Flic has been a qualified diver for about 12 years, whilst my biggest diving achievement is that I once free-dived so deep that it broke my Casio watch. This was probably because the watch was a dodgy fake, because I only went down about 2 metres. We’ve visited so many acclaimed dive spots on this trip (we may have mentioned Fiji) that it seemed about time I caught up.
This is how I found myself, just two days after being seriously ill with a mysterious Malaysian UTI, sat in a dive centre with a long haired Spaniard named Manu, learning about the effects of depth pressure on the air in our lungs. I’d embarked on my PADI Open Water course at the chilled out and comfortable Adang Sea Divers Eco Lodge, and, along with a cheery Swedish lady called Debbie, I’d be getting to grips with the basics of diving. PADI courses are often more expensive than SSI qualifications, but they have a big lead in the diving industry and the qualifications are recognised worldwide.
The PADI course is made up of 5 theory units, which are then put in to practice in the water. A bit like learning to drive, but without the creepy driving instructor and largely ignored Highway Code. We spent a lot of time watching videos, and at the end of each unit we’d take a little test. The subjects ranged from the rules of diving – NEVER hold your breath because your lungs will explode, don’t be pregnant, always dive with a buddy etc. – to the super cool hand signals and how to take care of your kit.
With this out of the way, we took to the ocean to do a confined dive. Wading into the turquoise water of Koh Lipe, over the white sand and past the Thai longboats, we went down to about 2 meters. This was so safe that if there was any problem at all, we could simply stand up and be above the water. Here, we learned how to inflate and deflate our Buoyancy Control Device (BCD), a fancy waist coat that allows you to fine tune your buoyancy, came to terms with the fact that we could breathe underwater, and did some silly but useful things like pulling each other to safety. My biggest issue at this point was that I was just so buoyant. I kept on floating up to surface until I was weighed down with about 6 kilos of dive weights. That aside, things were going swimmingly.
After a bit more theory and a good night’s sleep, it was time for us to head out for our first real dive. We clambered on to the traditional Thai longboat with all of our gear, and made our way out to sea. What would await us under the surface? Would I be able to control my buoyancy and stay under water? What would Flic, who was diving with us as part of her refresher course, look like under water? These were the questions floating through my mind as we moored up to the dive line.
Deflating my BCD, I soon found out the answers. The under water world is weird. Everything sounds kind of strange as surface sounds swirl around you in great echoing reverberations. You shouldn’t be able to breathe down there, it’s just not right, and I don’t think I will ever get used to it. The increased pressure makes the air in your ears contract, doing crazy stuff to your ear drums. It’s easy to equalize, either by swallowing and moving your jaw from side to side, or holding your nose and breathing through it – my preferred method – but it still feels freaky.
At first we didn’t see many fish. We stopped at around 5 metres, kneeling on a sandy patch, watching out for stingrays and practising our technical skills. This included filling our masks with water and then clearing them by blowing air out of our noses, losing our regulators on purpose so we could find them again using a nifty trick and clearing our regulators. Slightly unsettling stuff over with, we continued descending.
I admit here that I didn’t see much at all on that first dive. I couldn’t control my buoyancy at all, so I spent most of the time clinging on to Manu with my face next to his crotch. Every time I breathed in, I’d ascend about a metre, and the opposite would happen when I breathed out. It was pretty disorientating, but the corals and fish I could see were beautiful, keeping me calm as I bobbed up and down erratically. I also got a glimpse Flic occasionally. She had the cool breezy air of a Frenchman smoking a cigarette, but also a strange bubbly beard as the bubbles from her regulator clung to her face. As I said, the under water world is weird.
We came back to shore with big smiles on our faces, elated by the experience of staying alive in a place where we should have perished. Everyone was talking about the fish they’d seen, and I kept quiet about the fact that I’d mostly seen the groin of my Spanish instructor.
After a second dive that day, where I finally managed to control my buoyancy, I started to understand why people love to dive. It’s a whole new world to explore, and once you have the skills to keep steady down there, it’s wondrous from start to finish. I went to bed thinking of parrot fish and giant chimney corals, counting sea cucumbers instead of sheep.
The next day, I woke early to prepare my gear for the first dive. We headed out to a rocky island just off the coast of Koh Lipe and descended once again. We stopped at around 5 meters to go over some skills again, this time taking our masks off completely and replacing them – not a pleasant task. We followed this with sitting like Buddha under water, which seemed appropriate because I’m sure Buddha would have got a kick out of diving if he had the chance to try it out.
We drifted past a great wall of coral, teeming with marine activity. I began to feel completely at ease under water, as if I’d been born down there. I still breathed a little too deeply at times, still in awe of the fact that I could breathe, but I had the buoyancy well under control. Still, I was not yet Open Water qualified and the dive wasn’t all fish and fun. It ended with Debbie and I having to perform the CESA, which is terrifying. This is a Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent, to be used if you somehow manage to run out of air completely during your dive. This meant that, from about 4 metres, we had to pretend we’d run out of air and swim to the surface, all the while breathing out and making an ‘aaahhh’ sound so our lungs didn’t burst. That’s right – if we got it wrong, our lungs would burst.
CESA out of the way and lungs still functioning correctly, we headed back to shore for some lunch and to prepare for the last dive. It took little effort to persuade Flic to join me on the dive – I was keen to see that bubbly beard again, but also I wanted to share my first proper dive without any heart stopping exercises with her.
We took the boat out to a now familiar dive spot, next to another rocky atoll just off the shore. We descended with ease, and I found I wasn’t really thinking about every little thing I was doing, and I could just take in everything going on around me and keep close by to Flic like a good diving buddy should. We saw some awesome corals, almost as tall as us, but best of all we saw a sizeable trigger fish tear off some coral in its jaw and swim off like a cowboy leaving town. That damn trigger fish cut such a silhouette that we paused in awe of its viscous vibes.
After ascending and heading back to Lipe, all I had left to do was sit my theory test. I’m not so proud to say that I got 7 answers out of 50 incorrect, but so did Manu when he took his Open Water test, as did Debbie. We went over the wrong answers and that was that, I was a qualified diver at last.
The most important lesson I learned through all of this?– if you feel even the slightest inkling to dive, book your PADI Open Water today. When I think back to all of the places I have been where I could have dived, but couldn’t because I hadn’t got round to learning, I feel a deep sense of shame. Not only had I missed out on amazing experiences for myself, I’d also prevented Flic from taking part too. So do it. Jump off a boat, deflate your BCD and be prepare to be amazed.