28th September 2012 15:44
Scuba diving baby! Koh Tao is THE place to dive in Thailand. It has the best dive sites, and I've also heard getting certified there can work out two or three times cheaper than elsewhere in the world. It's on the south east coast, so I actually had to pass through Bangkok to get there, before going back up to see Ella later on.
To travel south, I opted for the relative comfort of a sleeper train. I'd quite enjoyed my time on one when I was in Vietnam, in a nerdy, childish kind of way. The first one I booked took me from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, where I spent half a day before boarding another to go to Chumphon, before finally sailing on a ferry to Koh Tao. The train has comfy seats in booths either side of a central aisle during the day, with train staff changing them transformers style into beds by night. These little compartments are awesome fun, when the curtain is drawn it feels like you're in a fort like when you were a little kid. Yes, believe it or not I'm actually 27 years old.
On disembarking, I hunted through the crowd of taxi/moto drivers, guest house touts and dive people for Ban's dive school. This company owns Sunshine Divers, and a glowing recommendation from Rob saw me heading straight to their resort on the south of the island on a free moto arranged by the Ban's lady. A nice coincidence meant the two instructors hanging around there when I arrived were Bastiaan and his wife Kim. Bastiaan had taught Rob and Gilly while they were there, so it was nice to be learning with him. It also meant comparisons could easily be made - at the end he said I was the most bestest and awesomest diver he'd ever seen (sorry Rob, sorry Gilly).
Within ten minutes of arriving, I was sat down watching the enthralling instructional videos accompanying each chapter I had to read in the manual. Yep, that's right folks, a textbook. This is followed by knowledge reviews of each section, with a final exam at the end of it all. It felt like I was back at school! You can dive without certification, but this will be a one off shallower dive. By passing your PADI Open Water diving course, you can then dive all over the world and to a depth of 18 metres, 30 metres if you go on to do the advanced course.
The following day I returned, having completed my homework (yes, it just got worse), to meet my "buddy" for the duration of the course, Eliza. Eliza is from Germany and had been on Koh Samui with two of her friends, but needed a little alone time so headed off to Tao for the diving.
The maximum class size with Sunshine is four, but as it is low season, it was just Eliza and I being taught by Bastiaan. When diving, you must always have a "buddy" who you dive with, in case you get into an emergency underwater. The main thing is being able to use their secondary regulator to breathe air from their tank if you experience a problem with yours.
On our first day we headed off to the swimming pool, where we had to prove to Bastiaan we could actually swim (apparently some people don't actually realise this is a requirement!) and then began our introduction to diving. My immediate reaction when first descending below the surface was one of mild panic. After breathing out fully for the first time underwater, my brain told me it would be impossible to regain my breath. It took me a little while to get used to the fact I could breathe without a problem underwater. It did feel very unnatural though. We practised skills including removing the regulator from your mouth, and learning the correct technique to retrieve it, and removing your face mask and replacing it, before blowing through your nose in order to clear the water from it again.
The following day was where the really fun stuff began. We'd graduated from the pool, it was time to get in the boat and head out to sea! Our first dive was at Hin Ngam. It took an age for me to descend to the bottom, as I was having some trouble equalising. You have to do this as you go down, otherwise your ears will start causing you pain due to the water pressure. It's the same kind of thing as when you fly in a plane and have to swallow so you hear them pop. Once we got down there though, it really was something else. I quickly forgot about any problems I'd been having with my ears, as I was completely distracted by the underwater world I was now in.
It was tricky at first to actually swim horizontally, as bizarre as that sounds. I had a tendency to always be swimming upwards slightly. By the end of the dive though, it was coming far more naturally to me. We surfaced and Bastiaan seemed pretty happy with his "Dream Team". The next dive that day merely served to reinforce the techniques we'd already set in place, and by the end of the day we felt like expert divers! Certainly compared to when we first entered the water... My ears were still giving me a problem though, but Bastiaan said he had a magic pill I could take which would open up my airways a bit before the next dive the following morning.
The alarm was set for 6:30 again (certainly not something I'd been used to doing on my trip so far, but a nice reminder of what I had to look forward to when I returned home again!), and we sailed out to our next dive site, Red Rock. On the way we were treated to a lovely display of vomit from Bastiaan... We had a guy on board called Chris who was taking his rescue dive course at the time. He basically had to know how to handle every kind of dive emergency on (and off) the boat you could imagine. On this occasion, it was Bastiaan. And vomit. All down the front of his body. Nice. I genuinely believed he had actually made himself physically sick, just to give that added sense of realism to the acting as he threw up over Chris, but I later found out it was only cookies and tea or something like that. It looked very, very real!
On this dive we got to see a banded sea snake, which was very cool. It was only when we resurfaced and Bastiaan told us that one bite could easily kill us, that it became less so! I was also introduced to a character I'd come to get intimately acquainted with on a later dive - the trigger fish. These guys are extremely territorial, and when they feel threatened a small trigger will pop up on their back. They also have teeth....... On this particular occasion I was swimming after Bastiaan when he signalled me to come towards him, what appeared to be urgently. The next thing I knew I felt a tug on my fin (you're not allowed to call them flippers). I honestly thought I was about to be eaten by a shark. I was too terrified to even look behind me to see what it was! I just knew it wasn't Eliza as she was right next to me, also swimming away at great speed! When we were above water, I discovered it was this type of fish that had bitten my fin as I was swimming across his territory. We would meet again....
On the following dive we saw a turtle steadily ripping away at the coral looking for food. It was amazing, I'm just gutted we didn't have the camera that time. There was also a motorbike (not something you'd usually expect!), and a deliberately wrecked catamaran. On this occasion it was my turn to navigate, using a compass and a hand drawn map of the dive site on a slate. I actually did surprisingly well, leading us around a set route and finishing within around twenty feet of where we were meant to be. Not bad for a first attempt!
One of the modules I chose to do as part of the advanced course was "Peak Performance Buoyancy". This is basically fine tuning your buoyancy in the water and learning to better control your movement underwater. It was also a good excuse to have lots of fun at an underwater playground!
It figures that following something fun, there had to be something not so fun. Like getting bitten on the finger and the ankle by a trigger fish. We were busy looking at another one, when I felt something tugging on my finger. Thinking it was Bastiaan messing around, I turned to see a much larger trigger fish (Dad!) attached to my finger. He then removed himself and attacked my leg. It hurt.... they have teeth! But I was more worried about it being poisonous. Bastiaan assured me it was ok though. Even so, I got a weird numb/tingling feeling in my foot as if I'd had an injection like you'd have at the dentist, but the doctor said it was nothing to worry about. I really wanted to hunt that fish down and fry him up for dinner.
The final dive was a night dive, which I must admit I was most nervous about. It seems slightly mad to throw yourself off a completely satisfactory boat into the middle of a pitch black sea... we did it though, and it was pretty incredible. We saw things which we never would have seen during the day, like hermit crabs, barracudas hunting, stingrays, a moray eel. The best thing of all is trigger fish sleep at night! We also stopped at one point and turned off our torches, then waved our arms around in front of us, which gave an incredible light show of green bioluminescent plankton illuminating in front of us, it really was spectacular.
Having earned my "Advanced Open Water Diver" title, I was free to relax on the beautiful beach at the dive resort for a few more days, before heading back to Bangkok to meet Ella who was flying in on the 21st September.