To use Koh Phagnan diver terminology, I’m feeling ‘amped’ after a ‘sick’ day in the ocean. Today we took a boat ride out to Sail Rock, which, as the name suggests, is a big lump of rock rearing out of the sea about an hour north of the island, around the base of which is attached a huge variety of hard and soft corals. As such, it’s one of the best dive sites (if not the best) in Thailand and huge numbers of brightly coloured fish swill around its perimeter, not to mention turtles, stingrays and whale sharks.
The striking Sail Rock – divers’ mecca.
I was here, along with the other three guys in my group and our two instructors (I’m really impressed with the instructor to student ratio) to complete my first two of four ‘open water’ dives necessary to receive certification. As suspected, it felt much more intimidating than the safe confines of the swimming pool yesterday, especially as it was quite choppy today. From mastering the initial ‘giant step’ off the boat and into the water to carrying out all kinds of safety exercises and tests on the undulating surface (e.g. how to tow another diver, how to take off and put on your equipment in the water, how to relieve cramp etc), there was a lot to absorb. However, once underwater the currents and rough sea were barely noticeable and all became calm – except me, that is. It took me a while to relax into the experience and feel comfortable with being so deep underwater and not able to see the surface. But gradually I came to trust my equipment and, focusing on my breathing as if I was in a yoga class, I found I was able to start looking around and enjoying myself.
With scuba diving you operate a ‘buddy’ system, whereby you and your designated buddy always look out for eachother (e.g. by doing safety checks on eachother before entering the water and by staying close in the water at all times). My buddy is Giles, a nice middle-aged bloke who does an intriguingly vague job ‘working for the US government’ in Afghanistan. We only met yesterday, but the experience of learning to dive is quite emotionally intense and it really felt like we bonded today, particularly as we have both had to battle our own personal demons. Giles has a fear of taking off his mask underwater, which is unfortunately one of the safety exercises we have to succesfully complete to achieve certification. However, he persisted and did it in the end, and our resultant buddy high-five felt like it should have been in slow-mo with some epic, emotive music in the background.
For my part, as stated yesterday, my fear is drowning (duh) and I felt like I came quite close today. Another compulsory safety exercise is to simulate being out of air underwater and request to share the air of your buddy (each air tank has two mouthpieces that can be used simultaneously). I’d done this yesterday in the pool successfully, although hadn’t enjoyed the experience of taking my mouthpiece out and briefly being without any oxygen during the transfer, but all was fine. However, today I accidentally put my buddy’s spare mouthpiece in my mouth upsidedown, which means it doesn’t work. So instead of a deep and very welcome lungful of air I just got a mouthful of saltwater, and then the same again when I tried again – and all this at around 10 metres below the surface – scary stuff. At that point I totally freaked out, thinking I was going to drown. I wanted to go up to the surface but, luckily, my instructor didn’t let me and I realised I just needed to get my own mouthpiece back in my mouth and start breathing air again. It was a horrible experience though – I definitely needed a ‘moment’ to get my breath back and calm down. So then, to get back on the horse straight away and with my instructor’s encouragement, I had another go and this time was textbook perfect in execution, theoretically. HOWEVER, because I had sucked into the alternative mouthpiece the wrong way up before, for some reason this had caused it to cease to function and, again, all I got was saltwater and no air. But this time I am very proud to say that I didn’t completely freak out – I used appropriate sign language to the instructor to indicate a problem and quickly and (almost) calmly transferred back to my own mouthpiece. But again – a horrible experience.
The whole thing probably only took a minute or so, but it felt like a lifetime (and nearly the end of a lifetime in fact). But the great thing is that I feel I’ve faced my ultimate fear and yet have lived to tell the tale (in excessive detail, apologies – I just want to remind myself of the ins and outs of what happened as much as anything…). Plus, I know that I certainly won’t ever put a mouthpiece in upside down again – that’s for sure. The instructor was full of praise for how I coped (I think he was just being nice as I panicked big-time to begin with) and, again, Giles and I bonded in a way you wouldn’t expect to with someone after less than 48 hours of acquaintance – there were almost tears from both of us when we both climbed into the boat in one piece after the second dive!
So, alive and well and back on dry land, this afternoon was a classroom session with an exam at the end. I’m afraid I lived up to my spoddy reputation by getting 100% in the exam – errrr…hello – Specky Becky. At least I made up for my practical fail earlier. (I will have to repeat my nemesis simulation tomorrow in order to gain certification, gulp – let’s hope I’ll be gulping air rather than water…)
This evening I’ve been out to the Thong Sala night market with some of the dive instructors for dinner and had a delicious, well-earned meal of massaman curry, fresh coconut juice, drunk straight out of the coconut (I LOVE this) and a gorgeous chocolate cake. Feeling GOOD. (It’s one of those ‘good (or perhaps relieved) to be alive’ days when I can’t stop the capitals flowing.) VERY happy to be reporting back to you this evening. Final day diving tomorrow, so let’s hope I’ll be back with you then to report how it went!
Finally, I just have to share with you the sight that met me back at my bungalow this evening. I have a resident old, battle-scarred female dog (named ‘The Terminator’ by resort staff as she’s nails hard and gets into lots of fights), who sits on a cushion on my veranda most of the time. I like to think of her as my own personal guard dog. However, there’s also a very cute puppy, called Lady, who also hangs out at my place quite a lot. When I got back tonight, Lady was lying on Terminator’s cushion at full-stretch, looking very relaxed and pleased with herself. However, at that point, Terminator returned to claim her place. Lady then did a hilarious ‘shuffle’ off the mat, still at full-stretch, with one cautious eye on Terminator, and the other full of a ‘there’s nothing to see here’ look of wide-eyed sheepishness. Meanwhile, Terminator looked on with an age-worn look of calm patience that can only come from knowing that you are top dog. Brilliantly comedy viewing.
Lady does her ‘I’m not really here, honest’ shuffle off Terminator’s cushion. At this point, Terminator then stepped onto the cushion and settled herself in for the night with a contented groan – my well’ard guard back on watch.