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I had always wanted to learn SCUBA diving and thought if I ever did it, I would only do it with the best. With this in mind, I wrote to the five most popular dive schools in Koh Tao, an island in the Gulf of Thailand that produces the most number of Open Water Diver certifications annually in the world. For those of you who do not know what I’m on about, the Open Water Diver (OWD) certification is the first basic SCUBA diving qualification that a person can have. This certification allows a person to walk into any dive school around the world, hire equipment and, preferably with a dive master, head out for fun dives.
I offered to participate in and film a review of a complete OWD course. Of the three schools that replied positively, Big Blue Diving was the first. Scuba Schools International (SSI) is one of the most widespread SCUBA diving organisations in the world and Big Blue Diving is the biggest SSI dive school on the globe. PADI is another popular governing body. Certifications from both schools qualify a diver to dive anywhere in the world. It is like comparing UK and Australian driving licenses, they both let you drive!
On the specified date, I arrived via Ferry from the mainland and was taken to the dive school in a taxi belonging to Big Blue Diving. There were around eight of us in the vehicle and we quickly struck up a conversation about what to expect in the days to come. The staff who greeted us when we arrived at the school were very friendly and, over a free drink, explained the basic structure of the course, the payment procedures and helped us sort out our accommodation. The school provides a deal for free on-site backpacker style accommodation to its students for the duration of their course. There are upgrades available for rooms with better amenities for those who are into their creature comforts. I was provided with lodgings in a four bed air-conditioned en suite dormitory. Very comfortable indeed!
We were asked to report to a classroom at five pm that evening when the lessons would start. At the appointed time, we walked in and found a whole lot of other students who had signed up during the day. It was a full class. We all had to go through medical forms to ensure we were fit for diving – and if not, were sent to the island doctor (who works for Big Blue Diving by the way!) for a check-up and sign off. What followed was a brief layout of the course for us to see what would happen over the next few days. This was followed by a good two hours of video tutorials. Guess the staff had had enough of seeing countless hours of the same videos and left us first timers alone to watch (and learn ). They came back at the end to answer questions and assign homework.
Homework! The nemesis of my school days. At a dive school when travelling solo though it made for a very effective tool in making new friends and meeting new people. Many a friendship was forged over discussing what the safest ascent rate in metres was for SSI. A few of us went out into town after finishing homework. All work, no play and all that. Day-2 began with us being divided into groups of five and assigned our diving instructor. This would be the instructor we would be diving into the oceans with. “Ant” was the instructor for my group. A super friendly and laid back guy with a penchant for making a person feel at ease even when talking about the most complex diving procedures. The forenoon consisted of a classroom session, if you can call sitting around a table in the open air restaurant of the dive school a classroom. Ant went over the concepts we had been introduced to the previous evening in the video tutorials. He made sure we understood every single aspect of diving safety clearly before moving on and he did it with such grace that never once did I feel any confusion, pressure or discomfort with the technicalities.
The afternoon was spent in the pool going underwater for the first time. Boy, was that an experience! Things move very fast in a four day course and it felt strange that only the previous day I had nary a clue about buoyancy compensators or weight belts. Onwards we marched on and by the time six o’clock came around, all of us were exhausted with the training. The equipment had to be washed and handed in. Even through my tiredness, I felt filled with a sense of elation and satisfaction. I had gone underwater and tomorrow I was going into the sea!
There’s always an exam at the end of such courses in life. Be it driving or diving. And so it was with my time at Big Blue. If a student does the homework properly enough and has the intelligence of a ten year old, passing the exam can be done whilst eating breakfast. A feat repeated more than once on that fine morning of the third day of my OWD course. Exam done we were off to the high seas. The first of the ocean dives beckoned. I was a little nervous about my first time underwater in the open sea. Our instructor kept reassuring all of us about how safe we were and reminded us of the golden rule of SCUBA diving, “Always Keep Breathing”.
In the end, the dive was every bit as incredible as I thought it would be. The sea life around the reefs, the search for the famed Koh Tao whale shark (which eluded us that day), the diving exercises on the sandy sea bed twelve metres below the surface, breathing through the apparatus – all of it was a mind blowing experience. Every single one of us came out of that sea with a big grin on our faces. There was free tea, coffee and biscuits to keep us warm on the boat till we got our hands on something stronger once on the shore.
The last day of my OWD certification course with Big Blue Diving came with instructions of having to report to the dive shack at six thirty. AM. I am normally not an early riser, and eight PM would have been an effort. But half six!! Had to be done though and in the end I was glad I did not hit that snooze button. There is something to be said about speeding on the sea towards a dive site with the sun rise behind you. All geared up for heading into the great blue depths. Eighteen metres that day – the maximum depth for an OWD diver (this increases to thirty metres if you do the two day advanced course after your OWD).
That’s it. I was a SCUBA diver! One of only a handful amongst my friends back home. My shiny new diver card in my pocket, I felt twenty feet tall. Woohooo!!!!
There was a videographer who dived along with us on that last day. The video was prepped and ready for us by the time we had had our showers after getting back to shore and reported back one final time to the meeting point. Although I have not included any footage from the underwater footage in my video review feature below, suffice it to say that should you be interested in having a lasting memory of your first time underwater, fifty Euros will get you a sparkling new DVD with all the footage of you and your group above and below the surface that day.
So that was my OWD diving experience at Big Blue Diving, Koh Tao, Thailand. Would I recommend it? That’s a very loud YES. The foremost reason being the quality of the teaching staff. Absolutely spot on! Every student I spoke to, both on and off camera, was exuberant about the friendliness and professionalism of their instructors. Every member of the staff I had a chat with had only good things to say about their employer. The message that came across loud and clear was that this is a great place to work and a great place to come learn the sport of SCUBA diving.
I also had the opportunity to meet Jim Donaldson, General Manager – Big Blue Diving, for a one on one on my last afternoon on the island. A very friendly “big boss” and I could see why his staff adored him. Jim gave some very compelling reasons as to why Big Blue Diving was singlehandedly THE best dive school to learn scuba diving in. I left that meeting feeling ever more sure that I had made a splendid decision in accepting his invitation to come and learn SCUBA diving at Big Blue Diving.
Have you ever dived before? What was your first experience like? Or maybe you are thinking of going in for an OWD course and came across this video review whilst searching for the best dive school in the business. Whatever your story, I want to hear it. Write to me via the comments below. Got a friend who might want to learn diving? Share my experience with them using the buttons below and on the left of this page.
Special Note: A BIG Thank You to Jim Donaldson for being one of the most patient men I have known. I had just started my travels when I went in for the course at Big Blue Diving and had planned to roll out this video review in the next three weeks max. It took double that time. Continuous backpacker travel, sporadic internet connections, editing high definition videos in quiet dormitories and above all technical problems with my laptop (I managed to get it soaked in Bangkok – Thankfully the footage survived) meant that I had to delay the publication of this article till a good six weeks after my course completion date. Thanks mate!