Finding Nemo

It’s all good on the Great Barrier Reef

There are not many natural wonders of the world that require an oxygen tank and flippers to go see them, but for the Great Barrier Reef, it’s a good idea.

Dawn breaks in Brisbane as I change planes for Cairns

I have arrived in Cairns, right up in the tropics on Australia’s north eastern coast, and for the first time in months I am heading east again – meaning my homeward journey is officially underway.

With just a couple of weeks left before I fly out to New Zealand, I’m up against a bit of a tight schedule to fit everything in that I have wanted to see and do on the east coast before arriving back into Sydney for my flight out of the country. Every unnecessary day spent dawdling or wasted somehow on this 3,000km trip to the land of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, is a day less seeing the many sights of NZ.

Thankfully, my first visit to Oz seven years ago brought me to Cairns, so I have a fairly good knowledge of the town, and I decided to stay at the same hostel that I walked into back then too, a bit of a party spot, but one of the best around, by the name of Gilligans.

Gilligans – one of the best hostels you’ll find

Its funny how memories come flooding back after so long away from somewhere – and my arrival at Cairns airport after two overnight flights from Darwin and Brisbane was one of those moments. Back in 2005, I had arrived at the same airport on an internal flight from Melbourne, and was waiting by the same luggage carousel I found myself at again on this visit. Only back then, minding my own business and waiting for my bags, there was a tap on my shoulder.

“Is your name Phil and are you from Grimsby,” asked a tall, blonde girl with a smile on her face.

Slightly surprised, I think I replied something along the lines of ‘er, yes, why?’ before turning round to the right slightly and seeing my friend Kirsty, who worked in the Grimsby Town Football Club ticket office and clubshop. She was there with her friend Michelle, from Louth, and were spending a few weeks travelling together

Arriving back into Cairns after seven years

It was an incredible coincidence – not only had I bumped into someone from home that I knew on the other side of the world, but they had been on the same internal Qantas flight as me.

“You walked past us and we called your name on the plane but you didn’t respond, so we didn’t know if it was you,” I remember them saying.

As it happens, I do vaguely remember someone saying my name on that flight, but being thousands of miles from home, I didn’t respond as there was no way anyone would know me on that particular flight. Right?!

We ended up spending a lot of time together in Cairns back then, and I remain good friends with them both, so tagged them in a post on Facebook to let them know I was remembering the good times we had before making my way to the town centre bus transfer point.

Another day, another place

Walking back into Gilligans felt very familiar. Its got more of a hotel feel about the place, rather than a backpacker hostel, and indeed, it does have a number of hotel style rooms for couples. I opted for one of the dorms, but had to wait until the afternoon before I could check in, so made my way to the fantastic swimming pool at the complex.

Gilligans reception. Hard to believe its a backpackers

With the sun shining, and a much fresher feel to the weather thanks to lower humidity levels than Darwin, I pulled up a sun lounger and laid back, memories of my previous stay still coming back. Despite two overnight flights, I felt awake and ready for a chilled out day, meeting new people and working out what to do with my time in Cairns. It was also time to work out how to get back to Sydney, and in the hot sun I flicked through the handfuls of visitor leaflets and brochures I had picked up in the on-site travel agency.

Despite dwindling funds, I decided that my main aims for the east coast trip south were to dive on the Great Barrier Reef, visit the stunning Whitsunday islands, make my way to Fraser Island before moving on to visit friends in Brisbane and Newcastle before arriving into Sydney for my onward flight at the beginning of June. Looking at the calendar on my phone, and bearing in mind the 3,000km distance to travel overland, I realised I was cutting it a bit fine. I decided I needed an itinerary drawing up, some proper help with my plans, and so I would go to the Peter Pans backpacker travel agency in the town that afternoon.

Or so I thought.

That’s when I fell asleep – one of those sudden, unannounced, unplanned deep sleeps that creep up on you from nowhere. One minute it was 1pm, the next minute it was 3.30pm and I was on my back, mouth open and with a whole load of new people crowded around me. And then I felt my shoulders and chest – sore would be an understatement.

Ooops. Too comfy

My cheapo Thailand-bought factor 15 suncream, that I had barely covered myself in when I was in the shade early on, was no match against Australia’s finest midday sun. I went for some respite in the shade of the bar, and caught sight of a couple of blokes sipping beer that I am sure sniggered as the bright red  Pommy lobster made its way past them. I checked in a mirror, and it was a bit of a state.

Despite seven months of travelling, it was the first time I had been ‘properly’ burnt, and it was my own stupid fault for falling asleep in the sun. I have actually been really careful, knowing how much time I’d be spending in the sun during the trip. The damage had been done, however, so I gathered my belongings, grabbed my bag from the luggage store and checked into my room for a cold shower. The next few days will be stingy – but I think it’s got rid of my t-shirt tan once and for all!

The pool at Gilligans

Time out of the sun did give me the opportunity to have a proper look into how I’ll make my way south, taking the chance to have a wander around some of the travel shops that night and get an idea of some of the package deals that were around.

Planning my trip at Peter Pans in Cairns

The following day I made the visit to Peter Pan’s backpacker specialists where Aimee, one of the consultants, cheerfully pulled out a calendar and planned out the next few weeks for me. It starts with two dives on the Great Barrier Reef in less than 24 hours time, followed by tours down the east coast, joining the dots and getting back to Sydney thanks to the Greyhound bus network. Aimee planned me a couple of overnight bus journeys to save on accommodation costs – it’ll mean an uncomfortable night’s sleep, but at this stage of my trip, the equivalent of £20 saved here and there on accommodation goes a long way. All in, it was just over $1,000 for the whole lot, a good price with some fairly hefty discounts.

Speaking of which, it was time for a ‘big’ shop for supplies. My favourite Aussie supermarket Coles – complete with its catchy ‘down, down, prices are down,’ and ‘there’s no freshness like Coles’ catchphrases that get stuck in your head for hours on end – was too far away, so it was the Woolworths supermarket (yes, the name is still going strong here!) near the esplanade that was to provide my latest stash of carb-packed goodies.

Having spent months surrounded by Australian brands, I came across a great little aisle that brought out the Peter Kay ‘Brit abroad’ in me. A shelf stacked with groceries from home. PG Tips, Penguin biscuits and even Marmite were there, competing with their Oz counterparts of Lipton, Tim Tam and Vegemite. Perhaps the highlight was the imported Weetabix, albeit with a new, rather unimaginative name of ‘Whole Wheat Biscuits’ which I presume is to distance them from the Australian brekky Weet-Bix. But at the equivalent price of £5.30 for a box of 24, my pangs for a taste of home will go on for another few months!

I won’t spoil the fun by naming everything – see what you can spot!

After gazing at all the familiar products from home, I got on with the task of stocking up my portable larder, also known as my pretty trendy coolbag. When I arrived in Australia, I saw all the backpackers had one, be it slung under the rucksack, swinging from an arm or clutched in front. They come in bright pink, royal blue, sky blue or dazzling green, and are seen everywhere from luggage rooms to railway stations, botanical parks to famous landmarks.

My cool bag and backpack after their trip on The Ghan

Everyone seems to have one on the move, a commonplace belonging as much as a sleeping bag or a pair of flip flops. Some have special messages written on in permanent pen by their owners. You’d be forgiven for thinking they were the latest fashion accessory.

I was actually quite surprised to see so many of them, but it all comes down to the cost of living in Australia – with sandwiches costing anything from $6 upwards (£4-5 and up) a bowl of chips being around £8 and a basic main course meal setting you back an average of £15, travellers simply can’t afford to eat out. The supermarkets and their special offers become your best friend.

My backpackers essentials. And yes, the cheese really does go by that name here.

Most backpacker larders contain the same sort of things as mine – cheap essentials, but essentials that will keep the hunger away. A loaf of bread, pasta and sauce, two minute noodles, a block of cheese, a jar of Vegemite, a carton of longlife milk, teabags and a box of Weet-Bix. It’ll never win any awards for a balanced diet, and I can’t remember the last time I got anywhere near my five a day, but for around $20 (£16) there’s enough to keep me going for the next week. Occasionally I’ll splash out on some sausages to throw in with my pasta, but be it Vegemite on toast, noodles and bread, a late-night bowl of Weet-Bix or a cheese sarnie to keep me going, there is enough in the bag for a meal of sorts.

Eeenie meenie minee mo…

Communal kitchens in the hostels are always good fun, especially with scores of identical bags like mine stuffed inside the fridges. But when you’re on the move, its great to open up the coolbag and have a picnic wherever you fancy. It becomes part of your luggage, and saves you a fortune on eating out. Even a McDonalds, at $9 (£6) for an average meal, seems expensive in contrast to the sausage special pasta with cheese that I have now perfected – and can knock up for around $1.20 a meal!

Why am I writing about this? Because it’s a part of backpacking people might not think about –when I was dining out every night in Thailand on sumptuous three-course Massaman currys and starters for the equivalent of £2.50, there was no need to think about cooking – it was cheaper to eat out. But I’ve actually learned to embrace the portable larder, gradually adding cutlery and plates to it that are on a ‘long term loan’ from hostels along the way. I’ll be self-sufficient by the time I get back to Sydney, minus a cooking ring!

Back in the dorm, I got talking to two guys who were in my room, a Dutchman called Alex, and Brandon, from Canada. We’d said hello a few times, but got talking about diving and how we had to be up early in the morning – my boat leaves E Finger of the marina at 7am, and with theirs just fifteen minutes later, we agreed to wake each other up at 6am.

Early morning in Cairns

Sure enough, it was still getting light when the alarms, almost in synchronisation, went off around the bunkbeds in the room. One by one we climbed out of our beds and gathered towels and dive log books for the blurry-eyed walk out into the early morning Queensland sunshine.

I’d been looking forward to the diving trip. Its my first dive since becoming a qualified Padi diver in Thailand, and it was time to put all my learning into use. I’d hired an underwater camera for the trip to record the moment. I was introduced to Chris, the divemaster onboard with Cairns Diving Centre, who asked about my diving experience. Strangely, one of the other newly qualified divers came over and said I seemed to know what I was on about. I’ve clearly mastered the art of blagging.

It was a rough journey out to the reef, a three hour trip from Cairns. As soon as we left the harbour and began hitting the big swell of the ocean, I made the trip to the coffee bar to take on some seasickness tablets. Its not something I normally suffer from, but decided I’d rather be safe than sorry. I didn’t want to be feeling rough on such a big day – its not everyday you get to dive on one of the world’s natural wonders.

Arriving at the Great Barrier Reef

Half an hour later, people were dropping like flies around me, the catamaran marauding through the huge waves, slamming down and rising up and making around half of the passengers a little green around the gills. I felt great, however, and went up to the deck on the bow and joined a few others who were embracing the rollercoaster ride to the first dive site.

Ready to go!

We arrived at Moore Reef shortly before 11am, the water turning a bright turquoise blue around the reef area. As I was a qualified diver, I was asked to kit up first. It felt reassuringly familiar when I pulled my BCD over my body, strapping myself in and running through my checks – weight belt, fastenings, regulator, air supply, backup air supply, mask and fins. All was good, and I was buddied up with a German guy.

Stepping off the back of the boat

As I stepped down to the platform at the back of the boat, the water lapped around my feet. It was surprisingly warm considering how far offshore we were, but there was a strong current that quickly swept you away from the boat. With my BCG fully inflated, I kicked hard to get myself to the front of the boat and to the anchor line that we used to guide ourselves down to about 10 metres.

Going down…

Its always a strange feeling when you make the descent – for a while, you wonder whether there is anything down there as you make your way into a light blue abyss. Then suddenly, a dark outline comes into view in front of you, and suddenly the reef is next to you.

It was full of life, the suns rays lighting up the colours and shapes of the coral everywhere you look, with dozens of brightly coloured parrot fish, angelfish, butterfly fish and even a unicorn fish swimming by as we made our way around the reef. There was also the obligatory clownfish, aka Nemo.

Colourful coral

But the highlight was yet to come – motioned by Chris to swim over to him, he pointed around a corner. As we kicked our feet faster to get a look, just a few metres below us a turtle came into view, swimming towards a gap in the reef. It was a fleeting moment, but it immediately put a huge smile on my face, so much so I broke the seal on my mask and let in a load of water. As did Chris.

In the words of Nemo’s mate: ‘Duuuuuuude!’

“I knew that turtle would be around somewhere,” he beamed as we climbed back out of the ocean.

Back to the boat

“He wasn’t in his usual spot and I got a bit worried. Then he just turned up – nomatter how many times I see them, turtles just make me smile,” he laughed, joking about how he has to clear his mask every time he sees them because he’ll either start laughing or smiling.

The snorkellers from the snorkel trip had another 20 minutes left on the reef, so I took Chris up on the offer of going for a snorkel too, swimming against the strong current in the deep water yet again to reach the reef.

Nemo land

It gave me a whole new perspective, and if I’m honest, the colours on the reef looked even more impressive because they were being hit by more sunlight. It really is like the scene from the film Finding Nemo, with colours glowing and the whole underwater world going about its daily business, despite their human visitors floating above them.

After some lunch and a cup of tea, we moved to another dive site, and the day was about to get even better. I’d always wanted to see a turtle on a dive, but just minutes after getting back into the water again, Chris swam ahead – yet another turtle. He motioned me to come closer and began scratching the turtle’s back as he swam. Apparently, turtles love having their shells scratched with a fingernail, as it removes the annoying algae for them. Then Chris moved out of the way, and for a few moments I swam alongside the creature, watching as his head moved from side to side as he kept an eye on me, his new underwater swimming partner for a while.

Blowing bubbles on my dive as I search for another turtle

The turtle descended, slowing down and stopping on the reef just below me. It was my one chance to go and touch his shell, so I let out more of my breath and began to sink a few metres lower. As I got nearer, I breathed in more of my air to level off, handed my camera to another diver, and captured the moment as I reached out and gave the turtle a good scratch on his shell.

Going in for the turtle back rub

Giving turtle a nice scratch

It was a slimy texture, and I could see as the algae that was covering his shell began to come away. The turtle didn’t move, simply resting on the coral and apparently enjoying his time with new friends. I looked around, still scratching his shell, and smiled for the camera. Yet again, water filled my mask, but I didn’t care. Until now, I’d never even seen a turtle in the wild, let alone swim and play with one!

Underwater smiles for the camera

We dived to a depth of 12 metres, and the 35 minute dive felt like it was over in seconds. It was a great experience, and brilliant to put all my training in Thailand to use. It wasn’t cheap – the cost of two dives and camera hire was almost as much as my four day diving course in southeast Asia, but it was well worth doing.

Off I go to explore the reef

Having had my first ever scuba experience, that of a short trial dive with a guide on the barrier reef back in 2005, it felt like I had gone full circle. I had always been able to say my first ever dive was on the world’s most famous reef, but now my first fully qualified dive was also on the Great Barrier Reef, and this time I had the photographs to treasure and prove it.

Dive over…water trapped in ear pose up the stairs with Chris

A farewell from the Cairns Diving Centre crew back at the marina

That night I celebrated by meeting up with Alex and Brandon, themselves also buzzing with excitement after their trip out to the reef. We stayed at the Gilligans bar, playing Bogan Bingo, which was half comedy show, half gameshow, with a tongue-in-cheek laugh at the ‘redneck’ side to Australian society.

With Brandon (left) and Alex

It came complete with baseball caps, vest tops, 80s rock music and a lot of laughs, and put us in the perfect mood for a trip to the legendary Woolshed pub where we had drinks and joined in with the party, before ending the night back at the hostel where there is an on-site nightclub.

Legendary backpacker haunt The Woolshed. Messy!

I had been in Cairns for four days, but I wished it was longer. It’s a great town, with a great atmosphere and good people. It’s got a really relaxed, easy-going vibe – you can spend hours lounging around the pool on the esplanade, party the night away, trek through jungles and rainforests to the north or dive in some of the best underwater spots on the planet.

Cairns lagoon

With time against me, I had to start making my way south and I was booked onto my first Greyhound bus from Cairns at 12.20am. I was on my way to Airlie Beach, and to the Whitsundays, but there was just enough time for one last pint with Alex and Brandon. They are both heading south too, but with no guarantee of bumping into them, it is always best to say farewell when you can.

Laden down yet again with my life in bags, complete with a cheese and Vegemite sandwich for the morning in my coolbag, I made my way through the city to the bus terminal near the marina. The Greyhound was already there, waiting, and I gave my name to the bus driver.

“Seat 4D buddy,” he said, slinging my rucksack into the underbelly of the coach.

The Greyhound awaits for Airlie Beach

And with that, I climbed aboard, stuffed my trusty British Airways pillow I’d stolen from my flight to Sydney against the window, and settled down for a night of vertical sleep on the main road down to Airlie Beach.

If only sunburn didn’t hurt so much when you try to get some kip.

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Under the Sea

Going under...

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.

My first view of Sunshine Divers Resort!

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.

Some of the original coconut plantations on Koh Tao

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!

Back with Hannah and Laura for more fun and laughter. And tea.

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.

Not bad for a classroom view!

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.

DVD and textbook lesson, helped by gallons of banana and coconut shakes

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!)

Suited up and ready for a swim!

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)

Starting the scuba training

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.

Sarah my instructor (left) with Kristina and Michael getting kitted up

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!

With Sarah-J, my first dive buddy

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!

Heading to the dive site

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.

Gone diving...

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!

Hannah and Laura buddy-checking before our dives

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…

Looking a tad nervous before the deep dive!

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.

‘Eeeeeeeeeeeerrrrk…pop’

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

Clambering out of the boat for a reverse roll into the water

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.

Safely in and joking with Tamara

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.

Chilling on the boat

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.

Another cuppa with Hannah and Laura after our dives!

Sairee Beach, Koh Tao

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.

Passed!

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.

Officially a certified diver!

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!