Photo by Ayesha Cantrell
ith mixed feelings and a vicious hangover, we said goodbye to Koh Tao yesterday. My phone rang a few minutes before the ferry pulled up to the dock to spirit us away to our mainland train to Bangkok: Charlotte from Master Divers telling us to look out for their dive boat--all the divers were standing at the bow waving goodbye to us and hollering. The other people waiting for the ferry were jealous of our great send-off. We spent a good five months on 'the rock', much of it underwater. As a fitting farewell, we went for two extra-long dives on our next-to-last day with the Master Divers crew. Many thanks to Master Divers' great instructors for their help training us to the PADI divemaster level. Also thanks to the guys at Impian and Garden, Charm Churee Resort and Island Dive Club for the added experience we got diving with them after we finished our training courses. We will miss all of you!
But, leaving somewhere is only one side of the traveling coin--tomorrow morning we arrive in Laos, a country Dan and I have tried to get to for three years now. And, in just a few short weeks' time, we'll be rocking up to Portland, Oregon to visit old friends and then, a long-overdue visit with my extended family. We're on the road again!
Dan and I were last into the water, slipping down the buoy line on the Green Rock dive site.
Divemasters often work as dive guides, navigating paying customers around dive sites and pointing out interesting sea life. We'd been learning about this in our course, but this was the first time that Dan and I were going to try it out, on each other.
We went down slowly, feet first, looking down, checking the visibility and feeling our bubbles caress our cheeks.
The line was tied to a big granite boulder, a good reference point for us to find our way back to it. We checked our compasses and started swimming south when suddenly I inhaled so sharply my mouth hurt. I grabbed Dan's arm and, made speechless by equipment, pointed frantically at the rocks beneath us.
Dan turned to face me in alarm. His thumb and forefinger questioned me, looped in the OK sign.
I put my right palm over the back of my left hand and wiggled my thumbs enthusiastically—the dive sign for Koh Tao's namesake animal, the turtle.
This tao sat about 15 feet beneath us on the coral-covered boulders, chewing his lunch and completely unconcerned that we were there. Koh Tao might be named after turtles, but actually seeing one is not very common—I'd seen one the week earlier, and Dan had spotted one while snorkeling in December Each sighting is a cause for a lot of thigh-slapping excitement and jealousy from other divers.
So, all our plans of mentally mapping the dive site disappeared with our bubbles and we hovered closer to the turtle, just watching. Turtles eat coral, and lots of it. They eat in the sea like their landlocked cousins do—messily. For every chomp of its beak, a half-mouthful wafted slowly downward. Cautious parrot-fish darted in to catch the remainders before they settled on the boulders.
The turtle caught sight of me and hesitated a moment, a great yellow eye rolling in the socket. I kept still in the water, inhaling slowly so the bubbles from my exhalation wouldn't worry it. I looked harmless enough, I guess, because it continued eating the leafy soft coral.
After fifteen minutes we decided to swim away and try to circle the dive site, as we'd planned. We spotted nudibranchs, angelfish and anemone fish, but nothing as extraordinary as the turtle. Thirty minutes later we made it back to the buoy line and found it still lunching. We spent another five minutes with the turtle until our air supplies got low, and then we reluctantly headed surface-ward, contemplating the turtles of Koh Tao.
We've started, quite literally, a sea change.
Back in December, Dan and I came to Koh Tao, Thailand, for me to brush off my scuba diving certification and for Dan to sit on the beach drinking tequila and talking to people. Plans changed, as ours often do, and after chatting with the staff at the dive center, Dan was talked into starting his own PADI Open Water course while I went diving at the coral dive sites around the island.
After we left Koh Tao, having overturned Dan's conviction that he couldn't swim, we kept remembering the relaxed lifestyle of the people who worked at the dive centers we'd visited and the good food and smiley people in Thailand.
Hmm, we thought. I bet we'd enjoy being divemasters.
Fast forward five months, and we are stepping off the ferry back onto Koh Tao, shiny with sweat and excitement. We signed up with Master Divers, in our view the friendliest of a few dive centers we'd contacted, to do a six- to eight-week intensive divemaster course.
Under the Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI) system, a divemaster is the lowest professional rating. A divemaster is able to take people who are already certified to dive on an underwater tour, to teach snorkeling, and to assist dive instructors.
But before we could start the main stuff, we needed to take a few prerequisites.
* * *
John turned around, his finned foot resting on the edge of the Master Divers boat, scuba tank in place and regulator mouthpiece in hand. “The second rule of scuba,” he intoned, lecture-serious. “Is to look cool.”
And with that, he somersaulted into the twilight water.
Giggling, we followed him in just as the sun sank. It was our first night dive.
Besides making sure we remembered the rules of scuba (the first one, more practically, is 'never hold your breath') our instructor John took us on the five 'adventure' dives that make up the Advanced Open Water course. As well as night diving, we practiced underwater navigation and buoyancy, learned the different families of tropical fish, and experienced deep diving.
Two days later we were certified to go to 30 meters/100 feet deep, and ready to begin CPR training and our Rescue Diver course.
“Oh!” Thom screamed, his head disappearing into the blue bay.
“I can't swim!” he yelled when he gained the surface, arms splashing helplessly.
Dan and I looked around desperately for something to throw to Thom. Nothing looked very buoyant. While we searched, we heard another 'plop!' and then Chris starting to holler.
We groaned. “There went the other one,” Dan said. “Get the life-jackets.”
I ran to the back deck of Master Diver's boat to grab the blue-and-yellow jackets, but found them in a cubbyhole above the toilet--too tall for me to reach. Another diver stepped out of the toilet. “Could you be tall for me, please?” I asked, hoping he wasn't too alarmed by all the screaming for help. “Sure,” he said, handing me the jackets.
I jogged back to the front of the boat, where Dan had thrown a line attached to a small blue buoy to Chris. The other divers looked on, laughing and joking as I threw first one life-jacket to Thom and then the other. Both fell short about 10 yards so I grabbed my fins and mask and threw myself in after them.
“Diver, Diver, I'm a rescue diver!,” I shouted to Thom, as I proffered one of the jackets. He grabbed it, spluttering water.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” he replied, hanging on to the jacket. “I was looking at the fish and I forgot how to swim.”
Charlotte, our instructor, was waiting at the ladder, ready to take my fins.
“Good rescue,” she said. “A bit faster next time.”
After two grueling days of rescuing Charlotte's assistants from their suicidal tendencies of throwing themselves overboard at any moment, we were all set to start the real course we'd come to Koh Tao for—the divemaster course. To complete it, we'll need to study two books, participate in five lectures on dive science and theory, take nine exams, undergo tests of our in-water stamina, demonstrate the 20 basic scuba skills perfectly and assist instructors teaching lower-level dive courses. And, have a lot of fun.
[Editor's Note: Due to illness, our usual writer, Beth, is taking some time off. We welcome guest blogger Dan as he fills us in on the latest Alaskan Kangaroo wanderings.]
With Beth still unable to take a boat ride, we reasoned that it was a good time for me to do some diving research and get some much-needed practice before our course to be SCUBA divemasters next month on Koh Tao island, Thailand.
I signed up for some group dives and the following morning I was on a boat headed for Hon Mun, a large island 40 minutes from the harbour. The cobalt water was very inviting. The day was hot and diving in was just the solution.
Underwater was really beautiful. When I was learning to dive, I was focusing on where my instructor was, so I wouldn't get lost. This dive I finally looked around a little. The first dive spot was Rainbow Reef and as the name suggests it was a huge bio-diverse coral garden full of hard and soft coal and a myriad of fish. I saw six lion fish, a stone fish and more other fish than I could name.
The second dive was at Madonna Rock. Named so for a possibly obvious reason, Madonna rock was lighter on the coral and abundance of fish, but had the redeeming feature of a large number of swim-throughs and caves. These were super exciting. There is a balance between buoyancy and position and controlling your movement. The 50 minute dive had five swim-throughs and two caves..
There were many fish hiding under the swim-throughs that it seemed the fish agreed with me. Swim- throughs are just fun!
* * *
Please be patient, Dan's photos from Nha Trang are coming soon!
Madonna Rock--named for the singer, not the saint
...and into SCUBA diving
By Dan “D
id you see the barracudas?” someone says. Another person replies, “ No, but I saw a turtle. How about you Dan?” I reply, “ Sorry, I don't dive?”
Silence fills a large area. I'm looked down upon. Some leave the table while others look away. I've been found out as a landlubber, and made to feel like a second class citizen.
The world of divers is highly competitive where respect and hierarchy are mete out by where you have dived, what you have seen, the gear you use and oddly enough, by the misadventures that were overcome. Divers form a kind of cult. To become a member of this cult usually takes some bucks and an initiation period of four days through the temple of PADI.
So I did it.
During this time you are bombarded with many facts. A couple of factoids that I remember are “Divers have more fun and divers are great under pressure.”
The most difficult part for me was controlling buoyancy and it really wasn't too difficult. I guess you can liken this to learning to fly. Equalized buoyancy can be balanced by the BCD air vest and also by breathing.
Being a veteran of six dives I can honestly say that down below is the way to go. For me every dive is new, exciting and pretty special.
Now I'm a PADI member and I have stories to tell. “ Well, back in '09 I was diving off Koh Tao - Thailand, and...” **Click here to see photos of Koh Tao**
** Photos below courtesy Golden Divers, our choice of the friendly Koh Tao dive centers. **
“Don't go to this beach,” the tour guide instructed the 40 of us on the boat, all of whom were gazing longingly at the alabaster strip of sand nestled between soaring karst peaks.
“Why not?” he quickly heard, in five languages.
“There are crocodiles there.” he said readily, with a hint of a smile. “Big crocodiles. But they don't swim, so-- just don't go on the beach.”
“Crocodiles?” One of the non-English speaking tourists asked. They weren't getting the joke.
“Crocodiles,” he affirmed with a bigger smile, and then translated himself into Thai to relieved laughter. Obediently, we just went for a dip, and saved our beach-walking for later stops on the tour.
Under water, once the masks and snorkels were doled out, there were no signs of water-wary reptiles. Just hundreds of greedy little yellow-and-silver striped fish gobbling up the bread we brought them and dozens of other fish who ignored the splashing tourists above them.
We were on an all-day speedboat trip from the peninsular city of Krabi to the island paradise of Koh Phi Phi. After a lot of deliberation we had decided that actually staying on Koh Phi Phi was out of our price range, so we took a tour instead and stayed on the much-cheaper mainland.
The tour included stops at Koh Phi Phi for lunch, Maya Bay (made famous in Leonardo DiCaprio's The Beach
), three snorkel jaunts (with lifejackets for those non-swimmers—what a lot of splashing!) and a couple of pauses for photo ops with the famous limestone land- and seascapes. The islands stretch above the cerulean Andaman Sea, sheer cliffs stained by streaks of red and green mineral deposits and lichens.
Some of the cliffs house caves full of edible-nest swiftlet birds
. We stopped at one that is being worked by miners who sell the birds' nests for Chinese soup. The workers live in the caves for three or four years at a time, the tour guide told us.
Later, we stopped at a place called Monkey Bay, where monkeys come down to sit in the trees by a tiny beach and accept fruit from the tour guides. Our boat only nosed up to the beach, but we got close enough to see a few of the monkeys, completely used to human presence, sitting on the trees and looking down at the other boats' tourists' flashing cameras below them as if the monkeys were the ones sightseeing.
The best stop on the day though was a tiny island called Bamboo Island. This little flat island has a few tents and a park ranger station, a kiosk selling some beer and snacks, and a gorgeous expanse of beach on the Koh Phi Phi side. We stopped there for an hour or so, did some more snorkeling and took a stroll down the foamy sand to take pictures of Koh Phi Phi's coastline in the blue distance.
We were back at our hostel (The Blue Juice, highly recommended) in Krabi just in time for happy hour before the night market started up for our supper of curry, rice and cheap Chang beer.**Click here to see photos of our snorkeling excursion!!**
is the website of the tour operator, Chok Paisan Andaman. Recommended.
Banana bread for fish food stuffed securely up the sleeve of his wetsuit, Dan was ready for the water.
I was adjusting equipment when the dive master asked us to move for a second. A tiny woman, shorter than I, walked by us to the collection of scuba tanks under a tree.
She grabbed one, and hoisted it up. As easily as picking up a child, she lifted the tank to her head and balanced it lengthwise on a coiled towel resting on her grimy baseball cap. Gently swaying, she walked toward the water, the heavy tank an exotic hat.
Our first dive at Tulamben was on the USAT Liberty shipwreck a few yards offshore. To get there we needed to walk for about five minutes down the rocky beach and then swim out. To get their paying divers' equipment to the site, the scuba shops use an army of these porters—mostly women. As we labored to cross the rolling, fist-sized rocks in our wetsuit booties, I looked at our porters' feet. Battered, plastic pink flip-flops. What big, soft babies we tourists were, I thought as I struggled to put my tank on and walk to the water.
Dan was signed on this trip as a snorkeler, while I was refreshing my kinetic memory by going diving for the first time in four years. My father taught me to dive when I was only 8 years old, but I hadn't been in the water with gear on since Alaska in 2005. Worse yet, except for our week in Malaysia in September, I hadn't even gone swimming in years.
But once in the water while I waited for the other divers, a German couple on their first sea dive since their certification course, I started to relax.
I'd added a little too much weight to my weight belt, but soon I was able to focus on looking around me at the parrot fish swimming by in search of a handout and the silhouette of the wreck.
The USAT Liberty was a cargo ship that was torpedoed by Japanese in the Second World War, rescued, beached, and then shrugged off into the water by an erupting volcano in the 60s. Now, it's one of the most popular dive sites in Bali.
There wasn't any coral near the beach, just rocks, algae, grass and many schools of stripy yellow fish and parrot fish. There were plenty of divers too.
As we were suiting up, a group of ten or more were coming out of the water and, farther down the shore, another large group were following their porters. Under the water there were even more. I don't think I've ever seen this many divers in the water.
Dan was following me to take pictures with our underwater camera, but there were so many divers he got confused and focused on the fish instead.. Used to so many visitors, the fish mobbed him when he slipped the banana bread out of his sleeve.
They started out politely enough, nibbling at the brown crumbs, but then a school of foot-long brown and purple fish started to dart in and edge out the others. When about 50 of these bigger fish were surrounding him, Dan decided to ditch the last of the bread and escaped their scaly advances.
While Dan dodged the fish, the Germans, dive master and I followed the shore's slope down to a more interesting part of the wreck. At about 40 feet I started to see more than just fish and grass.
Big sea fans and antler-style coral growing off the wreck sheltered iridescent worms and spiny sea urchins. We watched a six- or seven-foot barracuda in his hidey hole under a broken beam, swam through the archway of a broken hatch (but not into the interior of the wreck) and saw a cyclone of jackfish performing for a pair of divers with some impressive photographic equipment.
The second dive was to the east of the wreck, on a shelf near the point. This dive had better sea life but not as interesting terrain. Dan didn't get much out of snorkeling on the second dive, but enjoyed the overland trip to the two sites.
It was an important festival that day, Diwali, so the roads were clogged by slow-moving religious processions and pilgrimages of people trying to get to the temples or to the feasts.
I felt sorry for our driver, who instead of enjoying the holiday was ferrying tourists around. The roads were so blocked on the way back that the driver decided to go the long way around, along the sheer, arid cliffs of the east side of the island. Here, there were no tourists in evidence, just the gates of the occasional secluded resort.
The villages we passed were stick huts and at every stream flowing to the sea we watched women and girls washing laundry or themselves.
It was a good day, a nice contrast to the shopping and eating lifestyle of Legian.** Please click here to see photos from the dive!!**
"Are you relaxed yet?" Dan keeps asking me.
"Are you?" I ask back.
"I think so," he says, scratching at yet another mosquito bite. "Things keep biting me."
Here we are in Malaysia, in a secluded village on a tropical island. This is the beach reward we promised ourselves for three years in China, when all of our other foreign-teacher friends went on vacations to Thailand or the Philippines and we chose more remote, colder places to visit like minority villages or Gansu province.
And for a relaxation site, we have chosen well...we are at Salang Village on Tioman Island, more a cluster of resort bungalows than a village.
Eddy, the manager of the Puteri Salang Inn, where we are staying, mentioned relaxation three or four times when giving a tour of the property: "Here's the hammocks, for relaxing. The TV room, relaxing. Here is free tea and coffee relaxing. You can take a mat to the beach for more relaxing..All relaxing here."
Eddy himself doesn't seem to do much relaxing other than watching European soccer highlights on satellite TV at night. The first day here he plucked green coconuts from one of the trees on the property and showed the guests how to chop them open, drink the milk and then spoon out the insides. The rest of the time he's busy cleaning, gardening and answering questions.
He rented us some masks and fins and we went for a long snorkel from the beach to the point and back.
Monkeys were teasing tourists on the shoreline, seagulls screamed us away from their nests on the rocks, and underneath were shoe-sized parrot fish, tiny schools of stripy fish whose names I forget, and, the highlight, a two-foot long sea turtle who swam along underneath us for a few minutes. Tired out and stung by little jellyfish, we retired back to the beach for lunch.
Are we relaxed yet?
We came to Tioman Island from the nation's capital, Kuala Lumpur (which we are still trying to figure out how to pronounce correctly—until then, we'll use the initials, K.L.)
K.L. was a pleasant stop. We stayed in a very basic and reasonably cheap hostel (Backpacker's Traveler's Inn) in Chinatown, and spent our time doing a little shopping and a lot of eating. Malaysian food is a fusion of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine—a different taste for every meal.
We go back to K.L. for another two days at the end of the week before heading to Indonesia for four weeks. More relaxing!** Click here to see our pictures from Salang!**