Monday, 28 December 2015

Fun Diving at Koh Tao

I woke up at 5am feeling refreshed and raring to go. I got ready and headed to 7-11 for breakfast again as it was right next to the dive school I was using that day (called Roctopus!) and not much else was open. In typical Thai style I arrive late but they were running later. This time the ride to our boat was much shorter and more sedate than the previous days as we didn’t have to cross the island this time. Both companies tended to dive on opposite sides of the island which was one of the reasons I chose them.

On the way out to our site the sea was quite choppy which made for an interesting journey. I had never been out in such conditions and wondered how it would affect our dive but the people taking us out knew their stuff. They took us to a site called Green Rock and told us we would swim around it. Our guide showed us a picture of the site as well as pointing out which fish we might see. There were only three of us going out with her so she designated herself my buddy as the other two were there travelling together. Once in the sea I enjoyed floating on the waves before we started our descent  and was amazed at how good the visibility was below the surface. It wasn’t sunny-day-good but considering the surface conditions we could see a surprising amount of life. There were many different fish which I still don’t know the names. Once we surfaced our guide helped us identify some of them but were just too many for me to ask her about them all!  The main surprise for me though was how much of the previous days final dive had sunk in. I knew that it would take time for me to get better at controlling my buoyancy and after yesterday I fully expected it to take a lot of time but I think in my sleep I must have processed a lot. I was still far from perfect but I felt I finally understood how to use my breathing to control my rise and fall. It may not sound like much but for me it was a big deal. I probably missed a few fish whilst testing this new skill but since even a banner fish amuses me I still saw plenty to make the dive worthwhile. I did have a slight issue with my buoyancy during our safety stop but an extra weight from our guide soon sorted out that problem. The highlight for me though was the small school of little remoras who decided to come and investigate me. I wanted to keep them but as we swam off they elected to stay behind. Understandable but sad as they were extremely cute!

Our second dive was near a sunken WW2 ship. We were told that if the thermocline was too high we would give it a miss and explore the pinnacles nearby. We descended in much calmer water this time and started to swim. Our guide once again pointed out anything she thought would interest us including a trigger fish which we stopped to look at. Though my mask was not fogging up as much as it had the day before it was still clouding up during the dives and I foolishly decided that this would be a good time to clear it so I could see better. I had mastered the art of not kicking whilst I did this so I no longer floated up however as previously mentioned I still had away to go and this time the tip of my fin touched the bottom just as cleared my mask. The fish thankfully didn’t move but I turned and saw the instructor wave me over. It turned out there was one behind me and it didn’t like me messing up its territory! Of course then fish one decided it would have a go too, I only saw one so I have to take the guides word for this. I am happy to report I remembered the advice from the previous day and kicked my fins to attract it (them?) to those instead of me and swan directly away from their territory. Phew, fish attach averted! I did my best attempt at an underwater apology and was very careful the rest of the dive.

After a short swim  I was excited to see the wreck looming out of the thermocline. The thermocline was just above the bottom of the wreck so there was still plenty for us to see plus I got to experience my first thermocline! It was unsurprisingly very cold but even having been told about it I was still surprised at how quickly the visibility deteriorated in the cold water. There wasn’t any coral on the wreck yet but there were plenty of fish and it was nicely bizarre to see a ship underwater. The gun turrets once used for mass death were now home to little fish who looked like they were enjoying playing hide and seek through the various hidey holes. After the wreck we saw some more coral and marine life and a blue spotted ray! Years on and I still love them and am seriously considering one as tattoo number three....  This time I managed to ascend with no buoyancy problems. The difference a day makes. I was as much in love with diving as I had ever been, possibly even more.

We headed back to the shop and our guide was quick to find me and help me fill out my log book. She was a genuinely lovely person and it was real pleasure to dive with her so I was a sad when she announced I’d have a different guide for my afternoon dives. She introduced us and he turned out to be English and unsurprisingly as friendly and nice as everyone else I met at that place. I do wonder if they give them all happy pills there. Turned out I had just enough time to go to 7-11 for lunch then  it was back to the shop where I got to have a lie down because once again I was in the last taxi. I was also introduced to my new dive buddy who turned out to be English too. I will admit it was nice to converse with people who are fluent in sarcasm for a change.

We were on the same boat I had been out in that morning but this time it was a lot fuller, I guess on an island know for partying as much as diving the afternoon dives are a lot more popular! We piled on and were soon on our way back out to sea. I took the chance to practice my meditation breathing as I had read it could help improve my diving.. Once we arrived at the sight we were to be first off the boat so we headed straight to the bottom deck for our briefing. It was time to dive

My new ‘buddy’ hadn’t been diving in a while so was doing a quick refresher. I was a bit concerned about this as I thought it would cut in to my dive time but as said previously, these guys know there stuff. Visibility was good so whilst my ‘buddy’ and our guide did the refresher I went for a swim about. I kept them in sight and checked in regularly. There were again a lot of fish it was interesting to swim about and good to take my time and great practice at going slow and really looking. Since they were having a review I decided to do one of my own. I attempted a Buddha pose only to open my eyes and realise I was floating up, sigh. I hadn’t gone too far so I stayed calm and concentrated and soon I was descending once again. I did take the time to signal I was ok to our guide who was probably a bit confused as to what to was doing up there. He totally gets points for noticing though. Whilst I was disappoint that I had ascended I was proud of my lack of panicking and my cool reaction which allowed me to fix of the situation quickly.

Soon enough we went off exploring. We swam over some coral then we hit sand, sand and more sand. I never thought sand was that interesting but I lowered myself down and close up I saw fish popping in and out of their hidey holes, an almost transparent crab and what looked to be mini banner fish with babies! Tiny tiny fish that were ever so cute!! To top the dive off I found myself hovering quite by accident. I stayed calm and waited to see if I could hold it. I could! So I crossed my legs and attempted a mask clear and I managed it without noticeably ascending or descending. I cannot tell you how impressed I was with myself, as the saying goes simple things... Too soon we had to ascend to the surface.

We stayed in the same spot for out second dive of the afternoon. This time though we went to the other side of the boat. It turns out that the other side of the boat was similar but different and just as entertaining as the first.

Though eight dives in two days was a lot my only regret was that the following day instead of going on a dive boat I would be getting on a ferry and heading back to Bangkok.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Advanced Certification at Koh Tao

The overnight train was an easy journey yet unusually sleep did not come easily to me therefore I arrived at Chumpon at 5am sleep deprived and anxious to find my bus so I could get to the ferry and attempt more sleep. I had read some horror stories about the company I was crossing with but my worries were unfounded. I was able to stretch out and rest though sleep was still eluding me. Therefore on arrival at the island I was glad to jump in a taxi with two other girls who managed to negotiate my 150 ride to a 100 Bhat ride. I’ve yet to have any success negotiating, I don’t think I have the conviction needed to make it work so I always admire those who can.

Once I had checked in to my hostel I ignored the comfy looking bed and went to organise some diving! I spoke to several dive companies but as usual it was the smaller ones that were the friendliest and most appealing to me. My favourite company couldn’t do my advanced certification so I booked some fun dives with them for my second day and went to my second favourite company for my first day when I would do four dives, two of which would complete my advanced open water certification. .  It sounds easy but it took a few hours of walking about to achieve this so once everything was booked I found a nice restaurant that served a decent Pad Thai. It was a good thing I had a lot of diving planned as I would need to work off some of the food I had been eating!

Back at the hostel I managed a quick Skype home before it was time to do my homework. I had to read the relevant chapters in the dive manual before I could do my certification dives. Once I had swatted up I could finally go to bed, where I again failed to do much sleeping. I guess the excitement of the next day was just too much for me.

6am the next morning I was back at the dive shop and ready to go. Despite my lack of sleep and 7-11 breakfast I was excited that soon I would be back in the water. Before we could dive we had to drive to the beach to find our boat.  The taxi’s here are modified Ute’s which meant that when we crested the last hill of a very narrow road we could see all the way down, it was a great view but not for the faint hearted.

On the boat we were left to put our gear together. At had been just under six months since my last dive which meant I was spared the expense of the refresher required after a 6 month break. It soon became apparent that I could have done with that review. After one of the crew helped me assemble my gear the right way round I was good to go in the water. Before long I felt like I remembered what I was doing again and the nerves were replaced by the pure joy of being a diver once more. As expected the reef wasn’t as colourful as the Great Barrier Reef nor was there the diversity of animal life. However it was amazing to be underwater again and there were manmade blocks which were starting to attract marine life.

I was in Koh Tao in the off season so the weather wasn’t the best. For our second dive the bad weather forced everyone to same spot so there was a lot more diver traffic. Due to the traffic we stayed close to our guide but still saw some interesting marine life.  Once we emerged I got straight out of the water only to be asked why. My limited experience in the reef has always ended with us going straight to the boat so I guess it was habit. Therefore I removed my BCD and jumped straight back in with my snorkel to enjoy the fish massive shoal of fish near our boat. I stayed on the surface though as 1) my free diving is terrible and 2) we were warned never to free dive after a scuba dive and I value my health.

On Koh Tao the boats don’t go out for the day only the morning or the afternoon therefore we returned to the mainland for lunch before I was back at the dive shop ready for my certification dives.

Before going out again myself and three other divers practiced using our compasses on land. One of the girls took a while to get a hang of the use of the compass during our dry land trials but I suspect this was a translation issue. The one guy in our group tutted a bit and his impatience was obvious. I thought it was quite unfair as different people get different things more easily than others. Fortunately our instructor was very patient and went over it with both girls until he was sure they understood.

On the boat it was time to gear up again and thanks to my morning dives I had no problems getting everything in order and even managed to help one of the other girls. Eventually we were all geared up and it was time to get back in the water. As soon as we descended my mask fogged up! It was new and I had used toothpaste on it in an effort to prevent the fogging but I fear one night was not enough. Before long the trainee dive master pointed out to me that I needed to do it again and motioned for me to clear my mask. I doubt anyone who reads this remembers but clearing my mask was my least favourite task when doing my original open water certification. Our instructor made me do it time and again and I appreciate why but I hate it because it involved filling the mask with water and I’m afraid I’ll lose a contact so keep my eyes closed and then I can’t see. Not to mention I always get water up my nose. Anyway I did it, badly it turns out. Later on I happened to see the OW video and realised I really had forgotten some real basic things. This was one of them but at least next time I would be better prepared.

During the dive I was paired with the impatient guy who turned out to be an annoying dive buddy. The good news was that I managed the navigation tasks easily and once they were complete we had a lovely dive.

Next was buoyancy. This is my weakest and most desired skill: to gracefully float through the water and even sit in perfect harmony with the ocean. Yes. Well. Here I found out just how much I had forgotten. I had forgotten about using my BCD to change my buoyancy. I get the theory easily enough but in practice. I’m up and I’m down. I’m floating away. I’m bumping in to people. It is extremely frustrating. This would be why love brings suffering as Buddha says. I love diving but I desire to be better than I am and I suffer because I fail to meet my own expectations. However my love outweighs my suffering though on this dive it was hard to remember why. My mask made it hard to see and for some reason when I tried to clear it I often ended up floating up. I later learned from our instructor that I have a bad habit of kicking when I clear it so now I know hopefully that won’t happen again (much). Anyway since I was quite tired by this point I really struggled. I managed the basic stuff but the more advanced was beyond me. There was also a task I was unable to do because I didn’t know what it was. Our instructor had demonstrated and other had gone before me but my visibility was so low I had no idea what they were doing until the last person did it. I shrugged my shoulders and tried to get this across but there is only so much you can communicate underwater and I don’t know how to sign "I’m sorry I didn’t see what you did and I can barely see you cos my mask is fogged up. Actually I could now but I'm tired, frustrated and feeling very unsuccessful." However I did enough to pass and that (as well as being the story of my life) is the main thing. I might have been tired and feeling a lot stupid but I had actually learned a great deal. It is true that you learn more from your mistakes and that dive I really think I learned a whole lot.

Finally it was over and though I was by no means in perfect harmony with the ocean I had done enough to pass my certification. Back on dry land the girls returned to their hostel to get their dive books so there would be a wait to fill out the details from our day. I decided to stay and help rinse the rest of the equipment as really I wanted to shower before I ate. Eventually I went looking and though I didn’t find them I did find the dive master from our morning dive and was able to get the details of our dives from him. Over an hour after the girls had said they would return I found our instructor and told him I needed to go get some money but I would be right back. By this point I was extremely hungry and if you know me you know that isn’t pretty. The only slight consolation was that he seemed just as annoyed as me at the non-arrival of the two girls.

 I took the opportunity to collect my washing which turned out to be a wise move as on my return to the dive bar the rain started. I ordered a burger and I swear it was the best burger I have ever had, did I mention I was extremely hungry?! I’m sure my instructor didn’t believe I was just hangry as he was quite concerned about me but as always once I had eaten I felt my mood improve and I was once again able to form sentences and be almost sociable. As there was no sign of the girls we finally filled out my dive book and completed the paper work for my certification. He went off to check on it since I was being awkward by splitting my advanced only to discover I was not on the system. I did not have a tantrum at this point and much to his credit neither did the instructor. Thankfully I had my card and my log book so he could see I should be in the system and promised he would sort it. I have to say I did feel sorry for that instructor; he earned his money that day with the four of us! I know I for one I was more than happy to call it a day. I felt for sure there was no way I wouldn’t sleep well that night and I was right. It took me a while to clam my mind and drift off but once I did I was out for the night. The power of sleep had returned to me and not a moment too soon, after all I was only half way through my diving.