We love diving. We really, really, love diving. That’s why a little over a year ago we became divemasters in Utila, Honduras. Utila, as far as I know, is the world’s cheapest place to learn to dive. It compares favourably with the island of Koh Tao, Thailand, which appears to be the world’s cheapest place for a certified diver to rent tanks and go on a fun dive. All in all, we’re doing a pretty good job of frugal living under the sea.
Well, not exactly. The truth is, we’ve had to balance our love for diving with our love for travel and our love for not working (aka, our budget). That’s kept us landlocked and feet-dry for the past year. So, when we arrived at Koh Tao we could hardly keep ourselves out of the water. We arrived sleep deprived from an insane night bus/ferry schedule that found us dropped off at the ferry depot at the ungodly hour of 3:00 am, only to have to wait until 7:00 am to actually get on the boat. We spent that first day looking for a dive shop and were in the water first thing the next morning.
The Dive Shop
We dove with a company called Phoenix Divers. We chose them for a few reasons. Primarily, it was the vibe. We’re professionals, and we wanted a laid-back shop that would let us dive the way we wanted to dive. Most dive shops wouldn’t even entertain the idea of allowing us to dive on our own from the boat. They also wouldn’t all guarantee a small group size, and ensure that like-qualified divers would be paired together. Phoenix Divers came through on all of that. They weren’t pushy, and their price was right. So they got our business.
Of course, being certified, we tend to be overly critical about our dive shop. Especially when it comes to following the standards to keep everyone safe. I like a relaxed shop but in the water, things have to be done right. After 4 days of diving with Phoenix, there were definitely some things I didn’t like.
- No drop tanks on deep dives. They used them from the wreck dive, at our insistence, but it wasn’t typical.
- We didn’t get a boat briefing until day 4. It would have been nice to know that there was a dry room for our stuff on board a bit sooner.
- One of the divers we dove with requested a tank of Nitrox. It’s required that the the diver using the tank personally verifies the oxygen percentage before using it. Phoenix didn’t have an O2 sensor, and they wanted him to use it anyways. That’s a big no no.
- Dive briefings were done individually, instead of as a group. We had no idea which divers were in our group until we were in the water.
On the other hand, there were some really great things about the shop.
- The price for diving with accommodation was the cheapest we found the day we spent looking. 2,700 Baht ($91 CAD) for four dives (two dives each) and 200 Baht ($6.70) for a private bungalow with hot water.
- Our divemaster “F” was really good, except for skipping the whole boat briefing thing.
- The dive boats had free food. Fresh fruit some days, and cookies every day.
- Their equipment was in really good shape.
- They took the boat out twice a day, giving you a choice of diving in the mornings or afternoons. They tried their best to schedule dive sites a day in advance giving you an informed choice of diving in the mornings, afternoons, or both.
Diving in Koh Tao
We don’t actually have the greatest frame of reference when it comes to diving, as we’ve only really dove in two spots – Utila and here. But I can say that the diving was really enjoyable. Compared to Utila, there’s just more fish to see. A lot more fish. The coral seems to be in fairly good health. There’s much worse visibility and much stronger currents.
One of the most interesting things to me was the predictability of the local fish. They showed us a map of one of our dive sites with with a clown fish drawn on it, labelled Nemo. Our divemaster Eff said simply, “This is where we’ll see Nemo.” And he was right. That little clown fish spends every day hovering above a small tuft of anemone. He’s just always there.
Likewise, he was able to show us some large shark-like fish called cobias. They were just swimming circles right where he said they would be.
One of the saddest things I’ve ever seen, I saw while diving in Koh Tao. A fishing net had washed up and covered the Chumphon Pinnacle dive site, trapping several fish.
A collage of clips from our 4 days of diving in Koh Tao
In general, I find underwater movies are much more enjoyable than photos. At least with our little point-and-shoot camera. We’d probably have taken nothing but movies, but our underwater enclosure is damaged (I’m kind of upset that I couldn’t get warranty from Canon) and we can’t change the camera mode back to movies once the camera is installed inside the enclosure. Inevitably, it gets bumped to photo and stays there for the rest of the day.