Diving and snorkelling in Thailand
Scuba diving is Thailand's most popular water sport, and it's an experience you cannot forget. With magical apparatus allowing you to breathe underwater, a whole new universe opens up to you. Some of the most extravagantly beautiful creatures in creation await you in this weightless, watery world. Explore brilliantly-coloured coral reefs and be dazzled by fish of a thousand hues. Expect close encounters with giant barracuda, manta rays, sea cows and even sharks!
Clear, warm waters, prolific marine life and affordable prices make Thailand a very rewarding place for diving and snorkelling. Almost every island or beach resort has at least one dive shop that organizes diving and snorkelling trips to outlying islands, trains novice divers and rents out equipment, and the bigger resorts there are dozens of dive centres to choose from.
Thailand's three coasts are subject to different monsoon seasons, so you can dive all year round; the diving seasons run from November to April along the Andaman coast (though there is sometimes good diving here up until late August), and all year round on the Gulf and East coasts. Though every diver has their favorite reef, Thailand's premier diving destinations are generally considered to be Ko Similan, Ko Surin, Burma Banks, Hin Muang and Hin Daeng-all of them off the Andaman coast.
Whether you're diving or snorkelling, you should be aware of your effect on the fragile reef structures. Try to minimize your impact by not touching the reefs or asking your boatman not to anchor in the middle of one, and don't buy coral souvenirs, as tourist demand only encourages local entrepreneurs to dynamite reefs.
It's always worth having a look at several dive centres before committing yourself to a trip or a course. Always verify the dive instructors' PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructor) or equivalent accreditation and check to see if the dive shop is a member of PADI's International Resorts and Retailers Association (IRRA) as a guarantees a certain level of professionalism. You can view list of IRRAs in Thailand at www.padi.com . They've highlighted those IRRA dive shops that are accredited Five Star centres, as these are considered by PADI to offer every high standards, but you should always check with other divers first if possible, no matter how many stars your chosen dive centre has garnered.
Some dive operators do fake their PADI credentials, which is why it's good to get a second opinion. Avoid booking ahead over the Internet without knowing anything else about the dive centre, and be wary of any operation offering extremely cheap courses; maintaining diving equipment is an expensive business in Thailand so many place offering unusually good rates will probably be cutting corners and compromising your safety. Ask to meet your instructor or dive leader, find out how many people there'll be in your group, and look over the equipment, checking the quality of the air in the tanks yourself and also ensuring there's an oxygen cylinder on board.Most novice and experienced divers prefer to travel to the dive site in a decent-sized boat equipped with a radio and emergency medical equipment rather than in a longtail. If this is concerns you, be sure to ask the dive company about there boat before you sign up any company with a good boat will have photos of it to impress potential customers though you'll find firms that use longtails will probably charge less.
Insurance should be included in the price of courses and introductory dives; for qualified divers, you're better off checking that your general travel insurance covers diving, though some off the more reputable diving operators in Thailand can organize cover for you. There are currently six recompression chambers in Thailand, one in Sattahip on the east coast near Pattaya, one on Ko Samui, one on Ko Tao and three on Phuket. It's a good idea to check weather your dive centre is a member of one of these outfits, as recompression services are extremely expensive for anyone who's not. An excellent source of information on Thailand's diving opportunities and its numerous dive centres is the Dive Thailand Network website (www.divethailand.net/ontheweb.html) which also carries diver's reef reports and bulletin board; it's especially good on Andaman coast diving.
Trips and courses
All dive centres run programmes of one-day dive trips, wreck dives and night divers for 1800-4500 Baht plus equipment, and many of the Andaman coast dive centres (Khao Lak, Phuket, Ko Phi Phi, Ao Nang) also do two-to-seven-day live-aboards to the exceptional reefs off the remote Similan and Surin islands (from around 9000 Baht) and even further afield to the impressive Burma Banks. Renting a full set of diving gear, including wet suit, from a dive centre costs 600-1000 Baht per day; most dive centres also rent underwater cameras for 1000-1500 Baht per day.
Phuket, Khao Lak, Ao Nang, Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta, Ko Tao and Pattaya are the best place to learn, and dive centres at all these places offer a range of courses from beginner to advanced level, with equipment rental usually in the cost; Ko Tao dive centres offer the most competitively priced courses. The most popular courses are the one-day introductory or resort dive ( a pep talk and escorted shallow dive), which costs anything from 2000 Baht for every local dive to 5000 Baht for an all-inclusive day-trip to the fabulous Similan islands; and the four-day open-water course which entitles you to dive without an instructor (from 6000-13,000 Baht including at least two dives a day). Kids' Bubblemakers courses, for children aged 8-10 years old, cost around 1000 Baht.
Most beaches offer organized Snorkelling trips to nearby reefs and many dive operators welcome snorkellers to tag along with divers for discounts of 30%, not all diving destinations are rewarding for snorkellers though, so check the relevant account in the Guide first. As far as snorkelling equipment goes, the most important thing is that you buy or rent a mask against your face, then breathe in and remove your hands-if it falls off, it'll leak water. If you're buying equipment, you should be able to kit yourself out with a mask, snorkel and fins all about 1000 Baht, available from most dive centres. Few places rent fins, but a mask and snorkel set usually costs about 50 Baht a day to rent, and if you're going on a snorkelling day-trip they are often included in the price. When renting equipment you'll nearly always be required to pay a deposit.