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Big Blue Diving - Koh Tao - Thailand - Displaying items by tag: Open Water

 

Scuba diving is practised by thousands of lucky people around the world every single day. It’s something very special to be underwater yet a lot of people are very apprehensive about diving for the first time, even though it is considered a low-risk activity compared to many other outdoor and sporting activities – jogging for one is a lot more likely to put you at risk!

Of course it would be irresponsible of me to play down the risks involved, scuba diving is essentially an extreme sport which requires training and a licence. The most common medical issues are sunburn, seasickness and dehydration (all of which are easily avoided) but there also the dangers related to the effects of the increased water pressure underwater, dodgy scuba equipment and on the odd occasion marine creatures.

So is scuba diving dangerous? I think the best answer I’ve ever heard to this question is “diving is as dangerous or as safe as you want it to be”. If you practice safe diving by only diving to the limits of your experience and licence, maintain a reasonably fit and healthy lifestyle plus ensure the equipment you use is in good working order then diving is not very dangerous at all.

 

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Let’s look at a few ways on how to be a safe diver:

 

  • I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: dive within the limits of your experience – if you’re an Open Water diver stick to an 18 metre maximum depth, Advanced 30 metres and so on. Don’t be tempted to push your limits until you’ve had the necessary further training; it’s worth considering taking your PADI/SSI advanced, deep or wreck specialties.

 

  • Maintain good health. A high percentage of dive accidents are caused because of a pre-existing medical condition, so if possible have a medical check-up before taking a dive course to make sure you’re in tip-top condition.

 

  • Check your dive equipment thoroughly. If you have your own make sure it’s maintained and serviced regularly, rinsed in fresh water after diving and stored in a dry place. If you’re using rental equipment from your dive centre have a look at how it’s kept, check the hoses aren’t damaged and that it’s all being cleaned after every dive trip.

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  • Respect the buddy check! Insist on a thorough buddy check EVERY time you dive regardless of your own or your buddy’s experience, and take a minute to make sure the air is turned on fully, all regulators are working properly and secured in the correct manner, and that the weight belt/pockets are secure. A proper buddy check as taught in your SSI/PADI Open Water is more than sufficient here and stops any silly little problems that can occur. Many times I’ve heard people saying ‘don’t bother with the buddy check’, and inevitably they’re the ones returning to the surface because they’ve forgotten something or have compromised their safety somehow.

 

  • Always dive with a buddy, and that means staying close enough to each other so that in the event of an ‘out of air’ situation you can easily reach each other in a few seconds. Also make sure before the dive you’ve worked out who will be following whom underwater!

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  • Plan your dive properly, and stick to it as much as is possible. A good dive plan (and pre-dive briefing) will eliminate a substantial level of risk, but no plan is safe unless you follow it. In the event of the plan needing to change (for example, if a whaleshark appears on the divesite) make sure the whole group is aware of what will happen next, and make sure that each diver is aware of the reason for the change (in our example simply point at the whaleshark excitedly). The dive plan should also discuss at which point the divers will start their ascent – never go over the decompression limits without the correct training!

 

  • Keep practising to keep your skills fresh. Try to dive at least every 6 months, and if it’s been longer than that you should definitely consider doing a refresher dive: If it’s more than a year between dives then a refresher dive (also known as a scuba tune-up) should definitely be carried out for your safety and that of your buddy. I always ask all of my diving group when they last dived to get an idea of how good or bad they will be underwater, and which of them may need a little extra attention.

 

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To conclude, as long as train properly with a reputable dive centre (and keep diving to the way you were taught to), keep your skills fresh by diving regularly, and look after yourself and your equipment there’s no reason why you can’t lead a happy and safe scuba diving life!

 

 

 

 

 

As simple as diving is (kick legs, breathe and look at fish) it’s very common for our fresh new Open Water students to encounter a problem or two when first trying out all of the new equipment involved in scuba diving in the shallow waters of the first day.

With years of experience dealing with these challenges, we’ve come up with our Top 5 ‘Hardest’ skills of the Open Water right here:

 

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  1. Breathing out of your Nose

As I said earlier diving is pretty simple, and it’s often the things that seem most straightforward that people trip up on. It therefore comes as no surprise that a surprising amount of students (for reasons unbeknownst to many) get stuck on the uncomplicated task of blowing air out of their noses. Breathe in through your mouth, out through your nose – easy eh?

Well, apparently not! From just simply not exhaling at all, or breathing in instead of out, or my personal favourite of blowing out of their mouths (and then arguing that they didn’t) it’s one of the essential things for all scuba divers to master, as all you certified divers know this is how we get rid of any water that may have collected in our masks.

So what’s the best way to get through this terrible ordeal?

It’s here when the quality of your instructor shines through, and usually with a few reassuring words, a quick cuddle and a pat on the head the students are all happily blowing all sorts of muck out of their noses without even realizing it. It also helps to reassure yourself when feeling anxious in a situation like this, tell yourself ‘don’t panic, you can do this’ and more often than not the perceived problem is overcome easily!

 

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  1. Mask Clearing

Ask any dive professional about problems encountered during mask clearing practice and they will no doubt talk of terror, blind panic, and bolting to the surface to get that damn mask off as soon as humanly possible. It’s a vital skill to be mastered by any new diver as it is quite common for water to enter the mask due to a variety of reasons, be it because of a poorly fitting mask, a stray hair caught under the skirting, a kick from another diver or a broken mask strap – the list is endless!

So how do we perfect this technique?

The easy answer is to practice as much as possible, preferably first in a training pool! A safe, controlled environment free of boat traffic, current or visibility issues means a novice diver can feel as comfortable as possible without outside factors causing more stress, and with a few choice words and expert advice from a good instructor the student, before long, is taking the mask of like a true pro.

The following tips may be of use to those having trouble with mask clearing:

  • Practice! You can do this at home, in the kitchen sink or the nearest bathtub
  • Try breathing through the regulator on the surface without a mask on, breathing in through the mouth and out from the nose till it feels normal.
  • When feeling a little more comfortable, try breathing (with your face in the water) through a regulator or snorkel without the mask at all, to get used to the feeling of water in and around your nostrils

Ultimately, a flooded mask is a common occurrence underwater, and dealing with it shouldn’t be perceived as an emergency, but rather as a normal part of scuba diving for the competent, confident diver.

 

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  1. Setting up the Dive Equipment

I remember very well indeed the first time I was shown all of the fancy new equipment needed for diving – ‘there’s quite a lot of it’ was my initial reaction, then suddenly I was bombarded with terms like first stage, buoyancy control device (!), second stage, low pressure inflator, primary and alternate…and my confidence dropped to an all-time low. There was no way I’d remember all those names and which was which!

Of course (being the No. 1 Divemaster in Thailand now) I did in fact get to grips with the equipment after all, and before long it was almost second-nature to go through the set-up efficiently in a matter of minutes. So what was it that helped me conquer this fear of long-winded technical terms and unknown equipment?

Repetition was absolutely the key.  Again and again we set up the dive equipment, took it apart, set it up, swapped with our buddy’s equipment…. repeat ad nauseam! It didn’t take many dives before we could do it with our eyes closed, had worked out the exact knack of getting that LPI connected in one easy movement, and had become at one with the equipment.

The trick is to keep at it, and when diving after the completion of your Open Water insist on always setting up your own equipment to ensure you don’t forget how – after all who better to trust with your stuff than yourself!

 

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  1. Deep Water Entry

This is a strange one, as the deep water entry is basically hold the belt, hold the mask and step in. So why do we always have a bit of bother with this one?

It all really comes down to two emotions – excitement and fear.

The first time out on the boat, with everyone putting on their equipment for the first training dive of the SSI or PADI Open Water, is a great place to get excited. There’s always a wonderful buzz going around the boat as we head to the dive site, and when the captain honks his horn to give the all-clear to jump you can see the visible change in our divers demeanour, usually an even split of the nervous and the bloody excited!

Herein lies the problem with the deep water entry. Our divers head to the back of the boat, instructions are repeated for the final time, the diver hold the belt and mask and steps into the unknown…

It’s at this point when at least one person from every group of divers will let go of whatever they were holding and either flap their hands around nervously like they’re a chicken whilst stepping into the ocean, or does some super-excited hands-in-the-air star-jump thingamabob, usually accompanied by a few laughs from the other students. No matter how cool and collected the diver may have seemed before their giant leap for mankind, you can be assured that’s there will always be, from now until the end of time, at least one who royally screws it up and forgets everything they were told a matter of seconds before.

How to beat this? Vulcan emotion-suppressing aside, closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths to calm yourself should be enough to enough, but there will always be at least one remember…

 

 

  1. Getting up at 5am for the last day

Staying up all night is not the way to succeed on this one, partygoers.

 

 

 

I’ve been living and loving Thailand for quite a few years now, and like to think I know a thing or two about places to visit if you’re looking for some time to really unwind and forget the stresses of the real world. Personally I think the real beauty of Koh Tao is underwater, so when I want to really take advantage of the peace and tranquility that this wonderful country has to offer it’s time to grab that backpack and head to the other side of Thailand to explore some of the lesser-known gems that still manage to hide away from the masses of tourists now visiting this country.

In these next three blogs I’d like to look in detail at my all-time favourite islands for those wanting something other than partying every night!

 

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Koh Phayam

My absolute number one choice due to its easy accessibility from Koh Tao, Koh Phayam is like taking a step back in time to the days when Thai beaches were filled only with palm trees, crabs, a few simple bungalows and the odd skinny beach dog.

This gorgeous little island is around 35 kilometres square, and is the second most northern Thai island found on the Andaman Sea. It’s just 20km from Ranong and has long white sandy beaches, warm seas, beautiful views of neighbouring Burmese islands, fascinating wildlife and no ATMs, 7-11s or cars– although there is a weird tractor-type thing that you see on occasion carting large groups of Thai tourists to their plush resorts! It's the perfect place to really get away from it all, with great treks through the jungle or on the beaches revealing playful monkeys, the weirdly wonderful great hornbills, sea eagles, many types of butterfly and hordes of crabs going about their business. The interior of the island is home to large rubber and cashew nut farms which line the narrow ‘roads’ that link the main beaches and villages of Phayam – the smell of the cashew trees in bloom in March is amazing!

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It’s not a place for those wishing to enjoy the clear, coral filled waters that so many Andaman-side islands can boast, but one thing that I’ll never get bored of is the 1 metre-plus breaking waves on the busiest beach of Long Beach, making it possible to surf and boogie board– one of only a two places in Thailand that can offer this I believe, the other being Phuket, which as we all know is a sh1thole.

There are a few really nice beaches around this island  - most of the accommodation is on Aow Yai  (Long Beach) and Aow Khao Kwai  (Buffalo Bay). Ao Yai is the largest bay on the west-coast with a lovely 3 km long beach perfect for sunset strolls and watching the bioluminescence, and there’s the occasional party in high season and cheap simple bungalows on the far north and south of the beach – expect to pay a minimum of 300 baht per night for the most basic. The amount of resorts and bungalow operations on Long beach has risen dramatically the last few years, but it’s still a great place to hang out during the day and eat at night – most of the best restaurants are located on Long Beach.

 

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Buffalo Bay is a quieter beach, especially the south-east part of the bay where you’ll find me lazing around in a cloud of smoke and Chang bottles in my time off from Koh Tao. More upscale and better quality resorts dedicated to families, couples and Thai tour groups are found here, but there are still a few low-budget places on the beach and overlooking the bay – prices start at around 300 baht per night for the most basic wooden bungalow.

At the south end of Buffalo Bay is a small sea gypsy settlement which is worth exploring, especially when the locals return with their daily catch – just remember to ask before taking pictures of them, they’re gyspy/pirates so I imagine they’re pretty tough guys!

 

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When you feel like snorkelling or a spot of scuba diving it’s possible to sign up for a day trip to sublime Ko Surin or the islands in Laem Son Marine Park to the south, plus on the odd occasion I’ve seen adverts for Liveaboard trips north into Burma’s Mergui Archipelago. Those of you thinking of doing your PADI Open Water course here should expect to pay around 15,000 baht for the 4 day course, which is 50% more than what you pay here on Koh Tao.

Koh Phayam’s tourism season lasts from November to May, with the high season kicking in around late December through to February. It’s not necessary to book in advance for budget travelers, and discounts are often given when dealing face-to face with the resort of your choice.

 A ‘cashew festival’ is held every year in March to mark the harvest with music and sports on Long Beach for all you nut fans!

 

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How to get there:

In Ranong, take a taxi motorcycle or ‘songthaew’ to the Koh Phayam pier. This will cost between 50 and 100 baht, depending on the mood of the driver.

The slow ferries and speedboats leave every hour or so nowadays, so it’s easy to arrive and book on to the next available boat out most times of the year – though in the peak of high season it may be a good idea to book in advance at least the day before. The slow boats cost about 200 baht and takes 2-3 hours depending on the waves, and the speedboats cost around 400 baht and take just 40 minutes.

The last boats to Phayam are at 14.30 in low season, and 17.30 in high season – again subject to change depending on the mood of the drivers and the weather of course!

 

For many years now all of us here at Big Blue have been very proud of our Trip Advisor status here on Koh Tao. With more reviews than any other business on the island, and more 5 star reviews than the nearest competitor has total reviews, we’ve always been ranked very near the top of the ladder in rankings since the first reviews started trickling in in 2010, when we were still all wearing short pants and had not a single white hair between us!


Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that Trip Advisor/Yelp/Facebook reviews have a lot of value for any business in the service industry. Getting first hand feedback from those who have already experienced the business you’re thinking of frequenting is very handy for the potential customer, and from our own research we have seen that about one quarter of our divers have checked our review before making up their mind to dive with the best dive centre on the whole of Koh Tao – and for this we are very grateful.

 

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Of course, there can be flaws. One of the negative aspects of any site that relies on customer reviews is that anyone can write the review, even if they have never actually experienced any part of the business they are reviewing. This is also always open to abuse from those trying to smear a competitor, or simply by writing praising reviews for their own business to get one over the opposition. We’ve heard many stories of businesses pressuring their divers to leave a 5 star review before they finish their course, offering incentives to those willing to leave a review or simply paying for reviews from one of the many sites online that offer this way of cheating to the top. Famously this year was the story of the chap in London who managed to get his garden shed to rise to No. 1 on the rankings for restaurants in the area, despite it not even existing – it’s worth googling if you didn’t already hear the story, it's incredible how they did it!

 

Anyhow, I’m digressing a little here. The reason we’re all a little upset at the moment is to do with the ranking system employed by Trip Advisor, in which they use some fancy algorithms to determine which are the top scuba diving centres on our lovely tropical island of Koh Tao.
For year now we’ve been in the top 10, where we belong – after all we have the nicest big boats, a great sunset facing dive centre/bar/restaurant and the best damn instructors and divemasters in the whole of Thailand. Then, one night last week everything changed. Dive centres that had been rated in the top ten with us for years, dropped by 10-20 places...we somehow went from (slightly disappointing) 4th place down to 40th! A bad review? Nope. Other dive centres getting more reviews than us? Well, two of the ones that rose above us actually went out of business over a year ago, one of which hasn’t had any reviews for almost 2 years!


After trawling through the Trip Advisor owners forums, it’s turned that this wasn’t an isolated incident, and had in fact happened all over the world.

 

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So what exactly is going on at Trip Advisor HQ?

We found this post from someone who’d noticed in February of this year that a whole chunk of their positive reviews had disappeared, with a lot of other businesses suffering the same fate. An email they received from Trip Advisor regarding this said:


"Hi everyone! Thank you for reporting an issue affecting the reviews of some attraction listings. Unfortunately we have a bug in the system and our engineers are working to solve it as soon as possible.”

 

And then another post from a business in Hawaii just last week regarding the sudden rank changes:

 

“"Hey all - I finally got through to TA about the sudden drop in our property (Sail Maui). It's a known issue and they are looking to resolve it. Fingers crossed!"

 

So it’s all good? Soon to be fixed, after all without the businesses cooperation Trip Advisor will become moot, right?

Well, not if this is to be believed:

" TA representative…assured me there is a glitch in the system and they will work on it, however; the technical support team does not work weekends”

Of course they don’t!

 

And finally, another diving business in Krabi, Thailand received this earlier this week to add that a lovely bit of confusion to the whole affair –

 

“We already got a feedback from our network engineers and was told that there is no bug affecting the popularity index and the current ranking of your property on TripAdvisor is accurate and correct"

 

So where does that leave us, the humble business that relies on our excellent customer feedback on sites like Trip Advisor?


Advising our divers to look at the reviews and not the rankings, and we hope this is all fixed soon please TA team - we miss out top 5 status and want it back!

 

 

 

 

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  1. Because deeper is always better

 

We dive for one main reason – to see cool stuff underwater. Years of experience have told me that most of you want to see the biggest creatures that patrol the divesites – hunting barracuda, flapping mantas, big fat grouper, nasty-looking sharks and the fattest fish of all, the mighty whaleshark. So where’s the best place to find the big stuff so many of you desire?

Deep is where all the biggest stuff likes to roam. Our huge schools of pickhandle and chevron barracuda are always hanging out at around 25 metres on our best sites of Chumphon Pinnacle and South-West Pinnacle, and witnessing these in action is something that all visitors to Koh Tao should experience at least once; there’s nothing quite like being circled by a mighty group of tightly-packed fish, often blocking out the sun with their density!

The massive (delicious-looking) grouper we’re also lucky enough to have underwater here tend to chase and flirt with each other on the bottom of the deeper sites, and the majority are usually found at a depth of 25-30 metres. It’s at these depths where we can also see large schooling fusiliers fighting for their lives against the tennis-racket sized queenfish and trevally, which like nothing better than a feast of fusilier for breakfast. Watching these larger predators working together to separate a victim from their group is a joy to behold, with the balling and rolling smaller fish giving a visual treat to the lucky deep diver!

 

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  1. If you’re not a night diver, then you’re not really a diver

Ask anyone about to do their first ever night dive how they feel, and they’ll usually admit to feeling a mix of excitement and a little bit of pooping themselves too. To be diving in the pitch black water is an intimidating thought at first, but ask the same divers on their return and more often than not they’ll describe the dive as very relaxed, peaceful and whole lot of fun!

To put it quite simply, there’s something very special about diving at night. One of the most stunning sights you can see underwater is to witness the hundreds of tiny star-like bioluminescent phytoplankton streaking from the fins of your diving buddy, and as you only have this small circle of light from your torch to concentrate on it’s not long before you’re taken away into a beautifully tranquil world, where hidden wonders now pass by freely, using the cover of night to hunt.

Miss it at your peril!

 

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  1. No more unwatchable shaky videos, or out of focus photos

One of the recommendations from all of us here at Big Blue is to do the PADI/SSI Perfect Buoyancy dive of the advanced course. Not only does it help you perfect your technique underwater and have you gliding around the reef like a dolphin, but it also emphasizes the importance of good buoyancy control, using just the lungs to move you through the water and no longer having to kick up and down, like a peasant.

With this perfect buoyancy you have now obtained, the quality of your images and recordings dramatically improves. Most of our divers now carry some sort of camera, and it’s nice to be able to show off your dives with pictures that are in focus and clear, and video that doesn’t look like it was shot by Michael J. Fox. These days where everything needs to be instantly put on Instagram and shared on Facebook, why not show off with the types of recordings that wouldn’t look out of place in National Geographic!

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  1. Abandon your dive instructor!

One of the tasks that must be completed in the Advanced course is the Navigation dive, where we will teach you how to use a compass to find your way around a dive site like a pro, and also how to use the natural features of the dive site to work out where all the most interesting things will be without getting totally lost and making a fool out of yourself. Once you’ve successfully mastered the (surprisingly easy) navigation techniques, it’s possible to safely and competently dive with just a buddy - no more following your instructor like a sucker!

This independence underwater is something that you’ll strive for every time you dive after you try it for the first time, as when you’re at the front of the group you’ll realise that you see a hell of a lot more marine life that you do merely following. It also gives you a lot more confidence underwater too, and with this increase in ability comes, as ever, extended dive times – more confidence always leads to more relaxed breathing, which in turn gives us maximum time underwater!

 

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  1. Filter out the bad divers

Something that most fundivers have experienced at least once (and the scourge of many of my own Thailand diving trips) is the bad diver in the group. Kicking up sand, banging into you from all angles and usually breathing at an incredible rate, sharing your dive with someone of limited ability can really ruin your diving experience, and a fast breather in the group can easily make your whole dive party ascend well before you were planning to.

More often than not if there’s someone breathing too fast or banging into the back of you, it’s an Open Water diver. By completing the Advanced certification you’ll be separated from these (often) fresh new divers, and put with others with similar abilities and control of buoyancy – hello one hour dives, and goodbye surfacing with half your tank left over!

 

 

You can book your SSI or PADI Advanced courses with us every day, face to face or on the internet machine.

For a small island, Koh Tao is blessed with a lot of dive sites; we have around twenty-five beautiful sites within an hour by boat, with a wonderful mix of easy, shallow sites for beginners and deeper, more difficult locations for those wishing to challenge themselves more underwater. No matter what your experience level is, all of us diving on Koh Tao are after one thing in particular - to share our dives with incredible marine life!

Here, in no particular order, are my top unusual things to encounter whilst beneath Koh Tao:

Bigfin Reef Squid

Now not everyone will agree with me here, but i'm quite the fan of these delicious little buggers with their spectacularly hypnotic appearance. Often seen hanging around close to the buoylines or very close to the surface at Chumphon, Hin Wong and South West Pinnacle, if you happen to bump into them it's well worth keeping a very close eye on them in case they start showing their amazing capacity to change colour in a blink of an eye!

Bigfin reef squid, which in general have a lifespan of about a year, are very skilled in this art of colour change and use it mainly for camouflage or to startle and warn potential predators. It's produced by changing the way light bounces off their bodies by altering the patterns of pigment in their skin, which mimics sunlight dancing in the water in such a way that they become essentially invisible. The effect is absolutely mesmerizing and also quite hypnotic, with streaks and waves of colour flickering across their skin until they speed off into the distance, often leaving the lucky viewer in disbelief at what they just witnessed.

How to see them? -  If you sit at the back of the boat at night with a bright light shining into the water, the bigfin reef squid hang out in the shadows and wait for small fish to come towards the light. When they see their prey they dart in and grab the fish and disappear back into the shadows again - easy!

Weird Fact - All types of squid have three hearts, but will never send a Valentine's Card.

 

                                                                                            

Nudibranch

A phenomenal creature that only the best of Divemasters can locate, these slime-oozing creatures with a boneless body feature brilliant colors and eye-catching patterns on their skin, and is often considered one of the most beautiful animals in the world - often referred to as 'Mother Nature's Greatest Work of Art' by divers, there's certainly there's no other creature on the planet that has colour patterns as spectacular as a sea slug! Hermaphrodites, their size ranges from just a few millimetres to around 30 cm and there are more than 3000 known species of nudibranch, with new ones being identified almost daily. They are carnivorous, so their prey includes sponges, coral, anemones, hydroids, barnacles and other nudibranch - it's nice to see cannibalism is finally making a comeback! They are actually very picky eaters, and individual species or families of nudibranchs may eat only one kind of prey, so as all good DMs know when you find their favourite food there's a good chance there'll be a nudibranch hanging around close by waiting for their next meal.

Weird Fact - Some nudibranchs are actually solar-powered! They create their own food by harvesting coral with algae, and house this algae inside their bodies. This algae derives its energy from light via photosynthesis, which is then used by the nudibranch to provide nutrients to sustain it for months- the human equivalent would be sticking a plant on your back and never having to eat again!

Weirder Fact - Some humans actually eat nudibranchs. Chileans and some islanders in Russia and Alaska roast or boil sea slugs and sometimes eat them raw...it has been described as “chewing an eraser", and is not recommended by Big Blue.

 

                                                              

                                                                                                       

 

Saddleback Clownfish Protecting its Eggs

Named due to their wide white head band and a wide white middle band that looks like it forms a 'saddle', these aggressive little fish are always one of the most popular things to see with our first time divers, but for the more experienced diver amongst us it's well worth taking a closer look around their home anemone to see if any eggs are present, in my opinion one of the most interesting things about the clownfish species.

Clownfish are always very dependent on their host anemone and stay very close to it. They do not migrate to other anemones to start new families, but stay in their host for their entire life time unless the anemone dies. It's only when protecting eggs that will they will stray from their anemone, and it is common to see them swimming a fair distance to warn off anything they believe may be showing too much of an interest in their young. The female will lay her eggs upon a flat surface just to the side of their host anemone, in the area that the happy couple cleared of debris earlier.  Such items as shells, coconut shells or litter such as tin cans or plastic are often seen housing the eggs here around Koh Tao!

The male is the one whose main task is caring for the eggs, and he quickly attacks any approaching predators, preferring to rely on an excellent offense as his best defense - attacking and biting the intruder. When no threat is present, he fans the eggs with his tail both to aerate them as well as to remove any debris that may have settled onto them. In addition to fanning the eggs, the male removes any unfertilized or infected eggs by eating them!

 In general, the eggs are pink to orange in colour as they are laid and remain so for a couple days. As they age, their pink to orange will gradually fade to a dull grey or brown. Finally, as the hatching nears (usually around 1 week after laying), they become shiny silver with the fry's developed eyeballs clearly visible. This in particular makes for an excellent photo, as you can see in the example below – just watch out for angry Dad!

Weird Fact -  If the large breeding female is removed, her male mate changes sex to female and the next largest fish in the group rapidly increases in size and takes over the role as the sexually mature male. 

 

 

                                                                                         

 

With over 85 dive centres now on Koh Tao, choosing which one to do your PADI/SSI Open Water course with has never been harder. Talking to the dive centre in person is something we highly recommend, but with each of them doing their utmost to sell you on their own particular store it's good to go with some ideas on what you're looking for before booking your scuba license.

So what facts should we take into consideration when deciding who to grace with your presence and go scuba diving with? Here we're going to talk about a few things to have a think about before making that decision:

Large or Small?
Each has their pros and cons, and it really depends on what you want from your new dive centre - do you want one-on-one with the instructor and diving from a small boat, or do you prefer to have a few others also learning with you and a larger boat? Diving is a very social experience, so personally I like to have a few others around so I have the chance to make friends with a bunch of people, and the large boats are a lot more comfortable in waves due to their increased weight - take note those of you who can get seasick!

 

                                                                                                 

Pool Training or Immediately in the Ocean?
For a nervous diver, the choice is very simple - find a dive centre that uses a pool to learn to dive. To immediately be jumping into the ocean with around 15-20 kg of equipment many people have never seen in their lives can be very intimidating, and here on Koh Tao you've then got a 20-30 minutes swim to get to the beach area to practise for the first time, with snorkellers, swimmers, kayaks, current and visibility to think about as well as all the new skills you need to learn. To learn all the new techniques in a pool before getting into the sea is a lot less nerve-wracking - after all you're just stepping into a shallow pool - and there are never snorkellers, kayaks, currents etc.. Another negative point about immediately learning in the sea is that you now have a time limit to get through all the things you need to successfully complete before being allowed to go on to the next part of the course (as the boat needs to get back before the sun goes down) whereas the pool doesn't go anywhere, giving the instructor the whole day to ensure that the student is totally comfortable and safe with this equipment before even considering getting into the sea.

We believe here at Big Blue that letting our students spend all that time in the pool is the safest way to teach them how to dive, so then when they're ready to ocean dive for the first time they're not terrified of the prospect but excited and raring to go!

Location
With so many dive centres on this small island there's not enough space on the beach for them all to have that ideal location right on the shore, so you'll find that most of the cheaper ones are located on the streets around Sairee, Mae Haad and Chalok - of course you will have a much better experience if your dive centre is situated right on the beach, as the natural beauty of our beaches can't help but inspire a student compared to those on a dusty street. So how do we choose which of these beaches is best?

For those who want to be close to all the action there's no better choice than Sairee Beach. With the best restaurants, bars and clubs on the island located around there and easily the best spot to view the islands incredible sunsets, Sairee is THE place to be if you want to be within walking distance of all the island's hottest spots, plus by simply heading to the north of Sairee you also get the peace and tranquility Thailand is famous for - but still just a five minute stroll down the beach to the busier parts!

For those who prefer more built up areas, or want to stay close to the piers for laziness reasons then Mae Haad is the place for you. With a few good places to eat, slightly more relaxed bars and no real clubs at all, it tends to attract the slightly older visitors to the island. The beach isn't as nice or clean as in Chalok and Sairee (due to the amount of traffic coming in and out of the port) but it's still a great place to relax and enjoy the sunsets of Koh Tao without as many backpackers around you.

Incredibly popular with the islands French and Spanish speaking contingent, south-facing Chalok Baan Khao is a smaller beach than Sairee and has a lot less people staying around it. One of the islands cheaper places to stay, it has a fair few budget Thai places to eat, and a handful of decent bars to enjoy afterwards. Those wishing to party may find it a little too relaxed, and the beach often suffers from the 'Low-Tide Blues' making it difficult to swim from there, but nevertheless it reamins a popular spot for those wanting peace and quiet above everything else.

 

 

                                                                                                  

Reputation
When scuba-diving 18 metres underwater on the deepest part of the SSI or PADI Open Water license, the last thing you want to be worried about is the equipment that's keeping you alive down there - and here lies the most important thing of all when choosing a dive centre - the quality, safety and reputation of the business. The safety of the diver must be the priority every day on every single dive, and this is where we can start using tools like Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor and Facebook to filter out those dive centres that appear good on paper, but in reality fail to impress. We always recommend a dive centre that had been diving these particular waters for a while, as then you know that they've worked out precisely where to send their students for the best possible Open Water experience, and it's worth going for the bigger dive centres over the small if you're worried about your safety - the larger dive schools have bigger budgets, so can spend a lot more on essential safety items. From well-stocked first aid kits to tanks of pure oxygen on every boat, you can tell a lot about a dive centre and how seriously they take their divers safety from the contents of their first aid kits - so sneak a peak!

 

 

                                                                                    

Atmosphere
The final factor to consider when choosing your dive centre for that elusive SSI/ PADI Open Water is of course how you fit in with the people working there! The atmosphere generated at the dive centre is essential to cultivate the type of learning environment that inspires the students and makes them want to come back for more, and give their very best in all parts of the course. If you're surrounded by people you don't understand or get on with then immediately you're fighting a battle not only to complete the diving license but also to become a part of the group around you, which inevitably leads to frustrations. To find out if you are the right sort of person for the dive centre there's really no better way than to talk to them in person, and get a feel for the place before making that decision. If it's not possible to do this, then try shooting them a few messages on their Facebook page to see how they respond - you can tell a lot about the people from how enthusiastic or disinterested their replies are to you. Trip Advisor reviews will also tell you a lot about the atmosphere at the dive school from an unbiased source, so it's well worth trawling through a few to get an idea of what the place is like from the students themselves.

 

See you underwater!

 

 

 

Fancy a few dives in beautiful warm tropical waters? Then this is the list for you; these are arguably the best 5 sites we have here on Koh Tao!

 

Chumphon Pinnacle                               

By far the most visually impressive site close to Koh Tao, this legendary pinnacle is easily the best chance to see the whalesharks that occasionally pass by our deeper dive spots. Perfect for both Open Water and Advanced fundivers and students, we always know that our divers are going to return from this site totally addicted to scuba diving! Once home to bullsharks and reef sharks, it's a fully submerged granite pinnacle 14 metres at it's shallowest point and reaching as deep as 47 metres off the northern tip (towards a secret pinnacle nicknamed 'The Castle' due to its shape). It's surrounded by schools of barracuda, large grouper towards the ocean floor and beautiful schools of fusiliers being hunted by passing king mackerel, trevally, queenfish and rainbow runners - an excellent place to watch the ocean at work, with a lot of interaction between the different types of fish that live there! It's also a great place to find some of our most beautiful nudibranch when you head towards the bottom, where old discarded fishing nets provide vital food for the lovely sea slugs that us divemasters love so much.

Average dive time - 35 minutes for OW divers, 45 minutes for Advanced or above.

 

South West Pinnacles


A beautiful mountain range of pinnacles, this fantastic deep site bottoms at around 28 metres and consists of one large pinnacle rising to just 6 metres from the surface, flanked by 2 smaller pinnacles on both the east and west edges. It creates a lovely vista with the five pinnacles often covered in juvenile barracuda rolling over the edges of the rocks, silhouetted by the sun to give one of Koh Tao's most awesome underwater sights - a 'waterfall' of fish cascading towards the diver. A great place to find all types of barracuda, shoals of squid towards the surface, cobia, a variety of eels and shrimp and of course as it's one of our deep sites there's always a chance to bump into a whaleshark or two if you're lucky!
It's also another one of our divesites that features a 'secret pinnacle', found by taking a bearing of 120 degrees from the eastern buoyline and swimming for about 5 minutes. The best part of the site in my opinion, it's a little deep for Open Water divers but this (usually) diverless part of the site is a great place to look for boxfish, nudibranch and everyone's favourite, stupid bloody 'Nemo'...

Average dive time - 40 minutes for OW divers, 50 minutes for Advanced

 

Laem Thian 'Caves'                                                                                  


A brilliant dive site for all except the claustrophobic, this shallow site contains about 20 swim-throughs, though we like to call them caves as it sounds much sexier! With most of them just a few metres from the surface and the deepest at just 15 metres, there's always incredible 'cathedral beams' of light entering the tunnels, lighting up the nurseries of fish that use the rocks as shelter till they're big enough to fend for themselves and also giving off a beautiful light show as waves crash into the cave above us. A great place to find orange-spine unicornfish - one of the prettiest fish we have here on Koh Tao - and also a good chance for turtles, giant pufferfish, eels, the weirdly wonderful dusky sweeper, lots of small stuff and every so often we bump into a black-tip reef shark in the shallows! It's also home to some of Koh Tao's nicest coral gardens, with a great variety of different types to be found towards the bay.

Average dive time - 45 minutes for OW divers, 60 minutes for Advanced

 

Shark Island


A dive site named as it looks like a huge shark fin when viewed from 'Aow Leuk' beach facing it, Shark Island really has it all - deep southern sections reaching 30 metres, with piles of fluroescent soft corals, cobia and nudibranch, the east side where we have swim throughs, blue-spotted ribbontail rays, filefish and triggerfish chasing whatever gets too close, and the north with it's incredible coral gardens and hordes of the typical Koh Tao reef fish everywhere you can imagine - also the best snorkeling spot for miles around too. It's one of those sites where you come back with a stiff neck from trying to watch all that's going on around you, and it always leaves you wanting more. It's also possible to see whalesharks every now and then here coming up from the deeper parts of the island, and there's a resident turtle that'll be lurking around the southern sections most days.

Average dive time - 45 minutes for OW divers, 60 minutes for Advanced

 HTMS Sattakut 742 Wreck                                                                                                    

 

A dive site that is usually the most popular with our Advanced students (and usually the one they're still talking about days later), the Sattakut wreck is essential viewing at least once when backpacking Thailand and trying out a bit of scuba diving. Built in 1942 and sunk here in 2011, the Sattakut lays in the sand just one minute south of the dive site Hin Pee Wee, which is always the best way to approach her - to glide past the beautiful natural corals and suddenly find yourself nose to nose with a huge WW2 warship is an experience all divers here should partake in, it really takes your breath away when dived properly! Home to eels, sweetlips, shrimp, grouper and the amazingly-named Harry hotlips, it's also worth taking a peek underneath it where we can often find a huge jenkins whipray hanging out and looking evil.
The HTMS Sattakut is 46 metres long, 7 metres wide and has two canon guns, with the shallowest part being the bridge which lies at a depth of 18 metres, and reaching a depth of 31 metres at the stern, maiking it suitable for Advanced divers only. It was used in the US naval attacks on Iwo Jima and Okinawa in WW2, and it's not unusual to see our Japanese divers kamikaze into it to regain family honour, or something equally as daft that I just made up.

Average dive time - 40 minutes for Advanced students, 50 minutes for more experienced divers

 

 

Other notable sites loved by all include Green Rock, Samran Pinnacles, Sail Rock (which is closer to Koh Phangan, so doesn't really count) and Hin Wong Pinnacle, all of which can be booked with our team in person at the resort.

 

As one of the longest running scuba diving schools on Koh Tao, we've probably been asked every question about diving you could think of, in particular regarding the Open Water license that so many of our students come especially to do here on Koh Tao - after all it is renowned as being the cheapest place in the world to do the Open Water course! Even compared to our nearest neighbours on Koh Phangan (approximately 10,000 baht without accommodation) and Koh Samui (approximately 15,000 baht without accommodation) we manage to provide high quality, professional and above all safe Open Water diving courses to all those backpacking Thailand and choosing the mighty Big Blue for all their diving needs.

One of the questions we're asked time and again is regarding the two major Scuba Diver Training agencies we have today:

PADI - (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) is the world’s largest scuba training agency. PADI Instructors can teach independent of a dive store.

SSI (Scuba Schools International) is the world’s largest store based training agency. SSI Instructors and Dive Masters must be affiliated with a physical store.

From personal experience, people come to Koh Tao usually with the intention of doing 'their PADI', as the team at PADI Marketing do a bloody brilliant job at promoting their brand with posters, magazine spreads, the huge banners and stalls at every dive expo on the planet. SSI on the other hand have a much smaller marketing budget that they gain from smaller dive agency fees, smaller certification cost fees and smaller staff budgets. There are actually over 120 dive organisations in the world that can give you an Open Water license, other popular ones being BSAC in the UK, CMAS over Europe, Naui in the USA and my new all-time favourite, the Polish Tourist Country-Lovers Society Underwater Activity Commission, which sounds much sexier.

 

So what's the difference then?

 

INTERNATIONALLY RECOGNISED?

Any of the dive organisations in the world can give you the Open Water license, and with it you can dive in every dive centre in the world for the rest of your life - an SSI diver can of course dive in a PADI centre or the other way round, for example. In fact, no dive centre can turn you away just because you have a different license to what they offer!
They are also completely interchangeable – you can get certified as an Open Water Diver with SSI, then Advanced Diver with PADI, then Rescue with NAUI and so on up to instructor level, without being made to repeat courses.

COST OF CERTIFICATIONS
SSI is usually cheaper, as they don’t insist that the student buy a manual/app for the course. You can borrow one of our books or use the app for free!
PADI, however, do insist on purchasing the materials – no matter if you are traveling around the world or learning at home. They feel that post-course review of materials is important to maintain knowledge-levels. They offer an e-book in case you don't want to carry a pretty heavy book around with you for the rest of your trip. Here at Big Blue that adds 1000 baht to the course price, the price of an extra dive at the end of the course and a couple of beers to help wash it down!

ONLINE LEARNING
Both SSI and PADI offer their students the option to start the practical portion of the lessons online, which will save time and gives divers more time to just dive. The difference here is both cash and longevity: SSI’s online learning is free, whereas with PADI you will pay about US$150. PADI offer you access to their system for one year from when you sign up, whereas with SSI it’s there for you all the time, even after the course. If you choose not to buy the book, you can simply log in and use the site as a review when you want a refresher later on!

SAFETY
Science, skills and techniques are exactly the same, meaning no difference in safety at all

EASE OF LEARNING
With SSI the course is taught with an 80/20 approach, meaning the instructor can adapt 20% of the course to fit the pace of learning, ensuring a student focused training programme worked around the needs of the students - after all everyone learns at different paces.
PADI however insists skills are performed in rigid sequence with no room for manoeuvre for changing water conditions or student learning pace. If you do change the order they dictate, they've broken standards that must be adhered to - a big no-no for a dive instructor!

Is this relevant to you as a student then? Imagine you're having problems mastering a skill with PADI who say that skill 'A' must be followed by skill 'B' and so on… As you struggle your confidence will suffer, and we have to get you to complete this particular skill before being able to move on, asking you to try one more time, and again...often embarassing and humiliating the student especially if the other students had no problems! Being forced to try something you're having bother with again and again doesn't seem like the best way to teach, in my opinion - and I'm a PADI diver myself! With SSI your instructor can move on, do a couple of 'easier' skills to boost your confidence then come back to the problem area at a later time when you seem to be more comfortable - a much better teaching technique than the 'try it again, try it again' method, and one that leads to a lot less students having to drop out of the course because they got stuck on something.

SSI also allows our instructors to add information and/or skills if that improves the quality of the scuba license. For example, if you want to know more about the whalesharks that we see here sometimes, we are able to spend some extra time talking about the dangers they face, what we can do to help and so on - making the course a lot more enjoyable!

 

CONCLUSIONS
Overall, the courses teach the same information because they adhere to the standards set forth by the WRSTC - the governing body of scuba-diving worldwide. Remember, no matter which organization you take a course with you will use the same kind of equipment and see the same marine life underwater.
A lot of divers working in the industry will tell you that it does not really matter whether you choose SSI, PADI or any of the others on offer out there, after all when you finish you get a scuba certification card and you can dive anywhere in the world.

Here at Big Blue we make more money from the more expensive PADI course, and all of our instructors can teach both PADI and SSI. They actually get paid more for teaching PADI Open Water, but if given the chance to choose I'm sure every one of them would go for SSI simply because it's more focused on the learner and any problems they may encounter during the course, making it easier for both student and teacher and therefore resulting in a lot more successful, freshly certifed Open Water divers!

 

 

Book your PADI or SSI course today on our website www.bigbluediving.com or come to to us in person when you arrive on Koh Tao - courses start at 5pm every day of the year! 

 

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