When I left Bangkok for Ko Tao, I had no idea what I was going to decide to do once I arrived at the dive resort where Astrid works. I have always wanted to take a SCUBA diving course and get certified, but I never thought I’d do it in Thailand. Between the excellent instruction I received, the great underwater visibility, and the diverse tropical fish and coral reef, I made the best decision to learn to dive off the shores of Ko Tao.
After the 9 hour bus and ferry ride from Bangkok, one of the Big Bubble resort taxi drivers picked me up from the port. Five minutes later, we arrived at the resort where I met KaiNui who is one of the master divers at Big Bubble. He introduced me to a list of dive options and their prices. The open water diver certification course involved watching a video, receiving short instruction in the classroom, and going on 4 dives, 2 the first day which were mainly training focused and 2 the following day which were for fun and practice. The course cost about $300 USD and included 4 nights’ accommodation in their bungalows. Normally there are up to 6 other divers in each training group, but because it was low season for tourists on the island, I ended up having a private instruction for the group price! You cannot get this kind of deal back home, so I was immediately in.
The bungalow included minimal amenities—cold shower, fan, hard mattress, mosquito net—but who needs more than this when you’re in the water all day anyway? It was a place to sleep and hang my hat. I loved the island feel of it and especially the Bob Marley picture on the wall! Come to find out, Rastafarianism is huge in the Thai islands (and there’s more of it in the North, too!).
After my classroom instruction with Chat, my dive instructor, we loaded up the dive gear into a Ruea Hang Yao, or long-tail boat, parked along the beach in front of the resort. Ruea Hang Yao is the primary boat type used along the Thai shores. A second hand car or truck engine power them and an enormously long prop pole with a 180 degree rotation juts out the back of it. The pole can be lifted out of the water to easily maneuver the boat up to the shore without the prop getting jammed in the sand or coral underwater.
We drove to a small beach across Chalok Bay, a dive location called Bhudda Rock. After unloading, I learned how to prepare and strap on all the gear and wade into the water with it from the beach. Then we went under. Initially, I had to convince my brain it was okay to breathe in. Long, slow breaths in and long, slow breaths out. Schyyyyyyyeeeeeeeeeeee---hooooooooooooooooooooo.
Next was practicing various safety and comfort methods underwater, like the ever-necessary task of getting water out of your mask. While snorkeling in the past, I never knew how to do this properly. I would always have to remove my mask completely at the surface, dump it out, and then put it back on. Now I’m a mask emptying master underwater! A bit more important was learning how to signal to my dive instructor properly, share oxygen together, and effectively retrieve my mouth piece if it falls out. These tasks made me feel safer and more comfortable before we began going anywhere.
After reviewing these safety methods, we got a chance to swim along the sea floor for a while. We went to about 8 meters (~26 feet) to start. I had to figure out my buoyancy which is much more challenging than one would expect. Weights in your vest and deflating and inflating your vest help adjust your level underwater. But the real challenge is every time you take a breath in a lot, like a blow fish you start to float upward. Breathe out and you float down sometimes at an alarmingly fast pace. While my instructor was cruising along at a constant meter or so above the sea floor, I was behind him bobbing up 3 meters then down 6 like a buoy on the surface during A Perfect Storm. Up down up down up down. I crashed into fishes’ homes—oh, excuse me!—and scraped my knees and ankles on the coral—ouch!
The first dive was a bumpy ride, but by the second, 11-meter dive I had gotten the hang of it. We removed one weight and I started to use my breath to help keep me steady. Breathing is a rather handy tool once you know how to use it strategically.
I actually cried underwater during this dive. Don’t worry—they were tears of utter joy. There was this moment when I realized I had gotten the hang of diving. I didn’t have to think about what I was doing anymore. I took the time to float there in the moment, recognize where I was, and appreciate it fully. I looked over at the huge reef next to me with all the beautifully colored coral and tropical fish going about their daily routine. I felt so fortunate to have this chance to be a part of their world. Like Ariel in the Little Mermaid feels on land, I was “undah-da-sea” flying with the fishes, exactly where I was supposed to be.
On Day 2, we went out with a couple of other divers from the resort. KaiNui joined Chat and I with Felipe, a Brazilian diver on vacation from his job in Malaysia. A Frenchman who was training to be a dive master also joined us. We took the resort’s bigger dive boat out at 7:30 in the morning to the White Rock.
Later we went to Green Rock. I loved these dives because we got to go through some holes in the rocks like mini-cave diving. I saw sting rays charging ahead like alien battleships, Monterey eel warding off snoopy visitors, and a tiny crawfish-like creature frantically shoveling rocks out of its home. I giggled underwater at that last one.
By the end of the second day, I was completely hooked. I passed my exam and was given my official Open Water Diver card from SSI. Now qualified, I immediately signed up for two more dives for the next day.
On Day 3, we went to the Southwest Pinnacle where we went down 23 meters and to Shark Island where we dove to 19 meters. Most of the photos in this blog are from both of these locations. For Shark Island, we met up with a huge group of divers from another resort on Chalok Bay. It was exciting going out with a bunch of seasoned divers. All were very excited for Shark Island especially because it’s frequented by a whale shark but he didn’t show up on this day. Regardless, I had a great dive.
I only had some trouble equalizing my ears on the first dive of the day. You have to pop your ears as you go down or the pressure is too much. I actually had to resurface once and go back down again—just a reminder that humans are not really meant to be underwater! But my ears eventually worked themselves out and I was flying with the fishes once again. The water was the clearest on this day—we could see about 15 meters ahead whereas 10 meters was more typical on other dives. We saw big black and white Grouper, tons of angel fish, and even a couple barracuda (“Ooooo barracuda!!!”).
My final dive for the day at Shark Island went perfect. We saw a golden puffer fish and a pale, skinny lobster-looking creature between the rocks. I also played with the bashful plants on the coral which like to hide away real quick when you get too close. So fun!
The people I dove with and the experience of diving itself made this one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. The whole one-on-one training including 4 dives, 4 days accommodation, and purchase of 2 extra dives cost me under $350—an amazing price for what I received. Diving is generally a very expensive sport. The gear and the cost of guided dives in tropical waters can be pricey. But I love it so much I think it’s worth the expense. I can’t wait to go again. On my bucket list is the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Bay of Islands in Northern New Zealand. Hopefully I will make it to these locations in the year ahead!
Special thanks to Chat for all the underwater photos in this post.