Learning to dive was supposed to be one of the highlights of our vacation in Thailand and Cambodia; I did a medical checkup, spent hours searching for the best island and the best diving school and planned our itinerary around the course. And yet, on the second day of the course, I quit.
My diving school was a busy operation with lots of great reviews on Ko Tao in the Gulf of Thailand. Ko Tao has it all: palm trees, white sandy beaches, crystal clear water, many colourful fish and easily accessible diving sites. Plenty of newbies get their diving certificates there.
Besides being a tropical dream, Ko Tao is also a party destination. Think of all-you-can-drink cocktails in buckets, of sunburnt twenty-somethings on rental scooters, of hungover BA students covered in glitter and bruises. That’s also Ko Tao.
My diving class was to take 3.5 days. On the second day, we were divided into groups of six and met our diving instructors. My group was assigned to an Australian, tanned and tattooed, laid back like the turtles in Finding Nemo, sun-bleached surfer’s hair, bad posture and a bit of a belly, perhaps not the smartest but clearly concerned about safety, never tired of calling every woman in our group sweety.
After safety instructions, an introduction to our gear and a very short lunch break, we got into our wet suits for the first practical lesson in the diving school’s swimming pool. It was a hot day, and even though I usually enjoy temperatures of 30˚C and more, wearing the wet suit and gear made the sun almost unbearable. The oxygen tank and weights were heavy and understanding what buoyancy is (I am a physicist after all) didn’t keep me from believing that I was going to sink as soon as I would enter the water.
We were given around 15 minutes to get accustomed to breathing underwater in a very shallow section of the pool. I didn’t enjoy the experience – frankly, I was scared – and the air I inhaled was dry and had a strange taste. By the time we started practicing safety procedures such as retrieving the mouth piece or helping a buddy who is out of air, I was very thirsty. I had not taken a water bottle to the pool – probably the biggest mistake I made on that day. When we came to the surface to hear the next instructions, I told the instructor how thirsty I was and that I needed a break to fetch some water. I was surprised when he said that I should wait until after the next lesson but I agreed to proceed.
In the next lesson, our group did not do very well. There were many misunderstandings, we made many mistakes and the lesson took much longer than the instructor expected. Since we were thus running late, we were given only a ten minutes break after the lesson. I drank as much as I could, gulped down a paracetamol to fight a developing headache, ran to bathroom and had not a second left to rest before we went to the deeper section of the pool.
When that part of the course started, I already felt exhausted and despite having drunk a lot of water, I was still thirsty. With weakness came fear and it took me a long time to dare diving down to the bottom of the pool. The scary thing about diving is that, once you get to a certain depth, you can only ascend slowly, no matter what. If you panic while under water, you have to handle your emotions or you risk to actually die.
Once I got to the bottom of the pool, I felt weirdly alone in this very crowded and not very large swimming pool. Something was wrong with the filter on that day, and the visibility was so low that I could barely see the two persons closest to me. The instructor communicated with us under water but I never got what I was expected to do, and neither did the others seem to understand. We made mistakes, again, and were again told that we were running late.
Ater a while, my dehydration, exhaustion and fear culminated in a skull-breaking headache. Even on the surface, I wasn’t able to follow instructions any more and every new breath of that dry compressed air felt like torture. I kept on going until I was sure I had no other choice but to get out of the pool and take care of that headache.
While I rested in the shade, my group completed their pool session. Eventually, after a few more pain killers, the headache slowly went away, and I had to decide how to proceed with the course. I was presented with two options:
- Repeat the pool session in the very early morning of the next day so that I could rejoin my group for the exam and the first two dives in the ocean.
- Give up and get a 50% refund.
I chose the second. I knew that after such a debilitating afternoon, I wasn’t up to the physical challenge of a pool session and two dives on the same day. If anything, I needed more time and rest, not less. I felt defeated and weak. Thinking back, I still do.
On the next two days, I went snorkeling instead, first on a beach and then on a boat tour around the island. The visibility was amazing and I saw parrot fish, sting rays, barracudas, trigger fish, banner fish and butterfly fish, making the trip to Ko Tao worth it after all.
One day, I might try to learn diving again. That time, I will go for a more relaxed schedule with more time to repeat and internalize the procedures and enough breaks to recover. Next time, I would also try to meet my driving instructor before the course starts so that I know that in addition to being a knowledgable diver, he/she is also thoughtful and caring.