I’ll always remember Koh Tao as the place where I took my first breath underwater.
When Guil and I began planning our round-the-world trip, a desire for adventure travel led us to a minuscule island off the eastern coast of Thailand. Aside from secluded bays and crystal-clear waters, we found that Koh Tao is also known for its affordable scuba diving scene. The Thai island is considered one of the cheapest places in the world to secure your diver’s certification — and this caught our attention.
I was never an avid snorkeler, nor did I know anything about scuba diving. I did however grow up in Miami; the ocean has always played a prominent role in my life. Yet, just like I had never climbed a volcano before my trip, scuba diving was another experience that promised to throw me far outside my comfort zone. When you’re traveling halfway across the globe, that’s exactly what you’re looking for.
So the idea was planted. In May 2018, it came to fruition.
Arriving in Koh Tao, Thailand
It took two overnight trains, one bus and one ferry to get to Koh Tao, but I was too excited to rest: The first thing Guil and I did once we arrived was visit several dive schools.
I was hyper-focused on choosing a school that had excellent reviews because quite honestly, I was terrified to scuba dive. I wanted to ensure our transition from breathing-human-on-the-surface to mermaid/merman went as smooth as possible. I certainly wanted to be in good hands.
Though the class itineraries and prices are somewhat similar, there are countless options to choose from in Koh Tao. I read plenty of blog posts beforehand and also asked for recommendations from people who had previously been certified in Thailand.
Luckily we hit the jackpot on our third stop, a mid-sized dive shop called Roctopus Dive that offered a four-day RAID course, including four separate ocean dives. Roctopus worked with RAID, which I learned is one of the fastest-growing small diving agencies (the most common is PADI) and one of the only ones to have gone completely digital. That means I could complete my reading assignments and exams through an app on my phone, which was especially convenient since I did most of my reading on the beach.
Scuba Diving School
Feeling giddy and incredibly nervous, I made it through my first day of scuba diving school. A quick orientation informed my group — there were four of us — that we’d become certified divers in just three days. Three days! I remember thinking it was far too little time to teach someone to breathe underwater.
My homework that first night introduced me to a slew of technical terms I had never seen before: the BCD, second-stage regulators, neutral buoyancy. Fortunately the next day I’d set up my own equipment and practice everything I read about in the text.
The second day of class took place in a pool. Everyone set up their own tanks for the first time, practiced clearing water from their regulators (the breathing devices); removed and replaced masks underwater; and learned to breath from a dive-buddy’s air supply.
Then we took our first breath underwater.
It’s funny how terrifying it was to take those first few breaths even knowing I was in a shallow pool. It’s a concept so foreign to the human body; it truly shakes up your nervous system.
The third and fourth days of the course were in open water, meaning, I was headed to the ocean. The overall goal of the course, in order to receive the certification, was to successfully complete four dives as well as master the underwater skills we learned in the pool.
Taking the Plunge: My First Dive
On the third day, I dropped 12 meters below the surface of ocean — a frightening depth at first. One of my greatest fears was sinking to the bottom and not being able to come back up. That was obviously not the case. When you’re scuba diving you’re actually able to swim underwater just as you would on the surface, easily directing your body where you’d like it to go.
As we all deflated our vests and slowly submerged, I felt my fear float away to the surface.
The difference between 6 or 12 meters is barely noticeable once underwater. You’re too busy marveling at the world around you. Your mind is captured by the colorful parrot fish chomping on coral, not the fact that you’re breathing out of an oxygen tank.
Breathing underneath the ocean’s surface is the strangest yet most remarkable sensation I’ve ever felt. Once the anxiety faded, a feeling of relaxation washed over me with every breath. I could breathe in as deeply as I wanted, and exhale as quickly or as slow as I’d like. With every breath, my full lungs pulled my body upward toward the surface. The deeper the breath, the more I rose.
Scuba diving is all about finding a perfect balance — or neutral buoyancy, as they call it. It’s learning how to control your inhales and exhales in a way that allows you to seamlessly move through the water with little to no effort. Eventually, you’re supposed to feel weightless, as if floating through space.
Our second dive that day was a breeze. I couldn’t wait for the last two dives on day four.
The Final Two Dives
On my final day of diving, the weather turned.
It was 6 a.m. but there would be no sunrise. My group was caught in an intense thunderstorm that left everyone soaked in the back of a pick-up truck that took us to the dive boat.
“Can we even dive in this?” I remember thinking to myself. But I knew that the dive would go on, rain or shine.
The rain persisted as the boat left the dock. The instructor informed us we’d be diving in a more sheltered site due to the stormy weather.
By the time we arrived, the rain had fortunately subsided — but we felt its effects in the ocean. The water was choppy and visibility quite low, less than ideal conditions for my third dive ever.
In minutes, I left the storm above and dove underwater. Down there, everything else began to fade. I forgot about the thunder, rain and wind. I was diving, and I was getting better at it.
Forty minutes later I resurfaced, and the storm had passed. The boat made its way to the final dive site, where the ocean was the bluest of blues. Visibility was excellent, and my wariness was instantly replaced with excitement. This was my final dive! After this, I’d be certified to dive to a depth of 20 meters on my own.
As I expected, time passed far too quickly on my final dive. When I saw the instructor signaling that it was time to ascend, I nearly swam away. I didn’t want to go up! I was ready to continue exploring the new world I had just been introduced to.
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