As I’m way too much of a wimp to even think about scuba diving in Koh Tao (or anywhere) but thought you guys would still love to know the deets, it’s time for Living Large, Spending Small’s first ever guest post! Written by the lovely Rich Steele..
“When Nea asked me to write a guest post for her blog I was pretty tense. She has done an amazing job so far and I have seen it grow from its humble beginnings to a website that gets 1000’s of hits each month with plenty of unique visitors too, so well done Nea! Now on with the show…
We had always planned to go to Koh Tao and as I seem to enjoy getting qualifications that are fun to achieve but I will rarely use (i.e. my degree, power boat licence and a certificate in Lao cuisine) the island seemed like the perfect place to get my PADI Open Water certification. I didn’t know very much about it but here’s the low down: you can scuba dive worldwide to a depth of 18m with a buddy. It costs about $350 on Koh Tao, including accommodation, and lasts 3-4 days. The island is also a Mecca for other adventurous activities, as I will explain later.
For now, back to the scuba. On day 1 we arrived on the island after a train/ferry combination from Bangkok at about 9.30am. After checking in with Simple Life dive school on the main strip of Sairee Beach we had some lunch and a quick relax before starting ‘academics’. I won’t spoil the fun for you all but this consists of some typically cheesy American health and safety videos and a couple of quizzes. You can’t fail. On day 2 we got to grips with some scuba skills in the pool. I don’t think my buddy Daniel will mind me saying that it took him a while to come to terms with the concept of buoyancy, he looked more like a yoyo than a scuba diver to begin with but we got there in the end.
Day 3 and we were in the sea for open water dives 1 and 2. These dives take you to a maximum depth of 12m and you practise some of the skills learnt in the confined dive in the pool. We got really lucky and saw a hawksbill turtle on our first dive and Nea joined us with a snorkel around the underwater ‘Japanese Gardens’ for our second dive, excellent stuff. On day 4 we hit 18m, saw a sea snake and took our final exam. Scuba is an amazing experience, a great way to meet new people and a surprisingly cheap activity on Koh Tao, but I couldn’t help feeling that it could be more thrilling. So, after spending one day cliff jumping and another exploring the island on a knobbly tired moped, I signed myself up for a discovery day of free diving.
As I mentioned above, an adrenaline junkie’s appetite is pretty well catered for on Koh Tao. I don’t have a dictionary definition for free diving as at the time of writing I’m about half way through a 26 hour bus ride to Kuala Lumpur. However, I think it would go something like this. Free diving: the act of scaring Nea half way to death while holding one’s breath and submersing one’s self to the greatest possible depth. Included free of charge is the potential for brain damage, black outs or actual death if you make a mistake. Scary stuff.
We spent a few hours in the morning talking about the differences between scuba and free diving and practised holding our breath with a few different techniques for as long as possible. I had the worst time of the class at the end of this session with 2 minutes and 25 seconds. One guy, from Texas no less, made it past the 3 minute mark. This was both painful and exhilarating and I think it’s worth mentioning some records here. With oxygen preparation the world record is something like 22 mins, the deepest free dive is circa 240 meters and just using normal air my instructor, Pavel, can last nearly 6 minutes.
In fact, the progress you can make in a short space of time is amazing, especially when you understand the theory and technique behind diving and holding your breath. I was hooked and we hadn’t even been in the sea yet. After a swim test and a very light lunch we took a long tail boat out to the open water. If scuba diving is a great way to meet new people then free diving is a fantastic way to meet like minded adrenaline junkies. Our group of 5 consisted of two Americans, Chester and John, Tayler the Canadian and Heng, an Asian guy that really didn’t speak much but gave as much as he got on the diving front. It was a group that pushed each other to the limits and by the end of the day we were all diving to 20 meters (that’s two meters deeper than you can go after a 4 day scuba course!) and had begun to learn the art of the free fall.
The free fall is an incredible feeling. As the pressure around you compresses the air inside your lungs you lose buoyancy. For me this happened at 12 meters and from there on there’s no movement, just gravity pulling you down, deeper and deeper into the ocean. You can’t see the bottom and after about 18 meters we couldn’t see the top either! You just fall as calmly as possible down a weighted line for reference, knowing that the further you go the harder it’s going to be to get back up. It’s lonely and terrifying and panic inducing and unnatural and yet the calmer you are the less oxygen you use and the further you can go. It was easily one of the best experiences I have had in SE Asia, plus there was no one trying to sell me a souvenir at the bottom.
Before the day was out, we were taken to a scuba site and told to ‘play’ with the divers. Indeed, one 8 year old boy looked more terrified than I felt when I (somewhat) gracefully glided underneath him at 15 meters with no scuba tank.
Tanks? No thanks.”