The next two days were a whirlwind of awesomeness, and one of my favorite life experiences of all time. The day started at 5:30AM as I put together a day pack of essentials (towel, sunscreen, water bottles, my homework, motion sickness meds, my GoPro) for diving. After breakfast, I was picked up by a van that delivered me and a group of eight other people to the pier on the southern tip of Phuket. I met my instructor and we boarded the Freedom Dolphin, a 28’ diving boat. While he got the gear ready, I sat through a briefing from the Divemaster, and soon we were heading out the harbor.
Our first day of diving was going to be spent at the Racha Islands, south of Phuket. Racha Noi (Little King) is uninhabited and Racha Yai (Big King) has a couple of bungalow resorts. Both are staggeringly beautiful, sheer-cliff islands surrounded by excellent snorkeling and diving sites. I got suited up and dove into the ocean for the first time with SCUBA gear. When you’re doing the training, the instruction manual and video do their best to scare the shit out of you. I suspect they do it to help you understand and prepare for the risks involved with diving; it just freaked me out. For someone who is naturally fearful, it gave me plenty of ammunition with which I could catastrophize. And I did. Repeatedly. Nevertheless, the instant I hit the water and released the air from my BCD (buoyancy control device), I felt completely at ease.
Our first dive took place in the south end of Banana Bay at Racha Noi. Due to the lingering effects of my cold, I had a bit of an issue equalizing the pressure with my ears on the first dive. I had to swim back up a few feet, retry the equalization, and then continue my descent. Eventually, we reached a starting depth of about 13 meters, and I began learning how to control my buoyancy. The first dive was a pretty calm one, but with only moderate visibility. Nevertheless, I was able to see the kinds of things that I had only ever watched on Planet Earth…or Finding Nemo. Coral and multi-hued fish darted and waved around me. Moray eels poked their heads from their holes as we passed. Clownfish darted through anemone. It was magical.
For the first dive, I had three tasks that I needed to complete. The first was to remove my mask entirely while underwater, put it back on, and then clear it of said water. The second task was to remove the regulator from my mouth, hold it at arm’s length away from me, then put it back in my mouth and clear it of water. Again, it went swimmingly (pun intended). At last, I started to run low on air and it was time to surface. My final task was to tow/push my instructor across the surface of the water as though he was unresponsive. Again, no real hassle there. The first dive was a success.
After we got back on the boat and out of our gear, we dried off, had some lunch, and then we went over my homework from the previous night. I had gotten all but a few of the questions right (NERD!), and the ones I didn’t were probably because I had imbibed four cocktails and was having a bit of a problem focusing my eyes on the text. (Perhaps not coincidental that most of my errors happened toward the end of the homework…) Nevertheless, I did well enough that my theoretical work was over and all that was left were the practical tasks in open water.
Dive number two was also Racha Yai, on the North end of Banana Bay. On this dive, we went to 18 meters, which is supposed to be the recreational dive limits for the open water certification. The second dive had much better visibility, and again we saw some beautiful things. This time, I was able to make my air last a bit longer, and I fully started to relax into the peacefulness of diving. At the end of the dive, we practiced using an alternate air source.
The third and final dive took place at a shipwreck off the coast of Racha Yai in the imaginatively-named “Bay #1.” The weather had gotten pretty bad at that point, and the underwater current had picked up quite a bit from what we had experienced earlier in the day. There were between 20-30 divers and their instructors and guides on the ship for this trip. One of the guides, also working for the same dive shop I used, was having some serious sinus problem, and ended up being unable to complete the third dive because he couldn’t equalize the pressure. Rather than his two divers having to sit out the final dive of the day, my instructor agreed to guide them at the same time.
This time, in order to reach the wreck, we went deeper still to 20 meters. The current was twice as strong as anything I had yet experienced, which ended up making the dive a bit more difficult than I was prepared to deal with. As a result, I overworked a bit and used up my air a little too quickly. (It takes time to learn how to regulate your breath.) On this dive, there was a lot less wildlife (although we did see a batfish), but the wreck was pretty cool. In the end, we weren’t able to do our certification task on this dive, but things had gone so smoothly up to this point we figured we’d be able to pick it up the next day.
By the time we made it back to the boat, I was pretty exhausted. We sat and talked on the way back to the harbor, the van took me back to the resort, and I supped at the fancy Thai restaurant a few floors beneath me.
In the United States, Thai food is rarely considered haute cuisine. It’s usually affordable, quick, and, if we’re being honest, sloppily presented. And that’s a shame. There is a balance and delicacy in good Thai cooking that I had never really recognized from my “Made in the USA” Thai experiences. I started with a stunningly delicious green mango salad with grilled prawns. Then, as my stomach was still a bit rumbly, a non-spicy Thai cashew chicken that rocked my stripey socks. I finished it up with Mango Sticky Rice, one of my all-time favorite desserts.
Finally, another quick walk down to the tailors, this time to try on a shirt and a pair of trousers, and I headed back to the hotel for a solid night’s sleep.