Friday, February 25, 2011

The Inevitable Return to Koh Tao: Diving and buckets of fun

I have been out of touch for quite a while. The internet on Koh Tao was nearly 4x as expensive as in bangkok, which is already double the price of India. On my minsicule budget, on the most expensive of the Gulf islands, I couldn't afford it.

The past 2 weeks have been blissful. The bus dropped us off at Chumphon at 2.30am, and the ferry left at 7am. I crashed out in a waiting room, and slept solidly.

Arriving somewhere you've been before, and have fond memories of, is always very strange. Expectations run high, it's so easy to be disappointed and I was trying not to get hopes up too high.  It was far busier than I remembered. Everyone at Big Blue Diving seemed absolutely rushed off their feet. I got a bed in a nice enough 6 person dorm and booked myself in for my discounted Open Water course to start the next day.

Those few days were seriously intense. It was an 8am - 5pm intense course of academics and theory in the morning, learning about the physics of diving, decompresion sickness, nitrogen narcosis, diving tables - a lot more than I'd expected. I even got set homework. Then the afternoon was learning diving skills and gradually building up to deeper dives. It felt great to be really learning something again. I also had a great group - Saul (dive buddy), Becky and Seb, Amy, Jennifer and our Instructor, Sonia, who, like many on Koh Tao, had the familiar story of  'I came here 5 years ago to do my Advanced course and have never left'. She was incredible.

My little dive log book records all the fish and things I saw. Blue spotted stingrays, clownfish, puffa fish, bat fish, groupers, parrot fish, pipefish, jelly fish, and so many more I can't remember without looking it up. Even when the visibility was failry poor, as it was at Chumphon Pinacle and Twins, the whole experience of being beneath the water was sensational.  Swimming alongside huge schools of rainbow coloured fish and spectaculary coral reef that appear to have been painted onto rocks they are so beautiful. It's something else, something so addictive it was very, very difficult to leave (again).

We did 5 dives as part of our course, Mango Bay (where I'd been previously with Dave and Ryan) Japanese Gardens, Twins, White Rock and Chumphon. The final dive site was our early morning (6.30am) dive and our qualifier. We had to do all the skills (taking off your mask, clearing it, taking out your regulator, practising the 'out of air' buddy technique etc) at a depth of about 10m and then we messed around having a dance off underwater whilst the videographer filmed it all. Buddy checks (Bangkok Women Really Are Fellas (BC/Weights/Releases/Air/Final OK) were supposed to stop any disasters but somehow Saul's tank managed to fall off as we were descending on the mooring line. I had to sort this out underwater, which was actually pretty easy, we'd had to learn to take off all our equipment, including BC and tank, weights and everything, underwater as part of training. This is probably a testament to how good Sonia was as an instructor.

We got back onto the boat and got back to Sairee beach at about midday. Shattered, we all retired to bed for a good solid nap. That evening everyone met in the bar to watch our video and recieve our offical Open Water certification cards. The group got larger as we headed out down to Lotus Bar, and celebratory Singhas and Changs turned into celebratory buckets and it all turned pretty messy pretty quickly. It was an amazing end to the course, and the huge group of us that started out slowly diminshed until the last few staggered home at about 5am.

I think I spent the next 2 days recovering and not diving or doing anything, really. Liv came over from Ko Phangan for 2 days, so it was nice to catch up with her, and there was a mass exodus from the island in the opposite direction as everyone went to start worshipping the full moon at Haad Rin. It was perfect on Koh Tao at this time. Lazy afternoons in the bar, watching movies and chilling on the beach, the amazing all you can eat buffet breakfast at the hotel up the road, and Saul's conversion to eco-warrior after watching two documentaries, Sharkwater and The Cove - both are highly recommended, really powerful films about illegal shark finning in Costa Rica and dolphin slaughter in Japan, respectively, and their effects on marine ecosystems and general damage to the planet. I never realised that coral reefs provide 70% of the world's oxygen, or that 40% of these reefs were already lost or severely degraded, and had no idea how killing a few sharks would so severely displace the fragile underwater ecosystem which hangs finely in the balance. I learnt a lot in those few days. We were swimming in the sea one day and picked up a ton of broken bottles and litter and I have myself a 'Big Blue Conservation' T-shirt. Seriously interesting stuff I knew nothing about.

Check out and the Cove won an Oscar for best documentary - deservedly so.

I would have loved to do my Advanced course, but that was pushing my already ridiculously tight budget too far. Next time, Divemaster. Definitely. I am hooked.

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