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Koh Tao: Diver’s Paradise or Overworked Money Making Machine?

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Koh Tao

Turtle Island, or Koh Tao (pronounced “goh daow”) as it’s known to locals, is well known in the diving community and has a very widely discussed reputation. Koh Tao is located on the South-west side of the Gulf of Thailand. Nearly every diver has something to say about Koh Tao (often without having ever been there), and the island’s standing as a diving hotspot and learning institution is often debated. I’d like to discuss the real Koh Tao, as impartially as I can. I’ve dived there and completed a course while on holiday there which gave me a good impression of what the island can offer, and what it lacks.

The Island

Accommodation

First off, even the most committed diver will have to spend some time on the surface so it’s important to look at Koh Tao in its entirety (after all, what’s the point in going somewhere on a diving holiday and being miserable every time you come home from a dive?) Well, Koh Tao is unlikely to make anyone miserable being as it is a small, tropical island with many long, white sandy beaches and a plethora of bars and accommodation choices.

Nobody Will Ever Call Koh Tao Ugly…

Despite this choice and a recent push towards more upmarket resorts, the island is still very much set up to cater for backpackers and divers on a budget. Most of the accommodation is still in the form of  cheap beach huts and basic bungalows that provide adequate amenities but are unlikely to impress even the least discerning of guests. Often accommodation is offered free or heavily discounted when booking diving (or courses) with the attached dive school. There are some attractive mid-range hotels that provide higher end amenities than the huts (air con, pool and wifi) though you do find there is a steep price hike when you go searching for these perks. There are also a few scattered elite resorts that come fully equipped for the more financially flush diver. Most mid-sized and large dive schools have their own accommodation and these will probably be where most divers will end up resting their heads of an evening.

A Simple Bungalow – cheap, basic but often in excellent locations!

Nightlife and Food

The island is not short of night-time activities with a healthy selection of beach bars and clubs being scattered across the island’s shoreline. The island is not as hardcore party based as neighbouring Koh Pha Ngan (home of the infamous Full Moon Party) as the bars tend to go for chilled, sunset grooves rather than all-night raves. The restaurants are similar to the bars; the settings are usually spectacular, the atmosphere is relaxed and casual and the food is cheap but tasty. Obviously, being an island, the fish is excellent and the standard fare is barbecued fish with rice, though there is a big range of Thai food on offer and there is a decent selection of Western food (burgers, pasta and pizza) if you need a break from green curry and rice!

A Familiar Sight In Any Koh Tao Restaurant – BBQ Fish And Western Food.

Transport

 

Getting To The Island

The island has no airport though there are two close by in Koh Samui and Surat Thani. There is rail access from Bangkok to Chumphon – the mainland port where the ferry starts its route (the route includes Koh Tao, Koh Nang Yuan, Koh Samui, Koh Pha Ngan and the mainland). It takes about 3 hours on the ferry from mainland to Koh Tao, though if you fly to Koh Samui then it’s more like an hour and a half on the ferry to Koh Tao.

Getting Around

Once you’ve arrived on Koh Tao you may choose to explore the rest of the island, which I heartily recommend being as there is an excellent range of flora and fauna to see if you are willing to leave the shoreline. I also highly approve of the quality of snorkelling available off some of the more secluded beaches (Hin Wong Bay has some great shallow reefs, though the road to the bay is seriously intense!) In this case you will almost certainly hire either a small motorbike or a quadbike. There are very few cars on the island due to the extremely poor road conditions, most of which are dirt roads with deep water gullies carved into them and they often sit at extreme angles and slopes that make them formidable even to the most experienced bike rider. While I’m on this topic it is important to know that the primary cause of accidents and fatalities on the island is motorbike crashes. If you’re not confident on a bike then this is a terrible place to learn. At night you also have to contend with the lack of street lights along the road. There is also the sad fact that a large number of stupid people will drink copious amounts of alcohol and then go for a midnight ride on a bike they barely know how to ride sober! Watch out for these idiots, and for goodness sake, don’t join them! The hangover will ruin your dive the next day anyway.

Make Sure You Know How To Ride One Before You Go All Evil Canevil!

There are two schools of thought on what is better when driving on the island: bikes or quads? I took a bike and set off into the wilderness with my girlfriend and we found that the bike was great for navigating the worst of the potholes and dips, but we managed to burst two tires in one trip. We were very lucky to be near a Thai resort which had spare inner tubes, especially being as we were on the other side of the island! On the other hand a quad-bike will probably not get a puncture, but they require a different riding technique and if they topple then they can be very dangerous. I tried both and found the quad was more capable in the really bad terrain but they are usually considerably more expensive to hire and are often in a poor state of repair because the parts for a quadbike are scarce on the island which makes them pricey compared to the cheap and abundant moped parts. Think about this when looking into hiring a vehicle, because if you crash it or even lightly scratch it you will be paying the full cost of repairs.

More Guts, More Skill Needed And More Money To Rent Or Repair!

Getting to the Dive Sites

When you’re leaving for a day’s diving your school may use either the main public pier, their own personal pier or a longtail boat from the beach that meets up with a larger boat anchored further out from shore (a longtail is a long, slim boat with a very long propeller shaft coming from the small outboard motor, this is a traditional Thai fishing vessel). It may be worth asking your diving school what method of transport they use if you are in anything less than excellent health because transferring from the unstable longtail boats to the high-sided dive boats is really very difficult, it is also hard work to climb from boat-to-boat as you may be required to do if they leave from the busy main pier.

A Longtail Is Not The Most Stable Vessel To Embark Or Alight From…

The Schools

 

The Situation

Well, it’s safe to say that there is disproportionate number of divers out there who lost their diving virginity to Koh Tao’s blue waters. Koh Tao’s many dive schools train and certify more divers than anywhere else in South-east Asia. There are many schools, with many instructors and they are constantly working at near maximum capacity to churn out class after class of new divers. This doesn’t seem like a bad thing, especially being as the capitalist model states that demand dictates supply, thus many people demand diving in Koh Tao and the resident dive schools do all that they can to supply their needs. Surely this is good for the dive industry as a whole? New, passionate divers are entering the market, pouring their money into dive companies, dive organisations and dive equipment.

There’s No Doubt That Koh Tao Is Responsible For Training A Heck Of A Lot Of Divers!

The issue arrises when we look closely at what this torrent of new students has done to the standards of the dive schools and the instructors on the island (and what this means for the students that have trained under them). There has been such a high flow of divers for such a long time it has (in some cases) eroded the once rigid and strict PADI standards, that the schools and instructors were trained in, to a much less formal style of teaching.

I don’t blame the instructors or schools on Koh Tao for slipping under the immense quantity of divers they have to process, in fact I am really amazed at how well they manage their students. There is no doubt in my mind that some of the most talented and experienced dive instructors in the world are based in Koh Tao, it is just such a shame that they are not given the space and time needed to give a fully engaging dive course. It is symptomatic of the way the industry works out there; first there are many schools with many instructors (some of the schools are massive) which created a competing marketplace and a price war. The price war drove the cost of the average PADI course down to its bare minimum which resulted in smaller percentages for the dive schools and pitiful wages for the instructors. The way they compensate for this meagre profit margin is by bringing in a vast quantity of divers per class, I’ve heard many stories of classes as big as twelve students to one instructor, with no assistants (this is gross violation of PADI standards). The instructors, in an effort to make a reasonable salary and appease their boss, will also undertake up to five dives a day (two trips and a night dive) and will occasionally dive for weeks without a break. This extreme workload is both exhausting to the instructor and potentially dangerous because of the gradual nitrogen buildup in their slow tissues.

The dive schools in Koh Tao are usually fairly good at what they do, this is apparent from the fact that Koh Tao is still one of the top diving spots in the world. Despite this there are certain things that I feel they do poorly:

  • Customer care – although they might be professional in their manner, the schools and instructors often struggle to make your diving experience personal. This is simply because of the numbers of individual divers that they must take care of. I don’t berate them for this aspect, but it’s something to consider when choosing where you wish to learn.
  • Boats – Some of the boats on Koh Tao are in excellent condition, though there are many boats that, just like the instructors, desperately require a break and an overhaul. There is a large quantity of boats that leak oil and spit fumes into this perfect natural environment which just seems so foolish to me.
  • Standards – It is well known that Koh Tao instructors cut corners, this isn’t usually much of an issue – shifting skills from one dive to another is no big deal in the grand scheme of things; but taking a DSD to twenty meters is, as is hitting thirty meters on your first night dive, or one instructor leading a group of four Open Water students and two DSDs in poor visibility (all true stories…).
  • Environmental Conservation – in addition to the tired boats there is a real problem in the area with coral damage from diver contact. This is especially the case with dive groups that are led by poorly trained or blatantly ignorant Divemasters, who don’t brief their divers about the rules on not wearing gloves or taking pointer sticks, nor do they have the skill to guide their group in a route that reduces the risk of breaking coral.

The Solution?

When I say “solution” here I don’t mean to suggest that I am capable of righting Koh Tao’s poor image, what I mean is how do YOU ensure you have a good dive or course when you go to the Turtle Island?

  • When you are looking online for the cheapest course/accommodation combo, give yourself ten minutes to look at a few of the millions of posts that discuss the best schools on the island.
  • Once you’ve arrived on the island, if you’ve not already picked a school then make sure you ask questions: how do you get to the dive site? How many divers to an instructor/DM? Do you get nitrox complimentary? Is my DM fully qualified? (some schools use DMTs to guide dives which is not acceptable when you are paying for a DM).
  • It has been said by many divers that they’ve booked a dive for a particular site and the boat crew have “changed plans”, for some reason or other, to a local site. Usually this sort of thing is because the crew simply don’t want to travel the extra half hour to the site, but it is unacceptable, so ensure that your company will take you where you want to go.
  • If you are already qualified then ensure that you pay attention to your own certification and your own abilities – if the DM briefs a deeper dive than you are qualified for or comfortable with then make sure you get him to change the plan, don’t lower yourself to poor standards. If your not trained then it’s not OK.

The Diving

 

Now that I’ve finished bashing the island’s over-worked infrastructure and the tragedy of seeing so many excellent instructors get pushed to the limits of safety and effectiveness, I can begin talking about the real reason that anyone goes to Koh Tao in the first place – the diving! Some of the dive sites on Koh Tao are truly world class diving destinations and deserve to be dived on by passionate and careful divers. Make sure that when you dive on these sites that you set a good example by using refined buoyancy, being aware of your surroundings and keeping your hands to yourself.

Some of the following names will be familiar (Japanese Gardens and Chumphon Pinnacle are the headliners) and some wont be. Each site has its own gifts to offer, enjoy them!

 

Red Rock (Shark Island)

This site is deep enough to give experienced divers a mild thrill, though there won’t be much need for decompression stops as the average depth is around fifteen meters with the deepest point being twenty-eight meters. The site is a drift diving hotspot which means the visibility can vary from struggling to read gauges right up to thirty meters and more. There are turtle, great barracuda and a pesky titan triggerfish or two darting through the soft coral.

The Island’s Namesake Is Making A Comeback To The Island After Recent Charity Conservation Efforts.

Hin Wong Pinnacle

 

This tabletop rock is situated on one of the deepest sites in Koh Tao at forty meters deep. There are some snappers, pufferfish and hawksbill turtles in the area and a variety of hard and soft coral.

 

Mango Bay

 

Mango Bay is a beginner spot because there is an attractive shallow reef and sandy bottom which is ideal for practicing skills. There is a deep spot at sixteen meters so it’s perfect for Open Water divers who lack confidence. Being a bay the visibilty can be a little poor, though its usually in excess of ten meters.

Mango Bay Is An Excellent Place To Start Diving – Its Sheltered and Shallow.

 

White Rock

This is another shallow site with an average depth of around twelve meters. The viz is usually good, topping out at about thirty meters. This site is a showcase of corals, both hard and soft. In addition to the coral you are likely to see wrasses, butterflyfish, angelfish, moray eels, clownfish, and triggerfish.

Nang Yuan Pinnacle

This is a great site for those with good buoyancy and want to enjoy easy cavern penetration and swim-throughs. The depth is mediocre at nineteen meters but the water is often very clear and there are whiptail rays and reef shark to observe.

Twins

This is a fairly mixed site with sand, coral and rock formations to grab your attention. It is an easy dive with good visibility likely. You’re probably going to see a range of animals because of the different types of habitat; blue-spotted rays, scorpion fish, clownfish and angelfish.

Green Rock

A very exciting dive site because of the maze-like quality of the rock formations. There are swim-throughs and caverns hiding cobias, triggerfish and travellies. The site gets pretty deep at twenty-eight meters.

Japanese Gardens

A famous dive site that requires little introduction, not because it is particularly extreme in any respect, just because it is a very beautiful dive that is easily accessed by even the most novice divers due to its shallow reefs and consistently average visibility. The soft coral formations create something resembling a manicured Japanese style garden that is home to myriad different small reef fish and other colourful invertebrates.

Chumphon Pinnacle

If the Japanese Gardens is the crowd pleaser then the Chumphon Pinnacle is a major rock and roll band. It’s the joint-deepest site with a depth of forty-five meters. The four anemone-coated granite pinnacles are often obscured by poor visibility but the water has been seen as clear as thirty meters. When the tides are going up or down the currents can be formidable – when I last dived Chumphon we found it necessary to cling to the decent line purely so we all ended up in the same spot! It is a site for experienced divers but it will reward that experience with a (small) chance of spotting a whale shark, with a good chance of seeing some big open-water fish like giant groupers, bull shark, tuna and bat fish.

A Possible Chumphon Dive Buddy?

 

South-west Pinnacle

Another deep site with some peculiar rock and coral formations. It reaches a depth of thirty-three meters and, on a good day, you can see the giant fan-corals from the surface. There’s more open-sea fish here with the likes of giant grouper, possible whale shark sightings, barracuda and maybe the odd leopard shark.

Sail Rock

Sail Rock is the name of the other forty-five meter site around Koh Tao, and this one has a very special feature: a huge underwater rock chimney that offers a swim-through ascent from eighteen meters to eight meters…an absolutely excellent piece of diving! The visibility can be quite remarkable too, ranging from fifteen to thirty-five meters. On display at this awesome dive site are large pelagic, king mackerel, kingfish, tuna, whale shark and manta which gives it a very different atmosphere from the other Koh Tao sites.

Final Thoughts

I have said some scathing remarks about Koh Tao and its diving industry throughout this article and I meant every word I’ve said. However, what I’ve not said enough is that a holiday on Koh Tao is a wonderful experience, the atmosphere is friendly and welcoming and the diving is superb. Some of the schools do lack the integrity of the European, Australian and American institutions and all the instructors are overloaded but if you are careful and use your own common sense then you will have a great holiday and you will experience some phenomenal diving!

Do you have a Koh Tao story to add? Was your experiences there positive, or did you find the quality lacking? Either way, I’d love to hear your comments, just leave them in the section below.

By Jamie Campbell


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Comments

  • Cam said:

    Interesting article. I own a dive shop on an island in south west Thailand in the Andaman Sea, and we regularly get divers travelling here who have dived, or have been certified on koh Tao.

    On the whole, we are aware of the reputation that Koh Tao has for diver training, and I often ask newly qualified divers from Koh Tao about their experiences there, and most are positive and complimentary (sure, most newly qualified divers don’t know if their instructor stuck to standards or not ) – it’s not often that we hear of teaching groups larger than 4 or 6 students and it would appear that most instructors cover all of the required skills (perhaps with a little shuffling about between dives as you mention) and stick to depth limits. In our experience, most newly qualified divers (most, though not all) we see from Koh Tao are reasonably competant and seem well trained – they know their way around the equipment, can remeber BWRAF and have reasonable bouyancy.

    I am tempted to say ‘you get what you pay for’, in that if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys (Koh Tao must be one of the cheapest places in the world to get certified), but I know several very hard working dive professionals on Koh Tao who do their very best every day to produce good divers, get paid a pittance and love their jobs.

    One of the things about Koh Tao is the sheer number of student divers passing through every year. If, for example, a dive shop trains 100 divers and 3 of them turn out to be at the lower end of ‘acheiving mastery’, then remember that Koh Tao can churn out 1,000’s of divers a week during peak season, and for every 1,000 divers, there will be 30 ‘poor’ divers – it’s all about the numbers…

    So, on the whole, while I would obviously prefer to see the trainee divers in my dive shop in the Andaman Sea (where the diversity and amount of marine life, corals and fish are greater…!) rather than on Koh Tao, if you are on a tight budget and don’t mind the possibility of being part of a diving factory then why not head to the Gulf of Thailand and get your PADI? you won’t regret it…

  • salva said:

    Hi,
    Very nice article as i am planning on getting there this summer as a first trip to check the island and the conditions, my final thought would be to move there and do a fresh start. I am an instructor trained between Spain and Malta and i would like to know if you think there are possibilities to find a job over there and more or less what are the prices they paid?

    Thanks a lot and keep writing!

  • BobbieNL said:

    I dont really agree on the negative commends on the quality of the dive schools. I’m an SSI diver myself and got in contact with one of the SSI schools on the island. They are doing a great job and it’s not very much different than diving at Bonaire as far as I noticed during my dives. Small groups and enough instructors. So I just wanted to say not all dive schools are the same at Koh Tao, there are some good quality and friendly dive schools….

    As far as the “getting around”, when you hire a scooter or quad be careful!! I’ve seen many people ending up paying for damage to the scooter or quad they didn’t create them selves! So write down all scratches and maybe even take pictures, because you will for sure end up paying for it!!

  • gigi said:

    Warning Don’t go to visit Aow leuk
    we came to visit the beach and parking car there but the old man
    He yelled and pushed us without any reason, and try to hit us with wood that to bad
    we talk with him with the good word and be patient
    If you don’t belive try to visit you will see that we see
    Careful
    crazy man!!!!!!

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