If you are looking for me to tell you which dive shop is the single best dive shop on Koh Tao, you’ve come to the wrong blog post. There is no single answer, as the “best” dive shop depends on the person looking. What I can help you with is picking the best dive shop for you.
Dive shops on Koh Tao come in lots of flavors and sizes. There are big shops running multiple boats, each of them packed with eager divers; there are small shops running one boat with just a couple of groups on it; and there are shops in between. There are shops that combine diving with a lively social scene, shops that focus on technical or specialty diving, shops that teach primarily in languages other than English, and shops that provide private and custom instruction and diving packages. You won’t be spoiled for choice.
The first thing to do when deciding on which dive shop to go with is to decide what it is that you are looking for. Do you want a lively, social atmosphere or are you looking for something more chill? Do you want to be part of a group or would you prefer something more private? Do you want the comfort and amenities of a larger boat or the cozy feel of a smaller boat? If you’ve never been diving before or have little experience with how different shops operate, let’s look at how a couple of the variables can affect your diving experience.
Bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to dive boats, though larger boats do have some advantages. Larger boats tend to have more space to relax when you’re not in the water and may offer some amenities that smaller boats cannot, such as multiple bathrooms and freshwater showers. Also, larger boats tend to be a bit more stable in the water, so, if you are prone to seasickness, a larger boat might be beneficial. The flip side, however, is that a larger boat usually means more people, sometimes a LOT more people. This can be fun, as it can add a social element to your dive trip, but some people find it a bit overwhelming both on the boat and in the water (to be clear, an overcrowded small boat is no more fun than an overcrowded large boat). Smaller boats may be a bit more simple, but they often feel more private and personal, and some smaller boats offer many of the amenities of larger boats, just in a more compact format. Ask the shop what the capacity of their boat is and how many people are on the boat on an average day. Ask what amenities the boat has and what is included in your dive trip (food, drinks, snacks).
I think most people prefer smaller groups when diving, but there are some reasons why larger groups, or at least being paired up with others, can make diving more enjoyable. Foremost is the social aspect: diving with other people is fun and you might make some new friends to enjoy a post-dive drink with. Also, while private instruction can be great, for new divers doing their open water course, sometimes having a couple of other people in your group helps take the pressure off of you…and lets you watch others try the new skills you are learning before you have to do them. But, as with boats, smaller groups generally feel more personal. Ask what the instructor-to-student or guide-to-diver ratios are and if will you be grouped with others or not.
Okay, maybe now you have an idea of what you want, so which shops do you reach out to? This can be a little overwhelming on Koh Tao as there are 50-something dive shops and most of them have great reviews. Google (either search or maps) is a great place to get a list of shops. Then check out their websites. Yes, it’s a marketing tool, but what shops say and do not say on their websites can tell you a lot about the type of shop it is. Narrow your list down to a handful of shops that look promising and reach out to them to get more information. If you are already on Koh Tao, definitely go in and talk with the shop as you will get a much better feel for the shop in person.
While boat and group size and the type of shop (big, small, social, chill) comes down to personal preferences, there are some things you should look for and ask about at any shop.
How new (or old) is their rental equipment and how often do they service it? Most shops will likely give you similar answers: “It’s pretty new and we service it regularly.” That’s fine. What you don’t want is a shop that is evasive about it or gives you a generic answer like “It’s fine. It’s standard rental equipment.” I’d rather have a shop tell me their gear is older, but well-maintained, than not answer the question.
How experienced are their instructors/guides? New instructors/guides are not necessarily bad instructors/guides (some of the best instructors I’ve known were very new), but experience can be helpful. Ideally, a shop will have a mix of newer and more experienced instructors/guides.
If you are taking a course, have them clearly explain the structure of the course (days and times), what you will be expected to do outside of your time with them (online learning, homework, etc.), and what their policies are if you need more time than originally allotted.
Do you care about marine conservation and the environment? Most shops these days at least mention marine conservation on their websites, but you can usually tell the ones that actually care and are actively involved in it. Ask the shop what they do in this regard.
If a shop seems expensive or is more expensive than other shops you are considering, ask them why. You often get what you pay for and a more expensive shop may offer genuine value over a cheaper shop.
I usually find, that once I reach out to a shop and get information from them, which shop I want to go with quickly becomes apparent to me. Trust your gut. If you like the people you interact with and the answers they give you, there’s a pretty good chance you will like diving with them.
Good luck and happy diving!
By Misha Nadel
29 October 2023