The islands around Phuket and the distant Similans provide some of Southeast Asias finest diving spots. Many dive shops in Patong offer comprehensive courses that lead to internationally recognized PADI or NAUI open-water certification.
There are about 30 scuba dive shops in Phuket. Some of them close during the monsoon season. You should shop around for the right price, and an experienced instructor who speaks your own language. Although competition keeps prices down, cost should not be the main deciding factor when choosing a dive course. It is worth paying an extra few hundred baht to go with a reliable and safe operator. The difference shows in the quality of instruction and equipment.
The following courses are offered by dive shops.
Introductory course: Learn the basic skills and perform a shallow dive, all in one day. If you continue with a certification course, the fee will be deducted from the new course price.
Open Water Diver: This 5-day course teaches background, skills and safety techniques.
Advanced Diver: A 3-day deep diving, navigation and night diving course.
Rescue Diver: This course focuses on lifesaving and diving safety during its 3-day duration. A pre-requisite for aspiring Divemasters.
Divemaster / Assistant Instructor: Duration depends on what other courses you assist.
A range of 2-day speciality courses are also offered: deep diving, night diving, underwater photography, search and recovery and equipment specialist.
The following scuba operations have earned a good reputation and have beed around a long time: Fantasea Divers in Thaviwong Road, near Holiday Inn, Patong (Tel 076-340088); South East Asia Divers in Patongs Song Roi Bee Road (Tel 076-344022); Marina Divers in Marina Cottage Resort in south Karon (Tel 076-330272); and Sea Bees at 1/3 Viset Road, Chalong (Tel 076-381765).
Regular diving cruises are conducted to the Similan islands; private trips can be arranged to other prime diving areas as well. Fantasea has some of the best options but other dive shops in Patong offer similar itineraries and prices. Departures are usually guaranteed and no minimum number of participants are required. Dive prices are normally inclusive of the boat trip, tanks and weight belt only. All other equipment can be rented from the dive shops. As the water is warm, wet suits are not nexessary. Make sure that you buy insurance beforehand. Non-divers normally get a 50 percent discount and can rent snorkelling equipment and paddle around on their own. The following trips are some of the more common ones offered.
1. Off the west coast of Phuket. A day trip to explore soft and hard coral reefs that are home to a wide variety of colourful tropical fish. Good close-up photography opportunities. One dive costs 700 baht; two dives 1,200 baht.
2. Shark Point and Koh Dok Mai and hour southeast of Phuket. A wall dive to look at leopard sharks and stingrays. Divemasters hand-feed moray eels. Good photo opportunities.
3. Raja islands, 90 minutes south of Phuket. Highlights are sloping coral reefs and steep drop-offs. Manta rays and whale sharks prowl among the corals and reef fish.
4. Phi Phi islands, located 2 hours east of Phuket. Highlights are limestone cliffs and hidden caves. Impressive wall diving, superb corals and a large variety of reef fish.
The trend now is to sail to neighbouring islands on day trips for two dives. Such trips costing 2,000 - 2,250 baht depending on destination, include equipment, meals, soft drinks, and land transfers. The remoter dive sites like Raja, Phi Phi and Shark Point offer better the visibility and a greater variety of corals, manta rays, whale sharks, and turtles.
Many operators now offer live aboard trips to the Similian and Surin islands, Burma Banks, and the Mergui Archipelago. This means sleeping on board for 2-7 nights on vessels varying from crudely converted fishing boats to comfortable boats with air-con cabins. This option allows more dives per day and access to pristine underwater conditions, and gives scope to explore remote beaches, sometimes with sea gypsy populations, notably in Surin and the Mergui islands. For beginner divers, it is also possilbe to complete the Open Water course with two qualifying fives.
The live aboard option costs around 3,000 - 6,000 baht per person per day, inclusive of meals, accommodation, equipment and dive guides. Prices depend on the quality of the vessel. Some operators charge in US dollars. Non-divers get a discount of around 30 per cent off the full rate.
The following companies go to Similan, Surn, and Burmese waters: Fantasea (Tel 076 340088), South East Asia Liveaboards (Tel 076 340406), and Sai-Mai (Tel 076 263732). The Similian islands can also be reached with Marina Divers (Tel 076 330272), Dive Asia (Tel 076 330598), Santana (Tel 076 340360), and Sea Hawk (Tel 076 341179).
As always, its smart to shop around before committing. Try to talk to someone who has just returned from a dive trip.