Each year, Koh Tao, Thailand, attracts thousands of visitors with its near year-round calm and crystal-clear waters and diverse wealth of marine life. In fact, this tiny island of just 21 square kilometres pumps out more scuba certifications annually than nearly anywhere else in the world, second only to Queensland, Australia – but at a much lower price point.
The island’s immense popularity has generated a niche industry driven by dozens of dive schools and resorts, each accommodating all kinds of preferences, languages, and requirements. Whether you’re brand spanking new to the sport or have been blowing bubbles for years, how do you know which school is right for you?
This medium-size shop runs like a well-oiled machine. Its experienced and fun staff is all smiles, all the time, and divers leave feeling like a part of the family rather than just another passerby. The centre runs its training courses primarily through RAID, a state-of-the-art and globally accepted training agency developed by leading experts in the field. Roctopus also offers a full range of SSI certifications, specialty training like advanced wreck penetration and intro-to-technical diving courses, as well as a fully operational professional arm for aspiring divemasters and instructors.
Best for: New divers after small group sizes for more personalized training, niche specialties taught by seasoned experts, those wanting a social atmosphere but without the huge numbers of larger resorts.
Big Blue is firmly among the longest-running establishments on the island, and during its tenure has branded itself as one of the most reputable programs around. With regularly packed boats, divers are guaranteed introduction to a huge family of new friends with each new dive, under the guidance of some of the most experienced dive professionals on the island. Its dive master trainee program is among the largest, making it a great choice for those thinking about staying island-bound longer term. The centre offers both PADI and SSI training options. Big Blue also has active conservation activities with plenty of options for visitors to learn more about marine biology and the centre’s eco efforts. Then there’s the freediving centre, in case you’re keen to check out the underwater world without the tank, and technical dive training, to sink even deeper into your scuba training.
This fun-loving shop specializes in small groups and personalized experiences. Its fleet includes two speedboats, which makes for extra-flexible schedule options that allow for a bit more sleep in the morning (for those who gawk at the 6am wake-up calls common among many centres) and easy access to more niche dive sites not always visited by bigger schools on stricter schedules. Goodtime’s diving operations merge seamlessly into its wide range of other activities, including rock climbing, abseiling, cliff jumping, booze cruising, and even flying trapeze, and its divers enjoy discounts on the lot. Short on time or want to test the waters before signing up for an open water certification course? Goodtime Adventures is also one of the only shops that offer a half-day “try dive” experience in both the morning and afternoon to accommodate any schedule.
Another well-established centre, Sairee Cottage offers a spectrum of PADI courses, but what sets it apart is has a dedicated fun dive boat for certified divers, making cruising directly to Koh Tao’s premier dive sites a breeze. For those who are a bit nervous about taking the plunge, this centre is also among the few that conduct the first portion of its “try dive” program in the swimming pool rather in the ocean to build your confidence before taking on the open water. For photo-enthusiasts, the resort also has one of the top underwater photography trainers on the island in its staff. Sairee Cottage boasts impressive facilities as well. Its gorgeous beachfront resort includes plenty of accommodation, two saltwater pools, a swim-up bar, and great classrooms for training programs.
This private centre is all about personal customization. Dives are organized as private charters and scheduled based on the best times to visit popular dive sites – when no other boats are there. If you’re taking a course, their professional staff will come to teach you at your accommodation for the ultimate ease and flexibility, and they can adjust schedules based on your time requirements and preference. The owner is also a well-respected underwater photographer, happy to customise photography training based on individual goals.