(Disclamier - no photos were taken on this dive)
"The word of the day is 'challenging'", the dive leader announced as he kicked off our dive briefing and holding up the dive board with the color dive site description.
Yes, you have my attention. We were tied up off the tiny uninhabited island of Koh Tachai. Below us is the infamous dive site called the Dome or as locals call it, The Dome of Doom. Even now just thinking about it gives me chills.
This site is renowned for its STRONG currents but on this day they were worse and labeled challenging. Being fairly new divers and only used to mild currents, it wasn't something we wanted to hear as we were getting ready for our last dive of the day.
On top of the currents, we would be learning a new technique called a Negative Entry. Normally after jumping into the water you remain at the surface to make sure everybody is ready to go before heading down together. With the negative entry you do not surface and instead descend straight down to depth. Why do this? Well, the currents were so strong that even taking 30 seconds on the surface would cause you to drift so far off the dive site you may not be able to swim back. It was so bad that one of the instructors joked, if you get caught in the current the boat would be picking you up in Burma - a few miles away.
Suited up and standing on the back of the boat, we watched a group of divers from another boat start their dive. Skipping the negative entry they instantly drifted a long way off the site. Our dive master shook his head knowing they were in for a long hard swim. We watched nervously thinking, here we go!
The boat pulled over the dive site and sounded the horn indicating, "go, go, go". Our team jumped into the water, one after another in hurry to not get separated. We were a group of 4 and one dive master, all heading down to the dive site as usual with our hearts pounding with a nervous energy. I couldn't help but think, "what are we in for?"
Initially, we were drifting with the current which was at quite a pace. You didn't really have to kick your fins because the landscape was just breezing past you. Then the dive master started changing directions looking for some rocks to hide behind so we could actually go slower to see something instead of just watching everything zoom past in dark blue motion blur. An important rule of diving is to go slow but in this current that proved challenging.
Hiding behind some rocks, we were able to get some shelter from the strong current. In buddy groups of 2, the normal diving safety mechanism, we moved from rock to rock. However, as soon as you broke cover the current would hit you square in the face and to beat the current you had to all out swim, kicking as hard and aggressively as you could. When you finally found a calmer spot you needed to catch your breath from the excessive swimming. In all this effort, spotting underwater life was tough. What did we see, hmmm, not much because it took so much effort and focus to avoid being picked up in Burma.
Any diver knows air consumption is crucial and that a general rule of thumb is that when you get to 50 bars of air pressure remaining you need to start making your way to the surface. Well on this dive the limit was 70 bars. Keep in mind you only start with 200. This was serious.
If you can't tell already, the dive was brutal. I spent the whole time worry about current, Burma, air, and Steph. Fish? What fish? I can't tell you how relieved I was to signal to the dive master that I was at 70 bar. But it wasn't over yet. We still had to make it to the buoy line, do a safety stop and then signal the boat to pick us up.
Finally, we made it to the buoy line. We all grabbed on, slowly inching ourselves up to the 5 meter mark. At that depth, the current was at its strongest and frankly unbelievable! Hanging on to the line with both hands we were all at 90 degree angles to the line flying in the current like we were flags on a pole! The force was incredible. The sound of the water rushing past with bubbles hitting you in the face was absolutely unreal. None of us dared to turn and look at one another because the current could easily rip our masks off! The sound, pressure and out of this world feelings were something I can't do justice.
Finally, we got the all clear to surface. Up we went and quickly enough the dingy darted over to pick us up. After helping Steph and grabbing a hold of the small boat for a tow it was a big relief. Climbing out of the water on to the boat, we were exhausted and still buzzing from the adrenaline rush. I was on 20 bars of air. Wow!
Its no surprise that back on board the other group members echoed the same sentiment I'm glad that's over! The dive was short which normally isn't a good thing but in this case every one was ready to be done.
Dome of Doom - a challenge for sure! We are better divers because of it.