Learning to dive was one of the many things I had on my ‘to do while travelling’ list. Being pretty comfortable in the water I was spectacularly laid back about the whole idea, in fact when my partner nervously looked up from his preparation googling and asked me what I thought I would find the hardest, I casually replied, ‘knowing which fish is which?’
So on our first day of our diving education, after I had watched the first of five videos of theory and I was confronted with a table showing rates of decompression depending on depth I must admit I felt the first flicker of anxiety. I had not realised I would need to know any actual science, and I suddenly regretted passing my physics GCSE by learning key lines of the text book and hoping I could stick them in somewhere half relevant in the exam.
As the videos progressed I became more confused. What’s a BCD? When do I drop my waist belt? You’re saying I need to add what to something to know when to turn around? I have to stop when on an ascent and read what with the computer?! I need to read a COMPASS?!!
To avoid looking like a total dumbass in front of a group of people I’d just met, I kept quiet and instead went for a silent inside panic. By the end of the five videos and corresponding quizzes I felt a little better, but also worryingly like I was about to sit my science test again: All the lingo but none of the knowledge.
The next day we met at 7am and were confronted with a variety of different bits of equipment. After tentatively grappling with these odds and ends, putting together, taking apart, putting back together… again and again I finally felt like some of the bits we had discussed the day before were slotting into place. We made our way over to the pool, saddled up and waddled awkwardly down the steps into the shallow end.
We started with baby steps, dipping our face into the water with the regulator (breathing apparatus) in, sitting on the bottom of the pool with no mask on, practicing telling each other how much air we had in our tanks and hand signals. When I first went under it dawned on me that it is pretty much silent other than the sound of you breathing and the bubbles coming from your regulator. I didn’t really love the feeling of being underwater, it felt a bit claustrophobic, which wasn’t helped by there being another group in the pool, resulting in me almost being kicked in the head several times, and the niggling feeling this wasn’t ‘natural’ for humans (the same feeling I get when flying) made me feel worried. I realised that my previous confidence had been entirely down to lack of knowledge, or as I liked to tell Matt, my desire to keep it all as a ‘surprise’!
As the day wore on we learnt more skills- taking the mask off, emptying it of water, recovering your regulator, using your buddy’s regulator, buoyancy control, emergency ascents… There are too many to list here. A couple of the skills I had some difficulty with, clearing my mask was one, I just couldn’t seem to master it! I began to wonder whether anyone actually enjoyed diving itself or whether it was a necessary evil in order to see all the fish.
We did a 200m swim test and treaded water for 10 minutes one after the other. It was one of the most intense and knackering days of learning I have ever had, we were ready to drop by the end! The one thing that kept me going was our instructor, she was absolutely hilarious, and I had to stop myself laughing numerous times and concentrate on what I was supposed to be doing!
We ended the day with a mock dive, practicing everything we had learnt from start to finish. I forced myself to go over the things I felt the most nervous about and felt much better for it. We collapsed into our (boiling hot, non AC) room that night exhausted but feeling a good sense of achievement at how far we had come throughout the day.
The next morning we gathered in the restaurant, had breakfast and shared what we thought of the previous day. We completed our theory exam (all passed with flying colours!) and separated for a couple of hours before we met in the afternoon for our first open water dive. Our bags of equipment were lined up ready for us, we grabbed them and boarded the boat. We were briefed on the dive to come, where we were going, what depth and most importantly of all, what fish we may spot. I was raring to go by this point, although when I nudged my fins towards the edge of the boat my heart was thumping at the thought of stepping off the side into the water. But there was no time to dwell, before I knew it I had plunged into the water, was frantically pressing the inflate button on my BCD then preparing to go down.
I will always remember the cool water creeping higher up my neck and face, the feeling of instinctual confusion and mild panic… And then taking my first breath underwater, my body relaxing and my vision clearing to see a completely different world.
For our descent on the first dive we held onto the mooring line, slowly sinking ourselves by exhaling, deflating our BCD and remembering to keep equalising (blowing your ears out). It was really weird, but as soon as I was on the bottom, a puffer fish (nicknamed Steve) came for a nosy and I immediately chilled out. The first dive was mainly skills and swimming practice, it was OK but really I wanted to stop practicing skills and start exploring properly.
That evening we visited the bar and watched three newly qualified dive masters become initiated into their new status by wearing a snorkel, having it filled up with beer, doing three shots, then spinning around their stool and running into the sea. It was quite funny to watch, despite how juvenile it sounds! I thought it was a funny mix of cultures: kind of like uni drinking culture, kinda hippie traveller but also pretty serious with safety and the environment always coming first and mercifully free of douchebags. At this moment I seriously thought I could give up all previous plans and become a full time diver!
The next day we were all excited for our final dives. By this time we knew the drill, we grabbed our bags, boarded the boat and carried out the checks we knew well once more. This time we did a backwards entry (you basically just fall onto your back) which I actually preferred as I didn’t feel I was going to trip over my fins and fall in as I did by stepping off!
The atmosphere on the last day was amazing. Everyone was chilled out and just wanted to get going to see more fish! At one stage my tank came loose and had to be readjusted by the instructor, which I was completely calm about, but if you had told me that would happen two days before I would have freaked! We did a few scenes for the photographer to make into a video documenting our experience. We saw a school of barracudas, banner fish, clown fish and a spotted sting ray among many others! By the time we had finished our final dive I was thrilled that I had got my PADI but so sad it had come to an end!
That evening we sat in the bar, had a few beers and watched our videos. It was weird to think it had come to an end, I’m not sure I have ever done something so consuming and intense for that period of time. Despite the video being pretty expensive we bought it as we knew we would want it to remind us of our time there. That night we went for dinner with the group and had a few drinks in the town celebrating all we had achieved.
The worst part of diving is as soon as you start you want more. I can see how people get so attached, filling out the log books was addictively satisfying! We are looking at wreck diving in the Philippines and diving in Indonesia as we are keen to continue diving on this trip. Our dive centre was Crystal Dive in Koh Tao, who were amazing!
Is anyone considering learning to dive? Or how does your diving experience compare to this?