Scuba diving had been on the bucket list since the start of our travels back in January and, to be honest, it was something that stirred a bit of anxiety when I thought about it. I knew that my brother, Sean, had freaked out a few years back when he tried it for the first time in Ibiza. According to one of his mates, Sean did “the shortest scuba dive ever. Fact!” Haha. Thoughts of sharks and marine monsters didn’t help either, but it had to be done or I would have hated myself forever (Emily didn’t have any of these silly worries, which made me feel very macho indeed!).
Thankfully, by the time we got to Thailand, I had stopped drinking completely and had hit the gym hard when we stayed in Chiang Mai for two months. This did wonders for my physical health, which in turn made me a lot more confident about handling new and stressful situations, and so I was ready. We researched online about where was best to do diving for the first time and all arrows pointed towards Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand.
Koh Tao, also known as Turtle Island, is famed for its coral dive sites, resident but elusive whale sharks, and bull sharks, which pop up now and again. The island itself is laid back and generally undeveloped compared to the nearby party islands of Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Samui, which is exactly what we wanted. So Koh Tao it was then, but which dive shop???
Walk though certain areas in Amsterdam and you will be over-awed at the choice of scantily clad women gyrating and flashing their fleshy bits in red tinted windows, and the same goes for Koh Tao…well if you replace hookers with scuba instructors, g-strings with wetsuits and red windows with dive shops 🙂
Put more simply, there are way too many dive schools on Koh Tao. So choosing just one of them is a very difficult task…unless, that is, you put your faith in the almighty Tripadvisor! Which we did, of course. We went with the top seeded OceanSound based at Chalok Baan Kao Bay, which also satisfied our very limited selection criteria – PADI certified, max of 4 people per group and not being run by a bunch of young surfer type dudes who would be more interested in showing off than keeping us alive!
We booked online and went for the 3-Day Open Water Course, the introductory bit to being a certified scuba diver. Feeling confident, we also booked the next stage, the 2-Day Advanced Open Water Course, to run consecutively. Including:
- a deposit of 3000 baht;
- a pick up at the pier on Koh Tao;
- 5 nights’ accommodation at the neighbouring Tropicana Hotel. We opted for a deluxe room because we wanted a hot shower, although there is a cheaper standard option available. The room was fine but probably not worth the extra money and the hotel itself lacked in the customer service department; and
- a 5% fee to pay the balance of the cost through paypal,
the total price for two people came to 40,380 baht, around £800. That is obviously a lot of money for anyone, but for two budget backpackers it’s a bloody fortune – so the pressure was on to get in the water and really fucking enjoy it!
Open Water Course
The first training session was in the classroom and was nice and relaxed, like the balmy Monday evening outside. We learnt some scuba physics and met Will and Jesper, the two owners of the outfit. They both seemed wise about their profession and liked to crack some good/bad dad jokes, so they definitely weren’t “too cool to care” kinda guys, haha sorry dudes, – so we went to bed that evening reassured that we were in good hands.
After another classroom session the following morning, we jumped on the back of a van and went to the pool for our first wet session. As kinky as that sounds, it wasn’t that enjoyable for me I’m afraid. I couldn’t master taking off my mask underwater and continuing to breath through the mouthpiece, and so I kept jumping out of the water in a panic. It took me until the very end of the day to do it, and even then I felt flustered. I had used way more oxygen than anyone else and so I was feeling anxious about going in the sea the next day. Em didn’t have any such issues and she breezed through the session – cheers for making me look good Emily!! The other two wannabe scuba divers in our group, Dominic from Germany and Amy from Australia, took to it very naturally as well, like you would expect an efficient German and water-loving Aussie to do.
One good thing though, was how patient Jesper had been. He didn’t make me feel rushed or like a big ninny once. Neither did Emily, Dominic or Amy to be fair, and so with Jesper at the helm and those guys in my group, I was able to push fear to the side and carry on.
I need not have worried though. Once my head sunk below the waves for the first time the next day, all the anxiety and trepidation was washed away. We swam 12 metres below the surface round the Japanese Gardens, an energetic coral site teeming with life. Fear was nowhere to be seen as I could only think how beautiful it was and how a new world had opened up to me. I even did the required underwater exercises like switching breathing apparatus and emptying water out of my goggles with no problems. The next dive at Twins/Buoyancy World – an underwater adventure park where Jesper got us to literally swim through hoops – went, ahem, swimmingly as well. That evening I smiled my way through dinner and fell asleep probably dreaming that I was a magnificent fish king, gliding with ease through my underwater kingdom.
You are not allowed to bring a camera into the water on the introductory course (and justifiably so), but here’s one of us on the boat that day instead…
On the third and final day of the Open Water Course, we were up very early, at 6am. I was doing my usual zombie impression for that kind of ridiculous hour of the day, and so I tried to flush out the sleep with coffee and toast/scrambled eggs (that the dive boat provides free of charge). It didn’t really work, but once I splashed down in the water, I was wide awake and ready to dive.
Our first port of call was Green Rock, where we saw loads of fish, including a few Triggerfish – fortunately they didn’t seem to be in attack mode! The second dive of that day, the last of our introductory course, was back at Twins. We started the dive performing an emergency ascent, which is much easier and less scary than it sounds, and we also had to remove and put on our mask underwater. Confidence is a beautiful thing, and so by that stage, only a few days after the swimming pool fiasco, I managed to do the task with relative ease and calm. With that out of the way, we had a wonderful dive and a great end to the course.
Advanced Open Water Course
That same evening, we opted for the night dive as the first of 5 Advanced Open Water dives. In hindsight, that was a mistake. Although we were more confident underwater than we had been at the start, we were far from cool, calm and collected. Also, I think that being part of a couple adds more stress to the mix in these types of situations, as you are overly concerned about the welfare of your dive buddy. So throw in the added tension of swimming in the dark and that Jesper couldn’t do the dive with us, meant that we merely endured the night dive as opposed to enjoying it. When we have lots more dives under our belts we may try again and probably separately!
Despite a bit of disappointment that evening, all the stress was blown away early the next morning when Antal, our instructor for the day, took us to the sunken warship, HTMS Sattakut, 30 metres below the waves. Late morning, at a colourful site called White Rock, we practised underwater orientation using our kick cycles and compasses to judge distance and direction. We all did well and it was great craic working as a group without the instructor to ensure that we didn’t get lost! I was also able to bring my Gopro on the wreck dive, which was a big bonus…
Unfortunately Dominic had to leave Koh Tao that evening, and the next morning for the final dives, we were joined by an English girl, Jo, to fill out our ranks and Will from OceanSound to lead us. Luckily, Jo fitted in perfectly to our little dive group and Will was the perfect instructor. The day itself was (almost) perfect as well.
OceanSound had definitely saved the best site for last. We did our last two dives of the advanced course, the deep dive and peak performance buoyancy (dive technique), at Chumphon Pinnacle. Chumphon Pinnacle is a marine metropolis surrounded by deep royal blue water that gives the place an otherworldly feel. But it’s the strange and numerous inhabitants of this little waterworld that really give Chumphon Pinnacle its exotic appeal. We bumped into Brown Marbled Grouper fish, shoals of Yellowstripe Scad fish, Large Spanish Mackrel, Queenfish, cute little Butterflyfish, that travel in pairs with their buddies for life, Chevron Barracuda, amusing Gobischrimp and many, many more weird and wonderful aquatic creatures.
The only reason I said that the day was almost perfect is because we didn’t see any gigantic Whalesharks (the largest fish in the world), which sometimes come to say hello to divers at Chumphon Pinnacle. Nevermind, the day was wonderful, OceanSound were great teachers and learning to scuba dive has opened our eyes to new adventures that must be had. So expect to hear a lot more on the thetwogallivants.com about our travels under the sea.
On that note, I’ll leave you with a video I made of our first foray into scuba diving, enjoy!!