Diving in Thailand: Amusement Park for beginners and Paradise for Professionals

Saturday, April 23, 2016 Diving and snorkeling by Kate Rutkovskaya

Following Elina’s post about diving sites in Mallorca (great job covering ALL possible sites on the island btw), I’ve decided to look around my own habitat and find out if there are any decent diving facilities in Thailand and Phuket in particular.

Well, of course I knew already that there are plenty because you simply can’t ignore the advertisement and shields “Best diving center in Phuket” when you walk along the streets. But as a person who only learnt how to swim a couple of years ago – and it’s absolutely true – I’ve been always a bit cautious about diving as such and crazy people who do it on a regular basis or chose it as their profession.

But guess what!

It turned out those people are normal! Moreover – they mostly have very interesting personalities and I know quite a few of them. I just never knew they’re one of ‘those’.

It also appeared that Thailand is one of the most popular diving sites along with the Bahamas, Egyptian Red Sea, The Canary islands.

So when I started exploring this topic I turned to one of my friends – Melissa – a PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor who used to work in Thailand – and asked her to share her experience and opinion about diving in Thailand.

So here’s her story about how she got into the whole ‘diving as a profession’ thing:

My name is Melissa, 25 years old. I grew up in Tilburg, The Netherlands. 

My boyfriend Bjorn and I have been together for 6 years now. He was already a rescue diver before we started dating. 

 In 2011 we went on a holiday to Turkey, where I did my first ‘try dive’. 

One year later, we went on a holiday to Fuerteventura in Canary Islands where I did my Open Water course. Right after that I did the Advanced Open Water course. 

It was so much fun that I ended up doing a lot of dives during that holiday. I was completely hooked! 

When we came home we talked about the idea to become a Divemaster. We already kind of knew what that was like because Bjorn’s brother was working in Greece as a Divemaster for a while (by the way, most of the time people get into diving because they already know somebody who is a diver). 

In 2014 I graduated and got a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in Event and Leisure Management. That’s when we decided that this was the perfect time to leave the Netherlands and start our dive adventure together.  

Diving in Thailand

Just a couple of weeks after graduation we went to Koh Chang in Thailand, were Bjorn started his Divemaster program at BB Divers Koh Chang. I was still a new diver so I had to gain experience first and become a rescue diver before I could start the DM program myself. This program took about 2 months (full time). Bjorn also started his Instructor Development Course (IDC) not long after. 

We worked in Thailand until April 2015. We had a truly amazing time in Thailand but unfortunately we had to search for another place because low season had started in Koh Chang and it was impossible to dive in the big waves and zero visibility.  

That’s when we got in contact with Dive Friends (Bonaire, Dutch Caribbean). In August last year I did the Instructor Development Course and since then I am a dive instructor myself. 

It’s really priceless to be able to let other people experience this new world!

Quite a catching story, isn’t it?

As a young enthusiast Melissa was happy to share her views and experience and the rest of this post is totally inspired by her.

So first let’s see what diving site Thailand has to offer.

The first and most amazing feature of diving in Thai is its marine life diversity:

  • more than 500 different species of fishes
  • about 80 different species of nudibranchs
  • hundreds of other marine creatures
  • over 50 different species of coral

Thailand is also a perfect choice for family vacations where quite a few islands, such as Koh Tao and Koh Samui, offer modern comfortable resorts of all tastes, great beaches along with excellent diving.

While you’re taking a deep dive at 10-40 meters depth, your kids can enjoy snorkelling off the dive boat!

Oh, by the way, you know you need a license to dive, right?

And again, Thailand is one of the most popular centres for diving certification in the world.

There are about 50 diving training systems in the world, PADI being the most popular in Thailand. Just like in the whole world.

Here’s my Tip #1 for diving beginners:

 

When choosing a dive center for your first diving course only trust your life to a 5 PADI star IDC Center.

And there’s plenty of them in Thailand.

Just remember to check PADI Dive Center Resort Register to choose a dive centre that meets your requirements depending on your level.

In the recent years diving has become so popular that’s it’s not a rare thing when diving centres don’t have appropriate certification.

So Tip #2:

 

Check your instructor’s certificate!

Ask your instructor for the certificate which must look like this (with a respective title depending on the type of the course you’re going to take):

Open Water Scube Instructor

Then go to PADI Pro Check website, fill in the member number (e.g. 356118 is Melissa’s number) and verify its membership status.

If it’s not in the system, the certificate is fake. Just walk away and find another centre and instructor.

Let’s hope you find a decent centre!

What’s next?

You will need at least a PADI Open Water Course certificate to get started.

If you are already PADI certified, take the PADI Enriched AirPADI Deep Diver and PADI Drift Diver courses so you’re prepared for diving the many pinnacles and walls across all Thai sites.

The PADI Wreck Diver course is natural if you plan to dive any of Thailand’s amazing wrecks.

Melissa also recommends Thailand as an excellent location to become a PADI Pro by taking the PADI Divemaster course or the PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor course, if you’re willing to take it to a professional level.

Links to some 5-star dive centres in Thai diving sites are listed below respectively.

I hope you got it already – you need to take this seriously if you don’t want to risk your life.

To make you feel safer I asked my diving friends around and here’s a short list of advice for those who are just starting their plunge into the dangerously fascinating world of diving:

  • Keep diving every year. A lot of divers that get certified but don’t dive for a long time after certification loose their skills and – what is even more disappointing – their thirst for underwater activities.
  • Consider the season when planning your diving trips. Because of the varying climates around the world, one spot’s high season may be another spot’s low season. Best time for diving in Thailand is from January to April. May to June is less favourable but can be good for professionals. And you can forget about event trying to find a diving trip in the period between July and September.
  • Try to pre-book a dive package including a certain number of dives. Often, pre-booking 10 dives over the course of a week is significantly cheaper than buying 10 individual dives.
  • Get your own equipment if possible. It is quite an investment but in the end your own gear will get you a reduction of the course costs. Getting your own BCD (buoyancy control device) with integrated weights allows you to get properly weighted and a proper trim to get perfect buoyancy. It is meant to save you some energy and air. But you can start with small things, like a mask, fins and a wetsuit. If you don’t wear the right mask it keeps annoying you during the whole dive by fogging, water getting in, it can even give you a headache.

Tip #3

 

To check the fit of your diving mask, hold the mask against your face, then breathe in and remove your hands – if it falls off, it’ll leak water.

And last but not least:

 

  • Don’t stop developing yourself by reading articles about diving and taking new courses. Mentioned above there’s a wide variety of specialities to broaden your knowledge and improve the skills.

According to Melissa, the Discover Scuba programs and the Open Water Courses are most memorable.

Regardless the level of your diving experience you would want to capture all of your dives in pictures and videos, so here’s

Tip #4:

 

Rent an underwater camera from your dive center.

Unlike diving equipment, you don’t have to buy expensive photo and video cameras. Most of the dive centres can rent you cameras for about 1500 Thai Baht ($40) per day.

Okay, enough theory. Let’s get down to business.

Where exactly to go and what exactly to expect from diving in Thailand?

Here’s the list of best commonly known areas for diving:

Best Diving Spots in Thailand

Koh Bon, Koh Tachai & Richelieu Rock

This is listed by various sources as one of the top dive sites in the world and is well worth the visit if you are diving in Thailand.

Situated right between the Similan and Surin Islands, this group of islands is famous for its incredible bio-diversity.

About 200 km north of Phuket in the Andaman Sea the horseshoe-shaped Richelieu Rock is an absolute winner when it comes to rocky sites. Koh Bon also features one of the only vertical walls in Thailand.

From giants like whale sharks and barracuda tornadoes to clouds of small tropical fish, plenty of shovelnose rays, seahorses, pipefish, and cuttlefish – all that and maybe even more you can see and photograph in this area.

Underwater macro photographers must be thrilled!

Koh Chang wreck

The most attractive side of things is that the site is large enough to be dived several times without covering the same area twice.

Advanced divers enjoy the best visibility and surface conditions at these sites from October until early May. Nevertheless, it’s not recommended for beginners.

February to April is the best time to encounter whale sharks here.

Diving at Richelieu Rock and Koh Tachai and Koh Bon islands is best done by liveaboard.

In total there are 4 dive sites in this area – Koh Bon Pinnacle is a separate range of pinnacles a few hundred metres to the north-west of Koh Bon.

This is one of the most popular destinations for liveaboard tour providers and dive centres. So you can pick any of the ones you already know or choose the ones that specialise in this area, like Wicked Diving for example which is PADI 5 Star Instructor.

Similan Islands

As Thailand is one of the most visited countries in the region, many of its dive sites are suffering from overexposure and coral bleaching. With that being said, the Similan Islands are probably the best place to see the untouched and healthy marine life in the whole country.

The islands stretch over 25 kilometres, like a pearl necklace, from north to south on the Andaman Sea and located 65 km off the coast of Phang Nga province. They were declared a Marine National Park in 1982.

Similan underwater world is most famous for the adorable Nemo-like clownfish.

If lucky enough, you might even encounter manta rays or even whale sharks.

clownfish

Quite a number of providers offer diving experience with liveaboard dive cruises lasting several days.

Compared to other diving sites across Thailand’s shores, everything in the Similans is very big and deep – expect most of the dives to be planned between 15 – 25 meters.

We suggest that you could enquire IQ Dive for a 3-5-day trips.

Surin Islands

Surin Islands is a must-visit destination for at least one reason – Surin Islands Marine Park.

Promoted to an Andaman Asian Heritage Site in 2004, the Park hosts a phenomenal range of flora and fauna on the land and in the sea.

The various corals around the island making this place to one of the best snorkel sites in Thailand.

A marine naturalist can visit a broad variety of sites on a Surin Islands 3-days/2-nights snorkel trip provided by the same IQ Dive.

Koh Chang

Koh Chang is Thailand’s second largest island (after Phuket), situated in the Gulf of Thailand and covered in thick lush green rain forest called Koh Chang National Park.

The island is also is home to Melissa’s Alma Mater BB Divers Dive Center.

Btw, Activity Fan’s CEO Elina also took her wreck diving course with BB Divers and they left her very impressed.

So these guys are highly recommended!

The Ko Chang archipelago comprises a myriad of over 50 islands with pristine reefs and marine life.

As a person who knows the area better than anyone, Melissa recommends taking on one of the 2 options for diving in the area.

Within a 40-min drive by boat there’s Hin Raab, Hin Luk Bath and other diving sites worth seeing, as well as the longest wreck of Thailand – HTMS Chang.

koh chang ship wreck

After more than 50 years’ service in the Royal Thai Navy, it was sunk in 2012. It’s a great site with lots to explore including cabins, briefing rooms and the main holding area.

The wreck is home to a wide variety of marine life.

Whale sharks are very often passing by the wreck as well.

HTMS Chang wreck

I know this video is so fascinating that might make you skip the rest of this article and just go book a ticket to Koh Ghang…

but please read on – there’s some more interesting stuff to know about diving in Thailand 😉

The other option is to go to Koh Rang National Park. It takes about 1,5 hour to get there.

The dive sites here are shallower hence perfect for beginners and snorkelers.

Koh Tao

Koh Tao is very known for diving, especially for newbies. As Melissa says, “it’s more like a ‘factory’ nowadays: something about 1% of all divers in the world gets certified there. 1% is a lot for such a small island like Koh Tao.”

Indeed, this little magical 22 square kilometre island off the east coast of Thailand is a scuba training haven.

The truth is Koh Tao diving centers are responsible for the most certifications in the world second only to Cairns, Australia.

The famous portal for travellers Lonely Planet features Koh Tao as one the world’s best learn-to-dive destinations.

Calm, shallow sites are perfect for nervous novices.

Ko Tao is also one of the few places on earth where it’s possible to spot whale sharks along with tropical fish, reef sharks, rays and barracuda during your dive course.

shovelnose rays

March to April is the high season for learning and spotting most of the sea creatures in this area.

When to go: diving is year-round, with July to September offering the best visibility. Some outfits close during the November to December rainy season.

There are over 50 dive shops on this small island! So pick any of the PADI 5 star, like this one for example:

Or go to an SSI school, like Phoenix Divers that provides both SSI and PADI courses up to Instructor.

Koh Lipe is a gem found in the south of Thailand. The island is small enough to cross it on foot in twenty minutes. Commercialism has not yet touched its shores and it truly is an island paradise.

It’s a location that has a variety of dive sites that will amaze novices and more experienced divers alike with its hard coral that starts at around two meters.

White eyed eels and clouded eels are the most common inhabitants of the area. Lionfish can also be seen finding shelter in these corals.

For best coral reefs in the area go to Stone henge, Koh Talan, Drop off.

Koh Adang has large sandy parts as well as a lot of hard coral.

The little island of Koh Yang features large pinnacles, home to eels, sea horses and, sometimes, lobsters.

seahorse

If you’re a newbie diver you might ask yourself a question:

How do I know which fish is which?

And here’s my Tip #5:

 

Take a lot of pictures and then find the names using Google Image search.

That’s what I was doing when going through Melissa’s photo albums.

Or you might as well buy a brilliant book by Gerry Allen “Field Guide to Marine Fishes of Tropical Australia and South-East Asia” and choose it as a guide when choosing your next diving destination.

What Else to Expect from Diving in Thailand?

What if one is looking for something special, something unique and unbeatable?

I know a destination for this case!

Every year an unlikely event takes place in the azure waters off Kradan Island in Thailand’s Trang province: the world’s largest underwater wedding ceremony, a designation officially endowed by Guinness World Records in 2000!

The event takes place in February on Valentine’s Day. It has seen more than 481 couples from all over the world tie the knot since its inception in 1997.

A traditional three-day Thai ceremony that includes parades and land-based rituals is infused with the underwater registration event.

Of course, only certified divers can take part in this part of the ceremony.

Other underwater wedding records set in Thailand include the record for the deepest underwater wedding, held at 130 metres (426 feet) on 30th September 2013, between Hiroyuki Yoshida of Japan, and Sandra Smith of the United States.

Maybe we’ll see photos of Melissa and Bjorn’s underwater wedding one day!? 😉