Monday, March 4, 2013

Diving Koh Tao

WARNING:  This post contains discussions of a supremely awesome nature.  If you are prone to jealous tendencies regarding beach holidays we strongly advise you do not read this post.  We generally try not to boast about our travels but its impossible to blog this without sounding "boasty".

There are times when you just land in what feels like a perfect spot.  Whether it is by plan or accident, time just slows down.  Its usually a combination of all sorts of factors from people, place, time, money, weather, etc.  For us, this was one of those times.  It wasn't the most cultural experience nor did we find something unknown to the world or learn about ourselves in some magical way.  But time slowed down and we relished every moment.

Just imagine, you are on an island 9000 miles from home in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand with tropical temperatures, golden sand beaches and lush green forrest.  The only way off the island is by ferry.  You wake up 6:30am, roll out of bed, slap on some sunscreen like a 5 year old and stroll 50 paces to the open air beach front restaurant.  You plop down in a beach chair with the ocean gently rolling at your feet and enjoy a light breakfast while the dive instructor pairings are announced.  Picking up your scuba gear you eagerly wade out in teal green knee deep water to the Thai long boat for a ride to the dive boat tied up in deeper water.  As the sun finishes rising above the horizon you climb aboard, drop your gear and climb the wooden ladder noting the crystal clear water as you make your way to your spot on the sun deck for the relaxing cruise to today's dive site.  Taking a seat you dangle your feet off the side of the boat and lazily lean on the railing with the sea breeze blowing in your hair.  Hiding behind your sunglasses, you gaze at the gorgeous deep blue ocean with the sun gently glistening off the water and the island slowing moving away in the distance.  Two dives in 80 degree (28 c) water later, you return just as the harsh sun sets in to relax in the shade after a rewarding morning of diving.

Other days you sleep in and catch the afternoon dives which are timed perfectly for sunset.  After returning and logging your dives you have joyous flashbacks of the all the underwater life you just witnessed.  Did you see that?  Yeah, it was so colorful!  You quickly run back to the room to take a quick shower and head back to the beach front restaurant to order some amazing Thai food (Penang beef curry) and a couple local beers.  The beer goes straight to your head after the exertion of diving and you sit back and relax while the sun drops below the horizon. The nightly fire dancer begins his show of twirling and spinning just as your plate of hot food arrives.  Tiki torches light the beach as far as you can see, music casually plays at the bar in the background and an occasional traditional Thai sky lantern floats off into the distance.  The ocean is calm and the breeze is warm when you realize the day is gone.  But it has been tremendous.  And tomorrow you get to do it all over again!  You hit the sack after hearing the buzz of a WHALE SHARK sighting.  Oh, what tomorrow will bring, sweet dreams...I can't wait!

I can't believe it myself but we were lucky enough to do this for 22 days!  Some days were morning dive days, other were afternoon dive days and some days we did both.  Throw in a few night dives, walks into to town for laundry, supplies and some shopping and you get the picture.

Now, a little background on Koh Tao.  Here you can find some of the most reasonably priced diving in the world and its a hit with the backpacking community.  As you can imagine, its not a high end island.  No Ritz Carlton, but enough basic rooms set on the beach to feed the crowds of eager new divers.  And the best catch - lodging can be included if you go on at least one dive a day.  Fair trade, I say!

The area where all the dive operators have accommodation and depart from is Sariee Beach which is a long curved bay full of dive shops set on the lush green forrest back drop of the island.  Going inland there is a fairly vibrant scene dominated by backpacker style establishments - restaurants, shops and bars, complete with plenty of pub crawls and Thai massage.  Local transport are motor bikes, of course, which whiz around you at all times.

After picking our tour operator, Big Blue diving, we settled in for a 3 day sprint of dives to get our Advanced Open Water certification, which among other things allows a person to dive up to 30 meters (100ft).  It opens up a lot of deeper dive sites in the world along with giving you more instruction and confidence.

Once we finished our certification all we had to do was sign up at least a couple hours ahead of a dive, grab your gear and head to the boat.  It was always posted on a board outside where they’d be going for the next couple of days so you could pick and choose based on your favorite sites.  Additionally, if you wanted to go to a specific site, all you had to do was ask and they’d schedule it in.  We stayed long enough to get to know the dive masters who took turns fighting over who gets to lead us - they realized we weren't going to be trouble and were light on our air usage thus increasing their dive time under water.

On off-days or mornings we would sit around enjoying our coffee, calling the family back home and sometimes watching Kentucky play basketball on the internet.  You can see Steph below making a phone call on Skype.  Not a bad phone booth.  Then if they had posted a good dive site we’d sign up by 11am and be off for an afternoon dive at 12:30.

It was the life and we really came to enjoy the routine.  It was just one of those times when we just were content staying put. I guess you can understand why we stayed there for over 20 days, right?

Now, to the diving.  How was it?  Well, it was very exciting!  It was whale shark season and there was always the potential to see them.  However, no luck under water although in a bit of luck we were on a surface interval when one swam by the boat.  We're counting it as a sighting!  Another time, the visibility wasn’t great and a whale shark was around; a couple groups on our boat even saw it.  We’d like to think he was there beside us, just barely out of view.
The marine life was exciting to discover. Aside from the elusive whale shark and huge schools of barracuda,  Koh Tao has a fairly diverse eco system of fish and colorful corals.  One of the more eventful fish was the the Titan Triggerfish!  It was nesting season and they could get aggressive if you intruded on their space.  Couple that with big chopping teeth for eating coral and you need to be on lookout to not go in their territory.  Fortunately, they never bothered us but we kept hearing stories back at the restaurant at night of someone getting “triggered” that day!

We also did a couple night dives - it just takes diving to a whole new level of challenge and intrigue.  Dark waters, a little moon glow and you're armed with only an 8-inch flashlight.  I have to admit descending in to the darkness was surreal - nothing in your downward shining light's path except particles in the water catching the light.  Then all of a sudden coral or the sea bed would come in to view.  You then had to do the shine-the-light-in-all-directions to gain some sort of sense of spatial awareness.  And as soon as you started moving forward that sense was lost.

One of the most interesting things during the night dive was the psychedelic bio luminescent algae.  Yeah, that's a couple of big words - let me explain (we had to ask a couple times!).  Bio luminescent algae glows when its disturbed.  The psychedelic part comes in when you put your light to your chest (to block all the light) then wave your hand in the water and watch waves of glowing sparkles in front of your face.  It was especially cool when our whole group was blacked out and creating a circle of this glowing phenomenon.  Very cool. 

The area dive sites had plenty of diversity.  Some shallow, some deep while others had swim throughs.  At first the swim throughs were a challenge while we both still trying to master our buoyancy.  At the end we improved and they became so much fun. Afterwards we'd surface with huge grins on our faces, thrilled at the excitement and challenge of down, around and through rock formations.  It wasn't all fun and games as one swim through did “jump out and bite me” (Steph) – I must have kicked a little too broadly and came up with a nasty cut on my ankle.  We returned to that site a couple more times and proudly had no further rock encounters.

The diving was an exciting new challenge and we relished improving. We were always trying to hone our skills - buoyancy, control your air consumption, keep from using our hands to swim or balance, ability to get face to face with a coral to see a tiny nudibranch and then back away without touching it or stirring up sand, etc.  Slow methodical movements.  Be in control and keep your air consumption to a minimum. This did however take a lot of our daily energy so outside of diving we really took it easy and enjoyed island life. 

After many nights of beach dining we decided to change it up and went for a nice night out - the infamous steak dinner at Lung Pae.  We ordered the "E4" and it was a delicious change from the daily Thai food.  They even had a door to door truck service since they sat at the top of a remote hill.

As awesome as it was to be pseudo beach bums for almost a month, the realization set in – we were starting to get restless.  But where to next?

We shook hands and hugged the many dive instructors we had gotten to know over the weeks and set off for the other side of the Thailand peninsula via a crowded overnight ferry boat and bumpy bus ride.

Similans Islands, and live aboard diving here we come!

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