I love swimming. No, I LOVE swimming. But of all activities there are for adventurous travelers, diving was always the least appealing for me, and the only reason for that was the lack of information I had on the health restrictions. I was proven wrong, thank Neptune.
I heard about Koh Lanta diving sites while still on Railay, but I didn’t pay them much mind. Diving? Who, me? Could never happen. Besides, where there is to dive? However, I was overwhelmed by the amount of diving shops in the area, and after our first dip in the sea I paid one a visit. It lured me with the shiny blue pool by the door, which looked kinda neat and serious. We strolled in with my mom, and the owner, Vladimir, turned out to speak perfect Russian – he was from Poland. We chatted a bit, and mom sighed that she probably could never do it because of her health. Vladimir laughed at her, pointed at himself and said he was older than her and still dived every day. Turned out, blood pressure, unless it’s a serious problem, is no big deal underwater as our bodies have and adjustment mechanism that activates in the deep. Just like when flying in airplanes. Diving surely isn’t for everyone, both physically and psychologically, but after a short talk with Vladimir I suddenly discovered that all the concerns planted by my family were complete bullshit, at least in my case. We thanked him heartily and went home. Mom looked at the prices and decided she could do better. I kept silence but inside of me an idea was growing. Hey. I can dive. I can dive. I can try.
It took a few slow and relaxing days for the idea to take shape. A little spark grew into a fire, and at some point I gave up all resistance. I can dive. I need to dive. I’m good on the water and I want to be good under the water. Yay.
I let the fate decide – went to Vladimir’s shop in the morning of the day before their trip to Koh Haa islands. If they were fully booked, I wouldn’t give it a second try. If they were not…
They were not. The paperwork took five minutes, and an hour later I was shaking hands with Vladimir’s wife Iwone, who got eighteen plus years of underwater experience. She was lovely, no-nonsense and very encouraging. After a short introduction in the classroom we headed to the vault to select my gear. I would do a Discover Scuba Diving, or DSD program. It’s a trial version of the real PADI (Professional Association of Divers and Instructors) certification course. Now I guess if we had more time on Koh Lanta, I would bloody go for the next level, even with the price of it. Thankfully for my purse, we didn’t.
I was surprised at how uncomplicated it was. Gear up, know all your gadgets and hand gestures, how to equalize and clear your mask and Stage Two (that thing you breathe through) underwater. The most difficult thing – believe it or not – was going down. You’ve got weight on your belt, and a bloody heavy aqualung, but also a special jacket that lets you stay afloat and go down when you release air from it. Turned out I needed more weight on my belt, and once that was fixed, I could just sit on the pool bottom crosslegged and pretend I was a yogi. The most important technical skill was to keep breathing non-stop. No pauses, no holding your breath, in-out, in-out. I read before that the way you breathe decides how fast you use up your air and have to go back up, so I practiced slow breathing for a few days before, just in case. And you know what? I was always the one with my cylinder fullest!
An early morning rise, a swift ride to Saladan pier, and we were on the boat. Being back on the water felt so damn good, the familiar rumble and vibration under my feet. It made me miss my MV Explorer even more. I was excited and a little guarded. But these days every time I have concerns about open water, I remember the equator-crossing Neptune day on the MV, and the ritual I went through, and my Emerald Shellback title (which, according to the certificate we were given, provides me with safe passage through all seas and oceans, and commands all the dolphins, whales, mermaids and mermen to be of assistance in times of need). So in the end I was calm and excited. I met my diving partner, a fellow-townsman from Saint Petersburg who moved to Finland many years ago – the three of us would dive together. We geared up and practiced a “long step” off the boat. It took some weights adjustment to make me go down, but once I was…
Some family friends tried diving in Mexico and returned disappointed. They said it was like snorkeling, but expensive. Dear fellows! I have no clue what kind of diving they did, but they obviously did it wrong. Because once I was underwater I had to remind myself all the time to keep breathing, slowly and steadily. Because I wanted to jump and squeal with awe.
When you’re a snorkeler, you’re allowed to be a distant observer. You’re on the top, you’re the big scary shadow on the emerald surface, and you’re an ignorant intruder. To put it simple, you’re a tourist, and not a traveler. But once you hit the sea bottom you suddenly have your eyes open, and you feel blessed to be there, and protective of what you see. You want to shoot the people who throw garbage in the water, hunt the rare sea mammals, and break the corals. Because for that one hour you become a part of the sea, and it accepts you. After yesterday it’s much easier to believe that all life on Earth came from the ocean.
You see fragile underwater communities, huge corals that host the small houses of different fish, crabs and snails. You see the giant clam shell open and close, letting out myriads of tiny bubbles. You see the moray eel sticking out of her hole and show her teeth protectively. You swim in a huge pack of tiny school racers, straight from the Finding Nemo movie, and you could direct them here and there. You swim over a giant turtle gracefully floating in the deep, sunlight playing on her shell. You see a black-and-white water snake shoot towards the surface, and a huge friendly starry pufferfish chill nearby. You peek over a patch of anemones, and the false clown fish spring out, ever-curious and ever-friendly. You reach out for them and they come to you, and you can scratch their sides, lightly, not to damage the scales, for your hands are the temperature of the water now. You have to constantly struggle with the wish to touch, and pick some beautiful abandoned shell from the bottom, but you fight it because that’s rule number one. You want to know everything about what you see, and know why the corals die, and why whale sharks won’t come, and why black triggerfish looks like an Apple gadget, so sleek and balanced. And most of all, you want to be back the moment you reach the surface.
When you’re back up, the gravity hits again; you’re not as weightless and graceful anymore. And most of all, the gear becomes so bloody heavy you’re likely to need a hand to get back into the boat. And you’e thirsty. Really thirsty. Drinking electrolytes helps a lot. And your mouth is tired from holding on to the second stage, and your feet are sore from the fins, and you’ve got red marks from the mask around your eyes. And you’re dizzy and groggy, and yet you want back.
The second dive was even more gorgeous, but more tiring as well. We stayed five minutes longer and went to our maximum DSD depth, 12 meters. It seems that once you’re underwater the depth makes no difference anymore, as long as you blow your airways in time. But in truth, there’s a technique for every depth – for example, you can’t stay at 30m for longer than nine minutes, otherwise the amount of nitrogen in your body gets too high and it can hurt you. You always need to equalize once you decide to go below 15. It’s all so exciting, and I’m dying to know more.
The worst thing you can do on the water is to panic. Fear cuts deeper than swords (yeah, right). I never thought I would feel that tiny stab of panic when I was comfortably floating around on the depth of 10 meters, but I did once I realized I couldn’t equalize my air spaces. I kept blowing but it didn’t work. I could feel the weight of water on my shoulders, and it was disturbing me for the first time. I suddenly felt tired. But for some reason, we shortly went a few meters up, and it was all good again. Equalization, equalization, equalization. At the end of the day Iwone told me she would’ve never thought it was my first time diving, especially the second try. I thought about that short moment of panic, and promised myself to read more on the matter.
That night when I was flat on my bed, head buzzing with all the information, I felt like I was still in the water, pushed and pulled by the current, and the visions of fish and corals and colors flooded my mind, and my bed was revolving. I had some really cool dreams then. And I was thankful for my perfect planning – after two dives, one shouldn’t fly until at least 18 hours pass. First world nitrogen problems.
Well, now I want to get an Open Water, and Advanced, and Divemaster levels. I also want that National Geographic diving course that teaches you to observe and study your underwater environment scientifically. I want…
“We what the land folks loves to cook
Under the sea we off the hook
We got no troubles
Life is the bubbles
Under the sea
Under the sea
Since life is sweet here
We got the beat here
(“Under The Sea”, The Little Mermaid)