The world around me moves in weightless slow motion; the thick silence punctuated at rhythmic intervals by what can best be described as Darth Vader breathing down my neck. The sound emanates from a regulator feeding oxygen through a mouthpiece, its lifeline of rubber tubing attached to a steel tank strapped to my back. I guess that makes me Darth.
It’s a personal miracle that I’m nearly 50 feet below the ocean’s surface, calmly marveling at coral swaying with the current and fish going about their business, unperturbed by the routine intrusion of bipedal land mammals.
It’s my first exposure to many of these animals and I’m taking mental snapshots to later compare the size, color, and markings from memory to those of common fish from this area, as shown on a glossy poster hanging in the dive shop’s lobby.
Several hours later, I identify Longfin Bannerfish by their yellow dorsal and caudal fins with bodies striped in black and white. They live in pairs and are abundant in the Gulf of Thailand. Butterfly fish. Blue ringed angel fish. Parrot fish. Marbled sea cucumber. Titan Triggerfish – an ugly territorial fella with teeth! You have to be cautious around them as they’re known to attack divers who get too close to their nests.
Shivering as I drift along in mental solitude, my body heat escaping at a rate 25x faster than usual, I contemplate the obstacles that were overcome to arrive here. Obstacles like the sheer magnitude of time and effort to reach Koh Tao itself; a journey which began in the early hours of the morning in Bangkok and involved an Uber to the airport, a plane to Koh Samui, two charter buses to the dock (the first broke down on a steep hill), the rockiest, most miserable two hour ferry ride to Koh Tao, and capped off with a harrowing ride in the bed of a truck to our accommodation. That swanky resort was the day’s only saving grace.
After a really long, rough day of travel I was not in the best state of mind for my dive orientation that afternoon. I returned to our bungalow expressing grave concerns and doubts about diving. I’m claustrophobic and tend to avoid situations where I might get stuck. I was deeply afraid of feeling trapped 18 meters underwater and panicking over the inability to surface on my schedule. Not to mention completing dive formulas and triangulating the results on a complicated chart to determine nitrous oxide absorption rates. I was unsure I had the capacity to accurately complete these vital equations. Maybe diving wasn’t for me after all.
My patient, ever-encouraging saint of a travel companion kindly but firmly reminded me the only reason we came to this alcohol saturated party island was for me to get dive certified and, damn it, I was going through with it. Thank goodness for her tough love. If she had let me quit, I would have missed out on one of the best experiences of my life.
I wake from my trance and look around for my dive buddy, Jonas – a man I met less than 36-hours ago and with whom I’ve forged a mutual dependence in this unfamiliar setting. Standing head and shoulders taller than me on dry land, the size differential translates underwater so that I appear like a juvenile orca swimming next to her big brother.
Without the aid of peripheral vision I rotate my head like an owl, searching among the other wetsuit clad divers for Jonas’s now-familiar outline. I find him just above and behind me, and wave to catch his attention to exchange SCUBA sign language for “all okay.”
I’m startled to discover Jonas’s mask filling with blood. He is unaware of this alarming development as the blood has yet to reach his line of sight.
During yesterday’s inaugural open water dive lesson held in a hotel pool, my three dive classmates and I posed a bevy of “what ifs” to our seasoned instructor. Each met with an answer assuaging the anxiety surrounding the hypothetical situation and confirming her qualification to lead us into the deep blue, visible beyond a narrow strip of sand separating it from the pool.
The most extreme hypothetical posed was what to do in case you feel the urge to throw up. Had that ever happened? Her answer: yes, it has happened but very infrequently. Just keep the regulator in your mouth and puke normally. The chunks will filter out through the regulator and you’ll avoid sucking in a potentially fatal lungful of water.
We failed to ask about bloody noses.
Fortunately we were taught how to clear water from our masks. It’s part of Diving 101. Simply tilt your head back, apply gentle pressure to the top frame of the mask and exhale steadily through your nose. The air from your nose pushes water out the bottom of the mask and voilà.
One may assume the same tactic would clear blood, too. Well, yes and no. The deluge of blood was cleared but blowing through his nose only served to splatter it on the inside of his mask, as though Scorsese was directing this dive.
The next solution involved taking off his mask completely, swishing it around, and putting it back on. There are a number of skill tests to pass off before receiving an Open Water Dive certification and removing and replacing one’s mask is my least favorite of the bunch. Our senses feel inherently tied together and it takes concentration to accept that the momentary loss of vision won’t impede the ability to breathe. Clearly, I know this above water but so much of what we’re doing underwater is foreign that each process must be assessed individually. Jonas completes this exercise and all is well again.
One of the fundamental yet most challenging skills to achieve is finding and maintaining neutral buoyancy. This is where one hums along, their body parallel with the ocean floor. Skilled divers demonstrate buoyancy mastery as they hover effortlessly above the jagged coral below. There is no flailing about, instead their arms remain crossed at the chest and their fins kick in metronomic fashion —a graceful display of poise and control.
Achieving neutral buoyancy requires a delicate balance of breaths in, breaths held momentarily, and breaths exhaled. I am not yet that graceful. Attempting to hover like the pros, I exhale too much and my body sinks, dragging an exposed knee and shin across razor sharp coral. Now I’m bleeding too, but I try again. And again. Improving with each attempt, by the last dive I am able to float above the coral for a few glorious minutes at a time.
Diving induces a meditative state of being unlike any I’ve experienced practicing yoga or traditional meditation. At once hyperaware and peaceful, 45 minutes passes in a flash, your attention held in wonder and appreciation.
For weeks afterward I dream about following schools of bright tropical fish in clear, cerulean waters, my newfound addiction temporarily fed from the comfort of my warm, dry bed.
I can’t wait to get back under the sea!