It’s better down where it’s wetter, under Ko Tao, Thailand
They say that you never forget the first time you breathe under water. Like your first kiss there is a lot of initial trepidation. How does it work? What if I do it wrong and I end up drowning? How am I supposed to exhale? Where should I put my hands? Luckily your instructor is there to reassure you – “Don’t worry, if worst comes to worst you can always just stand up and walk away.” Shaking with anticipation you finally pluck up your nerve, take a deep breath and go for it. The first few seconds are the hardest. Rejecting the very notion that this could be possible, your lungs refuse to co-operate. Your face starts to turn purple and just as you are giving up hope it finally happens, that first desperate gasp. As the air works its way into your mouth you swallow it greedily, holding every last atom in your lungs for as long as you can in case your mouthpiece doesn’t work the next time.
As quickly as it started though, it’s over and you are back to the surface. Dizzy (you stood up too fast), gasping for breath and with a suspicious wet patch on the front of your tshirt (is that my drool or yours?)s, you wonder when you can do it again. You already have a few improvements in mind.
Like hundreds of thousands of backpackers before us, we had come to Ko Tao to learn how to dive in the wake of a vicious week-long hangover from Full Moon. The rules were simple – we would be up early every morning for academic classes followed by one or two dives in the afternoon. We would not be allowed to drink over the duration of the course (drinking increases your chances of developing The Bends and as we all know, fatal illnesses are forever, not just for the holidays), and we would have to listen closely to everything that our hot young Danish instructor/instructress said. In our broken, impoverished, submissive (and in Ash’s case, horny) states that was fine with us. Plus, if we were going to not drink with anyone, there were no better people to do it with than Dan, Ash, Louisa, Paul, Julia and Kat – the British, Maltese and Norwegian delegations we had collected in Ko Pha Ngan. Now if only we could track down a few Eastern European representatives we could have ourselves a proper little Eurovision Song Contest…
Reluctantly, we settled into our five star accomodation, trading the massive spiders and dirty sheets of Pink’s Bungalows for a sparkling pool, fresh towels, airconditioning and beach-side sunset views in Coral Grand. The life of a traveller is so hard sometimes.
So anyway, after hours and hours and hours of book learning, homework, pop quizzes and 90s American instructional videos, we were finally ready for the big event – our last day of diving. Exhausted after a competitive game of mini golf the night before (Gary and Ash stopped just short of clubbing each other over the head on the last hole) we were up at 6am in time to put our gear together, meet our videographer for the day and hop on the boat out to the dive site. Slipping into the water I was a little doubtful that the dive could be as good as the one we had had the day before.
That first encounter with coral and schools of tropical fish had blown my mind. Why, I had thought as I spread my arms and dived weightlessly into a group of clown fish, would the Little Mermaid ever want to leave this place? But I was so wrong – diving could be so, so much better.
The difference on this day was that our nerves were stiller, our skills more honed and our confidence much higher. Today, instead of swimming in a straight line after the lovely Martina, we were setting our own courses – chasing shellfish back into their crevices, backflipping for the cameraman, hovering in Buddha poses and pausing every now and then to watch curious fish as they swam right up to our goggles and looked us square in the eye. The dive site was more beautiful too. For the first time we realised just how alive coral is with all of its gently waving tentacles and predatory plants. And the marine life! Watching identical Angel fish chasing each other around rocks or thousands of Glass fish changing from one formation into another as bigger fish tried to break their ranks or even the odd Trigger fish as it patrolled its territory, just daring us to come within finger-breaking distance, was the most intoxicating experience. And the best bit? They didn’t even care that we were there, never spared us a second thought (apart from that scary Trigger fish, he could taste blood).
One of the greatest things about scuba diving though – better than the backflips and the Buddha poses – is the silence. There are no tuk tuk drivers chanting, no horns beeping, no cats fighting, no mopeds roaring and no kids screaming. The only sounds are the swish of your fins and the hiss of your breathing. Occasionally, when you get stuck directly above another diver, you can hear a faint popping noise as their bubble stream tickles your face and rushes past your ears. If you are unfortunate enough to be at a busy dive site the odd boat will pass, its horrible roar rumbling in your chest and making you think for that split second before you locate the source of the noise, that the world is ending. But then it passes and the fish continue the important business of swimming in formation and you recommence your backflip competition and the world goes on in its perfect suspended silence.
Under the sea there is no smell of month old rubbish rotting in the sun. There are no raucous bars. There are no drunk westerners veering across roads on mopeds they can’t drive. There is no glow paint. There is no Chang beer.
Of course it’s not all perfect. The duration of your visit is limited by the capacity of your tank, you have to keep popping your ears to prevent your drums from exploding, if you hold your breath during your ascent you can cause lung rupture and then there are always those brief moments of pure, uninhibited panic. Over the course of our morning dive we all took it in turns to freak out. Gary went first having his moment of blind panic during a skills demonstration when he was supposed to drop his regulator (the bit he breathes through) and swim to the surface without it. For me, it was when we hit 18m for the first time and the entire weight of the ocean was pressing on my chest and head. Suddenly, I was painfully aware that I was at the bottom of the sea with no way of getting to the top without my equipment. What if it stopped working? What if I was stuck down here with no air? What would it feel like to not be able to breathe? To feel your lungs filling with water? As I got more and more worked up I started breathing faster and faster and deeper and deeper yet never feeling like I was getting enough air. Just as I started to gasp for breath and consider swimming to the surface as quickly as I could and to hell with The Bends, my favourite yellow Angel fish swam past and I chased after it trying to pet it. Saved by my short attention span.
All too soon our last day of diving was over, we had our Open Water PADI certificates and we were leaving Coral Grand with aspirations of becoming the greatest divers that ever there were. The Indiana Jones’ of the deep sea. The Captain Kirks of the coral. The Supermen of the sub-marine. Tucked under our arms along with our dive logs and PADI manuals however, was a little something that might interest you guys – a video of us, Dan, Ash and Paul making idiots of ourselves in wetsuits. Enjoy!
More pictures from Ko Tao are available in the gallery