Thailand - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 243 (53)

Koh Tao

Saturday 6th November

The ‘promise’ of clearer waters was, alas, a false one. We were up early enough this morning to grab some breakfast before collecting our dive gear. As is the norm with this particular dive school, the dive masters had already sorted out the right sizes of gear for everyone and our bags were already packed and ready to go by the time we had finished eating. All we had to do was to take the bags, along with the camera equipment and the rest of our own stuff, the few meters over to the jetty where we would board one of two boats that went out this morning. I was quite glad to see two boats going out. It had originally looked like there were just enough people to cram one boat full but a couple of additional divers must have joined the list to tip the scales and they decided to split the group over two boats instead after all. This meant that the boat would not be completely full and we would have more room to manoeuvre on deck with all our dive gear strapped to us.

Our first dive was nothing short of a mitigated disaster. I always tend to use more air than most others on a dive and so I immediately had to swap over my first tank when I turned on the pressure to reveal that it only had one hundred and eighty bar of pressure as opposed to the expected two hundred. Luckily, there are extra tanks on the boat for just this sort of scenario and I was able to switch before we got into the water. The second tank was little better with just ten bar more than the first but it would have to do. Because of the slight drift, we got into the water and had to immediately swim around the boat towards the buoy line. To help prevent taking on salty water, I breathed through my regulator for the duration of the five-minute, strenuous swim and this took my air supply down to one hundred and seventy before we’d even descended. When we were finally able to descend, the water was so murky that the visibility was down to less than one meter in places and never really better than two meters anywhere. Sandy and I were the third pair in our dive group and were assigned to bringing up the rear. We hadn’t even reached our target depth before we lost sight of the rest of the group completely and became so disoriented that we had no clue as to which way they went. We did catch sight of another dive group passing us at one point but we didn’t even know if they were from our boat or another. Our dive master went over the procedure we needed to follow for just this situation during the dive briefing on the boat, before we kitted up. Along with several other safety related and common sense instructions, this is always part of pretty much every dive briefing. The procedure was to stay where we were for a minute or two if we got lost. The idea behind doing this is that the dive master knows the site well and will know where he has led the group up to the point he notices that someone is missing. By staying where we were for a couple of minutes, it would give him a chance to notice we were gone, and to then double back to try to find us. We did try to stay put once it became clear that we were well and truly separated but the disorientation of having no visual references, other than each other, meant that we couldn’t be sure we were actually staying in one spot. We may very well have been drifting off course slightly but wouldn’t have known it due to the poor visibility. It was all that we could do to stay with each other, to say nothing of trying to take photos. After we had waited long enough, it became clear that nobody was coming to collect us, or if they were, there would be little chance of them finding us, so the next step in the procedure is to go to the surface and wait there. The dive master is supposed to surface to look for us but after several more minutes at the surface, it became clear that the dive master was not surfacing to collect us and we were now drifting farther away from the boat so I made the decision to head back to the boat, even though we were supposed to stay put. There was quite a swell and I’m particularly loath to breathe normally or even with my snorkel in such conditions as the sloshing water can be quite a nuisance. Instead, I much prefer to use my regulator and with my air supply already low, I wanted to make sure we were back to the boat before my supply ran out. We were still a bit disoriented at this point and I had to work hard to convince Sandy to come with me back to the correct boat. I knew which the correct boat was but there was another similar sized boat there with the name of our dive resort written on the side of it and this made Sandy think that this was our boat. For each dive trip, there is an experienced dive master that remains on the boat as a lookout and she was concerned about us getting out of the water because the procedure calls for us to wait at the surface to be collected by the dive master. If he surfaces to look for us and finds that we are not there, then he may think that we are still beneath the surface somewhere and will then spend a lot of time and energy, not to mention precious air, trying to find us. As it turned out, our dive master didn’t surface to find us at all and remained with the rest of the dive group to complete the dive. I was none too pleased about this apparent failure of our dive master to follow the correct and agreed upon procedure and perhaps I should have voiced this concern at the time but I was quite relieved that everybody made it back safe and sound. He did say afterwards that we wouldn’t have to pay for the dive since we were only beneath the surface for about ten minutes. In that time, according to my dive computer after the fact, we managed to submerge to a depth of twenty-five meters. Without a doubt, this was the worst dive I’ve ever experienced and the whole episode was quite humbling.

Our second dive also started badly. We had about an hour and a half of surface time before the boat took us to the second location. All the dive masters agreed to change the location of the second dive from the original plan based on the poor visibility of the first dive location. After we got into the water but before we descended, I noticed that the opaque light diffuser from the underwater camera housing was missing. This isn’t a major problem and wouldn’t cause any problem with the camera providing we were using the strobe but an annoyance nevertheless. There is an outside chance it may turn up in the bottom of a gear bag but I suspect it is lying somewhere on the seabed, never to be found again. The diffuser helps to prevent the shadow cast by the camera’s internal flash being partially blocked by the underwater casing. It’s only really necessary when using the internal flash when the camera is in the casing and since we have the external strobe, it isn’t really a problem.

Even with the disastrous first dive and a very ominous start to the second, we were able to complete a very successful second dive with visibility between five and ten meters or more through the duration of the dive. We circled around a couple of rock pinnacles and this time Sandy and I were assigned the position of immediately behind the dive master, were, for the most part at least, we were able to sit nestled quite comfortably. The plan was that Sandy would have the camera for the second dive but she turned it over to me just a few minutes in. She much prefers to keep an eye on me and feels more comfortable in the water when she can do that as opposed to concentrating on underwater photography. Of the two of us, I’m much more comfortable in the water and have quite good buoyancy control. I also love to be the cameraman underwater so this arrangement suited me down to the ground.

The second dive was very much like the first fun dive we did following our review with a fair amount of marine life, some soft and hard corals and a few interesting things but largely much of the same and not particularly thrilling overall. We are learning that this is probably the worst time of year for diving on the East coast of Thailand, even if we are in the best location here. The second dive wasn’t nearly as deep as the first and my dive computer tells me that I hit a maximum depth of about thirteen meters with an average dive profile of about eight. The water temperature was a very comfortable twenty-nine degrees Celsius, as has been the case with all the dives we’ve completed here so far.

Back on dry land, we washed and re-stored all our dive gear as well as washing the camera equipment and ourselves under a stream of fresh water from the poolside shower to rid everything of salt water. Using the dive profile recall of our dive computers, we completed our logbooks and had the dive master sign and stamp the necessary pages. I also signed us both up for the night dive tomorrow evening, under the proviso that we once again go out with our own dive master to keep a watchful eye over us both. I’m curious to see how Sandy handles the night dive with the camera. My guess is that she will want it to begin with but will release it to me after a short while, so that she can hold back and keep me in her sights.

As is now rapidly becoming the routine, we next spent a while lounging around the pool and generally trying to relax. Once again, however, the pool was playing host to a couple of small learner dive groups so Sandy went to lie down whilst I went into town to spend an hour at one of the Internet cafés there. A traveller in Bangkok had mentioned the possibility of really cheap flights from Bangkok to Siem Reap in Cambodia and I wanted to explore this some more. I went to the website of Air Asia as had been suggested but it turns out that Air Asia don’t fly to Siem Reap at all. They do fly from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand for the 1,300B (€25) that he quoted so I think he must have gotten his wires crossed. The only cheap airline that I could find that flew that route was Air Bangkok with a listed one-way fare of 2,440B (€47) per person. Still a pretty good deal but not the bargain basement price that I had hoped. We may very well end up taking the flight anyway just to avoid the hellish road trip that otherwise awaits us. How much time we spend in Cambodia and just how we are going to tackle Laos is still up in the air. I haven’t yet received any word from the airlines on my request for a later flight from Bangkok to Sydney (I was promised an e-mail if there was any news) so there is still a chance we may have to cut something short or out altogether.

Based largely on the poor diving conditions that we are currently experiencing here on the East coast, we’ve pretty much now decided to head over to the West coast and explore one or two of the islands there - probably either Koh Phi Phi or Koh Lanta. I’ve been taking on board recommendations for various islands and will need to consult the guidebook some more on this tomorrow whilst lounging around the pool. The package that we paid for here included a refresher course, eight fun dives between us and three night’s accommodation for the total price of 10,200B (€196). Now that we know exactly how many days will have been here in total as well as how many dives we will have completed by the time we leave, I’ve been able to calculate the difference that we will owe them come Tuesday when we check-out, which should be another 4,850B (€93). Altogether, we will have paid a total of about €290 for thirteen dives between us, a refresher course each and six night’s accommodation. Not bad for a week’s worth of diving in a beach paradise.

Sandy was still resting by the time I returned from the Internet café so I decided to take the camera and my snorkelling gear and go for a bit of a swim right here in the bay. The best snorkelling to be had here is just at the other end of the bay and I set off to see what I could see. It was quite slow going for a while before I managed to find some very interesting bottom composition and marine life just a couple of meters or more beneath the surface. At one point, a small fish decided to cling to the camera and I had difficulty is shaking it loose. It then kept tight formation with my hand and I had difficulty shaking it loose again before it decided to then settle on the front of the strobe. Eventually I lost track of it but I’m sure it was tracing my every movement. I also saw a pretty impressive shoal of fish feeding on the coral and was able to get some nice shots of them after some difficulty getting close initially. All told, I spent the better part of a couple of hours pushing the camera through the water, aiming it at everything that moved, as well as a lot of stuff that didn’t. Just as I was starting to head back to shore, the heavens opened up and I was worried at just how worried Sandy might be by now, not knowing exactly where I was in the middle of a thunder storm with a few bolts of lightning flashing every now and then. I hadn’t realised just how far down the bay I had gone and the swim back to the jetty near our resort was quite a long one. As suspected, I found Sandy back at the hut worrying where I was and did my best to comfort her. I doubt I was ever in any real danger but trying to convince her of that was quite another thing. The monsoon season has now started here and I dare say we will see even more rain over the coming days.

I took quite a few photos using the camera’s flash to trigger the strobe and this took its toll on the internal re-chargeable battery, which was pretty much flat by the time I returned. Since we are changing the four AA sized batteries for the strobe every day that we use it, we still don’t know how long the batteries last or how many firings we will get from one fresh set. We bought enough batteries in Bangkok to see us through all of the diving we expect to do in Thailand so this will have to remain a mystery for now.

The pub just up the road was having a bar-b-queue this evening so we went over there to grab a bite to eat. It was slightly more expensive that a typical evening meal but still very cheap by all accounts and the food was good too. They are having a roast dinner tomorrow and we have both signed up for that. I dare say we will be a little more than peckish after our night dive tomorrow evening.

For some time now, we’ve been saying that we should sit and watch one of the cheap DVDs that we bought in China and since it was still early, we decided to make this evening he night to do so. Unfortunately, the laptop had other ideas and it seems that the internal CD/DVD drive is no longer functioning properly and simply spits back out anything we put in. This happened to us with the previous laptop also and we’re going to have top get it serviced when we hit a more developed country – probably Australia. In the meantime, other than wanting to watch DVDs, we can do without the drive.