There are so many dive operations on the tiny 21 square kilometer island of Koh Tao, that choosing one dive school can quickly become overwhelming. What makes this even more difficult is that every school has something unique to offer and we all do a fantastic job. As a community of dive operators, we have extremely high safety standards and care about our students and divers. With this in mind, it might be more about finding the right “flavor” dive school for yourself. What are you looking for in a dive school? What school size and group size works for you? Do you prefer learning in a pool or the ocean? What about the price and accommodation? Here are the 6 most talked-about factors collated from our students and professionals alike. So let’s get stuck into how to choose a dive school on Koh Tao.
The best approach is to try and visit different schools, get a feel for the place and sign up in person. Otherwise online reviews and researching the school’s name directly, reading blogs like this one and emailing the school and judge by their response.
The cheapest one please.
Bargain hunting is in every backpacker’s skill repertoire. However, I don’t think choosing the “cheapest” dive school is high on the list of important factors. Would you choose the cheapest bungy jumping or sky diving operation? Diving is no different. Divers rely on quality equipment, professional staff, and safety standards to minimise risk and prevent accidents.
Since 2018 the course prices are furthermore less of a deciding factor as the island agrees on minimum course prices in order to ensure safety standards and keeping it fair for all size operators. Price is therefore not a deciding factor in how to choose a dive school on Koh Tao today.
Now let’s get stuck into deciding factors that have been relevant for years and are still relevant today.
How to choose a Dive School on Koh Tao
Below are the 6 most commonly agreed on factors when choosing a dive school on Koh Tao.
1. Where is the Dive School located?
Location matters because it shapes the kind of experience you will have while spending time on Koh Tao. While we are a very small island, there are still three distinct areas on Koh Tao, namely Chalok, Mae Haad, and Sairee. All of these have their unique qualities to offer. Chalok is generally agreed on being the quietest town, Mae Haad is right in the center where you will arrive and Sairee has a bit of both with a large beach, beach bars & restaurants. So depending on what type of experience you are looking for, consider where the school is located.
2. Inspect the Dive School’s Facilities
New divers don’t necessarily know what to look for in diving gear or how logistics affect their experience. I don’t think you need to be a dive professional to look at equipment to judge what condition it is in. Seeing the equipment beforehand will give you peace of mind. Everyone is welcome to come by and we’ll gladly show you our equipment. Dive operations that have “nothing to hide” is the way to go here.
Sairee Cottage Diving uses AquaLung equipment, trains with dive computers and we have our very own in-house A.S.S.E.T. Technician Barry “Baz”.
What about the air you will breathe?
It really matters what gets compressed into your scuba tank. Breathing contaminated air has health risks. In certain parts of the world, PureAir is a safety standard. Currently, we are the only dive operation on Koh Tao with a PureAir certification from Bauer Compressors.
Is dive insurance included?
Most standard travel insurance does not cover scuba diving. While diving is an extremely safe sport, it is an extreme underwater activity and carries certain risks. This is why we include free insurance for all our students and fun divers if they do not already have their own.
3. Logistics & Dive School Size
Most people spend most of their research time on this topic.
Does size matter?
An ongoing topic I suppose. There is no way to definitively say that a big or small group size is better or worse for diver training. It will depend on the people in the group, the instructor and your personal preference. I have spoken to divers wanting one on one instruction and ending up with 4 others in the group. They ended up having a blast.
Some people specifically ask not to be alone with the instructor. If will really depend on how you feel personally. From experience, most people end up having more fun with a few others in the group. Diving after all, is a buddy sport. Many students make lifelong friends during the course.
PADI does not allow one instructor to take more than 8 people in a group. What is too many people in one group will depend on each individual. At Sairee Cottage Diving we max out the class sizes at 6 for Open Water and 4 for Try Dives. Fun divers are also a maximum of 4 divers to one guide.
Training in a Pool vs the Ocean
This is hard to decide for most new divers and an epic ongoing debate among dive instructors. I can find positives for both starting in the ocean and starting in the pool. As long as the confined water training is done in “pool-like” conditions, safety standards are met.
The ocean might make the first few breaths underwater more realistic and you’d also get a shallow mini dive in the actual sea back to the boat. The pool is distraction-free and it is easy to take a break and hop out to brief the next set of skills with the focus being on skills practice.
The preference here is very personal. We have the flexibility at Sairee Cottage Diving to do our confined in either our own purpose-built diving pool or the ocean. Having our own pool means that pool sessions can take as long as needed and repetition is possible. We are not bound to any allocated time slots if we use our pool. Discuss the options with your instructor before the course to see what suits you better.
How do we get to the dive sites?
For the ocean dives, logistics can make a dive trip smooth or very cumbersome. Koh Tao is very blessed with 26 easily accessible dive sites. Whether you are fun diving or taking a course it pays to know how you will reach the dive sites. Think of the time used and accessibility if you are in need.
We leave right off the beach in front of the dive shop and reach our private dive boat via a longtail. As long as the tide allows this is our preferred way to reach the dive sites.
4. Meet your Instructor & the Dive Team
So then who is actually going to teach me? It is nice to know who your instructor on the course is going to be. One of our full-time instructors is always in the shop the day before they start the next Open Water course. This means you can come in and ask your questions to the actual person teaching you.
All our staff are full-time employees with work permits, professional liability insurance, MSDT rating and several years of experience teaching at Sairee Cottage Diving.
Come and say hello!
Avoid Booking Agents & Touts
If you are trying to book ahead it pays off to read online reviews and contact some dive schools. You can avoid that “Book Now” button for now and send an email first. This is a good way to get a feel for the dive school if you are unable to drop by. Booking agents are driven by commission and are often not well informed on logistics and how exactly the courses are run.
If you are already on Koh Tao, take your time. Avoid touts and aggressive sellers. Diving is a relaxing sport where you need to feel comfortable. Go and get a feel for the general vibe of a dive school first and meet some of the staff and chat with them. Ask your questions in person.
5. Read Online Reviews
It is very hard to really know what it will be like. Especially doing the research beforehand. Reading online reviews does help to get a feeling of the dive operation before you arrive.
Some of our Online Reviews
Email and see what happens
Even today, I still do this when choosing dive shops for my holidays. I send them an email and see what type of response I get from them. How accommodating are they to my questions? One of our instructors, normally Bear, Denja or Kaylie will answer your email personally.
6. What does the Dive School do for the environment?
As a PADI 5 star rated school we are also 100% ProjectAWARE rated, meaning we donate to marine conservation on behalf of all our students. Furthermore, we organise regular eco days, raise awareness on the island and inspire other businesses to follow our plastic-free mission. No plastic straws in the bar, restaurant or cafe.
There is free drinking water refills available at our dive shop.
In addition, we spend more time focusing on neutral buoyancy and environmental diving practices with our students. Because we have our own boat, our instructors decide the safest and best place to do the day's diving.
We do not use onboard compressors as they can have quite a negative impact on the environment.
Some closing thoughts
I hope that this collective information will help you with how to choose a dive school on Koh Tao. Many factors determine what kind of experience you will have scuba diving on Koh Tao. If you decide to do diving at Sairee Cottage, we'd love to welcome you to our family.