I am now a PADI-certified Open Water Diver.
Sometime late last year, the notion that I need to see more fishes got imbued in my head. I was intending to get LASIK done and didn’t think it appropriate to dive after so I had to get my license during the Christmas break. I looked up a couple of places and settled on a dive school in Koh Tao instead of the conventional 3 nights/2 days trip to Malaysia with one of the Singaporean dive schools. It would cost about the same with flights AND I’ve never been to that part of Thailand before. It sounds like fun.
One slight problem though – I can’t swim. BUT unlike most non-swimmers, I’ve gone snorkelling AND I’m now an Open Water diver so hah!
I thought I’d have some time to head to a pool and get comfortable in water beforehand. My main problem with swimming is holding my breath and figuring out when to breathe so I can do a perpetual backstroke. Also, everyone I know said that you don’t have to be a good swimmer to dive – you just have to pass the really simple diving test. It’s easy! Get some practice in and I’m set!
Unfortunately, there was a freak streak of storms in Singapore over December so tough luck to that practice session.
Getting to Koh Tao is quite an arduous journey. We flew to Surat Thani and then had the option of an 8 hour overnight boat or a 2 hour trip to Koh Samui and then another 2 hours to Koh Tao the day after – there were only 2 trips a day to Koh Tao. We went via Koh Samui.
Koh Tao is a strange beast. Its entire raison d’etre is diving. The whole island is just filled with dive schools and I’ve never seen fewer Thais in Thailand before – and that includes Phuket. The course took 3-4 days and consisted of a bunch of multiple-choice tests, theory lessons and of course field drills and the 4 dives.
Because this is Thailand, our swimming test was in a ‘shallow bay’. We got on a boat and it took us to the middle of the sea where we were told to jump off and swim some rounds around it. I thought to myself that we’re more buoyant in salty water so surely we’d just float effortlessly.
I didn’t float. There were waves.
At this point, I thought that if I could just bob around, I SHOULD be able to make 2 rounds somehow. I’d just have to flip over to my back and float around. Seconds after doing this, I got entangled in the ship’s anchor rope and started gagging on water. That’s when the instructor started yelling at me to swim or I can’t pass the test and that it’s “really easy! Stop holding on to the rope!”
I willed myself to be calm, repressed my gag reflex and somehow managed to bob my rounds and then clung on to the rope ladder while spluttering my recommended salt intake out through my nose. When I recounted this to the same people who claimed the test was easy, they then explained that they had it in a swimming pool, not the frickin’ ocean.
The next part of the test was to tread water for 10 whole minutes. Backstroke I can do but treading water is something I’ve never EVER managed to do properly even as a kid when I could (kind of) swim. I made some weak attempt to not get washed off by the waves. The instructor yells some sort of encouragement that barely masks her annoyance.
My legs killed and I was still swallowing enough water to cause kidney failure in people of weaker disposition.
My throat was burning and I was pretty much dying and ready to give up. Some other instructor takes pity on my flailing self and tosses me a snorkel.
Some other minutes pass.
My throat scorched and I couldn’t stop coughing non-stop. Which really screws with your balance. I got rid of the snorkel because coughing into it was making me nauseous. I started flailing around again. Someone tossed me the Buoyancy-Control Device, some sort of floatation vest for divers. I hang on to it for the remaining minutes.
“Well done!” my instructor said after. I don’t think she meant it because I wouldn’t.
We had pretty good luck with the dives in the following days. There were the usual urchins and corals, a local Damsel fish whose face turns bright orange when you piss it off and the Titan Triggerfish which apparently has really sharp teeth and are known to attack divers.
Oh and we also caught sight of a whale shark although water conditions are pretty murky. They’re rather elusive creatures and make seasonal appearances much like the easter bunny. It’s very rare for a group of learners to just chance upon one of these things and because we’re such newbies, no one brought a camera and we can’t prove the sight.
Since I’ve decided I’m an artist at heart though, I redrew it from memory.