Literally thousands of people flock to Koh Tao each year to obtain their Open Water Diving Certificate. It’s a diver’s heaven, and for a fifth of the price in Scandinavia and with crystal clear waters all located on a tropical island paradise, it’s easy to see why.
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By Sebastian Buur and Ida Holt
Photos by Stijn Smekens and Sebastian Buur
Ban’s is the biggest dive resort on the island and one of the biggest in the world, with an average of 300 students a month. If this sounds like an awful lot of people, it’s because it is. Luckily, with about fifty instructors there’s still plenty of leeway for you to not get stuck in a group numbering 50 people. It goes without saying that the peak months are the most visited, with the days adjacent to the Full Moon Party on neighbouring Koh Phangan a close second. Still, we were there just after said party, in the start of July, and it didn’t feel cramped one bit.
Diving with Ban’s is sure to be a highlight for everyone who fits it into their travel itinerary. It’s easy, fun and cheap, and will open up an abundance of doors to underwater worlds all across the globe and Southeast Asia, from Bali to Myanmar. At Ban’s we experienced all the muscle and professionalism of a big company, while still having the feeling of intimacy you get from going with a small one. Our instructor was always there to take good care of us, always having the time, the patience and skill to see us through it in our own pace.
One of the upsides of dealing with a big company is that they can teach in almost any language. At one point, we strayed from our Swedish instructor to chat with a Danish dive master before standing in line to the cookie jar behind a Japanese group. They don’t teach courses in Swahili (although, on second thought, they might), but for the majority of budding divers language won’t be an issue.
So what is an Open Water Certificate? Simply put, it’s your ticket to an amazing underwater world, which you always feel like going back to after your first dip. It will let you go down to 18 meters depth, and after having completed the four day course, you are forever more entitled to go ‘fun diving’ around the world and splash in the wonders below.
The certificate is issued by several different diving organizations around the world. At Ban’s you dive with PADI, which is the most recognized. In other words, with PADI you can show up anywhere and they will know that you are a certified diver. Other than that, the certificates are all but the same. There might be different approaches, but what you are allowed to do with the various degrees of certificate is the same all around.
Small pool to mighty ocean
Having endured a rather hilarious, old school video introduction, which must have been recorded in the eighties, we were more than looking forward to don our equipment for the first time and get in the pool. It all starts with a confined water dive, which in Ban’s case is a multileveled swimming pool. This is where most of the technical stuff takes place, and getting to know your gear is an important part of diving, where above everything else, safety rules. Together with colourful coral, breathtaking views and huge schools of fish it is your main focus at all times. Not in the pool though.
In the pool, it’s all about skills. Finding your regulator (what you breathe through), inflating and deflating your BCD (what you’re wearing, Bouyancy Control Device) and taking off your mask and putting it back on. Especially the mask part can be tricky underwater, and can make some people feel uncomfortable. We had a somewhat hard time getting the hang of it, but thankfully our instructor never let time be an issue, and nothing felt rushed. A few hours later our fingers looked like raisins, and we had had our first go at breathing underwater. Next stop, the big sea.
Do we have to get out of the water?
Now, if you are one of those persons that gets into hobbies easily and already feel like you have too many, diving is not for you. Cause once you make that first jump from the railing and break the surface it’s too late. You’ll have one more thing to fill up your spare time, your daydreams and your life. It’s that amazing down there. On Koh Tao, the water is around 29 degrees Celsius, the visibility is 15-30 meters most of the time, and the aquatic life on display is like nothing you have ever seen before. Regardless of age, your first dive will make you feel like a small child again, and discovering this whole new world, just there for you to take in, is mind-blowing. The colours are extravagant and the sheer numbers of fish almost disturbing. Swimming through a school of fish or seeing your first triggerfish will stay with you forever.
During the course you have to do all the skills from the pool all over again, and you can be hard pressed to keep your attention on your instructor as some of the weirder creations of the sea catch your eye. Better to do the skills as fast as possible though, cause when you’re done you get to just enjoy the many reefs around the island.
Including the confined one, you get five dives during the course, which will leave you longing for more. Luckily, you can add just two more days and get not only five more dives but also go up an extra level to Advanced Open Water Diver. Not only are these dives far more along the lines of fun dives, which means less skill practicing and more time to just enjoy the diving, it will also let you go down to a whopping 30 metres and go diving without someone leading you. You’ll even get a night dive, which is truly something different.
The days we spent with Ban’s and the waters surrounding Koh Tao are some of the best days we’ve had in Southeast Asia. Diving gets under your skin, and not only is obtaining the permit a blast, it’s an investment that will stay with you for all of your travels to come, be they in the Red Sea or some cold lake in Norway. It doesn’t matter if you’re into adventure, extreme sports or nature, diving offers something for everybody. And for us, it will stay that way for many years and many dives to come.
Open Water Diver Certificate: 9800 Baht
Adv. Open Water Certificate : 8500 Baht (10% discount for former students at Ban’s)
Various courses and fun dives are available