Imagine being under water, the warm aqua-marine sea all around you, corals swaying gently with the tide like branches on a tree in slow motion, schools of technicolor fish playfully darting around and through the labyrinth of coral…and then you take a breath. And another. And another. It’s not natural, breathing underwater. But that’s exactly what we aspired to do as we set out for Koh Tao, Thailand, the Scuba certification capital of the world.
The idea to go to Koh Tao was inceptioned by our bunkmates on a 32-hour night-day-night train in India. They had done it a couple months earlier and when we looked into how cheap it would be, and how it could expand our adventure repertoire underwater, we decided to give it a go. Much research (especially on Jenna’s part) went into the decision of which company to dive with as we parsed through the recommendations of friends and online resources, while triangulating it with the best place to stay for a week on the smallest of the Bay of Thailand’s main islands. After much deliberation, we settled on Ocean Sound Dive and Yoga, rated #1 on Trip Advisor and also located on the southern beach, well away from the bustle of the more developed Sairee beach to the west. And we’re happy we did. The southern beach, Chalok Baan Kao, was quite chill and Ocean Sound was very professional.
Day one of our training entailed a classroom session, video, and coursework to be completed later that evening on the basic elements of diving. Day two started in the controlled environs of a pool (as should all dive courses, imo), to practice the basics of diving, such as setting up our equipment and breathing underwater, for instance. After the practical simulation, we were back in the classroom for another video and more homework. This diving thing is no joke…there’s a lot of know how necessary to strap on a BCD; check your regulator, air in your tank, and SPG; perfect your buoyancy using weights; and all the other diving fundamentals. By day three, we were ready to get in the ocean, but not before a written test…a final exam of sorts. Jenna aced hers and I got 96%. Everyone in our eight person group (two four-person teams) passed, so we all hopped on a boat to Ao Leuk Bay. There we had to perform the same tasks as in the pool the day before – equalizing, clearing our masks, etc, but this time in the open ocean, 40 feet deep. Some people had problems. One guy got seasick before even getting in the water. Another guy came down with a migraine after the first dive and had to sit out the rest of the day. Jenna, for her part, had a bout with claustrophobia. Everyone who couldn’t finish the dives came back the next day to complete them.
The following day, day four, was the best of the open water course. I was so nervous about going down to 60 feet and finishing the course that I couldn’t sleep the whole night; nonetheless, we left for the boat at 6:15 am sharp. Shortly after arriving at the dive site, Chumphon Pinnacle, we were suited up and ready to take a big step into the water, gear and all. As I took mine, the blue engulfed me and I inflated my BCD (Buoyancy Control Device) to help stay afloat as I made my way over to the descent point. From there, we headed down a buoy line to the top of the pinnacle. I had to equalize (adjust the air pressure in your head) almost every meter I descended, which is kind of uncomfortable (since it entails holding your nose and blowing air out your ears). This, and the water that somehow continued to creep into my mask, proved my biggest challenges in the entire course. Finally there at 60 feet, I adjusted my buoyancy and found it much easier to swim and enjoy myself at that depth than at any time during the process of getting there. What I saw at 60 left me in awe.
Schools of fish in the hundreds swam in concentric circles as one body, appearing almost CGI in the precision of their unison. I swam behind one such school and slowly entered the floating, pulsating orb of fish. It enveloped me, swimming all around me as though I was part of it, giving way only overhead as the consistent stream of bubbles from my regulator disturbed the water on their way to the surface. It felt like an underwater safari, except that unlike safaris in Africa, I could be right there, suspended in mid-water, with the creatures. By the end of the second dive, I was the proud new owner of the title Open Water Certified Diver, and thus my passion for diving was kindled.
Our original plan, after getting our Open Water licenses, was to go for our advanced certification, which would allow us to dive at night and to depths of 100 feet. Since Jenna wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be able to continue on with the advanced course, I elected to just do one more day of diving – this time, adventure diving. By going on just three adventure dives, even though I wouldn’t get my advanced cert, I’d still be credentialed to dive to 100 feet, lead a dive, and conduct a night dive. My first dive was the deep water, which was quite murky and pretty uneventful. The navigation dive, however, was excellent, as I led my instructor around the reef using a compass and underwater topography. The clarity was great there and we saw blue ringed angelfish, a moray eel, and a large school of chevron barracudas, among others. The last adventure dive of the day would be the night dive, the one that everyone raves about.
The setting sun threw brilliance along the face of the vastness set out before me; then, with one big step, I broke the shimmering plane and was in the water. Descending into the deep, the light faded and was completely gone ten minutes later. We had only our flashlights to see, but the beauty of diving in darkness are the lifeforms that come out at night. We saw stingrays hunting (including a baby stingray!), a great barracuda, and my favorite, a salp, a type of translucent planktonic creature that glowsed in the beam of our sea torches. When I finally breached the surface, after 52 minutes underwater, the stars lit up the night sky like the bioluminescent plankton we saw below.
I can’t say I’m hooked on diving, not yet at least. I’ve only really dove a couple days and haven’t been out without an instructor yet, so I feel I have a long way to go and a lot to yet learn. But I can’t wait to go out again and am excited that we’re now able to experience an entirely different world underwater. Yet another reason to visit the sea…as if we needed one!