22.10.2013 - 31.10.2013
Appreciate that Facebook friends will already know we certified as open water divers here on Koh Tao (blog is a little behind the times!), but it gives us a chance to fill in the details...
We were really pleased with our choice of accommodation, we're not going super cheap but equally can't justify luxury resorts - we're in the £20-£40 per room/night camp. That budget (in this part of the world) still gets you very comfortable aircon rooms, free wifi, a pool, flat screen TV etc. Our Koh Tao hotel was as nice, if not nicer, than most we had on tour... bed was comfiest yet!
We based ourselves in the sleepier resort of Chalok Baan Kao, the third biggest resort on this small island. We're here in the low rainy season so it's quieter, but it's a great month for diving visibility and that's what this stay was all about!
5 mins on high, just need some chips with that
Chalok Baan Kao
Our diving school, Alvaro Diving, was situated in the bay of our resort, a picturesque stroll on a narrow jetty and boardwalk to get to. It was a bit of a disorganised start but the staff seemed super chilled out and friendly.
The open water dive course was over 4 days, the first day was paperwork and watching a 2 hour video. We were in a small group of 4 with 2 American girls. One wasn't sure about diving and after watching the video she decided not to go ahead (not entirely sure which part of the video was so offputting). We therefore continued our course with Anna, along with two Dive Master Trainees (Heather & Ian aka 'The BG's') and our instructor 'Scuba Steve', a laid back scouser who reminded me of Crush from Finding Nemo when he dived... duuuuude.
The first couple of days diving were more about exercises under water... removing and putting back on our masks, weight belts and buoyancy jacket, and breathing from our buddy's air source instead of our own. It was all relatively straightforward and we were pleased with how quickly we made progress.
The best diving was on our last, and qualifying day, and required us to do something neither of us thought would have previously been possible. The boat took us far out from shore to Koh Tao's premier dive site, Chumphon Pinnacle, an outcrop which is hidden under water. In pouring rain with choppy waves, we jumped off the boat with all our gear on and proceeded to descend 18m down the buoy line into the big blue - knowing full well shark sightings were possible. It was strangely calming and, whilst before the course I'd worried about going into deep water, it wasn't scary at all. Weirdest of all is that I was actually disappointed we didn't see any sharks!
We saw an array of fish and corals... giant barracuda, a moray eel, giant groupers, pink anemone fish, squirrel fish, angelfish and a whole host of others, often in big shoals. It was brilliant to have the sensation of flying around the rocky and coral formations underwater. We had all got the hang of controlling our buoyancy through our breathing and Steve congratulated us on a good dive and for certifying. We both felt a fantastic sense of achievement! l had M People's track 'What have you done today to make you feel proud' playing in my head... ha ha.
Unfortunately I'd spent 2.5 days of the course with muffled hearing in my right ear, but as I didn't have any pain our instructor passed it off as 'swimmers ear' so I ignored it. As it hadn't cleared, and after a bit of googling (usually dangerous!), I was concerned that it may be a middle ear barotrauma, as I knew I had failed to equalise my ears during a skin dive on the second day. Glad I checked and saw a physician as it turned out I had suffered ear squeeze which had caused bleeding in the middle ear and my foggy hearing. I was told not to dive for 5 days, which also meant I shouldn't have dived since I got it on day 2... oops. But then I wouldn't have been able to certify, ignorance is bliss eh...
Once we'd finished our diving we moved to busier Sairee further up the coast to extend our stay for an extra 3 nights, as Chalok Baan Kao out of season was a bit too quiet for us. Really glad we did as we had much more choice for bars and restaurants and the place had more of a buzz.
We had some major downpours shouldered by good weather, so we caught up on admin stuff and booking onward travel. It was a timely reminder that it's not always a holiday - there's our budget to keep on top of, online banking, shopping for essentials... this is our life for the next 8 months afterall!
Around dusk one day, we were sat having a beer when Blair (from our Indochina tour) walked past! Was great to catch up and we spent the rest of the evening as a three, chatting about our separate experiences since the tour. It was really good to see a recognisable face, nice guy.
Our last two days were sunny and hot so we booked a snorkelling boat trip which stopped at a number of bays around the island. A great day! The water was crystal clear and we were fortunate to see a large shoal of different fish on a coral feeding frenzy... captured lots of pics as we swam with them for about 20 minutes...
Love this pic with the fish parting around the snorkeller!
We were also 'lucky' to see a titan triggerfish, the largest of the species and one which comes with a fairly fearsome reputation. When defending its nest and terrority, it's been known to attack divers and snorkellers, shattering masks and biting through wetsuits in an attempt to escort unwary visitors off their premises. Scuba Steve had mentioned that you have to swim horizontally away to avoid being in its cone-shaped territory. To be honest we'd only seen a quick picture of one in a guidebook and its colourings were a bit hazy from memory. We also had no frame of reference for its size to know what to look out for.
This fish was both big and beautiful. We both saw it and I slowed down calling to Ant that I thought it could be a triggerfish. He dismissed my slight panic and contined to move closer. As I looked underwater again it faced me so I could see its rather unattractive toothy mouth and features head on... then it started to make a beeline for me... hmmm strange behaviour for a fish, I thought.... head out of the water, taking my eyes off the beastie.... "Aaaaaaant, I think it's a triggerfish!!!", kicking back in a frenzy at the same time. Ant was still watching underwater at this point and saw it move up to about halfway between where it originally was on the bottom to me on the surface, before being satisfied I was out of its zone. Phew! A nerve wracking moment but at least we know what to look for again... and hopefully Ant will take future heed of my fish identifying skills!
Big mamma Titan Triggerfish courtesy of t'interweb and my (not as close) view of it as it spotted me
In Sairee, there are some great beach bars set up with bean bags to just laze around watching the sun setting. We had a couple of evenings doing this before dinner. In the calmest of seas we watched fishermen come and go, shoals of fish jumping out of the sea, herons landing on the moored longboats... all whilst the sky changed to beautiful pinks and oranges. It was wonderful. I completely get why Thailand has such a strong draw for many.
Koh Tao has a very laid back vibe and feels very backpackery (is that even a word?!). It felt like quite a young island - the majority of backpackers are under 25 - so we did feel a bit old here at times, but the snorkelling and diving are superb and that was always the draw for us.
Although I appear to have (temporarily) left my hearing in Koh Tao, it's a great chilled out place and will always be special to us as the place we learnt to dive.