It’s fair to say that my body is not naturally suited to Scuba Diving. I could probably get sea sick in the bath. My eyesight is so bad that I’m virtually blind without contact lenses; my enormous nose can hold about two litres of water, and I have about thirty fillings in my teeth which probably wouldn’t enjoy the pressure of being eighteen metres underwater. Added to this, my general lack of orientation and direction skills are probably bordering on a medical disability.
It was going to be an interesting four days in Koh Tao….
Koh Tao is regarded as one of the best places in the world for aspiring scuba divers to ‘get their PADI’, which is what is colloquially referred to as completing the PADI Open Water Diver Certificate. There’s a lot of bad press about Koh Tao that is still getting circled to this day about the safety there; just google Koh Tao and see what comes up. I won’t be adding much detail about this point on this blog aside from saying that my visit was completely untroubled from a safety and security point of view.
Learning to dive was one of the biggest challenges that I’ve faced in my life for a number of reasons. Firstly, I’m not naturally talented at anything sporting related. There are some people who pick up a tennis racket or cricket bat for the first time and look like they’ve been doing it for their whole life. Sadly, I am not one of those people.
Secondly, for whatever reason, things tend to happen to me don’t tend to happen to other people. Learning to dive fitted the same pattern. On my first ocean dive there was a problem with my oxygen tank when I was setting up, then when I was in the water my jacket started to inflate on its own which meant that I wasted a lot of air and effort getting down and had to replace it for the second dive. Even when I got my log book at the end of four gruelling days I discovered was the only one that someone had stapled together upside down!
There were two diving instructors that I worked with over the four days. My main teacher was an Englishman who went by the name of ‘Big Rich’, who is shown next to me in the picture below. It’s fair to say he didn’t look like what I was expecting; in fact when I first met him I wasn’t sure whether he was there to teach me to dive or to fix the boiler.
He fit the Northern stereotype to a tee; loud, uncompromising, and virtually every other word out of his mouth was a swear word. He also smoked like a chimney; in fact the only time I didn’t see him with a cigarette in his mouth was when he was in the ocean.
He was also an advocate of tough love in the classroom; it felt like I was constantly in trouble during the course due to my ability to fuck up virtually every one of the disciplines that I needed to master within the next twenty-four hours to avoid drowning or suffering a punctured lung.
The other instructor who looked after the second half of our group was an Australian chap called Steve, who was from Brisbane and also managed to nail the Australian Diving teacher stereotype; relaxed, affable and laid back. He was a newer teacher and spent a lot more time giving positive support and encouragement to the class.
People like Steve reminded me why I left the UK and emigrated six years ago, as I tend to suceed more when I am surrounded by positive and encouraging people rather than ones who seek to criticise and undermine. On the second day I was strongly considering dropping out of the course altogether until I bumped into Steve at lunchtime who told me to relax, as different people learn these things at different times.
As for the course itself, it is split into three components which are taught over three days. The first is known as the ‘knowledge’; basically the theory element of scuba diving. This was taught on the first day through about five hours of video which was quite intense.
There were a lot of terminology and acronyms to get through ready for the exam on the third day. Whilst I am generally a lot more comfortable on anything academic than physical, I still have to work harder than most other people when learning anything new. During the course I was up most of the nights looking at internet forums and watching YouTube videos which thankfully helped me to score higher than the required pass mark of 75%.
The second part is the confined water testing, which was done in a swimming pool. On this day, we learned around twenty-five different skills that qualified scuba divers need to learn. These vary from doing a mask clean underwater (everybody’s favourite), to switching air sources and doing controlled emergency ascents. There were also a lot of things to learn for pre and post dive, for example how to assemble the kit and how to change the oxygen tank between dives. Of the twenty-five different skill sets, I was comfortably the worst in the class at every single one, but thankfully I started to improve once I got into the ocean.
The third and final aspect of the scuba qualification was the Ocean Dives. These were a series of four dives in the ocean where we’d descend to various depths for thirty minutes at the time and be tested on various skills that we’d learned the previous day.
On the Ocean Dives I had big problems with my ears as I really struggled to equalise with my scuba mask on. In fact, going down the first few metres was excruciatingly painful. With two dives to do on the final day, my ears were banging when I woke up in the morning, but by this point I was so determined to finish the course that I pushed through the pain and possible risk of severe barotrauma to complete the course.
Even three weeks’ later my ears haven’t really recovered so I’ll need to go straight to the doctors when I get home!
Our fourth and final dive was the most enjoyable, as we didn’t get tested on any skills and just leisurely followed the instructor around enjoying the views of the fish and coral, getting down as deep as eighteen metres.
Being in the Ocean made all the stress and pain of learning to dive worthwhile. Being so far underwater for such a long period of time is an amazing feeling; it felt like I was flying. I was amazed with how I could control my depth just by breathing in and out, floating up or down a few metres at a time and feeling weightless.
The achievement of learning to dive was made even more sweeter by the physical and mental battle that I went through to get there; after the first morning of confined water testing I genuinely didn’t think that I’d be able to get through it.
After getting about fifteen hours sleep to recover, some drugs for my ears, and more drugs for my ever-growing collection of mosquito bites (it’s fair to say I can categorically rule out any subsequent career change to a foot model), I spent the last day lounging by the pool revelling in my achievements of the last four days. Once my ears have recovered I can’t wait to get my upside-down log book back out and get back into the water!