I am now a PADI certified scuba diver. Booyah. It’s not often one (one being me) learns a new skill to which a certificate can be applied.
After spending about a week in Chiang Mai, we flew south to Koh Samui, though not on Disembodied Cartoon Beak Airlines…
We spent a night in Koh Samui, the air hub to the eastern archipelago of Thai islands. And realized we were incredibly glad not to be staying there longer, what with bars named "Friendly Lady" and a Warner Brothers shop just around the corner. It seemed overdeveloped. We did, though, have a wonderful Italian meal at a recommended spot, anticipating that the smaller Koh Tao wouldn’t have the best dining facilities.
The next morning, we took a high-speed catamaran to Koh Tao and checked into our hotel slash diving school, Easy Divers. Koh Tao is a really gorgeous little island, and its little beach side communities are charming and low key. AND have great food and bars. Our bungalow is literally right on the beach sand, and sunsets are great here.
Koh Tao is pretty much devoted to the diving industry, and there are probably fifty dive centers and dive resorts here. It has gorgeous dive sites, as I was to find out.
I started my PADI course a couple days ago. It’s amazing and a little scary that you’re basically licensed to dive in open water after four days. I must read the instruction book again.
My class was small — just me and another person, Jeff — which was great. After a little book learning and video watching, we started right in the water — in a pretty bay off the island. We took Easy Divers’ boat to the site, and prepped on the way.
At first I was afraid to trust the equipment — it looks like the technology has stayed the same for years, and seems kind of bulky and un-streamlined. But there is something reassuring about the fact that this analog set of equipment is tried and tested. After shimmying into a tight used wetsuit, and strapping all kinds of tanks, hoses, filters, weights and fins to my body, it was time to jump in. I tried to emulate one of those Jacques Cousteau divers that scissor-kicks, duck-footed, into the water. Amazingly, I could breathe the whole time, and floated up to the surface.
Unfortunately, I have no photos to show my bravery. Lucky for Jason, I was able to take this Cousteau-looking shot of him though.
And all I have is this dorky photo of me on the boat.
We slowly kicked over to the shallow part of the bay and did some underwater skills. We were immediately surrounded by some pretty, curious, three inch long zebra striped fish called sergeant majors. Taking the mask off, putting it back on, and filling it with air from my nostrils is definitely difficult with contacts in. We levitated like Buddha at one point, finding the balance between weights, and the BCD, the air-filled vest you wear. The goal is to become neutrally balanced, neither sinking nor floating. It sounds rather zen. And it feels that way too.
After learning some skills, we actually went on a mini dive, and saw some great coral — Brain Coral and Blue Stag-Horn coral, Butterfly Fish, and lots of other fish and plants. AND, we swam with a school of Barracuda. We were about ten meters deep, and I always get confused about how many feet that is.
There are a few things that have surprised me about scuba. For one, you don’t have to be in incredible shape to do it, and it doesn’t actually require a lot of energy. In fact, you’re not supposed to exercise afterward. Also, I didn’t realize one’s lungs could be used to control depth. The amount of air in your lungs directly affects your buoyancy, and you do go up and down with each breath, until you learn to breathe more evenly. Another new thing was that people don’t generally dive alone; they dive with a "buddy," and that’s built into the safety system of diving.
We returned to the boat after diving, in time to see the jovial Burmese captain leave his cabin in speedos and toss some cookies to the fish (which is apparently bad for them). The atmosphere on the boat was friendly and happy, and all the instructors seem serious about what they do.
The next day, we did two more closed water dives at fifteen meters depth, and saw some great stuff. Lots of different fish, and we held a black spiny sea urchin with foot-long spines. And we did a couple more skills.
The last day, yesterday, was a written test, and two open water dives. The boat docked in open water, in view of Koh Tao and another little island — actually a tempting trio of tiny islands joined by strips of beach. When we jumped in, the water was choppy. We lowered ourselves on the rope line leading to the anchor and worked on a skill with a diving compass. After that, it was all fun, just practicing the horizontal profile one is supposed to maintain. You take long kicks and cross your arms, so it’s all about the legs.
We saw Nemo, a Panda Clown-Fish. It was frolicking in its anemone. Divers had put a big circle of dead coral around it, as interested tourists had been damaging the anemone. We also saw other species of Clown-Fish, equally cute, and swimming in their own anemones. You can provoke them a little by putting your finger by the anemone and waiting for the tiny fish to try and attack you.
A striking dinner plate-sized Blue Spotted Stingray was lurking under a big chunk of coral. And the foot and a half long Morray Eel was surprisingly charming. We saw some gorgeous six-banded Angelfish zebra-striped with electric blue and yellow, and saw a baby as well. And some Banner-Fish with a long thin appendage going back from the forehead, Grouper, a school of some kind of small electric blue fish, and large hermit crab.
I felt a lot more trust for the equipment after five dives. When we returned to shore, we were officially certified.
Other things I saw while scuba-ing:
Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse, Red-Breasted Wrasse, Moon Wrasse, Blue Ringed Angelfish, Emperor Angelfish, Magnificent Slug, Black Diadema Sea Urchin, Orange Spiked Sea Cucumber, Marbled Sea Cucumber, Squamose Giant Clam, Jewel Urchin, Barrel Sponge, Funnel Coral, Robust Staghorn Coral, Lobed Pore Coral, Mushroom Coral, Octocoral, Magnificent Anemone
I did not see the Pustulose Wart Slug or Varicose Wart Slug.