Days 3 to 7: First half of Ko Tao
Ko Tao, the turtle island, is the dive capital of the world (or disputed capital). Certifying the most amount of divers annually, this small island is home to many dive schools and dive sites. I had originally planned to stay six nights on the island to do my Open Water and Advanced Diver certifications for the first five days and explore the island on the last but I ended up staying an extra three days on this magical island for a total of nine days.
Taking the bus from Bangkok down to Donsak pier was about a 12 hour bus journey, leaving at 6pm from the capital it was a grueling trip through the night. I booked the trip with my hostel the previous night for the right price of 950THB for the bus ride, ferry and dinner. I had originally wanted to book with the Lomprayah company as they are one of the major providers in Thailand but my hostel owner pushed me to book with the company that they were affiliated with which I believe was called VIP buses. The price difference was about 200-400THB more for the Lomprayah one, I was persuaded for the cheaper option but I wish I would have followed my instincts as I will explain later.
About halfway through the bus ride, we stopped at an interchange of sorts where we were served our dinners which consisted of rice and an assortment of what dishes including fried sausages with vegetables. It wasn’t particularly appetizing and in hindsight I should have purchased some goodies before embarking on the journey. There were also other foods for sale at the interchange with your regular sausage, fish balls (surimi paste) and assortment of other foods on sticks.
We reached the pier at around 10 in the morning where I mulled about for an hour, waiting for the ferry to leave. The water here was a murky green hue and you couldn’t see much and I was apprehensive as to whether the waters on the islands would be the same. I wasn’t particularly excited to dive in the gross water at this stage.
Leaving on the 11 am ferry, I would have thought to arrive only a couple of hours later but I ended up only reaching my destination at around 4:30pm. I was on the Sea Tran ferry which instead of going straight to Ko Tao, stopped at the two neighboring islands of Ko Samui and Ko Pha-Ngan. If I had followed my instinct and instead booked with Lomprayah, I believe I would have reached earlier as they stop by a nearer pier called Chumpon. I sadly found this out only later when I was talking to others on the island and asking them what time they arrived, others arrived anywhere from 11 to 3.
As we got further away from the mainland, the water started to change to a more pleasant blue colour. After a couple of hours on the ferry, it was a delight to see the island!
As we pulled into the pier, it was a surreal feeling to finally be arriving on the island. I had wanted to travel here for a couple of months and was ecstatic to finally be here in person.
I had booked my dive courses with Big Blue Diving Resort online before embarking on my trip. I paid a total of 17540THB for the online hot deal to do the Open Water and Advanced Adventurer course which included free accommodation in a fan dorm for the five nights on the course and also a free T-Shirt which other had to end up paying for! I was picked up from the pier by the resort’s taxi service in a pickup truck for a 10-15 minute drive to the resort on Sairee Beach.
For the next week or so, this was to be my home and I could have never anticipated how amazing it would be. After arriving at the resort, I was shown my 6 bed dorm and then had to put my things down and quickly run over to the 5pm orientation for the Open Water dive course. they start a new dive course everyday which gives you a sense of how many people they churn out and there were 16 people in our group. This included sitting in a classroom and watching a whole bunch of videos that were from the last century with terrible music. When we finally got out of the classroom, it was dark already. A few of us hung out together to do the homework for the course which involved filling in the blanks on some worksheets with the diving manual we were to borrow for the course.
We had travelers from all over the world including Germany, Iceland, Britain, New Zealand, Netherlands, France, Sweden and Canada. Soooo many Canadians. Over the next couple of days we became really good friends and it was like an international family away from home. The resort was located right off Sairee Beach and though not spectacular (when you live in Australia, you can’t compare the beaches), it was a sight to see all the dive boats and long-tails just hanging off the coast.
Amongst the locals of the resort were a couple of dogs which were absolutely adorable and had mastered the art of begging and one very noisy black and white cat. Most of the time we ate at the resort for convenience sake, the food was good albeit a bit pricier than if we went for street food. This was good for the dogs however, whom we would see for the next week and be suckered into giving them food.
On the second day on Ko Tao, we were split up into groups of six to be more manageable for the instructors. It was our confined day where we learnt how to use, set-up and put away the dive equipment and also a practice at using the equipment in the pool with manky water. The day also had an academic session on diving theory and having to sit in the classroom watching more 20th century videos. We were all itching to have our first dive in the ocean the following day and called it an early night after dinner together at the resort.
The third day of the course was to be our official first ocean dive! As we were not yet qualified, we couldn’t bring any GoPros or cameras down which was a shame as our first ocean dive had the best visibility. We had in excess of 10m of clear water and it was an amazing feeling and experience to glide through the water. It was unreal to look up and see the surface of the water and I had to take a moment to think about the fact that I was breathing underwater! We did two dives to a maximum depth of 11m on the second dive to a dive site called Pottery and three rocks. One the first dive, we did skills underwater such as regulator recovery (recovering your mouthpiece), emptying a flooded mask underwater and removing and replacing our weight belts. On our descent, we saw a juvenile bat fish on the buoy line which was apparently really rare to see as our instructor got really excited pointing it out to us.
On day four, the last day of the open water course, a storm rolled in which was just my luck but we would still be diving as the water was calm under the surface but that meant visibility had been reduced to 5/6m and even as low as 3/4m in some spots. We woke up at 6am for the morning dive and went to a dive site called white rock. We saw different marine life here with my first encounter with Christmas tree worms (think the giant mushrooms in avatar), angel fish, anemones and pink anemone fish (think nemo’s cousins).
Because of the storm, we had to dive the sites closer to shore with dives 1 (first dive of the course) and 4 on Sairee reef which was a bit disappointing to visit the same site twice. However, marine life was still abundant and even the common fish such as the butterfly and banner fish were very beautiful to observe.
On the fourth night, we celebrated becoming certified Open Water divers! We had dinner together before heading out to party! Our first stop was Diza bar in Sairee Village, a small lane with bars and shops dotted along it.
We had a few drinks and had a circle going on the tiny dance floor but sadly my night was cut short after I foolishly decided to join a Frenchman and some others in sharing a spliff on the beach. This particular spliff was very strong, procured from High bar on the island, and I ended up having to sit down for a solid 15 minutes after losing basic motor functions (I couldn’t walk straight). After a while, everyone ditched me and I was left huddled by a wall for what seemed like an eternity, but in reality was only 10 minutes, until I could walk again. In my paranoid state, I decided to head back to my dorm somehow managing to stop by for pancakes at one of the street stalls (Banana Nutella, mmmm) as I desperately tried not to tip anyone off. Sadly, I had to empty my stomach contents and the delicious nutrition from the pancake on my walk home. I made it back safely to my bed at the early hour of 11pm and slept it off to start my advanced dive course the following day.
The next day, day four, four of the original six of us on our group continued on to do the Advanced Adventurer dive course. Some in the other groups decided to take a day off then continue to do the Advanced Adventurer. Needless to say, most of us got hooked on diving. The advanced course consisted of higher level skills that would be practice in five more dives which were a buoyancy dive, a navigation dive, a deep dive, a computer dive and a night dive. Because of the bad visibility from the storm, we visited Sairee reef for another two dives to a total of four dives on the same dive site which wasn’t great but we ended up practicing skills for the two advanced dives at Sairee reef. The buoyancy skills included how to hover over something, an inverted hover (think upside down) and how to turn with one leg.
For our navigation dives, we learnt how to read compass bearings under water and simple navigation techniques such as landmarks, using depth and keeping the reef on your right or left depending on where you’re going. We also had practice at deploying the surface marker buoy or SMB for short, colloquially it was called the safety sausage which was basically an inflatable balloon that shot out to the surface to let boats know there were divers under the water.
Day five was to be the final day of the Advanced Adventurer course. We had two morning dives (6am wake-up), the first was to be the deep dive and the second to be a more fun dive, just enjoying the scenery. I was very much looking forward to the deep dive after being briefed on things to expect. Things behave a bit differently when you’re 30m underwater and under four times the pressure on the surface. Some people get “narced” and can suffer nitrogen narcosis which occurs when too much nitrogen dissolves in the blood due to the increased pressure from the depth. Stories of people getting narced include divers trying to box fish, hysteria and a general sense of euphoria. Other strange things that happen at depth is colour is distorted as low wavelength light such as red light is refracted away, making things seem more green/ blue. Sadly, none of us felt a tinge of nitrogen narcosis.
Our first dive was at a site called No Name Pinnacle, breathing was slightly more difficult when we descended to our maximum depth of 27.1m. We brought an egg down and cracked it to show how the pressure at depth would keep the yolk in a perfect sphere. The red rash guard our instructor brought down became a dark purple, almost black which was really cool as well. To simulate the effects of holding your breath underwater, our instructor brought a plastic bottle down and when she took it the bottle was entirely flat, crushed from the extreme pressure. After putting in a little extra air and some water into the bottle, we would see what would happen when we brought the bottle to the top. Because of the extreme change in pressure, the bottle on the surface was highly pressurized and the water in it had become carbonated and when our instructor released the lid, it shot off like a champagne cork which was really cool!
Our second morning dive we saw a couple of new marine life such as the cleaner wrasse fish which help remove parasites off other fishes and also varicose wart slugs which was the most common nudibranchs we saw, they were about 5-10mm, tiny little things.
Our final dive for the course was to be our night dive. We were to go to a site called white rock, one which we had previously visited on another day. The ocean completely changes at night, some fish go to sleep and others come out to hunt and we were treated to a different world. Stingrays, hermit crabs and big grouper fish come out at night. Stay tuned for the rest of Ko Tao, with the night dive, the best dive spot I went to on the fun dives and many more shenanigans in part 2.5 of 4!