With a range of sites available, scuba-diving around Phi Phi is popular for novices and more experienced divers alike.
While all of the dive shops are based on Ko Phi Phi Don, the bulk of the actual diving is done in the waters surrounding Ko Phi Phi Leh to the south. There are outlying sites to the north, including the King Cruiser Wreck and Anemone Reef to the northwest and Ko Bida Nai and Nok to the south along with the further afield sites of Hin Daeng and Hin Muang, but for most novice divers, you'll be spending a lot of time exploring the waters of Ko Phi Phi Leh.
On the west coast of Phi Phi Leh the two most noteworthy sites are Malong Bay and Palong Bay -- both are popular with Hawksbill turtles and black tip sharks. Bida Nai and Bida Nok (generally referred to as "the Bidas") offer better and less crowded conditions than some of the other Phi Phi Leh sites such as Pilah Wall and Loh Sameh Bay, with the latter especially prone to crowding in high season.
Regarding underwater crowds: there are just over a dozen dive shops on Ko Phi Phi Don and in high season each of these could be sending out multiple boats a day, each with a dozen of more divers on it. Deserted diving this is not.
Visibility is generally around the 12-15 metre mark, though in ideal conditions it can stretch to as far as 30 metres. All things being equal, September offers the poorest diving conditions; November through to February marks the best. The standard of diving is generally good for amateurs, with lots of sandy bottoms, open reefs and pinnacles and, while sites can get crowded, it is not nearly as crowded as it can get somewhere like Ko Tao.
There's a good supply of dive shops on the island, any of which will be happy to walk you through the available sites, courses and costs. The best dive shops survive on the basis of good service and good word-of-mouth, so take your time, ask around and don't go for the first operator that pulls you off the street.
Everyone offers a variation of the same trip, so don't be sold on any secret location tales. Find a shop where you understand the staff, and where you feel the staff are mature enough and experienced enough to know what they are talking about.
Bottom line: these guys work on commission and therefore want to sell to you. So by all means have a chat but don't opt for the first place just because it sounds good. Shop around and you can always head back after you've checked the competition. Ask who will be accompanying you (ie dive master or instructor), what kind of boat they have and whether they have toilet facilities, for example. Diving is a fun and safe sport, IF done under the correct conditions and supervised by experienced professionals. In our opinion a 22-year-old who's gone from student graduate to dive instructor in five months may well be qualified, but a 32-year-old with 10 years' experience is a far safer bet.
Three-day PADI courses are available for 13,800 baht, two-dive day trips 2,500 baht. You'll pay an extra 1,000 baht if you want to see the King Cruiser shipwreck as one of your dives and going out to Hing Daeng and Hin Muang costs 5,500 baht. For those looking to further their qualifications, you can take advanced courses -- Emergency First response for 4,900 baht, and Rescue Diver 13,500 baht.
Many thanks to Yadgar Aziz the folks at Barakuda Dive Centre for taking the time to talk us through all the above and The Adventure Club for their insights.
Barakuda Diving Centre
T:(075) 601 006
The Adventure Club
T: (081) 895 1334
Other dive operations on the island include:
Aquanauts Scuba Diving Center
T: (075) 601 154; (080) 147 2132
Phi Phi Scuba Diving Center
T:(075) 601 148
Viking DiversT:(081) 719 3375
T: (075) 601 157