The 3 Scubateers

Koh Tao, Thailand is one of the best and cheapest places in South East Asia to learn to dive and as an early Christmas present for us (Jon, Tania and Oskar) we decided to take the plunge and go for our Open Water qualification. Here is our story….

Ever since an encounter with some fellow travellers in Malaysia we knew that we would learn to dive in Koh Tao. There were going to be some logistical problems to overcome given that only three of us would be learning and the other two couldn’t be left to their own devices. That meant we would need to find a baby sitter, some day care, or stagger our learning over 8 days (2 x 4 day courses). Logistics aside, we were really excited about taking the course and exploring the wonderful underwater world that awaited us.

The seas and oceans cover a large proportion of our planet, and beyond the regular and popular dive sites, the majority of it remains unexplored or inaccessible to our land-based species. Learning to dive means learning a whole new set of skills which enable you to be at home in this alien environment, full of strange creatures and delicate life. A chance to swim alongside fish and turtles, to marvel at delicate corals, intricately assembled, so fragile that they wouldn’t survive on land and in a multitude of different shapes and forms from fern-like fronds to those resembling brains.

Scuba diving gives you a chance to commune with all marine life, but with it comes a great responsibility. When walking in the countryside we take only photographs and leave only footprints, when diving we leave only bubbles and take with us only the memories that for one short moment we were flying underwater.

We took our course with Master Divers. Ayesha, Elaine and Rachel welcomed us warmly and explained the course details to us. They helped find somewhere to live and they, and all the crew, were always smiling and friendly. A great set up, lovely people and a relaxed but professional approach to diving. Perfect for us and we settled into the dive centre like it was a second home; Oskar, in particular, and it wasn’t long before he knew everybody’s name and was offering his help at every turn.

Day 1 – Study

Warning: May be a little bit un-interesting but there are some good bits, honest!

This was a gentle start to the course. Starting at 2pm we were introduced to Donnie, our instructor, and after a brief overview we settled down in the classroom to watch a video containing material from Module 1 & 2 of the PADI Open Water course.

During the session we were introduced to the underwater world and how it affected us bodily. Subjects of buoyancy and of water pressure and its affect on air volume and its relation to depth. We had read the chapter the previous evening, but as the concepts were presented matter-of-factly and scientifically there had been an impasse amongst some of us until later in the chapter where the science had been applied to the real world and it made more sense.

In essence the science related to 4 main ideas:

The first rule of scuba diving – never, never, never hold your breath For if you inflate your lungs at a depth of 30m and then ascend to the surface, the volume of air in your lungs will expand to 4 times its size and you could end up rupturing them. Not a great idea!

As you descend, the pressure inside your ears is different from the pressure outside and this needs to be equalised – much the same as on an airplane, and the method to do so is as you would at 35,000 feet; hold your nose and blow, or swallow and move your jaw from side to side, or both.

At depth, because your air is equalised by your scuba gear, you use it up faster the deeper you go. At 10m its twice as fast as at the surface, at 20m its 3 times etc. This has an impact on the length of time you can stay at a particular depth before you run out of air.

Buoyancy: If a body displaces an amount of water more than its own weight then it will float – this was a tricky one to understand as we got a bit bogged down with weight whereas the key here was volume displaced. Buoyancy is not about how much you weigh and adding air to your buoyancy control device (BCD) doesn’t make you lighter, it makes you bigger and you therefore move more water. You still weigh the same but you move more water which then weighs more than you do and therefore you float. Clear??? So when you ascend the air in your BCD also expands (as per rule 1) making you more buoyant and therefore rise more quickly still. This can be dangerous and more likely to suffer from the bends.

Thankfully the video made it clearer, and where there was still doubt, our instructor talked it through until we were all comfortable with the concepts. The horrors of advanced science were well and truly put to rest.

To test our understanding of the course we then had a knowledge review; 15 questions we took in turns to answer with our instructor prompting and explaining where necessary. A taste of things to come? There are 5 modules in total, each one with a knowledge review, and also a PADI multiple choice exam that constitutes part of your records along with the final exam which you must pass. Judging by the looks on Oskar and Tania’s faces the study part was going to be the least enjoyable bit!

Module 2 covered adapting to the underwater world. We can’t focus underwater so we wear a mask to give us an air pocket to see through; things appear larger in water; we lose heat quicker in water; and sound travels faster in water making it difficult to pinpoint the source of a noise. We then learned about hand signals, and subsequently took the knowledge review for module 2, 17 questions this time!

Our work done for the day we said our goodbyes to Donnie and the Dive Master crew and headed home, tasked with reading Module 3 ready for the morning.

So, how did you find Day 1?

Jon: The science was interesting, but it did take a little time to click and required some re-reading! It was clearer once it was related to practicalities of scuba diving.

Oskar: I found it a bit difficult, but when Daddy explained it it became clearer. It was a bit boring!

Tania: Science has never been my forte and so I had a mental block. Jon explained it to me in simple terms, and Donnie also helped me overcome the block.

Day 2 – Study and Confined Water Dive

The morning session was spent in the classroom. We watched the video for module 3 and answered the knowledge review questions with Donnie. Module 3 covered the dive environment and those factors that could affect it, such as visibility, current, and bottom composition (which made us laugh!). Then we covered dive planning and responses to problems that may arise.

Finally, we took the tests which go into your file. These consisted of 15 multiple choice questions per module, and we did Modules 1, 2 & 3 – Oskar scored 100% on all of them, well done son!

I think it is fair to say that all this study was just an appetiser for the main dish of the day – the first scuba dive. I cannot begin to tell you how excited we all were. We assembled and packed our gear; fins, mask, snorkel, BCD, regulator and wetsuit. Then we waited impatiently for the hour to arrive when we would jump on the long tail to ferry us to the dive boat. Donnie explained to us where we were going and what we would do when we got there – the anticipation was huge and we had a mixture of excitement and butterflies.

The hour arrived, we were off. Jumping on the long tail, Richard the boat master for the day called out our names for role call barely audible over the roar of the engine and we in turn yelled Yes! in response.

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09 12 2011 008 Our skipper, P-Dong. One of the most respected Captains on the island.

As soon as we were all on board and seated at our dive stations the engines fired and we set sail for Japanese Gardens, a 20 min trip to the twin islands just off the North-West coast of Koh Tao. En route we assembled our kit. First the BCD goes over the tank and is secured with the tank strap. Then comes the regulator, slipping it over the tank valve and tightening it up. Once in place, open the air valve and test that the 2nd stage regulator (mouthpiece) is working and the alternative air source. Check the BCD inflates and deflates using the buttons, and then finally that the manual inflator is working. Stowing the rest of our gear under the bench we had our final briefing with Donnie.

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As we approached the dive site we were told to suit up. Donning our wetsuits, and weight belts we then slipped into the BCD (a kind of inflatable waistcoat) and tightened all of the straps. It was now that we first felt the weight of the air tank. From a sitting position it was difficult for us to stand up, and Oskar needed to be hauled to his feet. So, there we were, upright on a pitching boat with an ungainly tank strapped to our backs making it very difficult for us to balance at all, let alone walk.

Buddy checks followed; Oskar with Donnie, and Tania and I performed our Big White Rabbits Are Fluffy checks – Buoyancy (inflate/deflate/manual), Weights (have belt with right hand release), Releases (straps done up/location of releases), Air (both regs work/tank valve open/air gauge working) and Final check (for mask, fins and any extra kit to take along). As I checked Tania’s releases her tank strap didn’t look to secure so we rectified that route de suite.

It was time! Stomachs leaping we shuffled forward to the jump-off point ready for our Giant Stride entry into the water. Donnie first, the Oskar, then Tania and then me.

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We plunged into the sea, briefly submersed until the inflated BCD brought us back to the surface. Bobbing there in the gentle swell we were grinning madly – we had made it past the first hurdle. We now faced a surface swim to the shallow area just by the beach. This involved lying on our backs and kicking our fins, occasionally checking over our shoulders for course adjustments. It was quite hard work pushing ourselves and our tanks through the sea and we took a slow steady pace to conserve our strength and energy.

After what seemed like an eternity we arrived and Donnie signalled us to stop. As we had a number of important skills to master before an open water dive we were in shallow waters for the first of 4 confined water dives. These would give us a chance to learn and hone our scuba skills in water that we could easily stand up in, or get to safety quickly if need be.

Donnie gave us the signal to descend. Holding our low pressure inflators in our left hands, high above our heads, we pressed the deflate button and we slowly sank into an underwater world for our first taste of scuba diving and to learn a new set of skills. The first immediate obstacle to overcome is equalisation of mask and ears. Almost instantly we could feel our masks press against our faces and an uncomfortable feeling in our ears. Breathing out through our noses fixed the mask, and holding our noses and trying to breath out through them sorted out the ears.

Settling on the sandy bottom in a circle with Donnie giving us instruction via hand signals we took in turns to practice the skills we would need to master for scuba diving.

Taking the regulator out and then replacing and clearing it – an important skill if the reg gets knocked out of your mouth, or you lose it somehow. This involves removing and replacing it, and then clearing by breathing out, or by pressing the purge valve. 1-2-3 no problems.

Regulator Recovery – finding your reg if it is knocked out. We had to “throw” our regs away and then leaning over to the right, sweep our hands along our thigh round behind us and recovering the hose. And then again by reaching over our shoulders and grabbing the end of the hose by the tank and following it to the reg. Obviously we then had to clear the reg of water. It felt a bit weird to get rid of our air supply, but the recovery was straight forward and we all managed it easily.

Partial Mask Clear – We lifted the corner of our masks to let in sea water to half fill them, and then pressing a hand on the top of the mask and looking down we breathed out through the nose as we slowly lifted our heads to look at the surface. 1-2-3 all done without any problems.

Full Mask Clear – Again lifting the corner of the mask, but this time to fill it completely. The sensation was frightening and bizarre. Suddenly blinded by sea water and feeling it sloshing around the nostrils was unnerving. Eyes closed we had to control the panic and remain calm. Following the same process to empty the mask we all of us managed it, though Oskar had to clear it twice to get all of the water out.

Mask Removal – why anyone in their right mind would do this?? Well in case the strap breaks, so we are told. So, remove the mask, and then put it back on and clear it. We took it in turns and succeeded on the whole – except for Tania who freaked out a bit having to surface to regain her composure and overcome the panic that had arisen. I can entirely sympathise as the feeling of the water suddenly on eyes and nose is really strange and uncomfortable. Subconsciously you are aware that one of the routes to your lungs is now exposed to the water, not protected by the mask, and you have to remain calm and concentrate on breathing only in and out through your mouth. Even when the mask is back in place it is still full of water and any impulse to breathe in through the nose has to be fought until it has been cleared.

Alternate Air Source – Taking it in turns to be the donor and the recipient, we signalled “low on air” and then “share air”. The donor then lifted their right arm to show the alternate air source (in our case a yellow regulator), and the recipient took the reg, removed their own reg and then used the alternate air source to breath from (clearing it first of course). Oskar went first with Donnie whilst we watched on nervously, but knowing how great the big boy was we were confident that he would sail through it. For a 10 year old, mastering skills presents little problem for him and we were both really proud of the way he coped – he is such a star! Tania and I went through the share air scenarios together whilst Donnie looked on, and it was as simple for us as it was for Oskar.

Fin Pivot and Hover – buoyancy control is everything; if you are neutrally buoyant you neither sink nor float and you control your direction using your fins. To get neutrally buoyant you can use the fin pivot. Lie on your front on the sea bed and then breath in and out. If you are neutrally buoyant you should rise up on your toes when breathing in, and sink when breathing out. Likewise, the hover is cross legged in mid-water holding your fin tips – you should hover if neutral. Good fun trying this – inflating the BCDs in short bursts but remembering to allow the change to take effect. We all managed it.

Ascent – the final skill of the day, rising up to the surface whilst looking up and around, right hand extended and left hand dumping air from the BCD. Once on the surface we re-inflated the BCDs so that we floated (positively buoyant) meaning that we did not have to tread water to stay on the surface. We then swam back to the boat. On the way we practiced the tank pull, literally grabbing the top of the tank and pulling the other person along – very useful when your buddy is too tired to swim.

Throughout the dive, whilst kneeling on the sand curious fish had come up to say hello and swim through our legs. It was a magical feeling to be so close, to share the space under the waves with the indigenous creatures. We were supposed to do more skills during our dive but Oskar was very cold by now. The smallest wetsuit they had still dwarfed him and water seeped in and out of the legs and arms, the cold water leeching the heat from his slender body. I must confess that I was a little cold too! We had tried a small break on the beach to warm up, but the sun was shrouded by cloud and a keen wind did not help as it evaporated the water from our saturated wetsuits.

We arrived back at the boat and faced one more challenge before the dive was over, namely getting out of the water. The kit we wear does not really affect movement in the water, but on land it weighs a lot. First obstacle was to remove our fins and pass them up to the boat boy whilst holding onto the ladder. Then it was to get the foot on the rung and hall ourselves out of the water. Normally, in the swimming pool it is pretty easy, but with the scuba gear, that move from water to air requires a big effort to bring the weight out of the support of the water and onto the legs. Oskar went first and made it look easy, the boat boy helping him at the top. When it was clear Tania went next, and then me. Safely arriving on board we removed our masks and regulators and staggered our way across the deck, the boat pitching more fiercely, and sat down on the bench dropping our tanks into their holes before removing the BCDs.

We had done it, our first dive. What an experience, we breathed under water, we saw fish and corals, an underwater landscape we had seen from above whilst snorkelling, but this time it had been close up. We were buzzing with the thrill of it. As we came down from our high we disassembled the kit and stowed it back in the bags. Grinning all round we relived the dive, going over what we had seen and done. High fives all round and congratulatory words from Donnie.

The rest of the divers returned and roll call was taken to ensure all were safely back on board. P-Dong started the engines, and as the boat ploughed its course back to Mae Haad and the Master Divers centre Oskar swung in the hammock on the sun deck wrapped snugly in his fleece. Donnie discussed our progress with us on the way back and explained that we had some skills to catch up on. We agreed that the best thing would be to do our second confined water dive in the morning in the sea just in front of Master Divers, that way, if Oskar got cold again we could get back to land and warm up quickly.

The boat moored and we jumped on the long tail back to shore. I left to get the boys and Tania and Oskar cleaned the kit. This involves rising wetsuit, BCD, regs, masks and snorkels in fresh water and then hanging them up to dry. This not only helps to keep the kit clean, but also means that the kit lasts longer – the silicone in the masks, for instance, deteriorates much more quickly if the salt water isn’t washed off.

When I returned with the boys we had a final review with Donnie and agreed our timetable for the following day. Homework was Module 4.

So how was Day 2?

Jon – A-ma-zing! My stomach was summersaulting as the time to jump off arrived. On land the kit felt bulky and awkward, but once in the water I felt like a fish, well a slightly uncoordinated fish if I’m honest! It takes a little time to manage buoyancy and become neutrally buoyant, sometimes you rise and sometimes you sink. Mastering the inflation/deflation was the key along with slow breathing – it was weird how a lung full of air would suddenly make you rise up, and breathing out make you fall, but it is all part of the skills to master. Breathing under water was great, being able to stay there, beneath the waves. Diving down whilst snorkelling gets you a better view, but only for as long as you can hold your breath. The full mask clear was OK and the mask removal a little freaky. I have never been one for opening my eyes under water, but I forced myself to and I think this helped. All in all, it was a fantastic day, my only worry was that Oskar got cold so quickly

Tania – Utterly fabulous! I was so lucky to be able to breath under water and see the fish up close, rather than from the surface when I snorkel. I kept playing with my BCD to change my buoyancy rather than using my breathing, and so I kept bouncing up and down like a ball. The time under water was too short, and I was amazed by the amount of bubbles I was making when breathing out. I was really proud of my little man who was doing all the skills easily, like they were second nature. I found the skills easy enough, but the mask removal really freaked me out. That protection of my nose had gone and was surrounded by water and I was scared that I would breathe in through my nose. Donnie reassured me and told me I could do it! And when I tried again and succeeded, the smile from Donnie made me feel so proud of myself that I had overcome my fear. When I got back on the boat I was buzzing and I just wanted to go back into the water again, but had to satisfy myself with lounging in the sun on the deck.

Oskar – It was awesome, but we were swayed from side to side by the swell. It felt really weird breathing under water. I felt like a fish. The mask fill was really freaky, but when you empty it, it was relaxing. The regulator recovery was scary as I had no way of breathing any more. I found the skills pretty easy to master and Donnie was really pleased with me. Climbing out of the water was difficult because the tank was really heavy. I was very cold so I got out of my wetsuit and put on my fleece and went up to the sun deck where I swung in the hammock. I was proud of myself, and of my mummy and daddy as well as we had all completed our first confined water dive.

Day 3 – Confined Water Dive and Study

We met up with Donnie and discussed the plan for the day. This involved diving in the morning in the sea by the pier next to Master Divers. Suiting up we walked into the water and swam out a little way before descending to the sand below to begin our skills. Visibility was a metre, maybe two – not great! We were still worried about Oskar’s susceptibility to the cold, but Rachel (the shop girl) lent him her jacket to give some additional protection. And although he looked a little like the Michelin man, it did the job.

Donnie took us through the rest of our skills:

Weight Belt Removal Underwater and Replace – not too taxing really, well at least for the adults. Oskar had a bit of trouble manoeuvring the weights, but got there in the end with a little help.

BCD Jacket Removal and Replace (Underwater) – undo the clips, left shoulder out then right shoulder and try not to knock the regulator out of your mouth. Repeat in reverse to put it back on. No worries, no problems.

Mask Removal and Swim for 10m – honestly, why? Take off a perfectly good mask and then go for a swim. Donnie held our shoulders whilst we did this to reassure and to guide us. Oskar disappeared into the murky water while Tania and I knelt on the bottom. After what seemed like an eternity, Oskar and Donnie reappeared from the gloom and then it was my turn. Removing the mask I kept my eyes open to remove one of the “fears” – at least I could see where I was going, now it was just a matter of concentrating on not breathing through the nose! Two done, Tania’s turn. Unfortunately, she freaked and had to surface to breathe proper air and calm down. Returning to us a few minutes later rather annoyed with herself for having failed. We had to break to warm up Oskar and when we came back Tania tried this again and nailed it.

Weight Belt Removal and Replace (Surface) – floating on the surface this was a little bit trickier than removing and replacing on the bottom, but we all three managed this skill easily.

BCD Jacket Removal and Replace (Surface) – this is an important skill for when you have to remove your kit to get into a boat, or go into the water without your kit and then put it on in the water. The taking off was simple enough, just remember not to let go as we still had our weight belts on and would sink if we did! Getting the kit back on appeared a doodle for Oskar and for Tania. I was all at sea (pardon the pun), I got onto the BCD easily but before I could manoeuvre to get the jacket on, my balance had gone and I rolled into the sea once more. It took me 4 comical efforts to finally get the damn thing on – at least it provided Tania, Oskar and Donnie with something to laugh at!

Snorkel/Regulator Exchanges – as it says, swapping snorkel for reg and vice versa. Testing our ability to purge the reg and blow out the water from the snorkel without breathing in a lung full of water. Easy peasy!

Controlled Emergency Ascent – this skill is used in a low air situation where you are no more than 10m down. It basically involves swimming up to the surface whilst singing “Ahhhh” all the way to the top – one breath. Since we weren’t actually at 10m this had to be done swimming horizontally. Again, pretty simple although Oskar snatched a cheeky breath!

Cramp Removal (Self & Buddy) – hold your fin tip and pull. Grab your buddy’s fin tip and push. I’d had to do the self one on the first open water dive so no stranger. Not too taxing a skill, and we all demonstrated our mastery of it.

Job done, we were pretty happy with ourselves. OK we didn’t see any amazing corals or fish but the confined water dives are more about learning the skills in a safe environment before hitting the open water. As we left the water the first time I talked with Tania about the mask removal issue. She seemed pretty annoyed, but at the same time was adamant that she could overcome the problem and get it next time. On the second attempt, I was so proud of her that she managed the skill and overcame her fear – what a star!

After a spot of lunch we were back in the classroom to study module 4. Module 4 covered dive accessories, diver’s health, and then the effects on the body of breathing compressed air underwater and the resulting nitrogen absorption which could lead to decompression sickness (or the bends). We then went on to use the dive tables which estimate the amount of nitrogen you have in your blood at the end of a dive (based on depth and time), and how long you can dive for if you go in for a second dive.

Tables, mathematics and calculations, I loved it, Oskar got it with some help, and Tania, despite her conviction that maths was an alien language as far as she was concerned also grasped it pretty quickly. We completed the knowledge review and also went through numerous examples of using the dive tables to ram the learning home.

Let out early for the day we went home with module 5 for homework and the prospect of our first open water dive the following day.

So how was day 3?

Jon – I enjoyed it on the whole. Not as exciting as the first day, as we were confined to the beach in front of the dive centre, but I was happy that we completed all the skills and the Oskar had not turned into an ice cube! I was annoyed with myself about having made such a mess of the BCD removal on the surface and was determined to do it better next time. The dive planner session was great – I love maths and this was right up my street, and I was especially proud of Oskar and Tania at getting it so quickly too.

Tania – I was not as excited as the previous day. I felt insecure thinking that I would not be able to do it having failed to swim the 10m without the mask. But, with Donnie’s encouragement I managed to do it on the second attempt and I was so proud of myself. The BCD removal on the surface was easy for me and it was funny to watch Jon struggle – everything seemed like a breeze after that.

Oskar – I felt exceptionally proud of myself for having completed my second confined water dive; especially the mask removal and clearing. I found the weight removal very tricky because I had trouble getting the weights onto my back whilst avoiding the tank and then grabbing the end of the belt and threading it through the clasp and doing it back up again. I found Daddy’s BCD removal on the surface very funny as well.

Day 4 – Module 5 and Open Water Dive No 1 & 2

A gentle start with a classroom session. Module 5 covered emergency decompression, dive computers, navigation and then the further qualifications you can achieve through PADI courses and training. All pretty straightforward and not too taxing for our excited brains! We were finished early, and had plenty of time to get our gear together and grab some lunch. Tania and I had discussed the problem of Oskar and his lack of cold resistance and we had decided that we would buy him a wetsuit that fitted in the hope that he could last a longer dive. This was partly selfish – if he stops then we stop, and partly because we wanted him to achieve his goal and to do so he needed to keep warm.

We scooted along to one of the dive shops on the island and tracked down a suit for him that fitted pretty snugly. Returning to Master Divers we packed this in his kit along with his normal wetsuit (he would wear both for diving) and the waited, butterflies in our tummies for the order to board the long tail.

Finally, the appointed hour arrived. Oskar was out of the blocks like the lead greyhound chasing the hare and leapt into the long tail, taking station near the bows close to the crew. Roll call ensued and we yelled out our affirmatives when it was our turn. Pulling alongside we transferred to the dive boat and found our spots in the prow and then, after the spiel from the dive master, set about preparing our kit. Old hands by now the job was soon completed and we relaxed with Donnie as he explained what we would go through during the first dive.

First up was White Rock, so named because of the white rock that juts from the sea bed to a metre below the surface.

Suffice it to say that skills-wise, we passed all that was put before us without a hitch. And although the purpose of the open water dives is to get used to the deeper environment and demonstrate the skills we had learned, this was, for us, more about the scenery! So, more about the experience….

Swimming to the bows of the boat, we descended the bow line, covered in algae and seaweed, dropping slowly through the green-tinted water. Tania and Oskar kept pace with Donnie, but I had trouble with equalising the pressure in my ears. Try as I might I could not get them to stop hurting – as I dropped the pain was acute and I had to stop and go up till they stopped hurting. Then, blowing like there was no tomorrow I finally felt the air squeeze into my tubes and then I could go down again, very slowly, equalising all the time.

Rejoining my buddies we swam under the waves, past corals and fish goggling at the sights, wafting at the christmas tree worms and smiling as they recoiled into their holes. This was what it was all about! Wrasse, angel fish, butterfly fish, parrot fish, clams, corals (so many different kinds), needle fish, and moray eels lurking menacingly under the rocks. Fantastic!

As we swam around, we had the chance to explore our place in the water. To hover and dive, to turn summersaults and swim on our backs. To experience and feel the sensation of flying in the water. Each kick propelling us forwards in an effortless movement. We hung upside down to look under rocks, we skirted corals, we swam with the fish – it was awesome, amazing. And all to soon it was over. Surfacing slowly (be a SAFE diver!) we kicked back to the boat and climbed aboard.

Oskar had survived the session without feeling too cold, the new wetsuit a success. We were all grinning like fools and Donnie was pleased with our skills tests. Good times!

With everyone safely back on board, roll call taken, P-Dong got us underway to our second site of the day, Twins. So called because of the two granite rocks covered in corals and sponges, it was a 10 minute steam away. Master Divers policy is a 1 hour surface interval between dives for safety, so we had some time to change tanks over and to take on board some tea, fruit, biscuits and electrolyte water to replenish our spent energy. Donnie briefed us on the next set of skills we would perform, the marine life that we would see, and the course we would take through the dive site.

Time soon ticked away and then it was on with BCD, buddy checks, and donning mask and fins we giant stepped off the boat once more into the waves. At the bows we descended the buoy line once more under the water – after the first time I was quicker with the equalisation and it went much more smoothly for me this time.

Again, the skills were passed without a hitch and we spent a good deal of time swimming around again, exploring our new kingdom. To the uninitiated, coral is coral, sponge is sponge and fish come in different shapes and sizes. During our underwater time we got the chance to find out that this wasn’t true, at least the coral and sponge bit – fish are different shapes and sizes, and indeed colours. Brain coral, delicate fern-like coral, coral reaching out from the reef like tentacles, cushion sponges, yellow, green sponges, electric blue clams – the colour is vivid, bright like an impressionist masterpiece, the landscape anything but uniform and ordinary. Maybe it is just my marvelling at something new and breath-taking that leads me to over-paint my literary palette, but being down there, swimming amongst this abundance of life was exciting and humbling at the same time, at once a privilege and a responsibility. I loved it!

Signalling the ascent, Donnie lead us up to the surface once more, the dive over. With a mingled sense of exhilaration and disappointment we hauled ourselves out of the water onto the boat and took off our kit. Busying ourselves with dismantling and packing the kit away we grinned and recounted the highlights of the dive. “Did you see the parrot fish?”, “What about the moray eel?”, “How was it?” and to a man, woman and boy the answer was “Awesome!!!!!”

P-Dong started the engines after roll call and we were soon chugging into the harbour in front of Master Divers. The long tail easing alongside to carry us back to shore for debrief and overview of the next day. As we rode the waves, the Dive Master called for our appreciation of a good day’s diving and for the boat crew, and then our congratulations for fellow divers who had completed their qualifications that day. As we rested on the gunnels with the engine throbbing in our ears, we imagined that tomorrow it would be us receiving the congratulatory applause. Tomorrow we would be Open Water Divers.

So how was day 4?

Jon – It was brilliant! However, I was so scared that it was all over before it started when I couldn’t get my ears equalised. I was worried that there was some physical problem with my ears that meant I wouldn’t be able to scuba dive. But by being patient and following the training, I overcame the pressure problem and was able to do the first dive. The underwater experience is beyond words – fantastico!

Tania – What a fabulous experience, so close to it all. Amazing simply amazing…I felt like jumping and when we got back on the boat, it’s exactly what I did with a Cheshire cat grin (much easier without the reg) and I had to give Donnie a HUGE squeeze. It was exhilarating

Oskar – It was AWESOME! SWEEEEET!! I saw a white-eyed Moray Eel which was freaky with its dead eye stare. Loads of parrot, and angel fish and damsel fish. AND we saw a jelly fish which looked like a blue and orange plastic bag pulsing in the sea but it had no tentacles – weird!! It was being eaten by some fish at the time.

Day 5 Final Exam and Open Water Dives 3 & 4

After some last minute revision, we arrived at Master Divers ready to take our exam. We went into the classroom and Donnie explained how the test would work and gave us our papers and answer sheets. The questions tested our knowledge of all the modules we had studied and the answers were multiple choice but with only one possible answer.

We ploughed our way through the questions. We tackled them individually, but on occasions helped each other by guiding thoughts and reasoning. We did not find the test too difficult, being well prepared, and Oskar and I finished first. Tania took her time to revise her answers and to revisit questions that she had not answered first time through. Whilst she did, Donnie marked Oskar’s paper – 100%, what a star! I differed on one question and so dropped one – 98%, and Tania matched Oskar with 100% too. All in all a pretty good effort all round! (and no I really am not miffed that I didin’t get 100% too, honest!!)

Congratulations and high fives followed and then it was time to prepare the kit for our final dives. Butterflies in tummies time again, and excitement about what we would encounter this time on our underwater adventure. We grabbed lunch and waited for the appointed hour to arrive. Oskar was apprehensive because he was afraid his seasickness would come back again and spoil the last dive for him and us, and he really didn’t want to disappoint himself or his mum and dad.

The long tail returned from dropping the kit onto the boat, and it was time for us to go. Oskar leaping on first again and settling in the bows. We were soon alongside the dive boat and were clambering onto the pitching deck; the sea was a little rougher today – not a great start given the seasickness issue! Furthermore we had a 40 min steam to the first of the sites – Hin Ngam, on the south east side of the island. The waves were not too bad, and Oskar was excited about his new mate Phill taking photos of us, taking his mind off the pitching boat.

We prepared our kit, BCD over tank, reg attached, turn on air, check regs and BCD inflate. Donnie got the weight belts ready and we were good to go. He then gave us our final briefing before our first dive of the day, and before long it was time to take our giant stride into the sea.

P1030535 09 12 2011 015

There were more skills to demonstrate, the first was an unassisted descent. With the buoy line behind us we sank slowly into the depths, equalising as we went until we reached our prearranged depth. We then had some time to swim around and explore the reef below, to peer into nooks and crannies, Donnie pointing out fish to us along the way using hand signals. Angel fish, banner fish, file fish, lots of corals and clams and christmas tree worms – always great fun!

With the swim around we had the chance to master our buoyancy, to play with our motion through the water, turning summersaults, hanging upside down, and generally obeying the second rule of scuba diving – look cool! The skills were done and dusted without too much difficulty; mask clears, sharing air, hover,fin pivot, weight removal and BCD removal all of them second nature, surprising after such a short time. As 35 mins arrived Donnie gave the signal to ascend and we slowly made our way up to 5 metres for our 3 min safety stop, and then breaking the surface near the boat we tired diver towed to the steps and hauled ourselves out of the water, first dive of the day completed and Open Water Dive 3 under our belts.

Oskar was a little chilly and so removed wetsuit and donned fleece. The waves were stronger now and he was decidedly green as we steamed the short way to our next dive site – Aow Leuk. Unfortunately it was not long before he was leaning over the side of the boat to be sick. Shivering from the cold and the after affect of seasickness he retired to the sun deck and installed himself in the hammock. We were concerned that this was it, the dive over. We checked with Donnie if this meant no qualifications, but he assured us that if we didn’t do the second dive today we would do it another day.

We went to console and comfort Oskar and to explain to him that he was not a failure, he would get to do the last dive another day and that there was no problem as far as we were concerned if we didn’t complete the Open Water today. We also pointed out that he would feel sicker staying on the boat than being in the water, but that it was his choice. Whilst we were talking to the little man Donnie and Phill (our camera man for the 2nd dive and all-round dude) were hovering, waiting to know if we were going in or not. Donnie had prepared Oskar’s kit for the 2nd dive, and we left O to do ours. After some cajoling and a plan to help him get ready and get in the water as soon as possible the brave fellow wanly smiled and said “OK, lets do it”

We dressed him in his wetsuits, got his weight belt and BCD on asap and buddy checked him with great speed. Donnie leapt over the side and we got Oskar’s mask prepped, dragged him to the jump off point, got his fins on and he stepped off into the void with a little help from the boat boy. Tania and I followed shortly after, and we were in, bobbing in the water for our last open water dive. Our first skill was to practice the Emergency Ascent. This involved Donnie taking us each one in turn to 10m and us then ascending to the surface whilst singing “Ahhh”. After that, we were down into the depths for more swimming around, and a lot of posing for the camera!

We passed our final skill and Phill caught the moment on camera….

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After this moment the rest of the time underwater was ours to explore and play, to fly and to goggle, to ooh and to aah, and to grin at the camera too – but don’t remove the regulator!!! Here are some of the photos that Phill took on the day:

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With a huge sense of accomplishment and pride we began our ascent on Donnie’s signal to the 5m/3min safety stop. We then broke the surface we were grinning madly, like giddy children – we had done it! Clambering up the ladder one last time we staggered across the deck to drop our kit back into their stations. Nothing could spoil the sense of euphoria, not even the waves. We were so proud of Oskar, that he had overcome his seasickness to dive the 2nd time and that we had all learned, mastered and completed our Open Water Skills – and along the way seen marine life close up and swum alongside them, explored the movement of our bodies underwater and pushed our boundaries of knowledge.

We could not stop smiling. On the long tail back to shore, our faces split from ear to ear as we received our congratulations on becoming Open Water Divers from the other boat members. Back on shore we skipped through the kit cleaning (and children picking-up-ing) and then relived the day through Phill’s slideshow of pictures, before settling down with Donnie for debrief and to fill out our dive logs with location, depth, time and any notable sights we had seen.

We had begun our week with great anticipation and a little trepidation. We ended it with a new skill, some amazing moments to savour, and a huge sense of accomplishment, as well as the knowledge that we had all encountered difficult moments and that we had overcome them. It was a fantastic experience and the team at Master Divers was absolutely brilliant – they get maximum points, thumbs up and gold stars from us!

So how was day 5?

Jon – I am an open water diver, so cool, so amazing! After the exam we had a few skills to do, one of which was the BCD removal on the surface which I had struggled with in the confined dive. In much stronger swell I managed it second attempt and with much less comedy. Once that was over, I enjoyed the marine landscape and denizens even more and exploring my body’s movement through the water. The final handshake was a great moment and for the rest of the dive we had only to concentrate on what was around us – it was a fun dive from then on, and boy did we have fun!

Tania – As usual I  was nervous for the exam and I needed my rescue remedy but once I sat down in front of the paper I felt positive and got on with it; and I got 100%. How cool !!

The dives were awesome. SO much to see, to experience, the hovering, summersaulting and upside downing was fun and that it is all about, have fun and enjoy the freedom of flying with nature under water.

Oskar – SWEEEEEEET!!!! I saw a squirrel fish and a star fish and loads of christmas tree worms. The exam was pretty scary, but when Donnie told me I had 100% I was ecstatic. During the dive I had so much fun doing summersaults and upside down hovers for the camera (Ed: Poseur). When I heard Phill say “Congratulations to our new Open Water Divers, Jon, Tania and Ossie” on the long tail back to shore I felt so proud and about 10ft tall.

What’s the first rule of scuba diving: Never never never hold your breath

What is the 2nd: Look cool

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  1. #1 by pcsmith on December 31, 2011 - 6:22 pm

    This sounds like a quality course, with superb and attentive instructors. Great for you all and so proud of Oskar . What a star. Am afraid I would have freaked out and perhaps given up. so well done Tania. Love to our Little Fishes . MUM AND DAD /NANNY AND GRAMPYXXXXX (and not forgetting the two little land-lubbers.

  2. #2 by ayeshacantrell on January 13, 2012 - 4:22 am

    Loved Reading this – thanks ! Keep Diving and hopefully we will see you again soon !

  3. #3 by tonysdiveholiday on January 14, 2012 - 10:03 pm

    Hi, thanks so much for sharing this experience. I am off to meet my daughter on Koh Toa in a few weeks and have signed up for the OW course with her at Master Divers. I just hope we do as well as you all did. I have to say that at 53, I have not studied fopr over 30 years, and it is the thought of the exams that worry me!

    • #4 by 5onajourney on January 15, 2012 - 3:03 am

      Hi Tony,
      My pleasure. I really hope you have as great an experience as we did. Master Divers are great and make it a pleasure to learn to dive. Don’t worry about the academic side – they help you at every step.

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