For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by life under the sea. This may be partly because of Sebastian the crab from ‘The Little Mermaid’ and his claims that “down here it’s better, down where it’s wetter”, and the image of a colourful world deep down in the ocean where starfish, angelfish and mermaids sing songs and dance around happily. As soon as I was old enough to understand what a bucket list was all about, I made one, and ‘learn to scuba dive’ was high on the list.
I looked into learning to scuba dive in the U.K. but it was expensive, and as my Auntie once pointed out “you wouldn’t really get to see much”. Much better to learn abroad, somewhere warm where the sea life is more inspiring, she suggested.
When it came time to planning our round-the-world honeymoon adventure, I knew we would need to learn to dive somewhere along the route. With its warm weather (and warm water), spectacular dive sights, reasonable prices and excellent safety record, Thailand was the obvious destination to learn.
Originally we planned to go to Koh Tao, as this island is the renowned diving capital of Thailand, and there are many dive schools offering very competitive prices. Unfortunately, we arrived in Thailand in Koh Tao’s off season (around November to April), so we headed to the islands on the other side of Thailand, Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi, instead. As the diving in this area is meant to be world class, it still seemed like a good place to get our open water certification, and there were still numerous dive schools to choose from.
In the end, we chose to dive with Phoenix Divers on Koh Lanta. Their online price – around 12,000 baht each for the open water course (£275 GBP or $365 USD) – was slightly cheaper than others in the area, and they had 5* reviews all round on tripadvisor. We contacted them online, arranged a time and date via whatsapp, and went to their office on the island to sign the paperwork, get fitted for our equipment (wetsuit, fins and buoyancy control device) and pick up our PADI book which we used to learn diving theory.
Our instructors from Phoenix Divers (Daniele and Valentina) took us to pick up another couple who were also learning to dive on the same days, and together we went to a nearby swimming pool for our first scuba experience. First of all, Daniele showed us the equipment we would be using and how to put it together, and we then took turns trying to remember how to set it up and trying to put it on in the water.
During the pool session we got used to breathing underwater and practised various exercises, such as what to do if you run out of air, what to do if your buddy runs out of air, what to do if your mask fills with water, how to control your buoyancy through breathing and the position you should adopt in the water while scuba diving. Everything was going fairly well for us at this point – it was easy to come up to the surface and ask the instructors questions, and none of the exercises were too difficult. So far, so good.
The next day we were picked up at our hotel on Koh Lanta and taken to the pier at Saladan. We boarded a medium sized boat with several other divers and headed out towards Ko Haa, a group of five tiny islands with a central lagoon full of amazing marine life. We strapped on our equipment and stepped off the boat in a giant stride.
As we swam out into the lagoon, I started to feel anxious. Although I’d been fine in the swimming pool, suddenly scuba diving in the sea deep down under the water seemed like a terrible idea. I had read the first chapters of my diving theory book, and scuba diving sounded dangerous. If I came up to the surface too fast and didn’t breathe enough, I would get decompression sickness and die. If I ran our of air and couldn’t find my buddy, I would probably die. If a shark came, I would probably get eaten and die. I was worrying about every possible scenario, and death seemed a likely outcome.
Daniele held on to me and tried to get me to go down underwater. First I forgot how to equalise (release the air from trapped pockets such as my ears), and had to come back up. Then my mask kept filling with water and I couldn’t remember what to do. I came up to the surface again, and Valentina stayed with me this time. After a third attempt to go underwater, I started to panic. I didn’t want to learn to scuba dive any more, and had a full on meltdown.
Shane on the other hand, had no qualms whatsoever, and took to the water like a fish. He was gone in an instant, and Daniele went with him to explore the underwater world while Valentina kept me company as I panicked on the surface. I wanted to go back to the boat and give up on scuba diving – I was too scared, and it just wasn’t for me. Valentina was very patient and understanding, and was happy to take me back to the boat. “But”, she said, “Why don’t we just give it one more try, just to be sure.”
After a few “last tries”, I finally made it down into the water. Valentina held my hand the whole time and led me around the water, while I concentrated on breathing and not panicking. We saw some really cool fish, and I started to wish I could enjoy scuba diving rather than continually imagining everything that could go wrong. At this point, I wasn’t sure I could ever get back in the water and dive again, but I was glad I had given it a go.
After a shaky start, we went back to the boat and had about an hour’s break while the boat travelled to a different site at Koh Haa. I still wasn’t sure whether I would give diving a second try, but after a motivational pep talk from Valentina (“never give up”), I was back in the water for another attempt. This time was better. I didn’t panic, I went down really deep in the ocean and saw some amazing fish, and once again Valentina held my hand the entire time. At one point I did get scared again, but I was so far down under water that I couldn’t go back to the surface or do anything about it, so had to just calm myself down and keep going.
Once we came back to the boat I was feeling a bit better, and there was a delicious Thai curry served for lunch on board as well as unlimited soft drinks, which also helped 😉
The next day we were picked up by Phoenix Divers bright and early and headed back to the pier and onto another boat, which also came with free food and unlimited soft drinks. Perhaps the diving lifestyle wasn’t so bad after all.
This time we went to Koh Bida, another well known diving site not far from the popular island of Koh Phi Phi. I read my scuba diving book on the way there, hoping to calm my nerves which were once again starting to get the better of me. As I stepped out in the water, I felt my heart rate rising and my brain starting to panic again. Thankfully, Valentina saw me and managed to get me to calm down. Once I was calm, we went down underwater again, and I managed to swim without Valentina holding my hand, and was able to do some of the exercises that we’d practised in the pool.
By the time it came to our fourth dive, I was getting more confident. I saw some amazing marine life – a yellow box fish and several moray eels, amongst other things. At one point I found myself trapped in a school of yellow snapper fish, while later on I swam past a giant clam. Life under the sea really was better (and wetter), and I started to actually enjoy the scuba diving experience.
Back on dry land, we completed a short exam testing the material from the scuba diving book and that skills we had learnt in the water, and that was the end. Somehow, despite my tears and trauma, I became a certified open water diver, and went from petrified of being underwater to actually looking forward to doing it again.
We have recently booked our next dives with Blue Marlin Komodo on Flores island in Indonesia, where they have a special boat (called Hugo) which is perfect for learning and newly certified divers. We are looking forward to refreshing what we learnt in Thailand and seeing some more fish, hopefully without having an underwater meltdown this time!
Special thanks to Valentina from Phoenix Divers, without whom I might have given up, gone back to the boat and forgotten all about scuba diving forever more.