Our long awaited holiday on Koh Tao came and went in the blink of an eye. I was looking forward to the weekend more than I can say, five days off work on a new island and the best part of all; getting my SCUBA diving certification. I had never even snorkeled in my life, and swimming in the open ocean water has always freaked me out but I wanted and needed to conquer a new skill, hoping that I was going to love it immediately. Getting your open water dive certification here in Thailand is significantly cheaper than in the US, so it made sense just to go for the full certification with the expectation of enjoying it and then being able to dive anywhere in the world in the future.
I chose to travel to Koh Tao for the weekend of Buddhist Lent (two days off school plus another I requested) mainly to go diving at a place that a friend from home had worked at and highly recommended. We booked an overnight 8 hour bus ride plus a 2 hour boat that left Thursday evening. The trip was luckily uneventful except for the viewing of Jack and the Beanstalk twice over on the bus that kept me from sleeping as soundly as I would have liked. We arrived on Koh Tao Friday morning around 10 am, and were met by two of Taylor’s friends who have been teaching in China and also came to Koh Tao for to dive for the weekend. From the pier, we all squeezed into a songthaew in usual Thai fashion and were whisked down the island to our little corner of paradise.
Koh Tao (Thai for “turtle island”) is a small island that has been taken over by the world of SCUBA diving. It is the #2 location in the entire world for annual dive certifications (after Cairns, Australia). Dive shops line the shores and divers fills the water eager to experience their next underwater adventure. A large chunk of Koh Tao’s west coast is taken up by the most popular beach, Sairee, which is filled with overpriced restaurants and foreigners toting buckets overflowing with cheap liquor and various neon colored straws.
When we arrived at Alvaro Diving, we were happy to find that we were far away from all the madness that takes place around Sairee, the wildest thing happening on our beach was a game of beach football between various Europeans. Everything about this place was laidback. The dive shop and next door bar, Babaloo, were seemingly decorated by the same set designer as “Gilligan’s Island”, and it fit the scene perfectly.
After checking into our quaint bungalow (fitted with a mosquito net and a hammock on the porch), we got right into the nitty gritty of our diving certification. After deciding which path to take, PADI or SSI (the two schools of diving, think Pepsi vs. Coke), we immediately started a theory class where we got to know the equipment that would enable us to breathe underwater. A typical dive course takes about 3-4 days, and involves dive theory (all the scientific aspects and safety), a corny video, chapters to read and related questions to answer, a final exam, and obviously, the diving!
All this new information was a bit daunting at first. These people were serious about the safety of their sport, if anything at all is not perfect leading up to a dive, you don’t dive. After an hour or so lesson on dive depths, nitrogen levels, buoyancy compensators, hydrostatic tests, and safety protocol, we were dismissed to return bright and early the next morning for our very first confined water skill test and dive.
The next morning we were shipped out to the dive boat. It was a rocky, anxious start waiting in the bay for the boat to fill up. The boat took us to a nearby beach and we were briefed by our lovely Spanish instructor, Judith, about what we were about to do. After a short pep talk, we were loading up our gear and checking with our buddies to make sure everything was in working order. One graceless step slash jump off the ladder and I was anxiously ready to begin. The next couple hours were spent in shallow water practicing underwater skills. They include things like, clearing water from your mask, removing and replacing the mask while underwater, sharing oxygen with your buddy in case an emergency arises, removing your equipment, emergency ascends, and learning all the communicative hand signals that exist between divers.
After we practiced the skills and I swallowed a couple mouthfuls of water, Judith told us we were ready for our first dive. I definitely didn’t feel ready, but I suppose I was because once we were gliding through the shallow reef checking out the underwater world, I felt at ease and confident in my new environment.
It’s funny how many pounds of equipment you can have on but still feel weightless under the water. The sea is silent except for the bubbles of your own exhalation and the sporadic clinking of your instructor trying to regain your attention. Once we ascended to the surface, we all laughed a lot and cheered at our success… My overall confidence level shot up a few notches and I was already in love with diving. Thank you, Jacques Cousteau!
Over the next three days, we underwent three more dives, going deeper with each one. Our final dive was at a depth of 18 meters (60 feet!), and it definitely had the grand finale feel. We dove for about 45 minutes in an exquisite reef that surrounds Shark Island. The name comes from the fact that the small island resembles a dorsal fin; no sharks are typically found here but instead a beautiful, lively reef encircles the island below the water.
The current was strong on the way down, and I felt like a fly in the wind as I grasped onto the boat’s line while descending. The minutes fly by when you’re diving, and before we knew it we had to ascend because 45 minutes had past and we were reaching our residual dive time and needed to get back to the surface. We saw so many things on the final dive, the life literally blooming from the reef 18 meters below sapphire blue seawater. Some of the things we saw were, large sea urchins, triggerfish, sailfish, a stingray, harlequin sweetlips fish, bat fish, butterfly fish, giant clams, and many, many kinds of coral. Diving injects you with the energy of what you just experienced, but it also kicks your ass physically. My legs were sore from kicking with the fins and my whole body was exhausted from the days on the boat and in the water, and obviously from wearing about 50 pounds of gear on my back. A dark storm started to roll in over the water as we loaded back onto the boat,making the ride back to shore a wet and windy one. It was the first time I had been really COLD in Thailand since being here almost three months. Regardless, we were now certified SSI Open Water Divers!!!!!!! I felt absolutely awesome. Not to mention, diving with one of your good friends is in itself amazing and lent to many underwater jokes that almost made us lose our regulators from laughing too much.
Our last night on Koh Tao was just as great as the rest of the trip. A large group of us went to nearby Buddha View Restaurant and gorged ourselves on a delicious BBQ dinner. I had a huge swordfish steak, grilled corn, and fresh juice, all for under 200 baht. Later, we spent time at the Babaloo Bar next to Alvaro, sharing beers and stories and a thoughtful game of questions with some of our fellow travelers. The next morning, our time on Koh Tao sadly had come to an end. We said our goodbyes to our new friends at Alvaro and to the beautiful beach.
Fun fact: Apparently when you spend substantial time on a boat one develops their sea legs. It’s defined as the ability to walk steadily on a boat as its rocking back and forth. It also refers to the sensation of STILL being on a rocky boat when you’re back on land and it can last for a few days. The next day during school lunch, we all laughingly admitted that we had sea legs to some degree. I felt fine when I was moving and teaching, but sitting at my desk led me to feel dizzy and out of control of the world around me. It took about 3 days to feel normal again, it’s a hilarious but really uncomfortable sensation to experience especially when you’re at work. (This is why people used to think pirates and sailors were always drunk because they were always seen swaying even when on land.)
Diving on Koh Tao got me incredibly excited for heading even further south and discovering the all islands and dive sights along the way. Koh Tao was gorgeous and full of life, both above and below the water. I highly recommend Alvaro Diving, a professional yet laid back establishment that caters to a ridiculous amount of languages and skill sets. It’s a more intimate feel than the larger dive shops and I received top notch instruction the entire time. So, thanks Collette for pointing me there! I would recommend heading to that area of the island even if you’re not diving at all, since it’s away from all the shitty tourist spots on Koh Tao and offers a true beach party vibe.