Scuba Diving is one of the most serene pursuits that man can learn, and Koh Tao, a stunning island in the Gulf of Thailand, is surely one of the best locations on earth to get started. In the spirit of backpackers on the island, we gave it a go and it really is something special.
Koh Tao has a large variety of different schools, and some are naturally more accredited than others. The island has become the place to go to get your scuba qualification on the cheap. This is one of those rare times however, that you do not sacrifice quality by paying low prices. The competition for business on the island drives prices down, and quality up. Schools are forced to maintain high safety standards, as well as ensuring that you enjoy your course to it fullest extent.
BUT, THERE ARE SO MANY DIVE SCHOOLS TO CHOOSE FROM.
The schools with the greatest reputation (and ego) are Ban’s Diving Resort and Big Blue Diving. We chose to dive with Big Blue as it offers excellent pass rates, and has the best reviews on TripAdvisor, whilst also promising to maintain small class sizes. This was key for us as learning so many completely new skills require individual time with a tutor, the larger the group, the less individual time you are dedicated. In the end, the small group size was a huge positive.
SO WHAT DID YOU DO?
We were excited to be able to begin our four-day course on the day we arrived. After unanimously choosing the Scuba Schools International (SSI) programme, the first few hours of the course were spent in a stuffy classroom watching a secondary school science-style video informing us about safety underwater, the equipment, and the physiological basics of diving. We were also given handbooks and were tasked to complete comprehensive ‘homework’ exercises to be collected at the end of the course.
On day two, we headed into the slightly over-chlorinated training pool to familiarise ourselves with the equipment, breathing underwater, and basic skills necessary to pass the course. Unfortunately, Katherine wasn’t quite able to complete some of the more difficult skills, and after determinedly trying a number of times, she admitted defeat.
Some tears and reflective conversations followed that day and we decided it would be a waste for me to pull out. Having completed the necessary skills in the pool, there was little more theory to sit through, after which I would be ready to jump tank first into the depths.
The third day came so quickly I feared I’d forget everything our tutor, Ant, had taught us. At this point, an original group of 6 had become 3; myself and two other Brits, Emily and Bruce. We had more theory to complete, this time about the dangers of holding your breath deep underwater, some other sciency stuff you’ll be bored by, and an introduction to some of the marine life we might encounter – as well as the underwater hand signals to signify them.
Finally, it was time to hop on to the long boat that would take us to the behemoth vessel we’d be diving from. The nerves at this point were tremendous, – partly for the fact that if anything untoward happened, I’d never hear the end of it from my family who told me not to do anything stupid on this trip – I was about to dive and breathe underwater in the ocean for the first time ever!
The preparation rituals before you take the plunge are actually calming; ensuring that all your gear is working, that your breathing apparatus will indeed allow you to breathe, and your fins will allow you to swim. At this point there is nothing left to do but jump.
WHAT WAS DIVING LIKE?
It’s hard to describe the feeling of effortlessly floating underwater, breathing as you would on land. Seeing, thinking, breathing, and moving underwater, in unnatural territory, so far out of your comfort zone. I felt privileged to be where I was and to see what I was seeing, yet I also felt like I shouldn’t be there, like I was intruding in someone else’s house. It was exhilarating yet terrifying. I felt calm, yet under immense pressure. The ocean is full of wonders, yet is dark and unforgiving.
The emotions on your first ocean dive inspire feelings that I believe we seldom experience. The above description cannot really do justice to such a visceral feeling. It is certainly something I have not felt in my relatively short lifetime.
WAS IT HARD?
Starting out, we were kind of prepared for a tough ride on this course. We each had our struggles, (the first couple in our group to decide not to dive couldn’t actually swim…) whether it was with the skills, equalisation of ear pressure, or running very low on air, but the positives were so worth everything else, that the trivial struggles paled into insignificance.
I would have loved more than anything to have been able to experience diving with Katherine but learning to dive is not for everyone and, although she is up for trying again, you have to want to dive for yourself; otherwise, what’s the point?
WHAT WAS THE HIGHLIGHT?
On the Open Water Diver course, you dive in the sea four times over two days, but for us, the whole fourth day was eclipsed by a sighting of a critically endangered Hawksbill Sea Turtle on our second ever dive in the ocean. Only 20,000 female Hawksbill Turtles remain in the wild and we silently followed one for ten minutes, interrupting a skills test for this truly unique and unbelievable brush with nature.
In short, I can’t recommend learning to dive enough. Although I’m perhaps not devoted enough to move to Thailand and teach diving all day every day, I thoroughly believe that everyone should have a go at some point in their lives. It’s a truly magical feeling.
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