Learning to Dive

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Thursday, October 27, 2005

Rachel tells me about a magical island paradise where it costs only GBP150 to do a 4-day diving course. She hasn't fully convinced me that the diving course is a great idea because I much prefer land to sea, and I have the ability of toad swimming in the surf. However, given the possibility of a relaxing island environment, I am tempted to at least go and check out the locale. Its just a short hop from Krabbi on the ferry, so we back our bags and leave 'A.Mansions' in time for the 9am boat.

The boat is full of Western backpackers, and when we arrive at Ton Sai bay on Ko Phi Phi Don there are hundreds of touts desperate to find us accomodation and claim their commission. We find that the rooms seem to cost the double the equivalent in Krabbi, so we agree to take something cheap (and hence not as nice) in a spirit of cash preservation. Eventually, with the help of Mr Tout 149 we find a place not ten minutes from the pier for 350B (GBP5.00) per night. The room is small, with decent sea view, and has a fan and a bathroom complete with ice-cold shower.

Ko Phi Phi Don suffered hard in the Tsunami that swept along this coast in December 2004. The area we are staying in is on a low lying isthmus of land linking two rockier parts of the island, with beaches on either side facing Ton Sai Bay and Yongkasem bay respectively. Apparently, when the Tsunami arrived, it swept through one way and then the other destroying almost completely what was the most densely inhabited part of the island. We are amazed at the speed with which the buildings have been re-erected, and we see completed multi-storey hotels, diving schools, banks, and shops all open for business. Off the main drag and near our guest house, there's a lot of evidence of the destruction such as building shells, rubble, and stumps of coconut palms. Given that all the habitable buildings in this area of the island are new, we are amazed how relatively shabby our guest house appears. Only later do we discover that RS Guesthouse isn't new; it was about the only building to survive the deluge.

Rachel spots a recommended shiny new dive school very near our hostel and we pop in to see what they can offer. A tall Dutchman called Twan (originally from Nijmegen) greets us and tells us that they're not supposed to be open for a couple of days, but they have everything in place and suggests we get started that afternoon. Rachel knows she's in a strong negotiating position regarding my recalcitrant attitude and I agree on the spot to join in. We meet our friendly instructor, Walter, also from Holland, and hand over 11,900 B (GBP 150) each for the fees.

Walter informs us that the PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) open water diving course is part theory and part practical. The theory part involves passing a multiple-choice exam with at least 70%, and I try to recall with some trepidation the last time, in about 1990, I sat such an exam. The practical bit involves learning basic skills in a closed water environment, like a swimming pool, in the absense of which we will be using the beach beside the jetty. Lastly, there's the open water practical where we will be taking a boat to top dive sites around the island for four dives of up to 18 metres in depth.

After watching a video and answering some questions about pressure, volume, and density we are marching down the main drag in wet suits with Walter in front with a wheelbarrow full of diving kit. Down at the beach we don the gear, including a belt with 6kg of lead on it, and I am shocked by the sheer weight of it all; I can barely stand-up let alone stagger across the sand to get in the water.

Once in the water though we have a lot of fun smimming around about two metres under the surface and practicing skills like emptying water from ones mask under the surface, using your buddy's (Rachel's) air in an emergency, and a series of important handsignals. We test out how to control our bouyancy in the water and its surprisingly tricky to master as we bob up and down lake raisins in a glass of champagne.

Fatigued, we head back to the dive school and learn that we have to read two thick chapters of theory from a book before the morning. We spend the evening studying, taking just a short break to scoot out for dinner, before giving up exhausted at 11pm. As I lie in bed I wonder if I really know what I'm getting into.

Day 2 is another day of closed water diving, videos, and discussions with Walter. Walter insists that we finish off the last two chapter of theory that night so that we can sit the exam on Day 3. As we walk back up the beach after our last closed water dive I confess to Rachel that I found it great fun in the water, but I'm dreading the night's study.

Day 3 starts not with the exam, but our first real open water dives. We meet captain of the enormous dive boat, who informs us that we have it all to ourselves, as the dive school is only just opening and there are no other customers as yet. Accompanied by the Captain, Walter, his Thai girlfriend, and Henry the Dive school gopher, we cruise out into the sunshine in the direction of Phi Phi Le Island.

We stop at craggy outcrop south of Ko Phi Phi Le where there are dozens of other sightseeing, snorkelling and dive tours. I feel twangs of misplaced arrogance and superiority when I see how crowded, plain, and small all the other boats are.

We jump into the water sink beneath the surface to a blue and green three dimensional other-world that looks like a sci-fi metropolis in outer-space. I see a line of fishes move above me, a shoal of something beneath me, and the complex jutting shapes of coral all around me. The initial sensation of delight wears off when I realise I am sinking like a stone towards some wickedly spiky sea-urchins on the sea-bed beneath me. With a few milliseconds to spare I manage to reverse my direction and join Rachel and Walter who are watching with alarm.

During the dive I find it hard to concentrate on what's around me due to the initial bouyancy concerns, and the number of things that I have to remember, for example, do I have any air left? I also feel exhausted because I'm trying to swim too fast. Rachel and Walter spot a Leopard Shark which I fail to see completely even though I'm right beside them. After about 30minutes or so, we surface and climb back on the boat. I find that I've used almost twice as much air as Rachel.

On the boat we do some calculations to determine the amount of residual nitrogen in the blood, which is determined by the depth and duration of the dive. Too much nitrogen and worst case is an agonising death from 'the bends' as the nitrogen fizzes out of the blood, like carbon dioxide bubbles from a can of coke. However, as expected, we are reasonably clear and look at some tables to work out how long we can spend on the next dive to remain in the safe zone.

We eat lunch and then ready ourselves for another adventure under water. The second dive feels much smoother and pleasant as I start to relax under the water. We see some exciting creatures such as a sea snake with its black, red and white striped body, a conger eel hanging out face first from a hole in the coral, and a lion fish which is so named because of its mane of spikes. We resurface just after midday and head back to Phi Phi Don island across the sparkling blue water.

As we speed along we both remark that we feel out of touch with reality, and we put it down to the effect of Nitrogen. We wonder if it will affect our exam performance.

Back at the dive school, Walter insists on some more 'knowledge review' before the exam. I think he's keen to have some written evidence on file to proove he's told us the basics. Then the exam, which is more straight forward than expected - Rachel gets 92% and I get 94%. Much to my disgust one of the questions I get wrong is an engineering question - whats the difference between a J-valve and DIN-valve? Rachel also has two silly mistakes where she knows the answer but mistakenly puts down the wrong one - we put that down to nitrogen narcosis. Anyhow, exam over, we have a free evening to laze around without having to do any study.

I soon notice that everything sounds fuzzy, as though I have cotton wool in my ears, and soon it develops into a throbbing ear ache. Twan advises me to see a doctor, so we walk down to the local hospital to get some medical advice. A young Thai doctor appears from amidst piles of medical equipment in the partially completed reception area. He has a look in my ears and tells me he sees blood and that I have minor trauma. He prescribes me ibuprofen for pain, ear drops to reduce swelling, and a decongestant. He also says that I should not go diving the next day, which puts us in a difficult position as we are due to leave Ko Phi Phi the next evening, after completing the last day of diving. I decide to see how things are in the morning. The doctor's fees are 500B (about GBP7.00) including consultation and drugs.

Next morning my ears feel much better, so I decide to go ahead, contra the doctor's opinion, with the last two dives. The dive sites are selected to allow us to go to 18m this time, and despite my concerns I have no problems at all in equalising the pressure as we descend. We see huge shoals of yellow fusilier fishes, marshalled by just a handful of big silvery fish, and a monster lobster scuttles away from us as we descend. The islands nearby are really craggy, and the steep contour continues beneath the surface providing great walls of coral to smim alongside. We come to some subsea tunnels formed from the rocks falling from above and we swim beneath and emerge from the other side, almost forgetting the cardinal rule of diving: never hold your breath.

After completing the last two dives, Walter shakes our hand and tells us that we are now qualified open water divers, and we can dive anywhere. How about the Antartic, or Scotland, I wonder? Walter then confesses that we are his first ever students; he has only just passed his diving instructors exam. I sense that he is more relieved and pleased than us.

That afternoon we take the ferry back, across the smooth seas, to Krabbi, where we check back into our favourite hotel 'A.Mansions'. We buy a bus ticket for the luxury overnight air-conditioned VIP bus to Bangkok for the next day.

After spending a lazy day in Krabbi, we take a songthaew to the bus station and get on board VIP bus number 1 in plenty of time for the 5pm departure. After entering through the side door, which has a heart-shaped window, we sit back in enormous purple reclining chairs and gaze at the rest of the interior which is mainly pink, apart from the liberal use of gold on the metal light fittings. Its a bus that Barbie would be proud to travel in.

The bus seems pretty comfortable, but I wonder how I will feel after twelve hours on board. The VCD system is showing a loud Thai comedy production recorded live in Bangkok, lacking the kind of international appeal of Mr Bean, but featuring singing Thai men in kilts. At about 8pm we park in a motorway service area along with about 30 other buses and we are herded into a massive communal dining area. It turns out that the Barbie bus ticket includes a free evening meal too. A few moments after eating my last mouthful, we are herded back on to the bus for the long drive on to Bangkok. I fall into a fitful sleep dreaming about Thai men wearing gaudy purple and pink tartan kilts.
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