The journey to Koh Tao was an overnight via Suratthani so imagine our surprise half way in when we found ourselves in Chumpon [a few hours up the east coast]. Alarm bells were ringing and my brow was furrowing but, as is often the case with these things, the only option was to go with the flow and deal with the fallout. As it happened we were fine and before long we were harbour side awaiting our departure while a fifty-something year old British man-child threw a tantrum with his other staff and eventually got us all boarded on a rickety overnight ferry/cargo ship.
I grabbed a few Changs and really quite enjoyed the overnight – it could have been a hell of a lot worse. We pulled into Koh Tao harbour around 5am and after the crew had unloaded all manner of things [including a vitally important pallet-load of lager they’d shipped in to keep me occupied] we alighted.
We met a fella called Num at the pier who asked if we had a place booked to stay. Following the ‘Rob & Gilly South-East Asia Walkthrough’ we had designs on learning to dive at the same place they did – Sunshine Divers. After a brief explanation to that effect Num got on the blower and arranged with Joe – Sunshine Divers go-to-guy for transport and keeping the site firing on all cylinders – to nip down and pick us up from a nearby coffee shop. Bearing in mind that it was still only 6am this was a great start and it didn’t cost us a penny.
We whistled on down to the south of the island to Chalok Baan Kao Bay. This is a much quieter part of the island dominated by a few long-established dive schools. Joe sorted us out with a brew and offered us a free upgrade to a room with hot water straight away. As it was so early we decided to follow Rob & Glly’s advice again and take a look around the alternatives first. An hour later we returned, happily convinced that staying on site for free was best for us.
Before we arrived we were made well aware of a legend of a gent by the name of Bastiaan – he’d taken Rob & Gilly through to advanced level. As the usual throng of divers and instructors congregated I enquired as to whether he was about. He appeared and we had a quick chat. He remembered Rob & Gilly – “Oh, the f*** you guy!” – but he wasn’t available to take a course though he’d be about for a beer at some point.
We had a four o’clock start same day for the course so took to spending the lead up relaxing and making the now usual miniscule progress on the blog. A couple of hours before kick-off we bumped into Bastiaan again – he’d rearranged a few things and would now be our course instructor – result! What a guy.
Around the same time an explosion happened as Argentinean Dynamite appeared on the scene – the now legendary Ariel Katz – looking to start the course at the same time. We’d found the fifth member of the dream team. I say fifth as the first two are the only permanent members – Bastiaan himself and his incredible lady Kim.
We also had the honour of meeting Robert, a Divemaster in training just a few steps away from his goal. Always around with a smile and a song even in the company of the Latino love machine Ariel he did his best to calm.
The first evening was simply a few DVDs and knowledge reviews. After a couple of getting-to-know-you Tigers we hit the hay in prep for pool practice early the next day.
After breakfast we hit the pool at Ban’s Diving Resort to check we had basic swimming capability and learn a few essential underwater skills. There were no real dramas – I felt pretty comfortable with everything and Fi had a couple of goes at mask clearing before bagging it.
Lunch was a foray to an unassuming roadside shack that serves an incredible Nam Tok [it’s incredible]. We’re once again indebted to Rob & Gilly for pointing it out and half the dive school keeps her in business.
The afternoon was more study & DVDs before retiring to the bar to pay off beer fines [any mistake/foolish miss-naming of kit equals one large Tiger] and shoot the breeze. One led to another then another and another and before long we were in full flow. Bastiaan, Kim, Fi & I eventually realised we’d failed to eat so it was on the mopeds round the corner for food. This is roughly the last thing I remember though I’m assured I enjoyed quite phenomenal pie, mash & peas with gravy before we all went our separate ways. It was an awesome night and the perfect and most responsible way to prepare for our first ever deep sea scuba dive the next day…oh, wait a tick…
Thoroughly deservingly hung-over it was up at ridiculous o’clock for our first dives. Essential BLT’s were acquired and away we went. Fi suffered the worst on the boat but the choppy waves almost claimed all our breakfasts. We only had two dives on this first day with the first just an introduction and the second going through basic skills. It was interesting; I was surprised how comfortable it feels being underwater. You’re geared up to the eyeballs and as long as you pay attention to your gauges and time the training teaches you everything you need to know. Bastiaan would probably chalk that up to his mad skills as an instructor! He’d probably be right.
The afternoon was the big exam – get 75% or you’re back to the start. It was strange to find yourself under exam conditions and all the associated stress while sat on Paradise Island. We all passed comfortably and there were a few more beers to celebrate – we’d cleaned them out of large Tigers by now so it was small or Chang. Bastiaan’s Dad was over from the Netherlands and after much persuasion had agreed to take his first dive the next day this unfortunately meant that Bastiaan would not be the instructor to qualify us if we were to pass our final two dives, but that was cool – it meant we got to dive with Kim!
Pass we did and Kim signed us all off as qualified Open Water Scuba Divers. That was not enough though – we all went straight into the advanced course the next day.
This, along with more lovely DVD time, was 5 electives. Fi & I did the same 5 – peak performance buoyancy, underwater navigation, underwater photography, deep dive & night dive. Our irrepressible companion, the Argentinean Maelstrom Ariel, dropped photography in favour of Search & Recovery. We were also lucky to get Robert as our support diver – it just all came together to make for a great additional course.
Underwater photography was a bit of a washout – with spectacular buoyancy control and some serious hardware there’s scope for a lot of great image-taking opportunities beneath the waves but we were a long way off either really.
Peak Performance Buoyancy was loads of fun – they have an underwater park and exercises were a mix of balance, control and just plain paying attention. Hopefully you’ll be reading this alongside a video of an underwater somersault I pulled off.
After the first day of our advanced course Robert suggested a restaurant up the beach with a great view of the bay – a number of us enjoyed a meal up there before returning to the ‘Eazy Bar’ on the shore for some late night drinks.
Our final day’s diving in Koh Tao was 3 dives – Deep first. Other than simply going deep the main exercise is to test whether you’re susceptible to Nitrogen Narcosis at depths of up to 30 metres. This condition is essentially when you go a bit daft underwater due to excess nitrogen in your bloodstream. Those affected act like they’re high and it can become quite dangerous if you stop paying due care and attention.
For the exercise the numbers one to ten are scribbled on a diver’s slate in a random layout and you have to point them out in sequence on the boat while you’re roughly timed. You then repeat the test at 30 metres underwater to see if your reaction time is impaired.
Bastiaan hid the number 5 under his thumb but I was wise to his antics and pointed at this thumb until he lifted it!
The navigation dive saw us left to our own devices – no instructor / dive master for the first time. We had some basic underwater compass exercises to follow and then a route to navigate. We were going pretty well at first but overshot the coral line which put us off a bit. That said, we did actually return to the right waypoint where a simple north-east trajectory would have seen us back in style. Why I then decided to head north-west is beyond me. Thankfully after a minute or two I realised my mistake and countered with a course change eastwards. After a nervy few hundred metres the boat came into view above us and I breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn’t screwed it up for everyone else. Robert came over to meet us at our 3 minute safety stop and was happy & glad we pulled it off.
Our final dive of the course was a night dive. This makes for a wholly different experience and represented a more interesting prospect and a fitting way to finish. Once we’d reached the seabed with our torches we held them against us and went lights out. With our free hand we then traced shapes in the water and watched in awe as the movement caused the plankton to illuminate and leave swirling traces before our eyes. A little lowlight navigation followed – Fi & I thought we’d nailed until we realised we were with a different dive group; ours was about 5 metres to the left in total darkness. We were close enough though.
Then we went off to hunt the creatures of the night time deep. For a while the highlight was a 6-foot Barracuda hunting its evening meal. It was different simply having your vision limited to the lights of the group. Bastiaan had designs on a special finale though and just as we thought the dive was ending he frantically started signalling for us to gather. He shone his torchlight at a point between two rocks and beneath the beam outside the direct light was a huge turtle just relaxing.
We were all pretty chuffed and there was much hand signalling & congratulations & incorrect hand signalling & beer fines. The turtle swam towards and above us, mesmerising the group as it disappeared away into the night sea.
On our return to base we were certified as Advanced Open Water Divers before the fun began. Kim had come down to celebrate with us and Fi, Ariel and I had prepared a thank you gift for Bastiaan, Kim & Robert. We knew they didn’t get a lot of wine out on Koh Tao as it’s much more expensive than beer so we grabbed a couple of bottles of white wine for them to share, a few extra Tigers for Bastiaan, and a few chocolate brownies supporting a super-kitsch “I Love you” candle.
But that wasn’t all – Ariel had written a song to the tune of Monty Python’s Lumberjack song & had Fi & I roped in as guest vocalists as he belted it out while strumming on his charango. It was received with rapturous applause and the legend of Ariel Katz was born. He’s a stand-up guy with a heart the size of Argentina and a mouth that comes a close second! He was a superb companion and we very much hope to reunite should we reach Buenos Aires.
It was Tiger, Tiger, Tiger for the rest of the night followed by late night snacks at the Pie Shed which I can remember this time. While we’d considered taking off the day after we found out that Robert was on the verge of completing his Divemaster qualification so decided to stick around to help celebrate the huge achievement.
Robert knocked the qualification out of the park as we knew he would and arranged to meet us that evening with another friend, Simon, and take us on the back of their bikes to Sairee Beach for food & drinks. We had a great meal and a great night with drinks on the beach while some incredible fire dancers whipped up a flamed frenzy for our entertainment including the previously unseen “light your cigarette” move and a fully lit length of rope.
We retired to Eazy bar for the final few drinks of our time in Koh Tao and eventually said our goodbyes and stumbled off to bed.
Robert met us at the pier the next day to see us off and bought us coffee and banana muffins. We had such an amazing time on the island and made some wonderful friends. It’s easy to see why people fall in love with the place and never leave.