but will be expected to complete a 200-meter swim and 10-minute float.
Communicate with your instructor or dive guide. Even as a certified diver, new conditions can still be nerve-wracking and anxiety is perfectly normal! Professional dive staff are used to working with varying skill and comfort levels, and are trained to help you overcome any fears. Just let your guide know so you can move slowly and adjust to the underwater world at your own pace.
Do not dive outside of your certification level. This is not just to satisfy your insurance requirements, but diving in an unfamiliar environment without the proper training can greatly increase your own risk and jeopardize the safety of those around you.
Know the center’s safety procedures. All dive professionals are required to have active first aid certifications and must be trained as oxygen providers, and a good shop will reinforce this, advertising their own emergency action procedures and safety protocols. There should always be oxygen and first aid available at the shop or on the boat.
Encountering marine life on a scuba dive can be a rare, magical, and lucky moment, and not one to fear. For example, the species of sharks that roam Thai waters are largely gentle, friendly creatures, and pose no threat to divers. Chat with staff at your chosen dive center to learn more about their local ecosystem.