APPROACHING THE SMALL, picturesque island on the east side of the central gulf coast of southern Thailand, I was pleasantly surprised by what would be my home for the following four weeks.
I had come to Koh Tao essentially to complete my PADI Dive Master and Digital Underwater Photography Instructor courses – not particularly interested in the underwater marine life or topography, or the quality of diving, just needing somewhere to train in a financially efficient way.
After the previous two weeks spent taking underwater photographs on the rich reefs of Indonesia, I wasn’t expecting the diving to compare in any way, but was delighted to find it incredibly enjoyable.
And existing on a budget that could compete with Egypt, I realised that this small island in Thailand could potentially present a real option for those with relatively limited resources, who want a warmwater destination but perhaps a change of scene from the Red Sea or other such locations.
I had flown from Singapore to Koh Samui, staying a night there to acclimatise. The following day, I arrived by taxi at the Lomrayah ferry terminal for the fast catamaran to Koh Tao, via Koh Phangan, known locally as Full Moon Island after the all-night parties held there at that time of the month.
I was a little dismayed to find no porters to help load the luggage, with passengers struggling along the pier onto the ferry loaded like pack-horses.
With two suitcases and a very heavy holdall of underwater photography equipment (I must learn to travel more lightly!), I finally managed to board the ferry with the help of another passenger, and enjoyed the two-hour journey across the Gulf of Thailand to Koh Tao.
On arrival I saw a multitude of dive-shops, with touts offering cheap dive courses, often combined with even cheaper accommodation. I had chosen to pre-book my hotel, in a quiet location at one end of the mile-long Sairee Beach. This is one of the main areas in Koh Tao, along with Mae Haad.
The dive shop I had picked for my course, Big Blue, was located halfway along the beach. Each morning and evening, I had the pleasure of walking through the warm, clear shallows to and from my hotel.
By road the journey would have taken twice as long, because of the island’s rocky, mountainous terrain.
Koh Tao is a peaceful alternative to the bustle and noise of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. The island is geared to divers, catering for their every need, from open-water courses and most specialities right through to technical diving, and even a little freediving for those who want to try it.
With more than 30 dive-shops on Koh Tao, competition for business is fierce, meaning that the prices are kept low.
I had decided that my first day should be for exploration, including two fun dives in the afternoon, before starting my courses in earnest the following day.
I had been told that I could either do two morning dives, for which the boat left at 7am, or two afternoon dives, leaving at 12.30. There was also the option of a 6pm night dive, which was run only two or three times a week. Most dive-shops seemed to run a similar schedule.

BECAUSE OF THE SHALLOWNESS of the water over the reef, a small channel had been cut into it to allow long-tailed boats, usually full of divers, through to the deeper water where the big dive-boats were moored.
We were to gather our gear in hold-alls supplied by the dive-centre, load them onto the long-tails, jump on board and experience the skills of the boat-boys steering them.
At low tide, with waves breaking over the reef, this skill lay particularly in not soaking the entire boat-load of passengers.
Once on board the large, well-equipped and very stable dive-boats, groups were sorted and gear assembled on the short journey to the afternoon dive-sites.
Most sites are 10-15 minutes away. That afternoon I was to dive at Nang Yuang Bay and Shark Island, named after the shape of the island rather than its residents.
Unfortunately, as in too many other places around the world, sharks have become very scarce around Koh Tao.
Both dives turned out to be easy, enjoyable and perfect for my orientation. The dive-boat, along with many others, moors either onto a fixed buoy or onto other boats. Sometimes, over the following weeks, I spotted three or four boats tied together in a line.
One downside to the large number of dive-shops was that there were frequently many divers at the same sites. With diving prices so low, this was understandable.
A lot of the underwater topography around Koh Tao consists of large boulders jumbled together, as if thrown down in a giant game of jacks around the white-sandy bottom. Pinnacles are another common feature. Dive-sites tend to sit at a depth of 30m, though many are shallower.
In the mornings, the dive-boats visit either Chumphon Pinnacle, a 40-minute ride away, or Sail Rock, a pinnacle that’s nearer to Koh Phangan and offered as a full-day trip. These, along with the recently sunk wreck of HTMS Sattakut, are particularly good for advanced and technical diving.
Chumphon Pinnacle quickly became my favourite dive site of the island. Boats moor to one of two fixed buoys on the pinnacle. The top of the pinnacle is at around 10m, and the sandy bottom ranges from 24-40m, so it is suitable for all levels of diving.
Sometimes the visibility was above 20m or even better, although it was only about 15m most of the times I dived there. It was further reduced most days by the presence of a thermocline.
This pinnacle is large, and one dive is never enough to see everything. It teems with life. I saw huge schools of rabbitfish, batfish, yellow-tail and chevron barracuda, hunting trevallies and swarms of damselfish and anthias.

AT THE BOTTOM OF THE NORTH BUOY, where it is fixed onto the reef, lies a resident scorpionfish, patiently observing all the divers who come in for a closer view. I often came across giant grouper, failing to hide in the crevices between the rocks, or cruising the reef to find cleaning stations.
I saw many moray eels hiding in the nooks and crannies too. Huge gardens of anemones, harbouring pink and skunk anemonefish, carpet the reef.
In one area there is a beautiful albino anemone, standing out in stark contrast to the others. Beautiful blue-ringed angelfish gently waft around in pairs, oblivious to the divers around them.
Sail Rock is another pinnacle, but this one rises out of the water, and can be dived only when the wind is right. As I was doing my training I managed to dive here only once, while assisting on an AOWD course.
The site had been dived three days previously after a two-week break caused by adverse wind conditions and two whale sharks had cruised around the pinnacle for two hours. Just my luck that I had been elsewhere at the time.
Sail Rock is similar in topography and marine life to Chumphon Pinnacle, though
I also saw a giant moray eel and a large school of batfish there. It has a cool vertical swim-through, starting at around 25m and rising to 10m.
I entered from above down along a chimney encrusted with colourful coral, coming out onto a small wall. The currents around Sail Rock can be fairly strong at times, although it wasn’t too bad when I dived there, but the site is recommended for advanced divers only.
It must be one of the best for completing an AOWD course, however!
Over the month I dived most of the Koh Tao sites, and another favourite was White Rock, which I visited twice on night dives.
Close to the island, this large coral garden is home to many white-eyed moray eels, shoals of barracuda, parrotfish and rabbitfish. Titan triggerfish patrol their territories, swimming quite aggressively towards divers.
I had been told to present a fin to them if they got too close, but decided to keep my distance after hearing about a large chunk taken out of one of the other dive masters!
I saw many blue-spotted sting rays at White Rock, especially at night, when they hunt freely. Sometimes green and hawksbill turtles sat lazily on the reef, and
I saw several octopus either hiding in the reef or hunting over the sand at night.
With a depth range of 5-25m, this site too suits all abilities.

GREEN ROCK IS A SPECIAL SITE, crammed with swim-throughs. On the north side of picturesque Koh Nang Yuan island, a 15-minute boat-ride from Koh Tao, with the only beach in the world that joins three islands, it offers 3-30m depths.
Some of the swim-throughs are open overhead, making it a nice dive for the less experienced. I saw many nudibranchs while passing through the tunnels.
HTMS Sattakut was sunk as an artificial reef for more advanced divers. The 48m wreck sits upright on a sandy bottom in 32m. Its beam is 7m, height 18m. There are two deck-guns, and various penetration sites, with purpose-cut light holes.
Coral growth has started well, and many fish are making the wreck their home.
A short swim to the north is Hin Pee Wee, a coral outcrop and pinnacle between 8 and 22m and full of life. I encountered a large whip ray and a huge porcupinefish hiding under the overhangs, and saw two big turtles resting on the reef, oblivious to approaching divers. Large schools of snapper hang around, while sweetlips and emperors abound.
If you’re good on air, a further six-minute swim north brings you to White Rock, perfect for an extended safety stop while exploring the top of the reef at 5m.
Koh Tao also boasts a dedicated dive site called Buoyancy World, constructed on a sandy bottom at around 12m. It consists of sculptures, including a huge shark, an octopus, a Godzilla-sized gekko, a small ship and various rings and cages.
It’s not designed just for divers on their open-water or buoyancy speciality courses, but is a fun site for any level of diver to play around in and test their skills.
It’s close to other sites, so can be included at the beginning or end of a dive, as the boats are usually moored nearby.
I spent many enjoyable minutes honing my buoyancy and feeling like a big kid in an underwater playground.
My certifications duly acquired, I felt justified in relaxing on a cushion in one of the many beach-front bars and restaurants, drinking one of what would become quite a few cocktails, and watching a heavenly sunset over the long-tailed boats in the balmy waters of Koh Tao.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly to Koh Samui via Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur and take the Lomprayah Fast Catamaran (www.lomprayah.com) or preferably the Seatran Discover Ferry (www.seatrandiscovery.com). Both take around two hours with a stop at Koh Phangan. Advance booking is advised, as are sea-sickness tablets, especially during the November/ December monsoon season. No visa needed under 30 days.
DIVING & ACCOMODATION: Accommodation can be booked on arrival with any number of dive companies, which offer new arrivals combinations of cheap diving and accommodation. The 4.5* Koh Tao Cabana is one of the highest-end hotels but with prices from £50 per night (www.kohtaocabana.com). Recommended dive centres are Big Blue Diving (www.bigbluediving.com) and Ban’s Diving Resort (bansdivingresortkohtao.com).
WHEN TO GO Year-round. but best from spring through to autumn. Whale shark season begins in March.
MONEY: Thai baht. You get a far better exchange rate on Koh Tao than elsewhere.
HEALTH: No malaria. Monoplace hyperbaric chamber at Sairee Beach but the nearest full-service chamber is on Koh Samui.
PRICES: Koh Tao is a comparatively cheap destination to book independently, but Dive Worldwide can offer an 11-day package from £1795, with flights, transfers, B&B (one night in Koh Samui and seven in Koh Tao) and a 10-dive pack. www.diveworldwide.com. Once there, living is inexpensive – a beer costs 80p, laundry £2 per kg, for example.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.tourismthailand.co.uk