When I realised I’d have nearly a week to kill between finishing my tour in Myanmar and starting my volunteer work in Khao Lak, I thought about learning to scuba dive, very nearly chickened out in favour of snorkelling, but ended up taking a three-day PADI course to become a certified Open Water Diver.
Someone, who as it turns out didn’t know what they were talking about, once told me that scuba diving isn’t really worth the money and effort of learning, because you don’t see much more than in snorkelling and since you control your position in the water with an up/down button, it’s not really like proper swimming. Now that I’ve done both, I’d say although there are similarities in terms of the view, it’s a completely different kind of thrill to be not just looking down at the view, but inside the view, following the currents and really interacting (but not touching, obviously) with nature. As for the second point, while it’s true that there is a control on your kit to help control your buoyancy in the water, it doesn’t turn you into some kind of joystick-controlled submarine; you retain you full range of motion and swimming is most definitely necessary.
Khao Lak is a popular jumping off point for the Similan Islands National Park, one of Thailand and Southeast Asia’s top dive sites. Khao Lak’s main road boasts dozens of diving shops, offering courses, local dives and liveaboard trips to the islands, and there are also a couple of split-level training pools in the town. After watching the first set of training videos I spent the first day of my course at one of these pools with my instructor Cléo. I was lucky enough to be the only student in the class, and I spent the morning practising safety drills, answering multiple-choice quizzes and learning how all the gear works. Scuba divers wear what is basically an adjustable life jacket, with an air cylinder strapped to the back. The mouthpiece that you breath through is connected to the air cylinder, as is a spare air supply and a gauge telling you how much air you have left, and a fourth tube connects the air cylinder to your life jacket, or BCD (buoyancy control device), allowing you to inflate or deflate the BCD as necessary. It’s primarily used for descending and ascending, once you are swimming around you can just swim upwards or downwards as you please, using your breathing to control your buoyancy. Or that’s the theory at least – achieving neutral buoyancy, or hovering in the water, is a tricky skill to master and I’m still working on it.
That evening I watched a few more training videos and early the next morning I prepared for my first dive. The diving boat stays in the Similan Islands, an hour’s speedboat ride from Khao Lak, for the whole season, and each morning the speedboat brings divers and snorkellers across, of whom some stay just for the day and some stay aboard for one or more nights. My first dive was in a shallower area and I practised the same safety drills as the day before. The rest of the dive was spent swimming around looking at the stunning array of fish and marine life. Even at the relatively shallow level of 10 metres, I saw all kinds of wonderful things; it was like one of those big paintings that you look at and think ‘oh yeah, there’s quite a lot of people in that picture’, but then the closer you look the more detail your eye notices. It was almost too much to process, because there’s just so much going on all around you, from the small and camouflaged to the huge to ostentatious. One thing was for certain though, if I’m going to dive regularly I need to sit down and learn some fish species; saying ‘that big turquoise one’ half an hour later when you come back to the surface didn’t really give Cléo enough to go on.
My package included six dives, but only four need to be assessed for certification, so I did my second assessed dive after lunch, and a fun dive (as if the others were a chore) towards sunset. As the day trippers left after the afternoon dive, I got a chance to really take in the beauty of the Similan Islands without the crowds. The chain of nine islands are formed of granite, with smooth weathered boulders forming unique shapes on the shore, like one boulder on island number eight which provides the area with the name of Donald Duck Bay. Two of the islands are off limits to divers as they are protected breeding places for green turtles in the area, but there are plenty of excellent dive sites around the other seven.
Spending the night on the boat with six other passengers, the boat boys and instructors allowed me, as well as getting dinner, breakfast and a comfy bunk in between, to get the know the crew and instructors better, and to find out more about the diving world. The next morning I did an early morning dive, and had a few hours to chill out before the speedboat arrived with the day’s daytrippers. I completed my final two dives and by the end of the day I was starting to get a little better at knowing what to focus on; over the six dives I went down to 18 metres and saw schools of tiny inquisitive silver-coloured fish, cutesy clownfish, big ugly groupers, a furtive octopus, a giant lobster, and lots of weird, prehistoric-looking, giant slug things. I’m still not great at names, but I’m getting better. And also by the end of the day, after completing my four assessed dives and passing the written exam the night before, I was a certified PADI Open Water Diver.
I expected to enjoy scuba diving but I wasn’t prepared to feel so inspired, due in no small part to Cléo, my instructor. As well as being an excellent teacher, she obviously loves being in the water and exploring the marine world. Her stories were inspiring, her enthusiasm was infectious and I can’t wait to dive again.