Where to Learn Scuba Diving in Southeast Asia

June 30, 2010

"Friends are coming to visit in [some month] and want to learn to dive. Where to go?" I’ve fielded this question a few times now on Twitter, and it’s a question I’ve wished I could give an answer to that was longer than 140 characters, so it seemed like a good idea to jot down a few observations on the subject. You can learn diving just about anywhere there is ocean access around the region, but I’ve narrowed the list down to three options. They all have their own advantages and disadvantages, which I’ve highlighted in my descriptions.

Reef scenery
The reef scenery at Bunaken – why most people want to learn to dive.

Before we get to the topic of where to learn to dive, it might be a good idea to first discuss whether or not this is really a good idea, for you. Learning to dive from any reputable dive shop will take four or five days, and involves a fair bit of reading, written tests and other activities that might be a little too much like being back in school. If you only have a two or three week holiday, do you really want to spend a good chunk of it leaning to dive? It all depends on you. Some people like learning new things while on vacation, others prefer to maximize their down-time in the sun. If the amount of time it takes to learn to dive is going to make a big dent in your plans, it might be better to learn at home before arriving in the region.

The other general factor in your decision regarding where to learn to dive, is when you’ll be doing it. Most of the major dive destinations in the region like to advertise that they can be enjoyed year round, but the truth is that there are times when conditions are not ideal. You want to learn to dive in the best weather, both to ensure you have an easy time, as well as to have an enjoyable experience that you’ll want to continue with. Therefore, I’ve highlighted below when the best times for each destination is.

Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Tao is perhaps the most obvious choice. I’ve heard that Thailand accounts for something like 25% of all the Dive Master and Dive Instructor certifications in the world, and it seems that Koh Tao contributes a major proportion to that number. For people just learning to dive, this means there are lots of dive shops to choose from, and a wide range of accommodations as well as restaurants, bars and other services. The downside is that Koh Tao can be a little too popular. Some wags suggest that the only creatures you’ll see in the waters around the island are other divers. That may be a little too harsh, but I would rate the diving at the other two options as ‘better’ than what you’ll experience immediately around Koh Tao. There are some really great dive sites in the sea some distance from Koh Tao, but these are generally for experienced divers.

When to go: The season for Koh Tao is fairly long, which is one of the reasons for its popularity. The months to avoid are October to January.

Tioman Island, Malaysia

Tioman is my "dark horse" candidate for a good place to learn scuba diving. It is very popular as a weekend diving destination for people from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, with direct flights there from both cities. But it isn’t quite as popular as Koh Tao, and instead has a very relaxed atmosphere. Many of the dive resorts have their own "house reefs" where they take beginning divers, which makes things very easy by eliminating external issues like dealing with boats from the learning experience. Once you’ve got the basics down, there are a lot of easy and very enjoyable dives within a 10 to 20 minute boat ride. There’s a nice variety of sea life, such as turtles, sharks, squids and many kinds of fish, although not in great abundance. The downside to Tioman – which some might consider an upside – is that there aren’t a huge variety of restaurants or nightlife on offer. Depending on which resort you’re staying at, you may be stuck there for most of your stay.

When to go: Tioman is at its best from March to October.

Bunaken, Indonesia

If the time of year weren’t an issue, Bunaken would probably be my top choice for a destination to learn to dive. The tiny island just off the northern tip of Sulawesi in Indonesia has some of the best diving you can find, with a huge abundance of sea life on view. Conditions are generally calm, although currents can be strong on some sites. Your dive instructors will take you to the easier sites to start with. You’re almost assured to have experiences on your first few dive that will get you hooked on the sport. The downside, if there is one, is that most of the dive resorts around Bunaken are more or less self-contained. You won’t find much in the way of independent restaurants or night life outside of the resorts.

When to go: Bunaken is best from May to October, with the summer months of July and August being ideal.

Filed under: Learning to Dive — Michael @ 11:53 am
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Open Water Dive Number Four

August 7, 2008

It’s my second dive of the day, and then I’m officially an Open Water diver. No more tests. No more videos to watch. No more special exercises to perform while diving… at least until I decide to go for an advanced certificate.

The boat has moved from Hin Wong around to Mango Bay, on the north side of Koh Tao. I’ve heard good things about this site, so I’m looking forward to it. Once we’re under the water, I can see why so many people like this site. It’s very large, for one thing, and the landscape of the sea floor is exceptionally varied. There seems to be an infinite variety of corals, from big boulders to barrels to staghorns. There’s lots of fish as well. At one point, I spotted a lone angelfish (I think) whose scales shimmered golden in the light. It seemed almost ghostly in appearance.

As this is a certification dive, I have to do one last exercise: taking the mask completely off, putting it back on and clearing it. There’s one other beginning diver with us, so he goes through his exercises first. As I kneel on the sandy bottom waiting for my turn, I feel a sort of pin-prick on my ear. I shake my head, but soon feel another one. After three or four more, I’m really wondering what’s going on. That’s when I spot a small stripped cleaning fish making its way from me to my dive buddy. It seems that is what is responsible for the pin-pricks: I was getting my ears cleaned. It seems Adam has set us down in the middle of a cleaning station.

Our maximum depth on this dive was 12 meters. Visibility was good, if not great, at 6 to 7 meters.

Filed under: Learning to Dive — Michael @ 2:56 pm
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Open Water Dive Number Three

Note: This is a continuation of my journal on learning to dive. You can read the first two parts at my travel journal.

I’m hooked. So, I’m back in Samui doing my last two dives for my open water certificate. As before, my instructor is the patient Adam from Rainbow Scuba. The sea around Nang Yuan is a bit rough today (don’t even ask about the trip from Samui), so we’re diving at Hin Wong on the east side of Koh Tao.

The weather top-side may be less than perfect, but beneath the waves it’s a great day. Visibility is about 6 meters or so; enough for a good look around. The landscape here is a steep sandy slope that can go down to 26 meters, but we don’t get below 10. There’s a nice row of coral boulders around this depth, with lots of curious fish to keep you company.

A pair of brightly stripped wrasse watch me do my fin pivots with a great deal of fascination, then it’s time to surface.

Filed under: Learning to Dive — Michael @ 12:30 pm
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