As I had a length of time yet until heading to China, I decided to revisit Thailand – but this time in the South. I headed to Koh Tao, 1. Because it is an island, and I’d yet to see any Thai islands, and 2. Primarily to learn how to dive!
I’d been toying with the idea of learning to dive for some time, and when I was in Cambodia, I became friends with a couple who were big into diving. They told me (as many others had before and after them) that Koh Tao was one of the top places IN THE WORLD to learn how to dive. Well, nothing if not up for a challenge and a new adventure, I decided to go from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Bangkok to Koh Tao.
Overall, Koh Tao is a lovely island, large enough to explore, but small enough to feel veritably cozy. Many days I would end up walking for miles and not even realize it. It was tropical and warm, heavenly in respects of beauty and relaxation. There were the usual touts and hawking, but it was pleasant to be back in Thailand, away from a large city.
I signed up for an introductory diving course with a Sea Shepherd affiliate on the island, Ocean Republic. It was less than 3,000 baht (back in 2017) for the trial dives and education. While normally I’m an All In kind of gal, I decided to play it a bit safe and just take the two dive course (instead of the longer full certification course), on the off chance I didn’t take to it. But no worries there, I had been toying with this idea for some time and everyone assured me how absolutely mesmerizing and amazing diving was and how much I’d absolutely LOVE IT!
Well, the staff at Ocean Republic are a grand set of folks. It wasn’t long before I was sitting in their street side office, shooting the breeze and imagining a grand life of being a dive master and underwater photographer anywhere in the world I so chose. I’d work hard but enjoy my work, see fantastic sights, and love every minute of it. Or, so I thought…
It was the third morning of being on Koh Tao and I went in for the hour long education session. Basically, they give you the run down of events and procedures for when you’re in the water. There are courses you can do where you practice these techniques in a pool, but this would be in open water. No matter – I’m all in! Go Big or Go Home, says I! Everything was straightforward and easy-as. Let’s get on the damn boat!
I have a great instructor, and it’s not exactly high season, so (thankfully!) I’m his only pupil for the afternoon dives. I’m nervous excited and am on the boat (after being offered a sea-sickness pill – didn’t think I needed it, but who am I to snub the experts? I took it.) learning to breathe through the mask and mouth piece. No worries there, just keep it in and I’ll be fine. I can even vomit through it and as long as I keep it in my mouth I’ll be good. (#thethingsyoulearn) It’s a beautiful, sunny day and everyone is happy. It’s about 11am and I’m ready to get in the water! There are several different ways to get off the boat and into the water: you can tip over backwards or you can jump straight in. As this was a large-ish vessel, feet first it was! You hold onto your vest/weights/air-tank contraption with one hand (so it doesn’t jam up into your throat) and place your other hand on your mask/breathing tube (so it doesn’t tear off your face by the force of the water impact). So far, so good.
I’m going to take a second here to share (incase you didn’t already know, which you probably did since basically only my mother reads this), I’m not actually a big fan of water. I can swim..ish…More like a glorified dog-paddle. I like the sound of waterfalls and babbling brooks. They make for wonderful meditation background ambiance. But full on water? I remember even getting frightened at water parks in the big wave pools if I got too close to the deep end where the waves came out, thinking there were giant horrible monsters (coughcoughSHARKScough) lurking behind the dark grates, waiting to strike and eat me. In oceans, I rarely go in deeper than waist deep water, and preferably only if I can see to the bottom (ah, Vietnam, how I miss you!). My mother instilled in me the fear of riptides and there was that traumatizing incident with a sting ray when I was 9…
Anyway, I’m finally actually IN the water. I’m breathing through my mouth piece. I’m still alive. We swim over to the beach where it’s shallow enough to stand to actually take me through the practical exercises (ie: what to do if the mask comes off in various ways, how to get it back on, what to do if the mouth piece comes out, etc.) I’m a bit uncomfortable, but fine. Once I “mastered” the exercises (honestly, I could’ve done them all day and STILL not’ve felt accomplished in their execution) we swam back into deeper water to have a look around.
In all honesty, Dear Reader, it was depressing. I was heartbroken. This place that had been hawked up as being such a paradise of diving, a specimen un-paralleled for underwater beauty was a graveyard. The coral was dead and white. It was broken and heartbreakingly un-alive. I was stricken by the starkness of it all. And the realization humans were the ones that caused it. It was awful.
After I was comfortable (ish), my instructor took me further down. Even utilizing the multitude of techniques meant to ease water depth pressure, my ears couldn’t take it. I was in pain and upset and thankfully the dive came to an end. I was back on the boat having fresh fruit, enjoying the warm sun and playful breeze, and everyone was excited and chattering. My heart was hurting for the destruction of this wildlife, and my ears were throbbing because of the pressure changes. Not one to be a wimp, however, I wasn’t going to skip my second dive – this time in a different area. Maybe this place would be better! … Not so, my friends. It was worse than the first. And this time, being underwater, my anxiety kicked in. For being seemingly free and weightless, I felt crushed and claustrophobic. I was terrified that a shark (or any dangerous creature for that matter) would attack me and I would be utterly defenseless. Not to mention if I died by my own shear stupidity! (Ie: losing my mouth piece and breathing in water…Gosh, what a shite way to go!)
As the boat circled back around the island to the dock, I was a mass of contradicting emotions. I was SUPPOSED to LOVE diving! I was going to have a new career as a dive master all around the world, for goodness sake! Every told me I would ADORE diving! This WASN’T the way I was supposed to feel!
I remember FaceTiming my parents from the hostel rooftop the next day. I was still upset and confused, angry at myself and humanity as a whole. It was raining and there were a few people about (it was a rooftop bar, albeit in the early arvo) and I ended up crying right there in public to my parents over a crappy internet connection, wailing how utterly lost and adrift I was in that my expectations and desires didn’t actually match the reality of the situation. I can make light of it now, but it was a massive blow; one that left me clutching for some Life Truth.
Honestly, I don’t recall the specifics of what my parents shared with me to help me work through my crisis. Soothing things, I’m sure. Whatever it was, it obviously worked. They said kind things, generous things, and I came to understand – that’s Life. Things Happen. You try something new and hey, maybe you find out you don’t like it. That’s OK! What’s important is: YOU TRIED. You gave it a shot. You gave it your all. And if you found it wasn’t for you, move on. I, personally, saved a lot of money by not taking up diving as my latest (andveryahemexpensive) hobby. And I realize I don’t need to dive to experience the beauty of an underwater world. A few days later I decided to take a half day snorkeling tour. I was so much more relaxed, had a great time, and got to experience some lovely wildlife under the waves.
I’m not in the least sorry I splashed out and took some diving lessons. I learned a lot – about diving and myself. I’m quite thankful for that opportunity.