29 March 2013

A Breath of Fresh Air - Learning to Dive on Koh Tao

Hard day at the office.

I have been vagabonding all over the world for damn near 15 years now and whenever I visit a lush, tropical beach I strap on some fins and shove a snorkel in my mouth. I LOVE the ocean, and I have snorkeled stunning reefs in locales such as Mexico, Hawaii, Fiji, Maldives and Indonesia. 

Drifting far above a busy reef and watching the fish play amongst the coral and kelp is a relaxing, calming hobby, one that I indulge as often as possible. But I have a secret confession. Despite my tattoos of ships and seahorses, I am a little bit afraid of sea creatures.

(That was a lie. I am A LOT afraid of sea creatures.)

That’s why I have always preferred to jump off of a boat to snorkel rather that wade out from the shore – it gives me more leeway and keeps the creepy crawlies and the pointy anemones from accidentally grazing my rather ample tum. I like to give them their space. It’s not exactly fear, more like a deep-seated horror aimed at the strangely fecund depths of the ocean and its slimy, slithering inhabitants.  When I would see scuba divers below me navigating their way through caves and reefs I would feel a sick sense of claustrophobic panic, and think to myself, “no sir, that is not for me.  I like to be 3 metres above the action and quietly observe.”

Until now.

When I made plans to visit Jess in Thailand, I wanted to make the most of my holiday and learn a new skill – how to ride a motorcycle, how to surf, how to open a beer bottle with a lighter (ok, that one is less daunting) and so Jess suggested getting our diving certifications. In the heat of the moment and with a positive attitude I would later doubt, I agreed.

The obvious choice was Koh Tao, known for its mellow travelers scene and thriving dive industry, and with that settled I began to look for a reputable school. My friends on Facebook threw out some valuable suggestions, but I decided to rely on trusty ol’ Tripadvisor. The ratings were clear – Roctopus Dive School was our best bet. I was still nervous, but there were still weeks of time separating me from the daunting task at hand and it slipped to the back of my mind.

As the days counted down toward my first oxygen-tank aided dip into the big drink, I began to feel a small amount of trepidation, but Bangkok’s promise of good beer, MAC make-up and skimpy clothing went along way in soothing my jangly nerves and my excitement trumped my fear.  For a while....

Is doing it wrong (or right?); still wearing L'il Bub tank top instead of Roctopus tank top. 

Soon, though, it was go-time. We arrived on Koh Tao bright and early after a night bus and catamaran, and were greeted at the 7/11 by Westy and driven to the Roctopus office. Unlike a lot of the bigger schools located on the beach, Roctopus is a 15 minute walk inland and attracts a more serious clientele who have done their research and are attracted by their impeccable online reputation. We soon met our classmates Rachel, Andy and Pau and our instructor Jay Hayes and we all began the process of acquiring our SSI (Scuba Schools International) Open Water Diving Certification. 

British women require what now?
My fear began to rise, but the course was taught in a very logical progression, and Jay went a long way in soothing my jangly nerves with his calm demeanor and occasionally dirty acronym jokes. We were required to watch 6 DVD lessons and complete 2 nights of homework before learning how to assemble our gear and getting into the water for a basic skills session.  At this point I had always assumed that I would be a messy ball of panic, but I felt fairly calm and prepared as I did a wide step into the ocean, laden down with weights and a bloody heavy tank of air.

As we hit the water I felt a bizarre sense of cognitive dissonance as I discovered I could indeed breathe under the surface. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears, and my initial reaction was to flounder my arms around and try to swim normally. It soon became apparent that my arms were useless little T-Rex appendages and my legs were really where it was at in terms of steering and forward momentum. My heart rate started to settle as we knelt down on the ocean floor. Jay led us through a series of important basic skills - clearing our masks, retrieving our air (in the event it comes out of our mouths) and attempting to understand buoyancy (something that continues to confound me).

My BC and my weights, some of my underwater thingamabobs.
 It was exhilarating, exhausting and strange – and I couldn’t wait to do it again.

Over the next two days we went on four more dives, down to a total of eighteen metres. We dove at Japanese Gardens, Pottery, Chumphon Pinnacle and Twin Peaks and with each dive my confidence increased (I wish I could say the same thing about my ability to blow bubbles or like, understand how buoyancy works).

It turns out that I am still pretty creeped out by coral, seaweed and most fish, so while everyone else was pretty jazzed about peeking into suboceanic caves to catch a glimpse of moray eels, I was more like, “naw, I’ll just be floating around over here marveling at breathing underwater, you g’head, g’head.” I simply enjoy being under the water, descending into the foreign depths and swimming around, and that is A-OK with me.

Me and my new BFF. 
 Pau, Jess, Rachel, Andy and I all passed our course with flying colours, and we were awarded our SSI Open Water qualification that entitles us to dive anywhere in the world. I plan to go on to take my Advanced Course as soon as time permits, and I even feel keen to do some diving in Vancouver, which is said to have some of the best cold water sites in the world.

So, while I still need to learn to ride a motorbike, surf and yes, open a beer bottle with a lighter, I have discovered a new hobby - and an entire new world.
"Bottom Time" made me laugh every damn time.

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