We were off to a rough start with Big Blue, as our ferry-bus combination landed us on Koh Tao at 5.30am, rather than 8.45 as advertised. After trying to call Big Blue about ten times, we gave up and waited. At 8.50 we called them, and they finally answered, saying that the taxi would arrive at around 9.10. At 9.20 I saw a Big Blue taxi, got into the back, and had to wait another 25 minutes for people to get on. It turns out it was a 10 minute drive. The three of us who had booked months ahead of time were told to wait on a separate table, while those who had just turned up were seen to first... that was a bit annoying!
After that, though, things were great. The island is beautiful, so it's hard to feel angry or stressed, and Big Blue's two beach restaurants serve amazing food. The instructors are a laugh, but also very professional, and for the first time I didn't feel as if there was something physically wrong with me preventing me from diving - as I had felt with other trial dive experiences thanks to lazy instructors who hadn't explained equalising to me properly.
There is a lot of pressure to do the SSI course instead of PADI, but that's pretty clear on the website. The first day is just watching videos, the second day is in the pool, and the third and fourth day are your actual dives. The dive sites are great, although I have to admit that I had a better time snorkelling off some of the beaches on Koh Tao; mostly, though, because I was too preoccupied with my buoyancy and mask fogging up during my actual dives. Still, the instructors really explain everything through, and after the first couple of dives I felt my confidence increasing. We were in groups of six, and my group also had an instructor in training, meaning we got a lot of personal attention.
The gear that we borrowed was all in good condition, with one exception - a snorkel full of little black spots. I was told not to worry, it was only mould - and mould was good! Hmm, I used my own mask and snorkel instead, as it was a better fit anyway. I also recommend getting a rash vest, as the friction from your dive gear might give you armpit blisters.
Big Blue is obviously a very professional, well-organised school, although at times it might feel a tiny bit like a "diver factory". It doesn't help that SSI's course is 40% trying to sell you stuff, but that's not Big Blue's fault. The final day also includes a videographer following you around, making you do silly/fun stuff like jump off the top of the boat and pop up out of the water, so that in the evening you watch the video of your group. The video was very cheesy, but amusing, but the awkward part came from the sale. Basically, the more people want to buy it, the cheaper is it... but the cheapest it will get, I believe, is 1200 baht (over £20). There was suddenly an unpleasant hard-sell atmosphere, with eventually more and more people deciding that the DVD was too expensive for them. What this means is that the remaining few are suddenly told "well, now it's 2000 baht" - hardly an incentive to buy, and definitely a way to breed awkwardness among the group. I didn't appreciate that, so I didn't buy the video, even if it DID have a shot of me leaping off a boat.
Overall, Big Blue will look after you, provide you with good dives and give you a good time, but what really made the experience great is that Koh Tao is so beautiful and chilled - and it helped that it didn't rain once while we were there!