After a night spent dreaming of sharks, worst case scenarios and general underwater nastiness, chiding myself for being impulsive and reckless, and asking every friend I know that dives their opinion (thanks Kate), I dragged myself out of bed early on Saturday morning for the 7.00am start and the boat ride out to Sail Rock.
It was hard to tell if I was excited about the prospect, or just nervous, or the aformentioned shitscared. I wasn’t sure at first, but the closer to Chaloklum I scootered the surer I became – this was a good idea. Its is exactly why I chose to head West from Australia, into Asia – to find challenges and push myself outside of my comfort zone.
I’d been sheltering in the familiarity of Chiang Mai and even Bangkok to an extent – coming here to Koh Phagnan was unfamiliar, and deciding to do even this simple thing – scuba dive – was really out of left field for me…at least for the Adult-me.
The Child-me though was excited, bubbling with enthusiasm and couldn’t wait to get my feet wet and my head underwater. It was something that I’d dreamed about and I was going to enjoy the fuck out of it.
So I got to The DiveInn early – early enough for my dutch instructor: a professional, serious man named Raf to see how enthusiastic I was and sit me down for an early briefing. I wanted to know everything, at once, now. As he explained the form and function of all the scuba gear (which I’d only even previously seen on TV), I wanted to know more and more and more. How did this work? What happens if this fails? How do I use this? Emergency procedures? Awesome tell me more…I was hooked even before I got wet (get your minds out of the gutter – seriously people). The Child-me was in control.
So the rest of the daytrippers started to dribble in – Discover Scuba Diving (or DSD) first timers like me, old hands all tanned and lugging their own gear, mangy backpackers and happy honeymooners (or ‘fuckers’, as I like to call em). The DiveInns boat was busted so they had to share a boat with 3 other dive companies that day and the boat was packed to the brim. We set out for the small wharf that jutted out perpendicular to the Worlds End Coffee Shop – personally I thought that was very fitting just in case anything went wrong today but I did say that to anyone – no point in being a jinx.
We boarded the jaunty offwhite and green dive boat and settled in on the top deck, covered by a rough bright green sailcloth to protect us from the powerful tropical sun. The Divemaster started handing out seasickness tablets to anyone that needed them “The seas a bit rough today”. I’d spent enough time on ships in rough seas in my Navy contract days to know I don’t get seasick at all so I nixed the tablets. Others weren’t so fortunate.
A lovely Thai dive instructor gave us the boat briefing in English so broken it could have been hit by a car, but with a combination of hand signals and enthusiasm she managed to get across the basics – what to do if we sink, and where the toilets are. The important things. Then we were on our way – just 50 minutes and counting.
The boat turned from the wharf, the powerful engines throttled up to counter the swell, and then gently nosed out to sea. Once we left the shelter of the heads the Captain opened her up and we surged along, crashing though the 1 metre waves, the hull shivering with each strike and the spray soaking the lower decks. Standing there on the top deck in the bright sunshine, swaying along, eyes closed and enjoying the rolling sensation of the boat in the water, I suddenly remembered something.
I love the ocean.
Although I’m prone to hyperbole at times that is the simple unadulterated fact.
Standing on the upper deck of the boat, powering through the pale green Gulf waters, salty spray “booshing” up into my face and the wind whipping though my hair, I can honestly say I’ve never been happier (at least in the past few years and definitely as far back as I can remember). The grin on my face must have made me look like a tanned version of The Joker and I had to fight hard not to start laughing out loud at the sheer joy of it all.
I didn’t care about the fear..in fact I think at that moment the fear and heartache left me completely and I embraced whatever was going to come. I felt happy and peaceful and quietly optimistic. This is a life to be lived to the fullest with no fear and no regrets.
After my little epiphany, and at the risk of end stage skin cancer from the tropical sun, I retreated to the shade of the sunsail to get my pre-dive briefing. All the other divers had their respective instructors there, giving them serious instructions about what to do and where they were going. But I was alone.
So I waited, eavesdropping on the other groups, getting the gist of the dive site and other information as best I could. Where was Raf? I could see Sail Rock coming up on the horizon, a single rock pinnacle about 2 stories high, 30 metres or so around, surrounded by other diveboats and flocks of seabirds.
About 5 minutes before we arrived at the rock, Raf arrived. He wasnt worried about being late. He’d planned to be last off the boat as it was super crowded and everyone was currently stuggling for space to gear up and get in the water. “we have plenty of time – dont worry” he said. And started the final briefing, which basically consisted of “this is where we are going, how deep we are going, and our communication signals and emergency plans”.
“Is that it?” I asked?
That was it. Simple.
We sauntered downstairs as the last of the new divers were struggling into their wetsuits and scuba tanks, waddling over to the ladder and launching themselves into the sea. We geared up, did our buddy checks, and waited.
A cute dark haired Spanish girl jumped in, forgetting to hold her mask or put her regulator in her mouth. The mask promptly flipped off her face and she came up spluttering water and coughing. Good lesson there – always hold your mask.
Then it was our turn – Raf went in first, keeping a careful eye on me as he had seen new divers freak out under water and was hoping I wouldn’t. So was I, just quietly. “Don’t fuck up, don’t fuck up, don’t fuck up…”
I waddled over to the side, flippers odd but strangely familiar, lurched up onto the siderail, flippertoes over the edge. Hand on mask, hand on weightbelt, regulator in. Look at the horizon. Big step in.
And my world shifted to green.
Looking beyond my feet, there was nothing but the deep green…going deeper than I’d ever seen before. Looking up was just a hint of sun and the surface above. And so many fish!
The next 30 minutes went by like seconds.
You know that expression ‘like a fish to water”. It was like that. Everything was instinctual, completely natural, and I felt instantly at ease.
We went deeper and deeper, equalising (popping your ears) every metre or so, being cautious. Raf constantly checking if I was ok, me constantly beaming so much my mask kept filling with water (no biggie – easily cleared). Levelling off at 18 metres according to my dive computer, we skirted around the rock, dodging the other newbies (some of which were dog paddling underwater – not a good look for a diver apparently) and just enjoyed the 30 minute dive. Breathing underwater…pffttt piece of cake.
So much life, so energising: I’d never expected it could be like this. It was an underwater forest of coral and plant life, fish and plankton, all mixed up in a warm green soup through which I was slowly moving, completely alien to this world but yet a part of it just the same. Part of the biomass, sharing the energy.
And then it was over, and after a loooong swim back to the boat, and a brief struggle in the swell to get my flippers off and up the ladder it was lunchtime.
I was so invigorated by the experience, chattering like a giddy kid to the other newbie divers most of whom were sprawled out on the top deck, exhausted by their experience, seasick, or trying to sleep. I ate a simple lunch, went back for seconds, then thirds, and thought – “I have to do more of this”
45 minutes later – Dive 2.
‘Whaaaat!” It thought I only got 1 dive?” SO glad I had a huge lunch.
So rinse, repeat, apply lessons learnt from Dive 1 – and back into the water. Another 45 minutes at 18 metres, touring other sections of this vast coral wonderland, relaxed enough this time to see the detail in the anenomes and the tiny fish living and hiding in the corals and seaweeds.
At the end of the day, I was still on a high, trying to find a conscious buddy to talk to and enthuse with about the day. Luckily Mia, a german girl, was still awake, so I chattered to her for the 50 minutes back to the Dive shop. She was doing her Open Water Advanced certification and had been coming here for a few years, getting certified every time. She was addicted. And so was I.
On the way back I decided that I was going to do my PADI Open water certification so I spoke to Raf about it. He was free for the next few weeks and would be happy to do it with me as my instructor – it is a rare opportunity to get a 1 on 1 instructor of his level, so I jumped in and signed up not only for the PADI Open Water, but the PADI Open Water Advanced back to back. This would allow me to dive down to 40 metres and dive anywhere in the world, plus give me some special certs and adventure dives as well. 10 open water dives over 8 days and skills development in the ocean – none of this swimming pool bullshit.
So my trip to Koh Phagnan took on a new focus, and over the next week or so I went out daily for diving, studied theory in the classroom (hating dive tables), and skills development. The more time in the water I spent the more confident I became, and I became friends with Raf and the other senior instructors at the dive centre. They were a close knit family that had been working together for years and it was so cool how they embraced me into their fold. The senior divers wouldn’t believe that I’d never been diving before and for a while I was the rockstar of the new divers.
I met all the dive instructors from the other boats, we hung out and went to dinner, one and got chatting to Marcia one day, a cute energetic dive master/instructor from Slovenia (I think) – she’d been on the island for 2 years and didn’t want to go back to Europe. “Its shit – falling apart…I never want to go back” she said. Marcia also made some interesting observations about what the island does to people: they come when they are in their 20’s and they never grow up. Addicted to the adrenalin rush from diving, they move into extreme sports, or freediving, or rebreathers. They live in a state of perpetual holiday and act like immature children right up into their 50s and 60s. European women cant deal with them long term. They marry Thai women who look after them slavishly. Have unsustainable relationships, alcoholism, drug abuse and a detachment from reality. Sounds familiar. Really interesting to hear that perspective. Thank God I don’t live here.
Anyway long story short, I blitzed the theory and skills testing, got certified in 6 days, looked at the next level Rescue Diver course, and the Master Scuba Diver after that. Id like to be really good at something, so maybe scuba diving will be it.
Adult-me can suck it for a while.
Child-me is rockin’ it!
To be continued…
**photos were taken on Dive 9…I’m not a total idiot. Interesting that as soon as the GoPro came into play all my skills and caution went out the window as my focus went to the camera and not the dive. Good lesson to learn.