A Drifting Tenderfoot

It’s day one. [7:12 PM, 4/4/2018]
Four dives today. And I became a live example of most errors they teach you about in theory.
Starting with one of the most dangerous ones, how not to shoot up while you dive, the forbidden uncontrolled, rapid ascent.
How not to finish your air before even reaching the major highlight of the dive  ( I did that in the third dive when we were  to swim through a supposedly scary swim-through… but I never reached there.)
How not to let your gear part from your body in the water! (By the very beginning of the third dive, my fin came apart. Bianca and Kris somehow fixed it. It still came apart a one-two times during the dive.
Then how not to kick a coral, or one of your buddies or how not to bump into them, why not to panic when fucking anything goes wrong.

I’m too nervous. Kinda dispirited  too – my roommates said I looked so. I’m too tired.
Plus at the end of the day, our instructor asked to talk to me in private and told me that I am improving a bit over the dives, but not enough. And at this pace, he wouldn’t be able to certify me.
I must improve much much faster. He put my buddy in another group and planned a training dive only with me.

India ka naam badnaam.

I sleep. I try. But unable to sleep. Too many dreams. I’m shooting up, surface without a signal and my head crashes into a boat, I surface too fast and my lungs blast, I try to descend and I sink and sink until I sit on a lion fish and it’s thorns pierce through my bum..phshshh, I get drifted in a current and bump into a big coral and get stuck in it.

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Captured by Octo Tan, a fellow dive

 

Day 2 [6:35 PM, 4/5/2018]
I did sleep for a while. But I woke up with nightmares too. Too tired even to get up. Jaw aching due to holding the regulator for so long.
I had a strong urge to miss this first dive.
But Kris had already planned it, made changes in groups.
It would be too disrespectful to say no to dive now.

I always took a couple of minutes to myself before every dive, lock myself into the bathroom, take deep breaths and ease out the jitters in my stomach. I am planning to do the same after breakfast.
While having breakfast, Kris tells me that we had to dive in two minutes. We wouldn’t even stay for the briefing. So I quickly finish half of it and run to kit up.

We dive at a different place than the other groups.
We go to a dead coral reef and practice older skills as planned. Mask clearing, regulator recovery and the most important, hovering.
He then takes me for a swim over a number of corals, with ups and downs.
And by what magic I don’t know, I manoeuvre them quite well. I don’t kick any of those corals, don’t bump into any, I ascend exactly enough when we have to cross a coral and descend enough when we are beyond it.
In last two dives the earlier day, there was improvement. I was aware of what’s happening around and what’s happening to me, unlike in the first two. I was able to swim at least for some distances without shooting up, sinking or bumping into something.
But this one was magical.
We didn’t see much, didn’t even care about finding fish. Just swam.
After this, I thought I could do anything.

I am still tired and want to sleep.
But we have to finish the chapter for drift dive, as the next one was going to be a drift dive. So I stay up after breakfast, finish reading and answering the questionnaire. Chris briefed us on it, what to do what not to do etc, corrected the questionnaires. And by the time we finish, it’s time to dive again.

We do the negative entry for this dive, meet below the water and then start. The dive is going well, Chris, Jamie and me. Chris showing us some interesting stuff along the drift. Around halfway through the dive maybe, he points behind me. I check out. I see something flat, slightly white large disk. Looks like a small boat? Maybe some special purpose vehicle. Something looking like a UFO. It’s moving towards us. Fuck, a shark? Nah, big fish so soon seems impossible. I brushed that thought away. And in a couple of more seconds, I realise what it was. It wasn’t moving towards us, it was swimming – or rather flying – in the current. Right in the middle, slightly above us and at a distance. There were many smaller fish taking refuge on it, below it, behind it. Or maybe tagging along for a faster ride. Like a VIP parading with his entourage behind him.
It was indeed a big fish. It was a Manta Ray. The one for which people come dive in these islands. The one after which our boat fleet was named – Manta Queen.
We watch it until it disappears from sight far down the current. I am still in an awe. Feels like half the purpose of my pilgrimage is fulfilled.

We keep drifting. I have been consuming air much faster, unlike in my open water course.
Rest about today later.
Let’s see what kind of dreams I get today.

Day 3: [6:15 AM, 4/6/2018]
I know I haven’t finished day 2.
But for now, there is something more important.
First dive of the day. Richelieu rock.
And we see the second god. Or the god’s baby. A small (probably juvenile) whale shark.

In this dive, we were doing the last exercise of our Advanced Open Water course for a deep dive. Kris tried tricking us showing us a cherry tomato and saying (I mean implying), “See, how compressed it is!” After the coursework was done, we were swimming around the rock looking at fish. Suddenly Kris changes direction abruptly. I also see more people suddenly swimming in the same direction. And then all excited, he points somewhere in the blue.. Whoa! There it was. Swimming away from us.

We tried swimming towards it. As if it was going to stop and pose for us. Of course it was an effort in vain. It disappeared quickly.
I was thinking later on. It must have felt weird with so many people chasing him/ her. Thank god they haven’t invented a pepper spray.

We were absolutely excited. For some time, we just keep signalling each other about how awesome it was and then we go back to the dive.
Not sure if this was before the first darshan of the whale shark or after. We saw a cute small seahorse camouflaged in the small yellow corals. Guess it was slightly below 30 meters and then Jammie’s camera shut down. So no pictures.

Like every time, I reach 70 bars first and then we start ascending. Before we reach 5 meter for our safety stop, the God’s baby makes another appearance. This time we get a bit longer airtime with him. And this time we get a top view.. of its beautiful dotted back, as if a starry night.

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Whale Shark. Captured by Octo Tan

[8:58 AM, 4/6/2018] Second dive. Major highlights –

1. Disorientation.
Air we are exhaling seems to be going behind us instead of going up. I don’t know which way is up and which way to kick, which way to move. I just keep following Kris and keep checking if Jammie is behind me. I mean in the direction which I considered ‘behind’.
Guess we were on a slope and the rocks/hillocks were tilted on the slope. Plus the current added to the effect. Or maybe the effect of too much diving? No clue!

2. Whale shark again. This time so close that I am worried I would bump into it if I don’t hover right. But it knew swimming better than I did. And this time Jammie took pictures too.
Kris was closest, I was following Kris. So I was the next closest. Saw it’s face and bottom side, with fish clinging on it.

whale shark 2
Whale Shark. Clicked by Sun, Ching Mei (Jammie) – My dive buddy

3. Purple corals, many shades of purple. (Or probably they looked purple underwater) And some yellow among them, small ones. Of course other colours too, but these were the highlights. This applies to all the dives at Richelieu Rock.

4. Number of schools of small fish, of different colours, different sizes different shapes; some predators, most preys.
You see a cloud at a distance. After a moment the cloud starts scurrying around and then you realise those are thousands of tiny fish.

Now, done with all four dives of the day. Due to the whale shark sighting in the first two dives, people wanted to do the last dive here too. So plans changed, and we are skipping one of the planned dive sites on our way back.

Third dive was okay. Too many divers at the same time at the same place. I had kinda freaked out.. don’t know why really.. maybe I thought I might kick someone, or do something wrong that a diver isn’t supposed to do and they’d judge me. I also once thought that I was lost as I turned around and couldn’t see either Jamie or Kris. Duh. Finished my air sooner this time too.
In the fourth dive, Bianca was guiding us and Kris was following us. He had taken Oat along. Oat was one of the boat boys who dives really well and was now working on his Open Water Certification.
Bianca is with Khao Lak Scuba for last four months. She is doing her dive master training here. This dive was a part of her training exercises. Bianca had always been a sweetheart since my very first dive, helping me when I was acting all crazy in water, gradually boosting my confidence.

I think that’s already overwhelming for a day and mo more highlights were required 😁

[5:42 PM, 4/6/2018] 
Now let’s get back to rest of day 2.

Kris has said both Jammie and I did well on the second dive and it wasn’t a beginner level dive. This had lifted my spirits
Third dive also a drift dive.

Fourth dive was early. Not really a night dive like the previous day. More of a golden dusk dive.
And we were supposed to train for underwater navigation in this one. So we dived on a shallow reef. 6 meters or so. And did the exercises. Interesting ones. Hold a compass, swim 15 meters in a straight line and come back to the same spot, swim in a square with a 15 m side from a given point, all this with a buddy. Lastly, we had to guide the dive and the instructor would follow us. We would turn after a certain limit of oxygen or no decompression time and go back to the place where we started.
Jamie kinda forgot that I existed in this part, maybe she got a bit nervous about navigation. She was a bit nervous while on the boat. So she swam fast and i couldn’t catch up with her for most of the part.
So I just had to follow her. We took a wrong turn, and another wrong turn and then while returning, another wrong turn.
I only remembered the general direction of the starting point, that it had a giant rock with dead corals and that it was at 5.4 m according to my computer.
But Jammie is swimming and swimming and I feel as if I would never be able to reach her and tell her that we need to turn.
Let the rest remain a mystery.

Day 4: (Writing from India)

Yesterday, the last dive was supposed to be at Koh Tachai according to the plan. But after sighting the whale shark at Richelieu Rock, Kris asked the whole group if we wanted to go to Koh Tachai at all or stay and dive at Richelieu Rock again. Obvious choice to guess.
So we stayed. But we didn’t see him (or her, who knows) again.

We drove to Koh Ban directly in the last dive and halted there for night.

The first dive was at a site called Hin Luang. All I remember about this dive is gloomy green colours, a complete contrast with the bright ones from the previous day and a steep wall from where we probably turned. Also, for this one we were supposed to turn the dive at 80 bar air pressure instead of the standard 70 bar.
We did a negative entry again. And due to a little negligence probably, I hurt my ear on this dive. Or maybe it was just too much diving for me at a stretch. Though I did not descend much before I could equalise, I must have tried equalising a bit harder than I should have. When we were back on the surface, I had a bleeding nose. By the time we were back on the boat, I had a terribly painful ear too.

I decided to skip the second dive and probably the last one too.

The last dive was at a broken small shipwreck. My ear was better after a break, some food and a good half an hour sleep. Toggling between two minds, comparing the worst scenarios of both decisions – missing a wreck dive and waiting to dive more later until I can finally dive at one versus injuring my eardrum and facing hearing loss 😱😰.. I finally decided that I’d go for the last dive. And it turned out to be the right decision.

The wreck was broken into three pieces during Tsunami. A lot of new animals. Of course I don’t have all the pictures to show and I don’t know all the names. But the first amusing thing for me was the moment we turned to the inside of one of the pieces, there were a number of lion fish lined up under the roof as if for a fashion show.
Many different kinds of Moray eels, but a prominent one specific to this site was Honeycomb Moray. Saw many of them.
A couple of blue sting rays hiding in the sand at bottom with only their eyes outside the sand.

blue ray
Blue sting ray. Captured by Sun, Ching Mei (Jammie)

One of my favourites  is the banner fish.. Not just at this site, at many of the earlier ones too. (I don’t have pictures, but they look like this.)
One more amusing moment when Kris pivoted his finger on a rock and tried showing us something. He closed his palms and showed open-close movement and so I kept looking for something fluttering. Nothing. I told him I can’t see anything and moved away. This happens to me many times. I think my eyes are not trained enough to locate camouflaged fish/ marine life quickly. But this time Kris didn’t let go. He called me back and asked me to look for eyes. And whoa! There it was.. A stonefish, quietly opening and closing its eyes. Again, no pictures, but it looks like this.

Visibility here was kinda less than the other sites though.

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Honeycomb Moray Eel or Leopard Moray Eel. Captured by Sun, Ching Mei (Jammie)

The terrain at these dive sites was really interesting.
The ones in Similan Islands were almost hills submerged in the sea. Jewelled with boulders on the slopes. Those dives felt so similar to climbing hills up and down – in reverse order! We used to descend the hill along the slope, swim around and then ascend it along the slope again.
In a couple of dives, there were also places that reminded me of crossing a pass in the mountains.
To a regular diver, this may be trivial. To me, it was quite amusing.

The best part about all the dives in this trip, in retrospect of course, was that I was the most inexperienced diver on the boat.
I remember Octo telling me after one of the dives that he didn’t see anything new on the dive and was kinda disappointed. All of them, all the other divers were much more experienced. Jammie, even though she was taking her Advanced Open Water course with me, had already done over a hundred dives. So stuff like sea urchin, sea stars, clownfish, probably my beloved banner fish were ghaaspoos (grass and hay, uninteresting) for others. To me, every coral and every tiny fish I see was a novelty. So I had no scope of getting bored.

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Having said that, I must say that I feel I have been really privileged to even be on the same boat full of so experienced divers. A big thank you to all those who dived with me, shared their experiences with me, taught me and shared diving tips (so badly needed) with me.


For those who are interested:
Place: Similan Island National Park and Surin National Park (Andaman Sea)
Season: April 2018
Max Depth: 32 meters
Facilitators: Khao Lak Scuba Adventures
Nearest Airport: Phuket International Airport, Thailand
Nearest Town: Khao Lak

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