March 8th, 2006:
SCUBA Diving is the business! Within moments of starting my first dive I found myself wondering why I had waited so long to try it. Well, alright: the near arctic conditions of the sea near Ireland may have been off somewhat putting, but now that I've started I'll have to make up for lost time.
It turns out that there are two main diving organizations worldwide: PADI and SSI. PADI is the more established brand, but SSI is becoming more and more recognized. My dive center (see below) recommended going with SSI so I have followed their advice.
The first day took only a couple of hours and consisted of meeting my fellow students (there was four of us, but the numbers vary) and watching a video about diving. Afterwards, the party scene on the beach made sure we were all suitably worn out.
The next day consisted of doing theory in the morning, followed by equipment fitting and then we moved onto the main event in the afternoon: our first dive. Taking that first breath underwater is odd, and then you notice that you sound like Darth Vader, but once the initial strangeness passes it becomes unforgettable: schools of tropical fish were all around and the coral formations were straight out of a National Geographic program. We also performed some basic drills that day including learning how to stay suspended underwater; removing the mouthpiece, dropping it and refinding it; removing the face mask from the head, waiting for about a minute, then putting it back on and using air bubbles to remove the water from around the eyes. All useful skills for...
Day three, which consisted of theory and two separate dives totaling over an hour where we swam in amongst the coral reefs and spotted various strange and colorful inhabitants. Sadly no sharks but all the drama was left for...
Day four, the final day on the SCUBA open water course. We had two dives to do in the morning, followed by some more theory, finishing with an exam in late afternoon. The first dive went like clockwork and after waiting for about an hour we went on the second dive down to a depth of about 40 feet. After about ten minutes into the dive, we were all forming a circle around one of the local residents, a "Nemo" fish from the movie with the same name. However, just as we were taking up positions, I heard a "whump" noise followed by a continuous "whooshing" sound. A part of the scuba assembly connected to my air cylinder(the rubber hose connecting the first stage to the regulator, for those of you who have scuba experience) had blown, meaning no air for breathing for yours truly. Fortunately we had practiced just such a possibility several times during the previous dives and so I followed the guidelines and ended up using the dive instructors secondary air supply. We had to abort the dive, but it was exciting stuff for a few moments!
That afternoon we went back out to redo the aborted dive and we all got through it this time aok. The exam, a short while later, needed an 80% result to pass, but we all passed and are now qualified divers. The partying we on late into the night and we polished off many buckets (the local tradition: they use (clean!) sand castle buckets instead of the usual jugs when serving large quantities of cocktails) and was at the In Touch club in Koh Tao (picture a night club with no walls, perched on a narrow beach, next to the calm ocean. They also release orange balloons with glowing candles every so often which slowly float up to a cloudless starry night... awwww.... :).
I did my SCUBA course with Big Blue Diving in Koh Tao. This conveniently located dive centre is located next to shops, bars and restaurants. I found the staff to be very helpful, the rates to be excellent (less than a third of what it costs back home AND they include the accomodation in the price: the total including tuition, rental, accomodation, certification, etc. came to 192 euro) and the dive sites to be fascinating. Interestingly, many of the dives centres on the nearby bigger island of Koh Samui travel to the waters around Koh Tao for the better dive sites.
Koh Tao, overall, is unmissable. It has something for everybody: sandy beaches, warm tropical water, plenty of restaurants and bars, lots of interesting people to meet, low crime rate (I never saw or heard of any trouble) and good value for money. Still, after living in the 35C windless heat of this paradise island for nearly a week now, there is only thing I am looking forward to in my next stop (Singapore): AIR CONDITIONING!