Summing Up: Crystal Dive Resort is RECOMMENDED as THE PLACE to learn to dive in Koh Tao.
Ever since I was a kid growing up in the middle of the DESERT, I've always dreamed of learning to SCUBA dive. Similar to surfing, it's always represented to me the ultimate aquatic adventure & sport. Though one can learn in New Mexico, I was never too keen on taking a class there, since all dives end up at the "Blue Hole,"an extremely narrow "lake" of sorts located in Santa Rosa. Nevertheless, when one is raised on re-runs of "The Undersea World of Jacques Costeau," (as I was in the 1970s) the excitement of going underwater to breathe is marked by the ability not just to be under water, but to see all the things that live there.
Previously in my travels, I once had an opportunity to try diving in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, but it required a course of 4 days and a $300-$500 outlay. Pricey, particularly if I ended up not liking it. What if I felt too uncomfortable to do it more than once? That would be some real cash wasted and so I never bothered to try it out.
All that changed when I first came to Thailand, where PADI (the Professional Association of Diving Instructors) offers a one-day introductory diving course for less than $100 called a Discovery Dive. If Thailand is one of the cheapest places to try out diving, then it is rumored that the island of Koh Tao, located in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand in a chain that includes Koh Samui & Koh Phangnan, is the cheapest and best place to learn to dive simply because of its small population (1400 people) and numerous dive schools (around 45.) Dive gossip has it that Koh Tao is one of the largest dive certification centers in the world - believed to be around 2000 per day on this one island.
Despite its reputation as a great place to learn to dive, it's really important, as I learned on a recent trip, to pick a GOOD SCHOOL to go to in order to get the very best instructors for your first time in the water. I define "best" instructors as people who are kind, patient, smiling, polite, and helpful to a newbie who isn't exactly brimming with youth and machismo. In other words - a diving instructor should be prepared to hold people's hands - if PADI wants to make diving a sport that everyone can enjoy. Instructors should be more than willing to calm your fears about whatever neuroses you might have about strapping on a tank of air and allowing weights to pull you 30 feet/10 meters beneath the surface of the water and onto the ocean floor.
SCUBA is by no means a trivial exercise, as there are many hazards that can occur through improper training, including but not limited to:
1) lung over-inflation, (caused by holding your breath underwater);
2) pain, discomfort, and even injury to ears and sinuses, (caused by not "equalizing" properly as you descend from surface to floor.)
3) And vertigo, which can lead to panic, which can lead to a very strong desire to rush to the surface, which can lead to "the bends" (i.e. decompression sickness, which can be fatal and often requires several days inside a hyperbaric "recompression chamber.")
Now, I had to learn the hard way the value of good, kind, warm-hearted instructions who give a shit enough about good diving to hold someone's hand. And I can't say I wasn't warned. When I first arrived on the island, I asked a diver friend where I should go to "lose my dive cherry" and without hesitation, she suggested Crystal Dive Resort. I visited the place in each Sairee Beach location before blithely deciding it was too "rough around the edges", and I instead (mistakenly) opted for the slickest-looking operation that I saw, a place called Ban's (which ought to be BANNED, IMHO.)
Ban's looked the part that I wanted to see - a top-range resort (admittedly, that I couldn't afford and would never stay in anyway) with a swimming pool in a beautiful garden, a bustling reception area, bar, restaurant, classrooms and lots of important-looking people running around with clipboards. Even better, I had heard (again, gossip, I fact-check little here, rumor is everything to a traveler) that Ban's was the most popular diveshop on the island by sheer volume, having issued over 9,000 certifications in the previous year - actually making the shop one of the top three in the world. Surely, I would be safe there.
Sad to say, my experience at Ban's was less than stellar. My dive instructor seemed quite hungover, and was certainly a surly chap, refusing to answer what I considered reasonable questions, but he deemed "outside the scope of this course." By the time we reached the sea, I had little confidence in either him or my ability to dive, and in my making my first ascent, experienced considerable "equalization" problems with my ears that forced me to abandon the dive. A subsequent complaint letter to Ban's, once I realized that the problem didn't lie with me but with less than stellar procedure and training - went totally unanswered - hey, that shit might fly in Thailand, but seriously, you cater to Westerners, so get with the program. Answer your mail, dickhead. (Rumor, again, unsubstantiated, has it that recently Ban's received an offer of $550 million USD for their silly resort and beach front strip in Sairee Beach in Koh Tao, so I guess they don't need to care too much about a 2000 baht dive course - something you might also want to keep in mind should you be wanting a decent experience.)
The lesson? Don't judge a book by its cover - and choose the best dive spot in Koh Tao - Crystal Dive Resort - the first time around.
Shaken, frightened and more than a littel ashamed by my first experience, I went with my tail between my legs over to Crystal Dive Resort, whose main location is on Baan Ma Haad (Mae Haad Beach) near the main pier. I told them of my experience with Ban's. Much to my surprise, they already had a bit of an idea what had happened with me there. For while there are many dive shops on the island, the main spot for first-time divers is at a place called Twins, located in a small cove on the west end of the beach that intersect the two islands off the northwest coast of Koh Tao. Every day, in fact, that spot resembles a Dive Boat rally of sorts, and the afternoon I went with Ban's, there were at least half a dozen dive boats hovering around.
"I saw the whole thing, mate," was the statement of at least three Crystal employees. "You jumped off from the top part of the boat, rather than in the middle, you didn't have your regulator (breathing apparatus) in your mouth when you dove, your boat was too close to another boat, and no one helped you ut of the water when you came up early."
That was just the beginning of the "mistakes" that Ban's made during my inital Discovery dive, but it IS imporant to point out that out of a Discovery class of twelve, I was the only person who didn't complete the dive. The fact is simple - your first time is SCARY, at least to me it was - check it - you deflate your jacket (BCD) and your eyes drop beneath the surface of the water, and you're to hold onto a rope that will lead you to the bottom. You see a cacaphony of water, bubbles, and other SCUBA divers, (particularly at Twins, which resembles an underwater rock concert at absolute slo-mo) but the strongest sense may be coming from your ears, which thunder with the sound of your own breath inhale (think Darth Vader) and exhalation which sounds like a stampede of water buffalo.
As you get used to all these sensations - sight, sound, and the incredible feeling of weightlessness, you're supposed to hold up your BCD hose to deflate fully with the same hand you're to use to "equalize" your nose by pinching the nostrils together and blowing (gently) as you descend UNDER THE WATER. My first time included perfect visibility (not as ideal as it sounds) because from the surface (I was last in line) I could already see my classmates pooling on the bottom of the ocean floor in kneeling positions and from where I "stood", it seemed like quite a long way down. I didn't descend nearly as quickly as I thought I would, and soon a DiveMaster pulled me to the surface to tell me I should face downward and swim for the bottom - not a recommended procedure AT ALL I would find out later, and my ears quickly poppd quite painfully and I panicked and made my way to the surface and went back to the boat alone.
Most people would've just said fuck it and assumed that SCUBA was not for them, but I was determined to try with another company - I knew that the people at Ban's were assholes, I just needed to find another company that wasn't so lame. At this point, of course, I had significant doubt as to whether I was capable of doing it at all. I spent most of the following day miserably second-guessing myself and since I've now managed to dive sucessfully with another company, my advice to you is simple - STAY AWAY FROM BAN'S and pick the right company the first time around - and on Koh Tao, my vote for that is the Crystal Dive Shop.
I visited Crystal and EVERYONE was nice. Dead serious - people are so kind it's like summer camp. I met a cool guy and asked him if my instructor would be hungover and he laughed and asked if I went to Ban's - they have a reputation for being party animals too, which is great if you nkow what you're doing, I GUESS. I was handed over to Mark from the UK for one-on-one pool skills, then over to Laurie from Scotland who literally held me hand on my first descent and guided me through my first two dives - yep, I liked the first one so much (with Crystal, anyway) that I immediately bought another one.) And then I liked that one so much that I took the Open Water Dive Course, a 4-day, 4-dive course that was totally awesome and which I just finished about two hours ago. PADI-certified diver am I now, thanks to Crystal.
My instructor for OWDC was the equally kind, patient and competent Iain from the UK, who got me through all the silly skills I had to master even though it must've been clear to him that all I wanted to do was swim with the fish.
All told, the experience(s) cost me a little bit over $300USD. The initial Discovery Dive was 2000 baht (approximately $60) with that 2000 discounted of an Open Water Dive Course (generally 9800 baht, but reduced to 7800baht.) Accomodation is available for dive students @ 200 baht a night in (very) simple (but nice) bungalows. The location is ideal for those coming to Koh Tao just to learn to dive - try 100 meters to the left/north from the island's main pier - no taxi needed!
If you think you want to SCUBA dive - all I can say is DO IT. It fucking rocks. I don't have the words yet, but may soon enough. By the end of the Discovery Dive you'll know if it's something you want - just make sure you go with the right company *THE FIRST TIME* - and that company for me is the Crystal Dive Resort, located on Koh Tao.