Open Water in Ko Tao, Thailand

We’d chosen Ko Tao to take our Open Water diving qualification, because it’s basically the cheapest place in the world to take it. And we got lucky in booking with a really great school (who’d been recommended by fellow travellers), in the last week before they closed for the off-season. This meant that we had our OWN INSTRUCTOR for just Sam and I, and a half-empty boat when we went out on dives, so nice and stress-free.

Our first impressions of Ko Tao weren’t great, when we arrived at the main dock to find a heaving tourist hub, inflated accommodation prices (pushed up by the sheer amount of divers on the island) and backpackers EVERYWHERE. But, resilient as ever, we pounded the streets for an hour or so (despite it already being way into the evening) bargaining with hostel owners until we found a very sweet lady willing to cut us a deal on a surprisingly posh room! 

After some delicious dinner of curries, noodles and noodle soups (3 dishes now becoming a worrying norm) we hit the hay.

The next day we were picked up by our dive school and taken to Big Bubble’s head quarters, on a much quieter cove further South on the island. We signed some terrifying waivers and met our Belgian dive instructor, Ollie. The first day of school was all theory, with Sam and I left in a TV room to watch some NERVE-WRACKING SSI training material – basically a 90s style video teaching us about oxygen decompression and nitrogen build-up and all the terrifying things that can happen when diving. Made worse by the fact the school offered free coffee and we were WIRED!!

Day 2 we spent the morning checking over homework from our theory, then in the afternoon we had our FIRST DIVES! We took the boat out to our dive spot which was pretty scenic, then had our first taste of trying on all the gear (seriously heavy!), completing ‘buddy checks’ on each other, jumping off the boat, and sinking under water. The feeling of adding a ton of weight to your belt then voluntarily jumping into the sea is pretty weird at first! 

In the first dive you learn skills and try and find your natural buoyancy. After adding some more kilograms to my belt, I found my natural buoyancy pretty easily, but was more scared by the skills. Sam was the reverse – a real natural at skills, but struggled with maintaining balance, and on the first day Ollie often had to save him from floating off to the surface! The feeling of inhaling to go up and exhaling to go down was pretty surreal at first!

In Skills 1, we sat in a classroom-like circle on the sea bed and practiced things like flooding/emptying our masks, losing/retrieving our Stage 2 (air source) and saving each other with our secondary air supply. Pretty hairy! 

Our first ‘fun dive’ after Skills was REALLY great – we swam through beautiful colourful coral reefs bursting with life, and we spotted angel fish, clown fish, a deadly trigger fish and tons of amazing coral like brain coral and some that looked like the prettiest flowers. Ollie showed us some tricks like creating an air-ring in the water that the fish would swim through which was pretty cool!

Day 3 we took our theory exam in the morning (a pretty simple multiple choice) that we aced with an 88% score, and in the afternoon we had Skills 2 training then our second fun dive. I hit a bit of a low in Skills 2 as I struggled a little with the more complex skills, like removing and replacing the weight belt/the whole BC (inflatable jacket thing with air canister attached) – and we had to repeat the others that I hated like taking out your mouth piece and replacing / filling the mask with water which was still making me choke and swallow water which is much scarier 18m under! Oh, and we had to practice running out of air completely, where Ollie fully turned off our air source – the suction-y feeling of having no air will stay with me forever!

But the afternoon was a real highlight, as Sam found his natural buoyancy and we dived an even better reef, where we saw a huge pufferfish in a wooden shipwreck, ‘dancing shrimp’, stingray, more purple and orange and rainbow-coloured groupers and angel fish, and we swam side by side, pointing things out to each other, and feeling like we were soaring through a newly discovered world. When we docked back on land, we were so exhilarated we swam out in the bay and watched the sun set – all giggly and hyper – from the sea, overjoyed with our day’s work.

Day 4 was crunch time. One fun dive, and one final test of our skills. The day started scarily. We were in shoulder season heading into heavy rains (in fact this was the last day our school was open before closing for the season!) and we caught some REALLY horrific weather. As the boat went out for our first dive, dark clouds closed in and heavy rains came, and by the time we anchored for our first dive, the boat was rocking really severely. We all struggled with loading on our BCs and fins then walking to the jump-off point, struggling under the weight and skittering across the floor. 

Once under the water we were finally calm and relieved to be out of the storm, and we had another really great ‘fun dive’ at Chumphon Reef – seeing more stingrays, moray eels, and tons more fish (including some impressive big shoals!) Ollie took our Go Pro out with us, and got some amazing shots of the fish and of us – our first diving pictures!

Our last dive was a final skills assessment, where luckily we didn’t have to repeat everything (I just had to practice ‘Superman’ on Sam – sharing my air; and a couple of other skills) But I experienced a new challenge when I failed to ‘equalise’ (making your ears pop to equalise pressure) and – after descending too fast to 18m – was in real agony. I motioned to Ollie that I had to go up but also wanted to complete the Open Water, so, conflicted, I carried on blowing hard to equalise my ear drums and eventually they made a high-pitched popping sound and everything went sideways. Feeling initial relief, we carried on the dive through a pretty reef, and it wasn’t until we came back on the boat that the pain really started. I guess I probably had a minor perforation in my ear drum, but it got better after a week or so, so all good in the end.

One of the best things they don’t tell you about diving is that it burns an INSANE amount of calories, so you can basically eat whatever you want if you’re doing a lot of it. Amazing. So we spent our few days on the island eating all the foods from local restaurants, including a curry in a local restaurant that came accompanied by a field’s worth of herbs, which was pretty ace! And some delicious gravy-like noodle soups, curries etc. We also ate a Cornetto a day, which I’m not proud of.

As part of our Open Water course, we got put up in our own sweet bungalow with hammocks out front, which was really nice – and necessary, given how exhausted we were when not diving! We were basically either asleep, diving, or drinking all the free coffee at Big Bubble, looking out to the bay.

An exhilarating few days, we then made a snap decision to spend the last few days of our visa up in Northern Thailand – at the border of Laos, in Mekong River town Nong Khai….