The final day of diving started off with a bit of a mishap. After breakfast, I again went to the reception area to catch the van to the pier and waited. And waited. And waited some more. Vans came and picked people up. Vans left. They called out destinations. By the time it was 9:00, I was starting to freak out a bit. I emailed the owner of the dive shop, who emailed me right back and said that the van meant to pick me up had picked up the wrong person, another person named Matt. The dive boat sent another driver to pick me up, and he rushed me to the pier while the entire ship waited for me. We were nearly an hour late getting out of port.
Being the last person to board the ship while dozens of folks were just waiting to leave was embarrassing enough. Unfortunately, the timing of the mishap was made worse by some potential complications from the weather. The previous night, the Thai weather service had issued a warning about a possible tropical storm with high winds and 2m waves. The weather was supposed to be clear in the morning, but rumor on the ship was that there was the possibility we wouldn’t be able to complete all three dives due to wind and waves. So, the hour delay was a real kick in the shorts.
It was a two and a half hour boat ride to our first destination of the day, the Phi Phi islands. This chain of islands east of the southern tip of Phuket. It’s a beautiful spot, and pretty recognizable if you’ve seen many pictures of Thailand. Some of the larger islands are inhabited, but the two smallest ones, on the south end, are not. That’s where we dove: Koh Bida Nok.
The first dive was beautiful but largely uneventful. The visibility was pretty good and it was on this dive that I finally felt like I was starting to lock in on the buoyancy aspect of diving. This time, I brought my GoPro along and tried to capture some video footage of the trip. The plan was for us to head east around the south end of the island, but the current was too strong so most of the divers stayed on the south side of the island and had to be picked up by the boat.
For this dive, completed a couple of other open water exercises toward the end of the dive, and then returned to the ship for lunch.
After the first dive, we had lunch and relocated to the north side of Koh Bida Nok, in between it and its neighbor to the north, Koh Bida Nai. This dive was probably my favorite of all of them. It was on this dive that we saw a huge sea turtle. (I got a picture sitting on the ground behind him, but the camera didn’t focus.) We also saw a cuttlefish (that changed color!) and a blue-spotted ray. Several folks had also seen a whale shark, but unfortunately, we never saw him.
On this dive, we had two final tests to finish. The first was a compass test. It was simply to show that I knew how to use a compass underwater in a straight line. I was to swim to a point, adjust my compass to go around 180 degrees, and then swim back to my starting point. Pretty easy.
Despite the ease of the test, I kind of screwed it up a bit. But at least I screwed up trying to protect the reef. I swam toward the point my instructor indicated but got going a bit faster than I should have. I was also being pushed along by the current, which began to push me into the reef. I tried to find a part of the reef not populated by creatures against which I could push off to keep from colliding with it. No such luck. In my attempt to turn around and get away from the reef, I scraped my tank on the reef and also got stung by an anemone on the back of my arm. (The wetsuits were short-sleeved.)
The final test was something called the CESA (Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent). It’s a method of surfacing if you’re less than 9 meters underwater and you’ve run out of air. To simulate the experience, you start at six meters down and swim to the surface using only your fins saying “aaaaaaahhhh” the entire time. (One of the worst things you can do in diving is to ascend while holding your breath. It can cause severe damage to your lungs when the air expands due to decreasing pressure.) The exercise went off without a hitch.
On this dive, we drifted and rode the current a bit more. We weaved up and over the reef, ducking into valleys and sheltering from the current on the lee side of the huge coral formations. We finished the remaining exercises without issue and surfaced without a problem. We managed to surface fairly close to the boat this time, and were able to swim in.
We had a little over an hour to get from Phi Phi to our final dive site at Shark Point and I spent it up on the upper deck, toward the bow, just enjoying the wind and the waves. The wind had picked up a fair bit by this time, and I worried that we wouldn’t be able to make our final dive. Even if we didn’t get to do the final dive, I had successfully completed all of my exercises for certification. The final dive was to be a solely recreational one.
We got to the site, the wind died down, and we jumped in. This time, we just explored. My GoPro had run low on battery power, and I decided to leave it on the boat so I could just fully enjoy the experience. There was a moderate current, and the visibility was okay. Nevertheless, the trip was stunning. We came across two schools of Barracuda: one school of perhaps five or six dozen fish circled around while another, smaller school of 10 or so—each between 4-6’ in length—sheltered in the lee of the reef. The underwater world was both peaceful and exciting at the same time. I loved every single second of it.
We flopped back onto the boat around 5:00, just as the sun was beginning to get low in the sky. We cleaned up and stowed our gear, then relocated to the front of the upper deck. Tired, sated, at more at peace than I think I have ever been, I reveled in the beautiful sunset and warm, gentle breezes, and gentle, rocking waves of the ocean as we motored back to the pier. There was an unspoken camaraderie among the divers on the ship, whether they be American, Canadian, French, Russian, Chinese, Thai, British, Australian, or German.
It was fully dark by the time we returned to the pier. We hopped on our respective shuttles and I was dropped off at the hotel around 7:30. That night, the resort’s buffet was having a Grilled Meat extravaganza, so I stuffed myself on grilled chicken and beef tenderloin. Afterward, I walked back to the tailor’s shop for the fitting of my shirts and slacks. Finally, I ended the evening in the resort’s Andaman lounge, listening to a talented musical trio and sipping on cocktails for about an hour before returning to the room and passing out.
It is hard for me, even weeks later, to adequately express what a life-altering experience my SCUBA trip had been. As mentioned a few posts ago, diving was the main reason I had chosen to come to Thailand in the first place. I had been certain I’d be able to do it, and certain that I’d love it. But there was something so disconnected and peaceful about spending an hour sixty feet under the surface of the ocean. The rhythmic sounds of air hissing through the regulator or bubbling up toward the surface was almost like a heartbeat. The visual spectacle of such a foreign world was entrancing. And the unified respect to that world shown by each varied and unique person who undertook the hobby was inspiring.
I expect I imbued this SCUBA trip with a level of significance that perhaps many others don’t. (What? Me?) Diving is something I had always wanted to do. But it was also something that had seemed out of reach. Or had faded into the background. It was the sort of thing that other, more adventurous, more fit people did. It wasn’t something I did.
But I did it. And I loved it. And I realized less than two minutes into my first dive that I would be diving as long as my body and mind would permit me to do so. It’s rare that I take up a new hobby and feel so completely and utterly at home as I did with this one. Of all of the new experiences I had on this trip, not least of which was simply going on the trip in the first place, the time I spent under the waves was the one that had the greatest impact on me. It was my church, my holy of holies. And I plan to worship there a lot more often.