I love fish. I don’t know if its something to do with where I’m from (If you’ve stumbled across this site, there’s a clue in the name) but there’s definitely an affection for the scale-covered swimmers in my family.
I’m not on about eating them, as I can’t stand the stuff. Its too, well, ‘fishy’ for me. I’m on about watching them and admiring them, having spent hours over the years being put into a trance watching various Koi, goldfish and tench happily drifting around the pond in dad’s back garden.
Then there’s been snorkelling in the Red Sea, in what’s effectively a real-life aquarium, and I dabbled once in scuba diving by taking a trial dive with an instructor on the Great Barrier Reef.
I feel ready for the next step – I want to go exploring the incredible undersea world that lies beneath the waves of the world’s oceans and seas. I want to see the dazzling array of colours and life on the coral reefs around the world. I want to go and see Nemo and all his friends – and his lucky fin.
It was time to learn how to dive – properly, no messing, classroom and study time, exams, the whole works. Hopefully, at the end, I’ll get a Padi certificate that will let me dive without an instructor anywhere in the world.
I’d enrolled at the Sunshine Divers resort in the lovely area of Chalok Bay, on the southern tip of Koh Tao, widely touted as one of God’s gifts to divers. Koh Tao is a beautiful little island – its tiny, at just 21sq km, there’s one main road, large swathes of the east coast are reachable only by boat, and just over 20 years ago there was nothing living here but coconut trees and the odd fisherman sheltering from a storm.
The diving school was recommended by Hannah and Laura, my two friends I’d spent time with in Ao Nang a week ago. Sam, a Swedish guy Hannah’s dating used to be an instructor there before moving further south, and couldn’t recommend the centre highly enough. There are some huge diving schools on Koh Tao, and some have equally as huge class sizes. They are reputed to be more of a Padi diver factory, churning out hundreds of certified divers, whereas mine promises a class size of no more than four at a time. Perfect.
After such a tiring overnight journey, and an early arrival into the resort, I spent much of the first day dozing in a hammock, looking out over the crystal clear water in the bay and being hypnotised by the sound of the constant waves lapping on the shore just a few metres away. I was in the middle of one of those slumbers when suddenly I heard a familiar giggle by my ear. It was Hannah, and a few metres away was Laura. They’d been chuckling away and taking photos of me while I was asleep. Already the fun had begun!
After a quick lunch it was down to business. Hours of DVD video had to be watched in the school classroom, which was a far cry from some of my old classrooms at Healing Comprehensive all those years ago. Distant views of ships on the Humber don’t really compare to watching the sun slowly disappear over the diving and fishing boats bobbing around on the beautifully blue Gulf of Thailand.
I was with just two other people on my course, under the expert guidance of my instructor Sarah, who has been at the centre for three years after leaving her native Virginia in America behind for a life in the tropics. My fellow students were Michael and Kristina, originally from Poland but who now live in London and who were now travelling for a few weeks.
After a few quick quizzes, dive school was over for the day, with a warning that the following day is tough.
And tough it was – I don’t have a particularly good record when it comes to being assessed in the water, but the first request when we arrived at the deep dive training pool at a nearby resort was to complete eight lengths, the equivalent of 200 metres. Now, normally, that wouldn’t be a problem, but after three months of eating coconut curries and drinking copious amounts of Chang, I wasn’t in the best shape for a seemingly marathon swim. Michael agreed, and somehow duped Sarah into thinking he’d done all of his lengths before giving me a ‘don’t you say a thing’ look and a cheeky smile. (Sarah, if you read this – he cheated!)
I wheezed my way along my final length, before then being told to tread water in the deep end for 10 minutes. The whole episode brought back memories of my most significant water failure so far when I was at junior school, on one of my forays into Whitgift’s big pool, when I was under the instruction of teachers to retrieve a rubber brick from the bottom. I managed to swim down and grab it okay, but in my excitement swallowed approximately a quarter of the pool’s contents, choked, spluttered my way up to the surface, swam the wrong way, dropped the brick and then promptly got whistled out.
It was a cock-up that condemned me to a life of ‘baby pool’ activities and verrucas for the rest of my junior school swimming career, with the sole achievement of a ‘one width’ badge sewn to my trunks.
School mishaps firmly behind me, I passed the swim test with flying colours and so it was time to strap on the scuba gear. By now I’ve learned how to strip it apart and put it all together a number of times, got used to having the regulator in my mouth, checking that everything’s working and with an understanding of roughly how to go up and down underwater (all to do with how much air is in your lungs – trickier than you imagine)
We spent the whole afternoon underwater, practising emergency procedures, sharing air from each others’ tanks, learning how to use the buoyancy jacket, how to equalise your ears as you descend, and – the one I was dreading – how to clear a mask full of water while underwater.
I don’t know why, but the whole ‘removing mask, replacing mask, blowing water out of mask’ drill seems to fill a lot of people with dread. Actually, I do know why – I did it the first time I tried it in Australia, and I saw it in both Michael and Kristina. If you don’t get all the water out by blowing through your nose and tilting your head back, you get left with, surprise surprise, water in your mask. But with your eyes closed, and the rest of your head wet, its sometimes quite hard to tell if the mask is empty. So for some unknown reason, your brain (well, mine anyway) tells your head to try to breathe in through your nose to regain the seal on the mask. Except you then inhale a lung full of water, panic that somehow your drowning, forget that you’ve got a fresh air supply in your mouth and have a full on freak out beneath the surface. Its not nice, and most people do it at least once. Michael and Kristina did it a couple of times, and I really felt for them. Its awful to see panicking humans under the water, but Sarah was an expert at restoring calm without the students shooting up to the surface for air.They both then dreaded the whole procedure for the rest of the course.
By the end of the day, we were merrily diving and swimming around the bottom of the pool, ready for the next day swimming with the fishes.
It was an early start to catch the diving boat, which left the main pier at 8am. We sailed to the Shark Island diving site, setting up our tanks, connecting our regulators, checking air pressure and flow and growing slightly apprehensive about the dive. Its one thing being in a pool, its another jumping off a boat into the ocean and spending the next 40 or 50 minutes under the waves.
My dive buddy was Sarah-J, originally from the UK, but who has been brought up and now lives and works in Germany as a graphic designer. She’d done exactly the same course as me, the Padi Open Water, around a year or so ago at the dive school. Now she was back to complete her Dive Master certificate, with the hope of potentially spending a few months a year instructing in the sun, and then returning to Germany to earn money graphic designing over the European summer. Not a bad plan!
We completed our buddy checks, where step by step you go through each other’s kit and basically checking that when you throw yourself in, you can a) float if you want to; b) sink if you want to; and c) breathe, although not necessarily in that order. Its got the acronym BWRAF – Begin With Review and Friend – and its the way the guide tells you to remember the sequence of checks for the Bouyancy control suit, Weights, Releases, Air, and Final Check. There are a few other ways to remember though, and I particularly like the ones put forward by Sarah to help us: ‘Bruce Willis Ruins All Films’, or another, ‘Bangkok Women Really Are Fellas’. Made us all chuckle!
As the boat settled into position, one by one we all stood up on the side of the boat, held out masks and weights in position, and took a giant stride out into the deep blue sea. Gradually, we let the air out of our BCD and descended down under the gentle waves. Immediately, there were fish to look at – and in particular, a slightly annoying Striped Remora, one of the shark sucking fish – that took a liking to Sarah J and I the moment we showed our faces in his little world.
Normally they hitch a lift on sharks, sucking on and nibbling away at dead skin. Unfortunately for Sarah J, the same principle applies for humans, and she told me of her never healing cuts and grazes on her legs which keep getting eaten. Today was no exception, and after watching the long thin fish take off yet another scab from her leg, he switched his attentions to me and sucked onto the top of my leg. When you’re getting used to breathing underwater complete with tank and all your kit for the first time, having a pesky fish not leave me alone was slightly annoying. His free ride soon came to an end after I batted him away for the third or fourth time.
It wasn’t the only bit of sealife to have a go at me on my first dive either. As we were kneeling down on the seabed, we’d noticed a number of fish hanging around and waiting for us to kick some sort of tasty morsel up from under the sand. Having done some more skills, such as clearing yet more water from my mask, one of them, a bright blue wrasse, decided he was impatient and tried to attack my knee while I wasn’t looking. It was a sudden, sharp shock – and naturally, thinking it was something with huge teeth and poison, I jolted around and crashed into Michael, who was currently trying to retrieve his regulator from behind him. His wife and Sarah J, both who saw what happened, were clearly amused judging by the amount of bubbles drifting up from their mouths.
We went down to a depth of 12 metres, and after our skills practise emerged back on the surface 28 minutes for a tank swap and a cuppa.
The next dive was more of the same, including the strange sensation of learning how to control your height by nothing more than the amount of air in your lungs. Its fairly simple –the more air you breathe in, the more buoyant you become and so begin to rise. If you can imagine filling your lungs, and then keeping some of that air in there while breathing normally, a bit like puffing your chest out, then that’s how you rise. To descend, breathe it all out and breathe normally again. It’s a great feeling, a bit like flying through the water as its completely effortless once you get the hang of it.
The afternoon was spent completing the final exam, which I aced with a respectable 92%. It would have been 94% had I not coloured in the wrong box and seemingly decided that one of the most important hand signals in diving – a hand out, sweeping and rocking from side to side – actually meant ‘which way do we go’ rather than its usual meaning of ‘I’ve got a problem’. Buddy’s probably wouldn’t stay buddy’s for long if I actually thought that to be the answer!
The following day was our deep dive down to 18metres, the deepest you can go with my certificate. Our instructor Sarah was ill, and so Tamara, an Australian instructor, took over and made me a buddy with Michael. Also on the dive boat were Hannah and Laura, providing a few opportunities for wind-ups and laughs, usually at my expense…
We practised a quite impressive forward flip into the water, and then started to descend. Well, having had some brilliant visibility the day before, it was like trying to drift down into an abyss. You could only see your hand in front of your face at some points, and then my ears decided they didn’t want to equalize, forcing a ‘squeeze’ and becoming painful as I tried to go down. I slowed my descent and wiggled my head around, blowing on my nose.
Ears cleared, down I went a bit more! Visibility still bad, it was the first time I could fully see how easy it would be to become badly disorientated. When I first heard that sometimes you have to watch which way the bubbles go, I wondered just how bad it could get. Now I knew – I could have been upside down, going up, going down…if it wasn’t for the rope and my bubbles giving me some idea, it could get very confusing.
And then I lost my buddy.
Michael, also struggling with his buoyancy, drifted up above me. I tried to grab him to pull him down, but it sent me out of control and I didn’t want to lose the rest of the group. I looked back up through my bubbles – Michael had gone.
Cue one of those ‘Jaws movie, panicked looking around and nothing but blue’ moments as I realise I’m briefly on my own, before another instructor suddenly appears in front of me and gives me a sign to descend. He’d obviously thought I was drifting up and away from the group – and not realised my buddy was also missing.
Back with the rest of the group, Louise, another instructor, went back up to the surface to find the lost Pole, and thankfully he had done the right thing and waited at the top. A few minutes later, we were back on track, taking our masks off at the bottom of the sea (still unnerving, especially with a slightly snotty nose (!)) and having our air supplies shut off – again, unnerving, mainly as its not right to be at the bottom of the sea without anything to breathe, unless you’ve got gills, which I haven’t.
It’s the only way to simulate an ‘out of air’ scenario though, and learning how to take a back-up air supply from a buddy. Thankfully, its easier than it sounds. Skills over it was back to looking at beautiful coral, watching a Crown of Thorns starfish making its damaging way across the bottom, and taking great delight in making hundreds of Christmas Tree Worms instantly disappear into their little holes with a quick wave of a hand nearby. That alone could provide hours of fun – YouTube it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNl2w_xH4xs
The final dive of the course was probably my most enjoyable – Tamara said she could tell I had done some diving before and was confident in the water, and buddied me up with her friend Rosie, who was visiting from home in Australia. It was a move I was quietly pleased about – it meant Michael could pair up again with his partner, and if I’m honest, it meant I wouldn’t have to be so worried about where he was and whether he was drifting away. They’d be the first to admit they were not the most confident at their new pastime, and sometimes I couldn’t help but feel I was being held back.
Tamara made sure we had a great dive – the three of us were relaxed, freely diving around wherever we wanted to go, Rosie was somersaulting in the water – and dropping like a stone at one point, making both Tamara and I laugh our heads off underwater, again, another funny experience (usually a lot of bubbles and very smiley eyes are the giveaway!)
We watched parrot fish, clown fish, swam near swaying anemones, sent countless hundreds of Christmas Tree Worms back into their coral homes and watched bright blue clams close up as we swam near. All around, fish of every colour swim by, going about their daily business. It’s a cliché, but it really is another world under the sea, and it’s a great feeling when you’re a visitor.
Thanks to some calm and controlled diving, we made our tanks last just over 50 minutes – and even then, Rosie had still managed to keep 100bar of air in her tank, half of what she started with, and prompting me to shout the question “Do you breathe or are you a fish?” when we reached the surface.
Climbing out, the diving was over. There were some well-earned cups of tea and biscuits all round – how English indeed – and we all relaxed as the boat took us back round to Sairee Beach, which was looking beautiful as the sun broke through the clouds.
Back at base, I filled in my log book, got myself yet another banana and coconut milkshake and took in the reality that I was now a fully qualified diver. And even better, I’d manage not to drown, I’d consumed very little seawater, I’d not been seriously attacked by any marine life – and I’d loved every second of it.
I had to check out the day after completing the course, which was a shame as I’d have liked to have stayed for a few days to relax in the stunning bay, but instead I’d set myself yet another sightseeing challenge. Kanchanaburi, home of the Bridge over the River Kwai, is close enough to Bangkok for a whistlestop rail visit. It’ll mean another tricky journey, but one I told myself was worth completing.
I picked up my Padi certificate and dive tables on the way out, said goodbye to Hannah and Laura, as well as the brilliant instructors and people I’d met at Sunshine Divers, strapped my backpack on yet again and headed out of the gates.
There’s a nagging thought inside me that it won’t be too long before I’m back. The next step up is the Advanced Diving qualification…and it sounds like a lot of fun!