Koh Tao: Swimming With The Fishes

As I mentioned in our last post about Koh Phangan, I have a pretty extensive bucket list waiting to be ticked off when I get home. This list includes Scuba Diving, which we found out is incredibly cheap in Koh Tao, the island just above Koh Phangan. Having read this all the way back in February we excitedly jumped the gun and booked a PADI Open Water Diver course for just under £220, with accommodation.  Unfortunately, our experience in Koh Phangan had left us a little jaded (and as Alex is out of the room I can tell you he isn’t the strongest swimmer in the world either!), so we arrived in Koh Tao with more than a little trepidation, wondering what exactly we had signed ourselves up for.

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Having a stroll down the sea front by our bungalow

First and foremost I should probably mention who we dived with; Ocean Sound. Voted #1 on Trip Advisor, and none the more expensive for it, obviously they were on our shortlist. Upon hearing they had a cat onboard the boat, I was sold*! We were extremely well taken care of and under no duress (Get. Help.) we couldn’t recommend them highly enough. Seriously, from pick up and transport, to acommodation, to Scuba itself we couldn’t have been in better hands, and they and the small group we dove with were the main contributing factor to our amazing experience in Koh Tao. If you’re looking for somewhere to complete your PADI Open Water course, go there, and thank us later!

We arrived at Ocean Sound early afternoon and were warmly greeted by Jesper, one of the Co-Owners. He gave us a bit of a briefing as to what to expect and then showed us our bungalows at Tropicana. We loved the accomodation here! While it was by no means showy or luxury, they were quaint, cute, and had everything we needed (except maybe a flushing toilet, which I was beginning to learn to my prudish horror isn’t an essential part of Thai plumbing). After settling in we met our instructor Alex, who gave us some more information, and then (dun dun dunnnnn!) our homework.

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Irrelevant yet compulsory posey beach photo

On Day 1 we learned the basic skills – putting together our equipment, safety checks and moving in the water in a swimming pool. It was a bit surreal how quickly your body accepts the fact that you can breathe underwater, and I kept having to overrule the crazy part of my brain that was telling me how unnatural the whole thing was, and that I was almost definitely drowning but just too focused on releasing air out my BCD (Scuba lingo whoo!) to realise it. It made a lot more sense actually putting it into practice, and made us feel a bit silly about the hours we spent puzzling over the theory book the night before!

Day 2 was our first sea dive, and nervous is an understatement! We woke up (horrifically) bright and early to grab a quick bite to eat and head down to the docks. Unfortunately, our instructor Alex was unwell so we were left in the capable hands of Sam, who was equally knowledgable and we absolutely loved how much her passion for Scuba and the sealife shone through. We set up all our gear and headed out for our first of the two dives – Mango Bay. Admittedly nerves hit a bit while standing at the top of the boat preparing to take the ‘giant stride’, but not to worry as there was a charming Thai gentleman there to unceremoniously shove us off the side, mentally and physically prepared or otherwise!

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Ready? It doesn’t matter!

It was incredible being out in the open water, and completely incomparable to anything I’ve ever done before. The feeling of weightlessness and just the knowledge that you have been underwater for 5 minutes… 10 minutes without breaking for air is amazing and bizarre. The fish have no fear of humans and as long as you are slow and respectful they have no issues approaching, even having a cheeky nibble now and again! Sam showed us signs for the different species of fish and would sign so we knew what we are looking at, taking us through areas where she knew some of the rarer fish frequented. We dove twice that day, the first at Mango Bay and the second at the Japanese Garden site, where visibility wasn’t quite so good due to the weather, but we got the bulk of our skills training out the way.

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After a short break (and an amazing Oreo milkshake!) we were back to complete the theory section of the course. We were exhausted and ready to crash out after this, however when Kristina and Brent, the couple we were diving with mentioned they were going to John-Suwan Viewpoint and asked if we’d like to join, we pretended we were well up for it – can’t have the Ozzies thinking we Brits aren’t hardcore after all!

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Alex earning his ‘Chief Photographer’ title

Sadly, it turns out I’m not. After stumbling around in my sandals and drenching my clean clothes and freshly washed hair in sweat, we reached the top. Needless to say that was not a strong look for me, and while there may be no photographic evidence that I’m willing to share, please trust me that I was there too. It was a while after shuffling back down to the bottom, partially on my bum, before I was willing to admit it, but the climb was definitely worth the view.

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Beautiful sunset.. yes, it took us that long to get down!

Our final diving day we were due to meet at 6.20, which may be the earliest Alex has ever got up for anything in his life! Conditions were great, and as we were just about convinced we were capable enough to remember to breathe and take a couple of photos simultaneously, we brought the GoPro with us. We went to Green Rock (where we reached our 18m depth) and the Twins site. While the first two dives had been more about getting the technique right and the feel for diving in the sea, this was different and gave us the opportunity to really observe the underwater metropolis around us. There were fish of all shapes and sizes, from grouchy-looking Groupers, aptly named and spectacularly colourful Parrotfish and even a Blue Spotted Stingray on our final dive. We learned from Sam that a Triggerfish’s territory works vertically rather than horizontally, and that they aren’t afraid to let you know if you get too close! There is a completely different world sub sea level with it’s own rules and etiquette, and by the time we came up for air from that last dive, we were already hooked.

Although this post is predominantly about the scuba and our experience, Koh Tao is impressive in its own right. While we didn’t see much of the Island bar the small area in which we and the Dive School were based, we didn’t eat anything we didn’t love, the beaches were sandy and clean and the view from above breathtaking. We really would recommend going even if you don’t fancy Scuba, and as for us, we are hoping to be back in the New Year to complete our Advanced Open Water Course with Ocean Sound!

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Amazing crispy noodles from the Tropicana retaurant

*Unfortunately for Alex, rather than using logic or any form of common sense, the bulk of my decisions thus far have come from the likelihood of seeing animals on any particular venture.

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