Back to School: Getting Open Water Certified on Koh Tao

“Nah, it’s not really my thing.”

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve given that response to the question of whether I’ve done any diving. It’s almost like a rite of passage as a backpacker round Asia, as most introductory conversations seem to go a little like this:

Stranger: “Hi, what’s your name?”
Me: “Hey up, I’m Jack. You?”
Stranger: “I’m *name*. Have you done any diving? I did my open water diving on Koh Tao. I love diving. I’ve seen so many things when I’ve been diving. This one time when I was diving, I went diving on the Perhentian Islands and did a dive at 18 metres. Did I mention I like diving?”
Me: “Goodbye.”

I’ve been told on many an occasion that scuba diving is a truly magical experience and many people were in the same boat as me in the sense that they were never really too fussed for it. The very same people now have a stronger addiction than some heroin addicts. With this in mind, James, our Dutch friend Marco and I hopped on/waited around for a two hour late ferry from Koh Phangan to Koh Tao – the diving capital of Thailand.

Can you see the excitement in our eyes?!

Big Blue homework blues

The minute we took our seats on the boat we were bombarded with leaflets and sales pitches for open water diving courses. Pretty much every school offers the same things for a similar price: usually between 8,500 – 9,500 baht for a four day open water certification with accommodation included. That’s just short of £200 for a certification that allows you to dive up to 18 metres anywhere in the world – not too shabby! With James due to head off to Australia for a year after this, it was an absolute no-brainer and I can’t even bring myself to think about how much more it would cost there!

We’d heard good things about Big Blue Diving and, despite listening to more sales pitches than Duncan Bannatyne and the rest of Dragons, we decided to go with our instincts and recommendations and head there. Upon arrival we filled out a few forms and were informed that there was a course starting in 45 minutes so we could crack on straight away. Result!

As a side note – we were shown to our room at this point which, in all honesty, the less said about the better! If you dive with Big Blue, try and make sure you get a room in Big Blue 2, as they were much nicer than the ones in Big Blue 1 – we just couldn’t be arsed moving after a day. Can’t grumble for free I suppose.

The first night was basically a two hour introduction to the course with a few videos. We were given the choice of taking the PADI or SSI course – both of which give you the same privileges but the instructor really sold the SSI course to us as it seemed more flexible. Only one person in the entire group of 20+ decided to go for PADI, giving him probably the loneliest four days of his life.

It may come as no surprise to you that during the presentation James and I (25 and 24 years old respectively) got a severe bout of the giggles when one of the men on the videos used the words “bulge” and “slack” within about 30 seconds of each other. We were literally wiping the tears from our eyes for about five minutes, and probably getting some very bizarre looks. Our childish behaviour was greeted shortly after with a homework booklet for us to complete over the course. I guess you could say that we got what we deserved.

James buried in a textbook for the first time in years!

We were introduced to our group first thing the next day and to our delight we had a great bunch of people. Along with James and I there were a couple of English girls – Hattie and Ellie – as well as Mike and Ross, two chaps from America. Being surrounded by people who we could have a laugh with really made it a whole lot more enjoyable, and our instructor Rich was also a top bloke who put us at ease the whole time and make everything seem mega easy.

After spending Friday night and Saturday doing homework (surprisingly harder to motivate yourself when you’re half-cut!), learning the basics of diving in the pool and watching more videos – the real fun began on Sunday. This is when we would do our first and second of four dives required to pass the course, but not before a 50 question exam which our instructor Rich informed us no one had ever failed under his guidance. No pressure then.

Both of us aced the test with 48/50 each (no biggie) and it was time to prepare for the dives. Sadly, James seemed to have eaten something dodgy the previous day and had been feeling sick all morning to the point where I could have sworn he wouldn’t be up for the dives. In the end he powered through like a real trooper, but I couldn’t help thinking I’d be swimming into a stream of puke at some point. Thankfully, this proved not to be the case.

The first two dives were all about getting us used to the equipment and the very concept of being 12 metres underwater. I’ll admit that, as the first one to descend on the first dive, I got a little nervous and maybe took in a bit too much air going down. It’s a feeling like no other and it takes some getting used to, but it does happen fairly quickly. Both dives were fairly uneventful (barring a huge current on number two) but still massively enjoyable. We were told by the instructors that we had a hell of a lot to look forward to the next day; how right they were…

Monday morning blues

There aren’t many good excuses for a 6am wakeup call on a Monday, however I think on dive three we found just about the best one in the world.

We’d been told all sorts about Chumphong Pinnacle: mostly that it was our best chance of seeing some incredible marine life whilst in Thailand. So yeah, we were a bit excited about that one. This dive would also take us down to 18 metres, which is the maximum for an open water diver.

The dream team!

Throughout the dive we saw eels, queen fish, trevallys and a ton of other fish and creatures that I had no idea existed, never mind knowing what they were called. My own personal highlight at this point however, was a striking rendition of ‘You Should Be Dancing’ by The Bee Gees that I delivered under the water, along with a couple of numbers belted out by James too.

 Throughout this dive and the one that followed, we had a videographer following us which, of course, we took to extreme levels of immaturity. Macarena on the bottom of the ocean, anyone? We were laughing so much underwater that we actually had to start our ascent slightly early as James was running dangerously low on air – who’d have thought us two diving together was a silly idea?

We were just about getting ready to surface when we saw exactly what we came to see. There had been rumblings on board the boat that a whale shark had been circling the dive site that morning, but by this point I’d forgot about it! All of a sudden, everyone was turning round with their jaws dropped (well not literally, because their regulators would have fallen out, but you get me) and there it was: a baby whale shark.

I say it was a baby whale shark, but you could have fooled me! This thing was about three metres in length from what I remember of my brief sight of it, which is apparently pretty small!

As well as the size of the shark, I also underestimated how lucky we were to see a whale shark. As we got back on the boat, some instructors were telling us that they’d done over 400 dives and that was their first whale shark sighting, so to see one after just three dives was a fairly big deal I guess.

After that we really couldn’t wait to get back in the water but, rather unsurprisingly, nothing we saw on dive number four quite matched the one before. Once that dive was completed, that was it: we were qualified open water divers!

The end reward!

It’s safe to say we’ve both been bitten by the diving bug now! Now, what was I saying about that conversation starter…?



2 responses to “Back to School: Getting Open Water Certified on Koh Tao

  1. Pingback: 2014 in Review: My Top Five Travel Highlights | Rambling Northerner·

  2. Pingback: In Search of Sun in Okinawa | Rambling Northerner·

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