We’re in the Gulf of Thailand. On the island of Ko Tao to be exact. Here for one specific reason. So I can learn to dive.
In between visits to the dentists (Nige’s tooth problem that surfaced in Russia, was removed in Bangkok last November has now become an implant in progress) I’d been reading about where we should visit in Malaysia and Indonesia.
As World War II is one of my abiding interests, my reading took me to realizing that if I want to see some of the WWII sites in this part of Asia, then I was going to have to go under water to do that. I don’t particularly like deep water – being a sailor is great, as the plan is to stay above the water – and following a bad experience on a “try diving experience” in Cyprus some years ago, diving has never been on my to do list. Until now.
We also plan to visit the Great Barrier Reef and I’d love to be able to dive there as well, so I’d best get prepared. There are alternative there though, you can take a trip snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef too, so I have that as a backup, although it actually looks like an addition rather than instead of!.
And so, in a matter of two days, we’d taken the overnight train from Hua Lamphong in Bangkok to Chumphon and then the ferry to Ko Tao.
It was an easy introduction – the first part of the course is a 90 minute intro session to the instructor (Phil) and my fellow classmates, Blake, Matt and Hannah. After introductions and an outline of what sessions and dives we’d be doing, we spent 45 minutes in front of the telly, watching the PADI video. And then that was it.
Well apart from the homework, that was easily knocked off with a beer while watching the waves roll in at the Rasta bar mere steps from where we were staying at the Tropicana “resort” in Chalok Ban, on the southern edge of the island of Ko Tao. Our room was included in the cost of my course. (You can also upgrade rooms to include hot water and air con for an additional cost)
Cost wise it makes sense to take the course here – at US$291 it compares favorably with the west coast of Thailand at US$408, with Malaysia at US$295, Bali at US$475 and Cairns at US$672. While we may now dive in those areas, it will be at the cost of equipment rental, not instructor costs.
On the afternoon of Day Two of the course I found myself kitted out with a shortie wetsuit, a Buoyancy Control Device (BCD), mask, snorkel, tank of air, regulator and SPG (submersible pressure gauge). Oh and a weight belt and fins. Which, I admit, I called flippers for two days before catching enough of the amused glances to realize that I needed to get with the terminology program.
Check out this guide on what dive gear to buy for your travels.
Attempting to sink in the pool proved difficult, putting my head under the water wasn’t too hard, keeping it there was much more difficult. Not because I had a burning desire to get it back out again, but because clearly my body was designed to float. And that’s somewhat at odds with trying to stay UNDER the water. Phil, my incredibly patient instructor continued to load me up with weights and finally I sank.
Whether you’re undertaking the theory part of the PADI Open Water course or the practical elements of it, there is a constant. And that’s the repetition. Continual reinforcement of techniques, of how to clear your ears, of getting rid of a build up of water in your mask, of the checking of equipment before you get into the water. To ensure that it all becomes rote, so that if something does go wrong, that if you do start to panic, then training and rote will take over.
The session in the pool goes well, although the walls are a pain, and we were constantly bumping into each other – it will be a relief (I think at the time) to get into the ocean where there are no such barriers. Day two finishes with more homework and the looming exam in the morning.
Day Three begins and we are a man down. Blake had surgery on both lungs as a child, and has been unable to contact his doctor to get confirmation that it’s ok for him to dive, it’s as serious as it sounds and he’ll be heading off snorkeling instead.
The theory – once more repetition – goes well and then it’s the exam. We are invigilated by the resident cat and all pass with full marks. We are now theoretically three divers as we jump into the back of the truck and head to the pier.
Ocean Sound use the Dive Point boat – there are three decks (and a ships cat). Up on top is the sun deck, the middle deck has a seating area, space for hot and cold drinks, excellent biscuits and fruit.
Breakfast of scrambled egg and toast is served here on the morning dives. There’s also an inside cabin space.
We dropped our gear bags with our BCD, wetsuit, regulator and fins by the air tanks that we’ll use. They’re all on the bottom deck. Each tank is slotted into a round hole cut into the wood, they line the outside of the boat. On each trip we’ll take two dives, so we attach our BCD and regulators to tanks with one in between us, we test our gear and then we hang out in the seating area while Phil gives us a brief on our dive.
Our first dive is at Japanese Garden – it’s situated between Ko Tao and the small islet of Koh Nangyuan and looks quite sheltered. This is a photo from the main island of Ko Tao.
Rather too quickly it’s time to strap on our weight belts, get into our BCD’s, wash our masks with washing up liquid and put the fins on. At the back of the boat we “just” need to take a big step and we’re in.
Yeah. I use ladders to climb into a swimming pool. Sailors are taught to abandon a boat by stepping UP off it into the water. And now they want me to JUMP in. I can’t see the bottom and it’s dark. And this was such a good idea because? I can’t quite remember now.
I do, however, remember to hold onto my weight belt with one hand and my mask and regulator with the other. I even remember to put air into my BCD when I surface. (Y’hear that? I surfaced. Hurray!)
When we dived, I cleared my ears all the way down. I checked depth on the dive computer and my air so regularly that Phil commented on it later, but I don’t remember much about the dive. I’m sure there were fish and underwater formations to look at. There were certainly exercises to do – like clearing our masks (pretty easy and taking the BCD off and putting it back on again, not so easy).
I distinctly remember thinking “well this is kinda cool”. I also remember being bitten, so there must have been fish, certainly the little Cleaner Wrasse – relatives of those poor things that you see in Asian beach resorts, you know the ones that are going to chew the hard skin off your feet. I wasn’t aware that I had hard skin on my shins, but they certainly seemed to like them.
The second dive, literally on the other side of Koh Nangyuan, the islet, we were sheltering behind, at the Twins Dive site was the same, although this time I remember the formations a little more.
Fish, I was thinking at the time, are fish, much of a muchness.
I don’t know who was more surprised when I got back to the room at the Tropicana with a grin on my face, me or Nigel, who’d been saying to me, that by dive three, I’d probably enjoy it. And of course that just made me wonder what the hell was going to be wrong with dives one and two!
Celebrating then at Buddha on the Beach.
6:30 comes too soon the next morning, the day is overcast and the sea is choppy. This morning’s dive site is Green Rock – it’s further around the headland, past Twins. I can see no shelter, but lots of bounce in the boat as we anchor. I remember (again) why I don’t like being in the water. I jump off the back, but despite how much I pull on my regulator I don’t feel as though I can get enough air into me. I tell Phil, who reminds me to breathe and says that I’ll be fine. The strange part of it is that I do feel as though I’ll be fine, so long as I can get UNDER water. And of course that manages to preoccupy my grey matter for long enough to calm me down.
It’s a turn around that I wasn’t expecting, that I’d feel safer under the water than on it.
The boat is bouncy to get back into and I add a few more bruises to my collection – no different to sailing then, I just have to look at the boat and I get a bruise and we head back to Twins for our second and last dive of the day and the course. I’m glad there’s another dive after my near panic of the last one, and all goes well this time,by the time we make it back to the truck I’m quizzing Phil about taking the next course.
That wasn’t supposed to happen, says Nigel as I get back, when I’m clearly buzzed with my success – suggesting that I take the next dive course – the Advanced Open Water Course, which will give me another five dives – including one night dive and one deep dive, and which will allow me to dive to 30 meters.. I’m sure he’s as shocked as I am that I would enjoy it so much.
For me, it wasn’t so much about enjoying the diving, but enjoying the feeling that here were a bunch of activities that I previously felt incredibly uncomfortable doing, to the extent that I’d actively avoided them and now, here I was, actively seeing out a way to do more of them. I’m talking about actually diving, sticking my head under water, jumping into dark water, managing to stay under control when I thought I had no air.
And so, 36 hours later, I was sitting back on the Dive Point boat, actually rather excited to get the chance to dive again. My Advanced Open Water took in the Personal Buoyancy Dive, the Deep Adventure Dive to around 30 meters, a Night Dive – which was superb and not at all scary, Underwater Navigation Adventure Dive, where I navigated right back to a stone formation, surprising myself incredibly and the Fish AWARE ID Dive, where I learned that I don’t know the names of all the fish, but I can draw them (somewhat) and that they are most definitely NOT all the same.
Oh and those wrecks I wanted to dive on? The WWII sites? Ah yeah. When I reread the information, it turns out that they’re at 227 meters. That’s a technical dive and a half and is definitely NOT on the agenda. Well, not quite yet anyways..
One of the benefits of learning to dive, was that when we got to Cuba in April 2017 we were able to Dive the Bay of Pigs (and it was amazing!). In the same month we also dived an underwater museum, the unique MUSA in Cancun.
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