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Ocean exploration has often been compared to space exploration. A largely unknown part of our world, scuba diving reveals creatures, colors, and landscapes you won’t find anywhere else on earth. Learning how to scuba dive allows you to see destinations in ways you wouldn’t have before.
We’ve caught up with seven scuba divers who reveal the coolest places in Southeast Asia to get scuba certified.
Best for: Relaxed ambiance, affordable dive schools. You might see: Whale sharks, reef sharks, plenty of anemone fish.
It’s been called the world’s cheapest place to get certified for good reason but Koh Tao, the Thai island tucked away near party islands like Koh Phangan and Samui, is more than just a great place to get your Open Water.
Each year thousands descend on the ‘Turtle Island,’ all wanting to learn to dive in Koh Tao. The island offers incredibly affordable diving packages, brilliant on-site accommodation for wannabe divers plus a wonderful eco-focused community of avid scuba enthusiasts who care just as much for their students as they do for the ocean.
Island outfits like Crystal Dive offer some of the highest quality teaching at rock-bottom prices, but are particularly special because of the passionate people who run them: dive masters and instructors who come to Koh Tao on a whim and, often, just never leave. They care for your safety, they love their jobs and they appreciate the unique charm that is Koh Tao.
And, when the diving instruction ends, its time to kick back. Koh Tao is great for that too. At one of the many laid-back bars or even on the beautiful beaches, as you recount your scuba stories of black tip sharks, how you nailed those ‘clearing your mask’ tasks and how you can’t wait to dive again tomorrow. And the next day, and the next.
Best for: Offbeat location, uncrowded dive sites, wrecks You might see: Whale sharks, barracudas, leopard sharks, squid
If your idea of getting dive certified marries well with doing so in a place with very few tourists, transparent water as warm as freshly brewed tea, a beautiful and deserted bay to relax, and only one certified PADI diving school — then look no further than Mengkabar Bay in Borneo.
Truth be told, Mengkabar Bay — a pristine slice of sand and rocks set half-hour drive from the sleepy town of Kota Belud, not too far from capital Kota Kinabalu — is certainly one alternative thing to do in Sabah and for that reason attracts few people.
But Bigfin, a dive resort set on a hillock overlooking the bay, is perfect to get your PADI certification. Why? Because, with fewer people, the instructors have more time to follow you. And don’t worry: Ella, the British owner, certainly does a lot to make female guests feel at ease among the scuba-instructor boy team here.
Diving-wise, Mengkabar Bay is great because it faces the “Coral Triangle”, a reef so large it hasn’t been fully explored yet. Also keep into account that between April and June, there’s a high chance of spotting migrating whale sharks here. Among the best dive sites, Mayne point has many underwater boulders, and Ella’s Coral is studded with corals and is rich with leopard sharks, cuttlefish, stingrays, barracudas and squid. The dive sites, which also include a submerged WWII Japanese warship, are all very close to the bay and a breeze to reach.
Best for: Offbeat and underrated location, wreck diving You might see: Sea turtles, tons of corals, reef sharks
I completed my Advanced Scuba certificate in Amed, Bali. I actually stayed in Sanur (close to the airport and more chill than it’s busy counterparts of Seminyak or Kuta) but transport up to Amed was included in the cost both days. This was great as I saw a wonderful view of Mount Agung on the way. If I went back, I think I would stay directly in Amed. This is a very lush and scenic part of Bali known for its black sand beaches and volcano views.
Diving here was definitely my favourite experience while solo travelling Bali. I had a one-on-one instructor who was incredibly kind and patient. I get panic attacks and struggle with anxiety, so I explained my nerves beforehand and was put totally at ease.
One of the best things about learning to dive in Amed is you can discover the nearby USAT Liberty Wreck Dive Site in Tulamben. Although you can still see it on your initial PADI certification–the shallowest part is only 5m depth. If you do your advanced certification here, you can choose the ‘Wreck Dive’ specialty and be able to dive to the full 30m depth and enjoy swimming through larger openings in the ship.
Diving in Amed is calm with generally great visibility. You can also see a Japanese shipwreck, underwater mailbox, as well as a huge scope of marine life such as reef sharks, stingrays, barracuda and turtles. This area is also one of the best for freediving in Bali.
Best for: Divers who want plenty of choice in dive schools, wreck dives You might see: Stingrays, scorpionfish, clown fish
The Perhentian Islands are simply an incredible place to learn to dive. The most popular place on the island for diving is Long Beach on Pulau Perhentian Kecil. There is one diving school after the other, and so there is enough places to choose from.
A big advantage of the Perhentian Islands is that they have some of the cheapest diving schools in the world. That could already be enough reason to extend your stay here and take a diving course. Because on the Perhentians, there are plenty of diving spots with different depths, currents, and levels of difficulty.
If you do your open water here, you can practice directly in the shallow water under real conditions and don’t have to do the exercises in the pool first. Another big advantage is the warm water, which makes diving much more pleasant than in cold water areas.
One of our favorite diving spots on the Perhentians was the Police Wreck. These are three old police ships that have been sunk here. Nowadays, they offer new living space for sea creatures of all kinds.
Best for: Laidback atmosphere, choice in dive schools, calm conditions You might see: Sea turtles galore, reef sharks, wrecks
Not long after I met my (now) husband, I realized that if I was going to take vacations with him, I was going to have to get scuba certified!
We planned it well – with only 2 weeks off work to play with, I did the pool and classroom part of my PADI Open Water certification in the UK. Armed with the theory, we headed to a little island in Indonesia to do my Open Water dives.
The Gili Islands are an amazing place to learn: they have loads of macro marine life, lots of coral (although less and less thanks to dynamite fishing) as well as some bigger marine life such as sharks and rays. My favorites, though, had to be the sea turtles and we were lucky to see quite a few of them. The conditions were really nice for an inexperienced and slightly nervous diver and enabled me to concentrate on the exercises I had to complete. We loved the diving so much that we changed our trip so we could stay a couple more days and do some more! The laidback vibe was also a plus. After diving, everyone sat around chatting and exchanging travel stories. In the evenings, we explored the little restaurants up and down the main strip or headed to the sunset bar for sundowners – the perfect end to a great day of diving!
Best for: Divers on a budget, social atmosphere You might see: Reef sharks, rays, cuttlefish, sea turtles
I got scuba certified in Thailand, on the island of Koh Phangan, and I couldn’t have chosen a better place. I knew that I wanted to learn how to scuba dive on my trip, but I didn’t have any plans for where exactly. When my boyfriend suggested Thailand, it sounded as good as any other place to me.
Koh Phangan is best known for its full-moon parties, but as I found out, there’s much more to this island. We rented a little bungalow next to a diving school, far away from the parties. During the day, we had our lessons first on dry land and then in a pool. In the evening, we lazed around in hammocks or had dinner by the beach, watching the sun sink into the sea.
Eventually, we finally went on our first dive.
I get seasick very quickly, and the boat ride out to the diving spot was a challenge. But once we were underwater, I knew that getting scuba certified was the right decision. Everything was so quiet and peaceful. My nausea was gone instantly. I was nervous, of course, but not too nervous to notice the large groups of fish swimming past.
We were very lucky with the conditions. I’ve never had such excellent visibility as during those first dives on Koh Phangan. If you’re thinking about getting scuba certified, you should consider coming here. You won’t regret it.
Best for: Offbeat travel You might see: Bioluminescence, sea turtles, barracudas, reef sharks
Atauro is one of the most underrated places in Southeast Asia. Off the coast of Dili, East Timor’s capital, is a little island that runs on generators rather than a grid and is surrounded by a thriving coral reef. The island itself is in the heart of the Coral Triangle, one of the most biologically diverse regions on the planet. Fall asleep to the sound of geckos chirping outside your bungalow and wake to views of a calm sea.
Because it’s such a remote destination, you’ll be sharing the best dive sites with few others in the water. Conditions tend to be calm, and part of the island doubles as a marine sanctuary, where proceeds go towards maintaining the reef.
Learn at Atauro Dive Resort, a boutique dive center with thatched-roof bungalows as accommodation. Rooms are basic but clean. While the rest of East Timor is notorious for having crocodiles, none have been spotted at Atauro–allowing you to dive with peace of mind.