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Taking the road less traveled Spending a year in five continents to embrace my "inner turtle", to live simply, and to avoid being shark bait!

Dive course #1: Open Water Diver

THAILAND | Wednesday, 22 February 2012 | Views [510]

I started the PADI Open Water Diver course the day I arrived on Koh Tao. Once passed, this course gives a diver the credential to dive anywhere in the world up to 18 meters. There were three other students besides me in my class: a young guy from Scotland and a couple from Oregon. The instructor was a Danish gal whom I first mistook as British (her accent was totally British), but she said she picked it up from the 2.5 years she lived in Koh Tao and being around Brits.

The first day included watching a DVD and a short lecture. I obviously didn't pay a lot of attention in high school physics, because I didn't remember many basic things: that air is 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen, that atmospheric air pressure at sea level is (basically) 1 bar, and that sound travels very fast under water.  The second day was more lecture to prepare for a multiple-choice exam. Being the math nerd that I am, the most interesting topic for me was learning to use the recreational dive planner to plan repetitive dives (i.e. how deep and long is the first dive, and how long is the surface interval after, will determine how deep and long the second dive can be, due to the residual nitrogen in your body). It was algebra all over again, but with actual application that makes it so interesting! 

I could tell the instructors were essentially teaching to the exam, which made sense: if I pass the exam, then I become certified to dive, and only then can the dive shop get business from me from going on fun dives, how convenient!  Lucky for them and for me, I passed and so did everyone in my class. 

We also started learning about scuba gear and diving skills on the second day, but in the pool only. We learned to assemble the gear, what each piece is for, and how to put it on. We also learned how to communicate with our hands underwater, and essential skills underwater like clearing water from your mask, how to locate the regulator if it was knocked out of my mouth, and how to ease cramping in the foot. There was a lot to learn and remember, and as comfortable as I was in the water, there was still a moment of "oh crap!" when I couldn't complete a skill initially.  We spent about three hours in the pool, and ready or not, next day we were going out to open water! 

The third day had us doing two dives in the afternoon. The routine went like this: each diver had his/her own bag of gear of fins, BCD (buoyancy control device), and wetsuit; the bags and all other gear and air tanks were piled onto the motorbike to be taken down to the beach; from the beach, everything was loaded into the long-tail boat (sort of like a dragon boat but shorter); the divers and instructors also piled into the long-tail boat, which took us farther out to the dive boat; everything and everyone were then unloaded from the long-tail boat into the dive boat.  Once on the dive boat, each diver assembled his/her tank and gear, while the boat sailed to a dive site, which was normally no more than 30 minutes. The instructor would debrief the class on the dive, and we would do a buddy check with our buddy on our gear (BCD, weights, releases, air, final check, or BWRAF-Bangkok Women Really Are Fellas, witty!) Once the boat anchored at the dive site, we would dive right in.

Our first dive was at a site named Twins, one of the most popular dive sites in the world. We learned how to enter the water from the dive boat (just take a big step forward) and splash, we were in! We swam towards the buoy, and used the rope tied to it to guide our descent. During the descent, it's very important to keep equalizing, and luckily I have no problem, just pinch my nose while trying to breathe out of it. I was quite nervous and tried to get a feel of breathing underwater while keeping my eyes on the instructor, as well as keeping track of my buddy, adjusting the mask so it was comfortable, and surprisingly, remembering to breathe! We descended pass the end of the rope and began to swim while continuing to descend (we got down to 12 meters on that dive).  Because my buoyancy was very sloppy and I had yet to learn how to control it, I descended faster than I thought and forgetting to look down, came down on top of a huge coral; my left foot scraped it and of course I panicked ("I just killed what I am trying to save!"), so I inflated my BCD to ascend.  That also happened faster than I expected, and before I knew it, I was at least 3 meters above my instructor. OMG this was not going well.  I deflated my BCD again and somehow managed to control better this time, and caught up to my instructor. The others in my class also had his or her own problem, so really it was kind of funny to see the instructor tried to help each of us while we were either floating up or spinning in circles or waving our arms like a maniac. For sure we were anything but graceful.

Once she had us under control, we swam to a bare spot where we could practice the skills we learned the day before (remove mask from face, put back on and clear the water, etc.) Before that though, we crossed water with a sea turtle!!  It was swimming up the side of a big rock, minding its business. I think I made a sound but of course only I could hear it. Sea turtles aren't that easy to spot in this dive site so this was a rare treat, and on my very first dive! We kept going and ... crap, that's a blue-spotted stingray! It was hovering and swimming along the floor. At this point I was more relaxed and could actually look around me. I was simply in awe of everything: there were so many different kinds of fish and corals and sea cucumbers. There were big schools of fish and fish that stayed as a pair; there were corals that looked like flowers or trees or sponges; there were sea cucumbers that were "standing up" from the water pushing against it; there were sea urchins everywhere protecting themselves from predators with their stings. My first thought was "wow, those Pixar people really got Finding Nemo right, I must watch it again"; my second thought was "if everyone could see what I am seeing now, no one should want to pollute our oceans and destroy or hurt marine wildlife"; my third thought was "I am hungry for some sea urchin."

The rest of the dive went relatively smoothly, although I kept floating up and down uncontrollably, it was quite exhausting. We came up after 31 minutes and back to the boat. WOW! I completed a dive!

Back on the boat, we switched our gear to a full tank of air. Then we relaxed and discussed the skills to be done on the next dive while the boat sailed to the next dive site, White Rock. Overall my class did OK, typical first dive problems, nothing horrible. The scrape on my foot didn't seem bad, or so I thought (more later).

The second dive went smoother, although buoyancy continued to be an issue for me. Our depth was up to 11.6m. There was no sea turtle nor sting ray this time, but the variety of fish continued to amaze me.  We worked on more skills like breathing from your buddy's alternate regulator, and also included a safety stop (i.e. 3-minute stop at 5 meters during our ascend, to allow our bodies to adjust to the change in pressure, since the last few meters of the ascend is also when the biggest change in atmospheric pressure occurs). Now trying to stay at the same level for 3 minutes was very difficult for me to control at this point. I did not yet have a good feel for whether I was floating up or down, so I was either way above or below the instructor and I had to inflate or deflate my BCD. I had yet to learn to control my buoyancy through sheer breathing, which was the real way of doing it. That was definitely a work in progress.

After the second dive, I was rather glad to be out of the gear, it's a bitch to carry a big, heavy tank when you're wet and tired and hungry. We disassembled our gear, repacked our gear bag, and practically passed out on the deck while the boat headed back. Just like how we got there, the dive boat could only go so far from the beach, so we had to pile everything and everyone into the long-tail boat, which took us back to shore. We helped bring the gear back to the shop, rinse them with fresh water, and immediately hit the bar. First day of diving done! There were no major problem so I would consider it a success!

Tags: blue-spotted stingray, koh tao, open water diver, padi, scuba diving, sea turtle, thailand

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