Reviews, Travel
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Falling in Love with Koh Tao (and Rafa)

After a majorly delayed night train and a ferry ride from chumphon, we finally arrived to Koh Tao. The night trains had been great for us up until this point. This time we were in first class and that’s really the only way to do it!   For some reason there was a three hour delay as we stood still about 1 hour outside of Chumphon with no explaination. Fortunately we were able to make it on the ferry!

First class…all smiles!

Upon our arrival in Koh Tao, we went straight to Master Divers, the dive shop we had prearranged to do our open water course.  It is conveniently located steps away from the songserm pier. We knew we wanted to do our certification before we finalized our trip and, after much research, learned that Koh Tao was the place to do it. We originally had emailed a few other companies and, although we were temped with discounted courses and free accommodation, we decided to go with Master Divers, one of the smaller shops on the island. The course wound up costing a bit more than some of the larger shops, but for good reason. This was evident from the first interaction we had with Linzi, one of the owners. She responded to our email with such poise and reassurance that we knew we would be very happy working with her and her team. Any questions we had, from group size to how to schedule the course as well as accommodation suggestions were always answered with great detail and promptness.



We were quite early for our 1pm start on day 1, but were warmly greeted by Linzi and Kelly! Kelly gave us some great suggestions for food in Maehead and made sure we prepped all of our paperwork before the class started. We were quickly realizing the close-knit, family feel of the shop by the way we were welcomed and treated the moment we walked in. They have lockers to store any valuables and we were able to leave our backpacks in the shop while we went to grab food. When we got back for our class, we were introduced to Rafa, our instructor for the next three days. Little did we know what an impact he would have on us not only as our instructor but also as our mentor, friend and fellow NIGHT DIVAHH! (You’ll understand when you go to Koh Tao and dive with Master Divers and Rafa)

Our first day was learning the basics and watching some PADI educational videos. We were fitted for our gear so it could be prepped the next day for our first two dives of the course. One great thing about Master Divers is that they are able to set you up to complete most of the in class material online before you arrive to the island. Being that we were traveling and planned to be there for the full time of the course we did not need to take advantage of this perk, but it is definitely a great aspect of their certification programs.

The second day was a bit more fun!  We had some classroom time in the morning, took a break for lunch and were ready to tackle dives 1 and 2 of our open water course in the afternoon. Another great thing about Master Divers is that they own two of their own boats. This is a huge perk when deciding who to dive with, so wherever you are, make sure you look into this. We boarded the long tail around 11:45am and were ready to get in the water.

Our first two dives were to complete the confined open water skills dives for the course. We tackled skills such as clearing a filled mask, retrieving and clearing a lost regulator, removing and replacing equipment, treating cramps and towing divers. We also practiced what to do if you run out of air or if your buddy runs out of air. This skill seemed particularly important for me, you’ll learn why soon. Another important aspect of this part of the course was getting use to the hand signals. As many of you know, I tend to give a thumbs up when everything is good, but in diving language a thumbs up means go up towards the surface. So, generally a dive master or instructor would assume something might be wrong if you give this signal. This was a really hard habit to break, but it came easier than expected since Rafa had us start using hand signals very early on. He always incorporates the signals into the class time as well, which is helpful.

We spent the afternoon at Japanese Gardens practicing skills and I found it to be a lot of fun, which seemed to be a bit abnormal to many people. Most people said that it meant I would have no problem underwater or at depth, which was a good sign. Being that Steven had already been certified when he was 13 years old, this was a new thing just for me. I wasn’t really that nervous going into it and was really calmed by the way Rafa taught everything. He is a very cool and laid back guy, can definitely crack some ridiculous jokes, but underwater he became a different person. He was calm and collected. He was always reassuring and continuously checking in to see that we were ok. We had completed all of our confined water skills including our 200 meter swim and 10 minute float.


We were all a bit tired, but definitely ready for our big day 3, our two open water dives!  In the morning on our last day of the course we reviewed some final material and took our exam!  We both passed with flying colors and were ready to start our open water dives that afternoon. We had the honor to be mentored by Harry, one of the Dive Master’s in Training for our dives. We also requested for Adam Leaders (@adlephoto), the shop photographer, to dive with us for our dives to try to get some cool photos. For our open water 3 dive, we explored Mango Bay.  We hit a maximum of 10 meters (30 feet) and saw some amazing marine life.  There were many long fin banner fish, various colored parrot fish, and some sergeant majors. The highlight of the dive was when Adam spotted a tiny juvenile sweetlips.  These fish are one of the cutest fish when they are little, but turn out to be some of the ugliest fish when they get bigger.  We had a great first open water dive and were ready for the next one after about an hour surface interval.

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Jess with the juvenile sweetlips…can you spot it? (photo credit: Adam Leaders Photography @adlephoto)

Our last dive for our certification was at Twins.  This is one of the more popular dive sites on the island.  Being that Rafa was very familiar with the site, we were able to really search for some different marine life during the dive.  We saw a few blue spotted sting rays, a moray eel, Nemo fish (saddle back anemone), goby shrimp, butterfly fish, pink anemone fish and a few titan trigger fish. Once we finished the dive, we were immediately congratulated on completing our open water course.  We were super excited and thankful for the support by Rafa, Harry and Adam. Turns out that Adam and Steven discovered they had both been certified through the same summer adventure program called Action Quest when they were younger…what a small world!

When we arrived back at the shop, everyone was so excited that we had completed our open water. Linzi told us that they were planning to go to Chumphon pinnacle for the morning dive that following day and that if we wanted to do a deep adventure fun dive there, we could extend our certification to 30 meters.  Without hesitation, we signed up for two reasons: 1) Chumphon pinnacle is one of the premier dive sites by Koh Tao 2) Becoming certified to 30 meters, rather than 18 meters would open up many dive sites to us worldwide. It was an early wakeup and we were out on the boat by 7:00am, once again with Rafa and Harry!  I was a bit nervous about going down super deep, as there are some risks and everyone reacts differently to depth.  However, I was very at ease knowing Rafa would be with us the whole time ensuring everything was going smoothly. The dive was unreal!  We saw so a huge school of barracuda, some giant grouper and  many of the usual fish for Koh Tao.  After this dive we did one fun dive to White Rock, which was also really successful.  We were very lucky to have pretty good visibility during our course and time diving on Koh Tao.


At this point, we continued our journey to Koh Samui where we stayed at the Amari Resort.  After two nights there, we were originally planning to go to Khao Sok National Park, but due to the weather forecast, the guide we originally planned to travel with cancelled the trip.  When we go this news, i turned to steven and said “do you want to go back to Koh Tao?”  When we called Rafa and Linzi to ask if they could have us to do our Advanced Open Water certification, they could not believe we were actually coming back. We knew that this was a sign that we would definitely be frequenting Koh Tao for the rest of our lives. Anyone we had met thus far, including Linzi, had just planned to do their open water certification on Koh Tao, but somehow never left.  We knew exactly why this was the case and could already feel that we had the same connection to the island as they did.


We arrived back to Koh Tao and ran from the ferry straight to the boat to do our second dive for our advanced certification and a fun dive.  This time, we were lucky to have Dan as our instructor and Harry, once again, as a mentor. Dan is absolutely fantastic.  He is extremely professional and knowledgeable.  Every single question we asked he could answer with a definitive and precise answer. We learned a lot from Dan and became stronger and more educated divers throughout the advanced course. Our first advanced dive was the deep water dive we had done in Chumphon with Rafa.

The first dive we did when we got back to Koh Tao was our fun dive at Red Rock Drop, which was a nice way to start the afternoon and get back into diving.  Our second one was the AWARE fish identification dive, at Twins where we learned the best methods to count and analyze fish species in a given area.  This is critical for collecting important information about the ever changing aquatic environment.  This dive also taught us the importance for divers like us to help protect the fragile underwater world we so enjoy to explore.

We did some knowledge reviews the following day in the morning and completed our second two advanced dives, Peak Performance Buoyancy and Underwater Navigation. The peak performance buoyancy dive was one of the best and most educational dives we did.  We were able to really start understanding how to control our buoyancy with precisely weighting ourselves and working on breathing techniques under water.  We did a few exercises to test our buoyancy including handing off extra weight and hanging upside down.  We also swam through hoops and tried to knock over weights with our regulators without using our arms and just using our deaths to control our height.  This allowed for us to really control our presence underwater.


The navigation dive was one of the required dives for the advanced course.  We navigated underwater using visual cues as well as a compass. Steven and I actually tackled the navigation techniques so quickly that half of the dive was actually a fun dive. We had a great time with Dan and Harry during our Advanced course.  For our final dive, we were reunited with Rafa and did a night dive.  Unfortunately, due to some rough weather that was passing through at the time, we were unable to do the night dive off of the boat. As an alternative, Linzi arranged for a taxi to pick us up and bring us to the other side of the island.  It was amazing to see how the water was like glass on the east side of the island, but extremely rough on the west side.  This allowed for us to do a shore dive at night at Hin Wong dive site.  We did not dive around the pinnacle, but were able to dive right off of the shore and explored the bay area.  The night dive was interesting.  I definitely recommend trying one, but I do not think it was for me.  I will leave it at that and let you make your own decisions about night diving.

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At this point, we had completed our Advanced Open Water certification and were due to leave Koh Tao for the rest of our planned trip.  Leaving the island was very hard.  We were welcomed into the Master Divers family and found that we had fallen in love with diving and life on the island.  We know we will be back very soon to keep diving and see all of our new friends again!  Thank you so much to the Master Divers team, and Adam for all of the amazing photographs, you have a piece of our hearts there on Koh Tao, hang on to it because we will be back to pick it up for sure!

Follow your tummy…

-Jess and Steven

May 16-20, 2016 and May 22-25, 2016


  1. Jan Williams says

    Hi; it’s fantastic to read of you brillant experience that you had diving with Master Divers on Koh Toh . My name is Jan and my son is Harry Williams. He choose master Divers based on the reviews he had read and how brillant they were in respinding to his emails. I, being the crazy mother emailed linz asking all of the bloody questions that a mother asks only to be told that little shit of a son had been emailing her for several months about the course and all its contents and what he would need.

    Like you, he says they are all brillant and linz certainly put my mind at ease.
    Tank you for your brillant blog. Good luck in your travels wherever they may take you xxx


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