License to Dive- Getting PADI certified in Koh Tao

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Scuba diving in Koh tao, Thailand

Sitting alone on our knees, face to face on the white sea bed, Tim tells me to take off my BCD. I can’t say a word but look at him apprehensively. He is asking for too much and I barely know him. But over the last few hours, I have come to trust this stranger. Slowly I unstrap and unhook all my releases. I let go off all my hesitations. I keep looking at him straight into those eyes while I slowly take off my BCD and keep the most essential piece in my mouth. The piece that keeps me alive.

Three months back when my friend told me about backpacking through Thailand, I yawned. But the moment she mentioned scuba, I had my ears glued. Then instead of just doing a fun dive, I wanted to get a scuba license for myself. Everyone who has scuba-ed told me about how amazing and incredible an experience it was. Nobody told me you need to go through theory and practical before you actually get out and dive!

It is day 2 of my course, and I can’t remember when was the last time I was this nervous. Yesterday, my first dive, was a complete disaster. After our theory classes and review test when we got onto the dive boat, I got my first chance to wear my dive suit and put on my BCD. *Oh by the way, BCD stands for Buoyancy Control Device. It is the black vest that keeps everything connected, the air cylinder, all the regulators etc. and primarily helps in keeping one buoyant. Basically in layman terms, inflating it so one can stay afloat.* We did a 12m dive and I was petrified beyond my own belief! As soon as I descended, I started to panic. Multiple times actually. Each time I panicked, I showed Tim the thumbs up sign. I wanted to go up. I just could not stand the saline dryness in my throat. I couldn’t stand the infinite sea around. But each time I panicked, he would come over to me and signal me to take in deep breathes. Weirdly it worked every time. But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared. This was the scariest thing I had ever done. I vaguely remember seeing some beautiful things around me but for most part of the dive I was just following Tim’s bubble trail with his flippers right on my face.

The first time I saw Tim was at the institute. A young lanky bespectacled German boy with longish golden hair. Initially, I wasn’t sure about trusting him with my life but then he had 15 years of dive experience. Hmmmm.

Today we were back again for the confined water dive. After practicing some basic scuba skills like swimming without the mask on, buoyancy control etc. we moved a bit deeper to work on more skills.

So here we were, Tim, my dive instructor and me at 5m underwater (u/w), on the ocean floor practising the curriculum laid by PADI and required for an Open Water Diver license. We were off shore near Ao Lewk beach, Koh Tao. I try hard to focus on whatever Tim is signalling me to do. But the school of white goat fish nibbling at my legs, keeps me distracted.

Finally it was time to take off the BCD unit. With the regulator in my mouth, I tried to mentally recall the instructions he had given me. Unhook all releases, placed it in front of me and then wear it again. As easy as it sounded, as easy it wasn’t. Once I removed the BCD, it kept struggling to float up to the surface because of the air cylinder attached. With the regulator held tightly in my mouth I wrestled my best to keep the unit below me and wear it again. There! OK. It wasn’t so tough.

From here we moved to our dive site for the day. Today I had to make my second 12m dive.

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As I descend into the dark blue water, I had the most uneasy feeling. It was a mixture of nervousness, uncertainty and excitement all meshed together in weird degrees. In my mind I was supposed to be gliding alongside pretty fish, turtles and Whale Sharks maybe. But here I was containing fear in each of those continuous air bubbles that I let out. What if I sneeze, what if my air pipe blocks mysteriously, what if my ears don’t pop, what if *anything that could possibly go wrong*. As I held onto that rope which disappeared into the infinity below, thoughts like ‘why am I doing it’ kept popping. But as I slowly descended towards the end of the rope, the only thing to pop were my ears. I was nearly at 12m now and still a bit nervous. After finishing some basic exercises on the sea bed, we head towards the reef for the fun part of the dive.

Today I was much more comfortable, and Tim, much more receptive. He kept close and at one point even led me by my hand. I think it really helped. By now I had got used to the dry salty feeling in my mouth, the weightlessness, the claustrophobic feeling and strange silence.

I kept breathing rhythmically. Deep breath in, deep breath out. Funny how this is the basic principle of everything, whether trekking at high altitude or diving in the deep sea, it was all about the breathing.

As I floated over the reef, Tim turns around and points at something below. If it wasn’t for the mask, my eyes would have popped out of my head right there. Right ahead in the clear water ahead was a grouper. The first two words that comes into my mind are ugly and humongous. Brown with a weird mix of black spots and strips, it has a shape which in human terms we could call apple shaped with a big hanging lower lip. And it was huge. Maybe as big as me or bigger. And yeah I am quite big.

But that is the thing about diving, there are so many things around to gawk at and you don’t know what might just surprise you from across the reef. I was loving this delicious suspense.

For the first time in two days I was actually observing the landscape and life around me. On the corals below were colourful miniature christmas tree like projections in red, blue, yellow, orange, white. Think CANDY CRUSH. I stopped to take look at it when Tim turns around and runs his hand over them and just like that, in the most synchronised fashion they twist and close, swish swish swish! It was like that scene from Avatar where he goes touching the plants and they go retract. JUST LIKE THAT!

The land here, the reef with corals- fanned, egg shaped, pockmarked in vibrant colours and in varied sizes made me feel minuscule in an infinite underwater forest. Just when the deep meditative thoughts come around, you see a cute little fish pout at you and look on curiously.

At one point it was literally like being in the middle of a fish market. Lot of fish. Yellow, white, red, grey, black all going crisscross as if in a busy market tending to their chores, with each one in a hurry to be somewhere. I think it was insane. I wish I had my camera to capture all this. *sighh*

I look around for Tim, he had moved just a bit ahead and was upside down, looking for something under the big rocks. He signals me to come down at the bottom. There under the rock was a big sting ray chilling in his cosy den looking straight at us. This was just getting crazier and in the midst of all this I had almost forgotten why I had been scared all this while.

After gliding around for a while, he signals me to go up.

I turned around for one more look. It was like a moving canvas. Shades of blue dotted with mushroom like reefs and a splash of colours all over.

We swim up slowly making our acclimatization stops on the way. As soon as we surface I gasp for some fresh air.

He tells me we have been down there for 40 minutes. 40 MINUTES! Felt like 10 really. It is so easy to lose track of time down there. Time and space literally ceases to exist. It was pure joy. No wonder people say diving is so meditative.

Laying afloat there, I realized that this is the point where I overcame my fear of depth and I think… I actually fell in love with the ocean as well!

As for Tim, with the amount of whining and crying I did, I am surprised he didn’t put extra weights on my waist and let me sink to the bottom….like forever! He was more patient than even my mom has EVER been. And something I learnt from all this was that it is very important to trust. One, to trust the person you dive with. And second, trust yourself. The day 1 dive was so difficult for me because I did not trust him or myself at all. On day 2, I started my dive by telling him that I trust him completely and I forced myself to believe it too. And it worked. Fear exists only in the mind. Your body WILL do, what the mind tells it to do.

So whether it is swimming with eyes closed and without my mask on (I wear lenses so can’t open my eyes u/w) with him or taking off my BCD anytime, anywhere, I trust him completely!

PS*- My next two dives of 18 m each went fabulous. I cleared my theory and practicals and am now a PADI certified Open Water Diver! Yayiee!! And yes I plan to do my advance course as well real soon, in Koh Tao, with Easy Divers and hopefully with Tim!

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Extra Information:

  • PADI stands for Professional Association of Diving Instructors(PADI) and is the world’s largest recreational diving membership and diver training organization.

 

  • You should know how to swim if you want the certificate. If someone tells you, you can get a license without knowing how to swim. Don’t listen to them. Before the dive, they will test your swimming capabilities and ask you to swim for 200m at least. You don’t need to be athlete though.

 

  • I chose Easy Divers, because they dive in small groups which is important because you get more attention. In my case, I was the only one with Tim and there were other divers with me with their instructors. Plus, they are good.

 

  • I chose to dive in Koh Tao, Thailand because one, it is cheaper (much cheaper than Andaman or Lakshadweep), second it has some great marine life, the weather is great for diving for most part of the year and I love Koh Tao as an island. It has the best beaches, best food, best cafes, best everything!!
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