So, dear reader, I had left you at the point where I had met Greg and we were sitting discussing everything and nothing as people on the road tend to do. There was certainly nothing in the way of a hard sell, in fact I think it was I who initially broached the subject of diving. Before I go on, if anyone is actually reading this and hasn't a clue what I am talking about, may I suggest you scroll down and read the posts from the bottom which will give you a chronological sequence of events, a timeline as an analyst might call it. I enquired about the advertised Discover Scuba Diving (DSD) course and what it entailed. He told me that in a couple of hours he could have me kitted up, underwater and, as he put it, "blowing bubbles". As I believe I said earlier, I had toyed with the idea before and on the Baz Lehmann principle of "do something every day that scares you", I signed up there and then.
I had absolutely no notion of what to expect. Like most people of my generation I had grown up watching the exploits of Jacques Cousteau (I even saw his boat some years ago in Coffs Harbour, Australia) and I love watching underwater documentaries on National Geographic and the like. After a fairly brief but comprehensive safety briefing I got kitted up. Divers please skip this next few lines as it will bore the life out of you, I am writing this for those not fortunate enough to have dived before. Basically I donned a wetsuit, fairly obvious, a BCD which is the sort of inflatable lifejacket that keeps you afloat on the surface, fins, a weight belt and my regulator, which is the thing you breathe through. Without getting too technical, and I have not the knowledge for that, the air in your tank is compressed dry air, nothing more or less. There are other mixtures as you get more qualified, with different amounts of oxygen to nitrogen and allow you to dive deeper and for longer, but all that in good time. I was interested to learn that only 21% of what we breathe is actually oxygen. I was never that good at science at school, in fact I was not much good at anything, but this fact fascinated me. But I digress - again.
Off we wandered to the beach and my first diving experience. Having been shown how to inflaqte my BCD from the tank, it was an easy matter to swim a couple of hundred yards offshore to what is called Sairee Reef. The beach here slopes very gently and the reef itself is no more than about 5 metres deep, not much more than you local swimming pool. At the appropriate signal, I deflated my BCD and down we went. My next couple of sentences are going to sound so cliched but like most cliches there is a basis in truth. Although only a few feet below the surface, I literally entered another world. Cliche number two, scientists know more about the surface of the moon than they do about the bottom of the ocean. At about two and a half times my height, I was introduced to a completely different environment to anything I had ever experienced before and it was, without gushing, quite magical. I have subsequently dived much deeper and seen far more interesting things but that first experience was like a child on Christmas morning. I am surprised I did not drown so broad was my smile. There must have been water coming in past the regulator. The coral formations were like nothing I had ever seen in real life and we swam amongst fish I had only ever seen in a fish tank or aquarium.
Frankly, I have no idea how long we were down there, probably only about half an hour, but that was enough. I have listened over the years to divers, snow skiers etc. waxing lyrical about their respective sports, and always with a degree of scepticism but I am man enough to admit that my scepticism was totally misplaced. Had I never gone underwater again, that one experience would have lived with me forever. In friends aquaria I always loved the neons, the tiny bright blue fish, and they were on the reef in abundance. Totally unfazed by this large white man flapping about in their midst (I subsequently learned that flapping about is not good, you go very calmly which conserves air) it was simply something outside my range of experience.
Back on land, we got de-kitted and sat down for another chat. I asked Greg was there an age limit on learning to dive which he answered in the negative. As long as I was physically fit enough, without any major medical problem and could pass the swimming test, I would be OK. I told him I would think about it and went back to my bungalow to get ready to go out. In truth, that was merely dissembling. From the first moment I got a few feet under the water I knew I wanted to do more of it. I had had a slight trepidation initially that I might feel claustrophobic or panic about breathing "artificial" air from a mouthpiece underwater as my only means of staying alive, but it was nothing like that. I took onto the regulator very easily, it is just a matter of breathing normally, although slightly differently as I will explain later.
Next day I was back at the diveshop clutching a wad of baht. Actually, not so many baht, and much less expensive than it would have been at home. My Open Water course cost 9000B (about £180 give or take) and the 2000B of the DSD dive was put against that. In addition, four nights free accomodation was thrown in so that was about 1600 saved. I had read that Koh Tao qualifies more divers than any other place on the planet every year and I can bleieve it, looking at the numbers about. There are about 40 dive schools on an island 22km sq. and some of the schools are huge. I am glad I went with Siam (my dive school). Some of the schools are very big, which might be fun if you are with a group of friends, but I managed to have an instructor all to myself, which suited as I am not the quickest of learners. I have Greg's email and will send him a copy of this blog, he now heading back to the US, and I cannot speak highly enough of him. It certainly helped that we were more or less of an age, he was into the same music as me (of which more later) and was so relaxed it was untrue for I would, in an educational situation, try the patience of a saint.
So we begin. Having parted with the readies, there was the inevitable paperwork to be done, medical questionnaires, waivers etc. All necessary I am sure. So where did we start? A run through the gear in the kitroom? A look at the boat? A shallow water session in the sea? Answer: none of the above. I was set down in a comfortable classroom, with an instructional handbook and told to watch videos. Again, very necessary. Diving is a relatively safe sport, more people die snow skiing or skateboarding every year but the concept of spending time in a place where you can't breathe means that safety is paramount.
Basically, the next two days were concerned with fairly intensive studying. Every evening after class I would have a couple of beers, a bite to eat and then off to study. It would probably be easier for a 20 year old but I have not studied for years and like anything else you get out of practice. On the second afternoon we headed back out to the reef to do "skills". I do not intend to bore you with a complete inventory of the things required as I am sure they are on the PADI website but a few things stand out. I have always had difficulty opening my eyes underwater so the mask removal drills were difficult. I also seem to ingest a lot of water through my nose doing these things so not a totally pleasant experience but necessary in case you lose your mask. Ridiculous as it sounds, one of the most satisfying things on the course was that I trained myself to open my eyes down there although it is of limited value as your eyes will not focus underwater.
I have to say it is a long time since I have been pushed so hard mentally and physically over a couple of days. It is a very long time since I was in a classroom situation, I believe the last time I was standing at the front doing the talking! Given the various drills I had to do and the evening study, I think it no exaggeration to say that during the course I probably drank more of the Gulf of Thailand than Chang Beer which, as people who know me will attest, is quite some statement.
An interesting sidebar. As I said before, Greg and I were very much into the same music. One of the tests on the course is that you have to swim 200 metres (in your own time) and then float unaided for 10 minutes. I completed the swim with a steady breaststroke and then the float. I had noticed that the trade name on my BCD was Aqua Lung, so I was floating bored and decided for no particular reason that the old Jethro Tull song Aqualung would be appropriate. Cue some old Tull, "Sitting on a park bench...........", just to pass the time you understand, well I did have 10 minutes to lie there and do nothing except refrain from drowning. After the first line, Greg comes in, right on key, so we shared a smile and carried on. Anyone who knows the song (if you don't, check it out on Youtube) knows there is a wonderful Martin Barre guitar solo midway through the song, which I had not quite worked out what to do with. As I hesitantly started to trail off, away he went singing the guitar line note perfect, so I joined in lustily. I did notice a few odd looks from people on the shore watching these two middle aged men singing a song they did not know at full bore whilst bobbing about in the water. As my friend Fish would say, a Fellini moment. Needless to say, the ten minutes passed quickly and I had completed another test.
The third day was mostly diving and skills tests. I will not list them here because divers will know them and non divers will just be left wondering what I am talking about (which is a fairly normal situation for me). Back to shore with all passed and now the only thing was the final exam. I was slightly bemused when Greg asked did I want to do it in the classroom, or would I prefer to go to a nearby bar. Well, only one answer to that so, as he watched me, I completed my paper which he marked and, to my slight surprise and complete delight, he pronounced passed and asked what size and colour of Tshirt I would like. Yes, it is true, you really do go there, do that and get the Tshirt. More importantly, he gave me a small slip of paper which, in very prosaic terms, stated effectively that I could go anywhere in the world and dive to 18 metres with a buddy (my credit card type accreditation is on it's way to my home now). It would be very wrong to say that it was the proudest moment of my life, there have been others much more important, but I was extremely happy and Greg and I retired to the Lotus Bar for a beer.
It is difficult for me to articulate how much this meant to me. Any of my diver friends who read this will ask what I am getting so worked up about, as it is only one level up from entry level, my non diver friends will say, "what is so exciting about flapping about underwater?" which would have been my response a week ago. All I can say is that I have done a mere 8 dives now and it is a source of constant wonderment to me. As much as the enjoyment of diving, I think it was the idea of learning a totally new skill at my age that pleased me so much. After retirement I wondered what there would be to excite me. The music obviously, which is my primary passion but this has now given me somethig else to work on.
The next paragraph will be of no interest to non divers so just ignore. I have no desire for Instructor or even Divemaster. I doubt I am physically fit enough, although I will certainy do Advanced OW, possibly Rescue and will try to specialise in Photography, which I can do with OW anyway. I might even go for Videography although I am not sure that is really my thing.
Anyway, I have been diving almost nonstop now, I can't get enough of it. Counterintuitively, the biggest problem with diving is not getting to the bottom but staying there. You load yourself with a big belt full of lead weights and it is still hard to stay down and see what you want. The guy I have been diving with the last two days has been gradually dropping my weights as I get better with my breathing. The whole trick is the breathing. If you want to go down, breathe out, and conversely, going up requires breathing in. My instructors do it effortlessly, although Quan Do said today my use of air was good for a new diver. Basically, I do not flap around which makes me breathe more and use up air quickly. Cliche number three, it is like flying, or at least being weightless which is effectively what you are being neutrally bouyant. I swear, as a complete beginner, I can make myself go up and down without moving a muscle, just breathing, it really is something to get your head round.
Yesterday was my first dive as a qualified diver, and it was probably more daunting than anything that had gone before. I was expected to know what to do. As it is off season, there are not many divers about and I was paired with Thomas, a nice young French guy from Perpignan who speaks good English. I was left to prepare my own kit, (although Quan Do was obviously looking on quietly), allowed my own method of entry (I chose the sedate Big Step) and when we discussed the dive plan he explained that he would have to do skills with Thomas, which I had had to do a few days before, and I could just swim around and do what I liked as long as I kept in sight. This was a big moment for me as it meant he trusted me enough not to kill myself whilst he was working, He was giving Thomas the same briefing as I had had a few days before and I felt somewhat fraudulent being cast in a different light.
Anyway, we went down to dive and it was great. Whilst Thomas was being instructed, a thing I remembered all too clearly, I was off doing my own thing. I will not bore you with a list of what we did and saw this last two days but for dive afficionados I have dived Twins, Japanese Garden, White Rock, Red Rock and Green Rock. How imaginitavely, if erroneously named! Suffice to say, a couple of days really fun diving, albeit that Thomas had to retire injured today. He was to do his deepest dive (18m) but his sinuses played up and he could not dive. I felt really sorry for him as he was so keen and had been swimming around like an excited puppy all yesterday.
OK, I lied, I am going to bore you with what we saw. There were bannerfish, angelfish (several species), clownfish think Nemo), more types of neons than I could count, various groupers, the list is endless. Now despite the thngs you occasionally see on TV, most creatures underwater are harmless, although we did come across one such, the triggerfish which is a right cantankerous piece of work. The triggerfish is a bottom dweller and digs a sort of nest in the sand, which (s)he will guard ferociously and effectively given that it has quite fearsome teeth. Look it up on the internet to see what I mean. Greg showed me a nasty scar on his lower leg when one had taken exception to him a while ago. Although it was nice to have seen one, I was glad it was at a distance. To complete my collection, Greg managed to find me a stingray, not huge but very impressive nonetheless, and Quan Do pitched in with a moray eel which did look big to me albeit he assured me it was pretty small by local standards.
It is certainly true that time flies when you are having fun, and I was slightly surprised to realise I have been here over three weeks, it really seems lke no time at all. This has brought it's own problem as I need to get back to Prachuap Khiri Khan to extend my visa which will give me enough time to get up through Isaan and to the Lao border in a couple of weeks. It is either that or do a visa run to Burma or Malaysia neither of which I really fancy as they are long trips. I shall leave Koh Tao with a heavy heart as I really have enjoyed myself here, it is a beautiful island with much to commend it. If anyone fancies a trip to Thailand I would definitely recommend you include it in your itinerary. I might try for a few days diving here on the way back through. There is nothing to stop me, a feeling I am completely comfortable with.
When I say time flies, you end up with a different frame of reference. Normally I do not know what day of the week it is but I know when it is Saturday again as every bar in town has the English football live on TV. Given the time difference the lunchtime game usually starts about 8 p.m. here and the game is avidly followed. As I was writing some of the above last night, I was sitting in company with a few Thai guys watching Stoke City and Wigan playing out a decent two all draw including one wonder goal. Although not exactly fashionable teams, they were really into it. I suspect a lot of the excitement is generated by the fact that they bet on a series of results and the cheering and shouting when the backed team scores is fantastic. Similarly, the antics if the favoured team go behind are quite something to see.
Unfortunately, as my camera is not diveproof I have no photos of my time underwater and only a couple of the boat etc. so I shall annoy the life out of you with a few random shots of the awful sunsets I have to endure, the terrible food I am forced to pay pennies for and the hideous situation I find myself in. By the way, how is the weather in the UK just now?
Thought for the day. What is the opposite of disgruntled?
In the way of thses things, this is well out of date before I psot it. One way and another I have not had inteernet access and I cannot believe another week has passed since I started writing this entry. I am currently sitting in cafe overlooking the peaceful river Wang which runs through the lovely provincial capital of Lampang which is the second Northernmost part province in the country. In about three hours, I am heading to the Northernmost, Chang Rai and thence to Lao, as I have only a week left n my visa and they may not renew it again. I have effectively travelled 3/4 of the length of the country which took about two days in total and have had some more amazing experiences on the way. Whenever I put pen to paper or more correctly fingers to keyboard, I'll let you know all about them. As they say, watch this space!
Most of you know how awful I am at computer stuff, and I cannot manage to upload photos just now, but I will try to owrk it out for my next post. Speak soon,