Three small islands sit in the Gulf of Siam, like emerald jewels set in a vast, blue crown. Sunlight explodes across blinding white beaches, and intensely green tropic forests add a lush backdrop to the crystal blue waters. The smallest of these was originally identified by European sailors in 1677 and given the name Pulo Bardia, which would, in turn, be named by the native Malay fishermen as Ko Tao, or Turtle Island. The trio of islands is Ko Samui, with a beautiful regional airport, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao, arguably one of the best dive destinations on the planet.
All of us have seen images from this corner of paradise in popular movies like The Beach or The Man With The Golden Gun. Travel magazines frequently display glossy pictures of unbelievable colors and crystal waters teeming with sea life. To many of us, these jewel-like islands in exotic locales seem unattainable, but with bargain airlines and high-speed ferries, even the most far-flung islands are attainable by anyone with a bit of wanderlust and time.
I recently had the opportunity to visit Ko Tao. With a permanent population of less than 3,000 Thai, the island’s main industry is diving. The small village of Ban Mae Hat is home to a transient population of 3,000-4,000 Burmese workers that staff the numerous hotels, resorts and dive operations that ring the coast and crawl up the steep hillsides of the island interior. There are about 100 dive operations offering all levels of Scuba and Freediving training from every major agency. Many operations are co-located with the larger resorts, offering the vacationer boutique diving packages and various “Intro to Scuba” resort certifications. With an estimated 20,000 divers visiting a year, these operators are kept quite busy!
Numerous ferry operations service the island, with twice daily trips from either the mainland or from Ko Samui. As you approach the island’s main docks, you will see a half-dozen colorful dive boats, gunwales lined with dozens of Scuba cylinders. Dive Masters scurry across the wharf, feverishly piling filled Scuba cylinders on the wharf, while empties are hauled off to be refilled for the next group of bubble blowers. With the ferry slowing as you near the docks, you can peer down through the crystal clear waters and watch the coral reefs pass under the boat 15-20 meters below.
We met our driver in front of one of the dozen or so tourist info centers that line the dirt road that winds inland from the docks. Throwing our bags and ourselves into the back of a well-used pickup, we grimly hung on as hundreds of scooters roared by on the narrow road. Tiny shops, restaurants, spas, and sundry businesses passed by in a blur as we made our way out of the small village and up the slopes of the interior mountain. 15 minutes of winding roads found us at our surprisingly well-equipped bungalow, where we dumped our bags, grabbed the hotel-provided scooter and headed back into town to meet the staff and students at what is considered by many to be the preeminent freediving school in Thailand.
Blue Immersion Freediving School is the brainchild of French Freediver Florian Dagoury-Houas, the school manager and owner. While we were there, Florian was attending the Thailand Dive Exposition in Bangkok, where his booth was visited by hundreds of interested divers.
“Since the opening of Blue Immersion in 2010, there has been very few Thai students. I thought that it was because there were no deep Thai freedivers doing competitions around the world, or a lack of inspirational pictures and videos on social media.”
While Florian was introducing a crew of awesome Thai freedivers and the new SSI (Scuba Schools International) Mermaid Specialty at TDEX, we joined the Instructor Olivier Server and some of the staff instructors, as well as a half-dozen Instructor candidates on the water for some depth work. Taking the Blue Immersion catamaran out, we headed to a quiet bay on one end of Ko Tao where we could get depths up to 50 meters. Deploying lines from a buoy as well as from either side of the catamaran, we worked on Free Immersion (FIM), Dynamic (DYN) skills, and Constant Weight (CWT) dives.
The clear waters, warm temperatures and lack of current made this a very enjoyable three hours on the water. As all the divers were Instructors or Instructor Candidates, the level of skill and depths we were reaching was almost competition-like. Blue Immersion is one of the premier SSI-affiliated freediving schools in the world. They have an intensive total immersion “Zero to Hero” Instructor qualifying course that takes a novice to Instructor level. This 90 day course includes SSI Level 1,2,3, Master, Instructor and First Aid/Oxygen courses, plus unlimited training as well as part-time employment in the dive shop, and lodging options are available. This is an absolute total immersion course, costing about 1,950 Euros, and gets the diver on the water virtually every day.
“In order to make a sport like Freediving grow, you also need schools and educational hubs in major populated cities, regardless of how much access the country and its population has to the ocean or water.”
After a strenuous morning of training, it was time to head down the coast to a “fun dive” spot. Hidden in the depths are a number of statues of crocodiles and sharks and swim-through obstacles from depths of 10-15 meters. These massive statues are 7-10 meters in length and are true works of art.
Pairing off for safety, the divers took the opportunity to meet the highly territorial Triggerfish and visit the statues.
Blue Immersion trains over 300 freedivers a year, and their Hero to Zero course attracts candidates from all over the globe. The biggest impact that Blue Immersion has is that they are introducing this “sport of foreigners” to a rapidly growing group of Thai divers, who are becoming certified as Instructors and competing well in regional events. A week after the TDEX Expo in Bangkok, Blue Immersion had its first Thai language freediving beginner course.
“There were so many students that they had to rent an extra diving boat! We did not have enough Thai Instructors to run all of the courses in Thai. But luckily most of them spoke very good English. So now we look forward to seeing our students represents Thailand in Freediving competitions around the world!”
After a full day of freediving, the multi-national group headed back to the school to clean gear and grab some of the incredible Thai food from the local restaurants. Vegetarian dishes abound and there are even juice bars within a block of the school. Whether British, Australian, Swedish, Russian or German, everyone loves Thai food!
Without a doubt, any freediver would be fortunate to spend a few days enjoying the outstanding diving opportunities of Ko Tao. Blue Immersion offers courses for all levels of freedivers, at very competitive rates, and their [professional staff, great facilities, full rental gear locker and dedicated boat make them a truly world-class destination.can
Florian Dagoury-Houas is a strong Freediver from France with a personal best at 90 meters in the constant weight and free immersion disciplines (CWT and FIM), along with an amazing 9 minutes breath hold in static apnea (STA). You can watch his recent breath hold training and learn few tips for static apnea discipline.
Location: Blue Immersion is located on the island of Ko Tao, Thailand.
Getting There: The nearest airports are at Chumphon Airport, Chumphon and Ko Samui Airport. Both offer onward high-speed ferry connections to Ko Tao. Plane flights from Bangkok’s Don Mueang Airport (DMK) to Chumphon or Ko Samui are easily booked and typically cost less than 150 Euros. There are multiple ferry lines that you can book online and a ticket to Ko Tao starts at around 30 Euros for the 1.5 hour trip by high-speed ferry. The night boats are much less expensive and take about 5 hours to get there.
Things to Do: Besides the many diving operations, there are hiking paths into the interior, beautiful beaches to explore, fishing and lots of relaxing in the sun! Peak Season is December to March and June-September to avoid the rainy season.
Important Local Info: There are no rental cars. Taxis are availble but are expensive (in comparison). Most hotels have drivers who can offer a better rate. Scooters/mopeds are available at almost all hotels and are easily rented for a few Euro per day. Be careful! Traffic laws are merely suggestions and right-of-way is determined by size and aggressiveness. Wear your helmet and watch for pedestrians!
Thai anti-drug laws are harsh. There is zero tolerance and even a small amount of marijuana can result in jail sentences, hefty fines, and exorbitant costs.
Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist country and the people are exceptionally warm and friendly, but they are proud…and this is the home of Muay Thai Kickboxing…avoid conflicts as the local constabulary will always side with the locals.
Find out more: For more information and current prices, visit Blue Immersion’s website at https://blue-immersion.com/