Dive school started at a reasonable hour, 8am today. I couldn’t sleep much because I was reading and doing homework late last night. It was too hot in our AC-less room and I was perhaps anxious about the open water dives. I woke up to my phone alarm at 6am to finish reading the last two of six chapters and complete the homework for those chapters.
At Roctopus Dive Center, our instructor Holly, Alex, Etty and I spent half an hour reviewing how to use U.S. Navy dive tables to plan and time our dives and their corresponding surface intervals aka resting time between dives. Nowadays everyone uses dive computers which are much more precise, but good to learn the old school method too. We then took the 50-question multiple choice test which was easier than expected and took only a short time to complete. My favorite question and answer was Q: How should you treat animals you encounter during your dive? A: Only touch them from behind. Obviously the wrong answer, but I LOL’d at the visual of me tagging fish by their dorsal fins and quickly swimming away. We all passed the test, it was easier than I thought and Holly did an excellent job of refreshing the material with us before the exam and also during yesterday afternoon’s academic session.
Ending early I met up with Maurice at the Jolly Guesthouse and we had lunch at 10am at the next door restaurant Mint Kitchen. There was only one woman who cooked and waited at the restaurant. When another patron ordered an ice coffee and a mango shake, she immediately hopped on her motorbike and left the restaurant. She came back a few minutes later with two mangos and a bag of ice. The patron told us she didn’t have to do that, but it was a very thoughtful gesture.
I then went back to Roctopus for open water dives 1 and 2. Here’s the true test if I can apply the pool skills I learned into the 10 and 12 meter dives that were planned for us. I loved the one day dive I did with three other girls in a cenote in Tulum, Mexico two years ago. It whetted my appetite to get the open water certification in the first place. However, a bad memory from that experience was the instructor was very impatient with the three of us. He couldn’t help us maintain neutral buoyancy, the state of neither floating to the surface nor sinking to the floor, so he kept grabbing us by our fins and pulling us down as if we were wayward helium balloons. I hated it because descending that quickly really hurt my ears.
At Roctopus Dive Center, the instructors loaded our gear for us and all we had to do was hop into the pickup trucks which would drive us 10 minutes to the Mae Haad pier where the dive boat was waiting.
We had to wait about 30 minutes at the pier as the air tanks arrived late. In the biggest surprise of the day, our dive boat was not sitting at the pier ready for us to step into. In fact, the colorful and crowded pier contained stacks and stacks of dive boats lined up next to each other parallel to the pier. We had to step over two other boats before reaching our own dive boat.
The instructors and the local boat crew tossed the gear bags and air tanks effortlessly from one person’s arms to another across the chain of docked boats. Then the boat was ready and we were on our way.
The boat took us out to the northwest of Ko Tao to Ko Nangyuan, an even smaller island which has only one hotel and is known for its abundance of dive sites scattered all across its coastline. It has two sandbars, you can see people walking far off either side of the sandbars into only ankle-deep water.
The first dive consisted of finishing the shallow water curriculum. First we had to do a skin dive, meaning we had to swim around the boat with just our mask, snorkel and fins and hold our breath to do a duck dive.
Then we strapped on all of our scuba dive equipment and swam to a shallow sandy bottomed area. We each performed the emergency swimming ascent and emergency buoyant ascent while the other two students observed from the surface with buoyancy control (BC) vests inflated and masks pressed into the water. Then we refreshed the skills we learned yesterday in the pool. The most nerve-wracking exercise I did involved Holly turning off my air tank for five seconds. Then she turned it back on, I took a deep inhale and ascended while exhaling into my regulator as if I ran out of air.
Because I have a morbid imagination, I psyched myself up for the dives by reading dozens of Lessons for Life columns from Scuba Diving magazine. Almost all of the columns involve diving fatalities in order to highlight what NOT to do while diving. All stories are sad, though most involve very obvious and stupid mistakes.
After we finished demonstrating skills at the shallow area, we swam to Japanese Gardens. The coral reef was massive and teeming with colorful fish. Holly warned us in advance that the Japanese Gardens site was popular with cleaner wrasses who try to be “helpful” by cleaning your open wounds i.e. eating your scabs. She described this as extremely painful so I asked for her help to bandage up my knee and hold it in place with layers of electrical tape. Readers, you may remember I banged up my knee from falling off my bike in Ko Phangan a few days ago.
After ascending onto the boat for a necessary surface interval break, we then dived into our second site Twins. Again, I saw tons of colorful schools of fish and coral here. The second dive involved grabbing a buoy line (crowded with other divers) and going down further to 12 m. It was hard to equalize my ears but the pain was temporary and easily solved by ascending back to my last position and persistently blowing my pinched nose again. Equalizing my ears smoothly will take a lot more practice. Etty’s ears were hurting too badly and Holly ascended with her, escorting her to the boat to sit out this dive. Another diver in the more advanced group had the same issue and his instructor also escorted him back. I had a very good feeling about the Roctopus instructors from this point on, I knew I wouldn’t have the same experience as in Mexico with the instructor pulling me down to his level.
After getting down to the bottom, Holly worked with us to achieve neutral buoyancy. Alex and I achieved it after a couple minutes and it felt amazing to be weightless. We learned to push ourselves up or down with very little effort. We followed closely behind Holly as she guided us through the reef and Buoyancy World, an underwater “theme park” of sorts with metal sculptures purposely sunk to the sandy bottom with seaweed and other vegetation growing out of it. One of the first sculptures I saw was a giant SHARK. Not understanding what this dive site consisted of I thought it was shark carcass since it was stationary. Moving closer I noticed a section of the shark’s body consisted of twisted metal bars like a cage and was relieved to know it was metal. There were other sculptures of a giant octopus, a treasure chest and other nautical-themed things.
I was lucky that my mask didn’t give me any trouble. It never filled with water nor fogged during either dives. My gums hurt however from biting down on the snorkel and the regulator. Both were ill-fitted for my jaw.
Exhilarated yet exhausted from our dives, we climbed back up on the boats. To me, this is one of the hardest parts because you’re swinging wildly against the boat and when ascending the ladder you feel the full force of gravity as your tank emerges out of the water. The boat took us back to the pier where we had to hop back through another boat to get to dry land. Then we took the pickup trucks back to Roctopus Dive Center.
I walked back to the hotel to meet up with Maurice. He spent the afternoon in Sairee Village getting a massage at the Lotus Spa. We went to Sairee Beach yet again to swim and enjoy the epic, I’ll even say biblical sunset.
I bought a pareo / sarong from a local vendor walking up and down the beach so we would both have something to sit on and dry off with at the beach that we can easily roll up and take with us. We also picked up some roasted corn from a food vendor. He was making a killing as the waitlist to get our corn was long!
Ended the night with dinner at Rim Lae Restaurant at Koh Tao Cabana Resort. It was an upscale restaurant with loungers facing high up on the rocks facing the north side of Sairee Beach. This is the resort with the luxury hillside bungalows that we kept admiring in our photos. There were barely any customers compared to the restaurants lining central Sairee Beach. Only a few grownup couples and families dined there. We toasted with even more fresh coconuts, why not, to the fact that for the first night in Ko Tao: no more reading nor homework!