BANGKOK TO KOH TAO
After two weeks in Bangkok, I made reservations at Big Blue Diving School on a small scuba popular island, Koh Tao. Weather on the journey down was uncooperative the entire way. A ten hour overnight bus ride took us through dark night highways completely covered by over a foot of streaming floodwaters. In addition to a several hour delay at the ferry terminal and a ferry re-route due to rough weather, the journey to Koh Tao also happened to coincide with the day right after the Full Moon party on Koh Phangam.
Waves crashing constantly into the side of the boat had the top deck of passengers utterly soaking wet by the first half of the ride. One shirtless guy emerged, wandering by wearing sunglasses and a baseball hat. He had “Pussy Patrol” written in glowing florescent paint on his chest. This must have looked much cooler the night before. I think the only thing that made it mildly funny, was that this guy was kind of unattractive.
The guy sitting next to me looked rather blueish, smelled like a bloody brewery, and was half asleep and/or passing out for the whole trip. The blueish was mostly paint though (mixed with some orange and florescent green on his eyebrows and various other parts of his body) and he just slept for most of the seemingly never-ending ride into Koh Tao. One girl with tiny shorts, a thai tank top not hiding her bra in the slightest, and the “smeared last night’s mascara look” walked wobbly down the center aisle of the ferry stopping every couple steps grabbing onto chairs, eventually completely passing out.
After this highly memorable boat ride, and my 10 hour overnight bus ride through the pitch black night and completely flooded roads, I was greeted by this little island that made things extremely easy to not leave for the next two weeks. The island had some development concerns such as messy construction and more garbage then westerners are used to seeing, but it did have heart though and the scuba was the best I’ve ever seen.
Koh Tao means turtle island in Thai. Likely the island had many sea turtles at one point, but over 20 dives, and numerous snorkeling excursions on the island, I only encountered one sleeping sea turtle. The island was at one point a prison for political prisoners, and contained numerous coconut plantations set up by the early settlers. The past twenty years have seen a steep increase in tourism and backpackers primarily interested in the cheap scuba. According to the lonely planet website only Cairns, Australia issues more Open Water Certifications in a year then Koh Tao.
OPEN WATER CERTIFICATION
The dive school was buzzing with activity at 6:30am. Everyone was gathering in their groups to have an after-breakfast dive briefing in preparation for debarking on the morning dive.
“PETTER WITH TWO T’S , WHERE IS PETTER WITH TWO T’S,” my dive instructor called out loudly. One of our group members was missing. Petter from Norway emerged from the back of the restaurant.
“Petter with two T’s?” one of the other British instructors quickly commented. “Now thats just greedy,” he said.
“I can’t believe we’re diving at 6:30am. I’ve barely been awake an hour, and I’m going underwater to breathe in tubes,” I said.
“Yep. It’s madness. How’m I supposed to read my bloody air dial before my coffee kicks in?” One of the other divers commented.
“I’m sure the fish don’t want to see us before their coffees either,” I said.
“Ugh,” One of the girls next to me grunts as she rubs her eyes. That was the best description she could muster.
“Ugh,” her boyfriend grunts in agreement.
Waking up at 6 am for a 6:45 departure solicited an array of colorful scheduling comments or just grunts.
After gathering all the scuba gear, people would make their way down the beach to the long-tail boat and load all the gear bags and tanks to the little boats. Each boat would carry roughly 15 people but could carry more if needed. These boats would travel to the larger dive boats that would be anchored somewhere close and on to the dive sites.
Looking back on a journal entry after the fact, my conscious mind seemed to have blocked all the problems, in favor of the tropical sea life sightings.
Journal entry, June 11, 2012
“I’m getting better at Scuba for sure, but its not an “easy task”. When I think of that crazy rocking boat, all the injuries/cuts/scrapes/bruises, people having little freak outs… the videographer recording it all, there was really a lot of stressful things going on but all in all, I’ve now got my open water certification through Scuba Schools International, which (like PADI) allows you to scuba dive anywhere in the world. I don’t feel like I’m really that good. I didn’t even know if I could complete one of the dives.”
An open water class at Big Blue 2 takes lessons in the pool. The first dives happen in the pool where you submerse yourself first in one meter of water and remain there for a number of minutes. It’s harder then it seems!
DESTINATION SHARK BAY
My Dutch roommate Judith and I decided to make the trek all the way across the island to the south “ Shark Bay” for some snorkeling with reef sharks. Heading down the walkway beside Sairee Beach, we stopped to rent snorkels and masks at a little shop just off the beach.
“We’re going snorkeling to see sharks today,” I say excitedly to the familiar shop owner, with a big touristy smile on my face.
With gaping huge eyes, the shop owner a forty something local lady says “Ooooh, Okaaaaay,” as she rang through the rental transaction, clearly concluding that I was a ridiculous farang (foreigner).
“Have you seen them in the water ever?’ I ask. She shakes her head swiftly with a look of awe, in a “AND I NEVER WANT TO” sort of way.
We leave, geared up for our adventure and make our way across the island. Negotiations with taxis at the main pier went poorly, as they wanted $10 for a ten minute taxi ride. Negations for a long-tail boat to take us there were also unsuccessful. The walk through the south part of the island brought us through modest but cute local communities, houses, schools and shops. Roads there, as they often are in rural areas, were not so clearly labelled so we got lost and ended up at the wrong bay after climbing what felt like a never-ending mountain in the over 30 degree afternoon heat.
After an exhausting climb up a mountain in the middle of the blazing heat, we see ocean. This would have been a good thing had we gone in the right direction! Regardless, we trek on.
After taking some photos and asking directions we continued on and discovered Shark Bay, a little beach on the south coast. Our first snorkel was unsuccessful, but the second gave us some sightings of black tipped reef sharks. As much as we were having fun playing the adrenaline rushed, spot the shark game, perhaps the sharks also were playing spot the human game.
I like to think that divers and snorkelers have a positive impact on coral reefs and the ocean in general because of the general awareness that naturally happens when exploring the underwater world. We all need a bit more amazing, awe-inducing experiences in nature to remind us that behind all of our human complicatedness, we are animals.
If you want to build coral reefs, identify fish and study marine ecosystems, a marine conservation course is by far one of the most memorable ways do it. One of the Divemasters in training I met taking the course insisted jokingly that we were “Saving the world… one coral reef at a time”. A few sustainable underwater exploration tips for those embarking on their own little underwater adventures are: 1) Touching corals can make them susceptible to viruses and they are often razor sharp causing cuts, and 2) Sunblock should be applied more then an hour before diving as it unhealthy for the reef.
Two of the other sustainability tips I discovered on signs worth noting are: 1) Shower with a friend, save water!, and 2) Don’t throw cigarette butts on the beach because the fish come out at night and smoke them, and they are trying to quit.
Coming back to an urban setting after my time on a small island like Koh Tao, I see so many similarities now between the urban city, and a marine reef or ocean environment. Cities are like big corals reefs, just built by people and less awesome. People’s behaviour doesn’t stifle me. After all, we’re just a bunch of fish making our way on the urban reef.