I barely have a chance to dry off from the last dive of the open water course when Ollie jumps right into his sugar coated pitch trying to sell us on the advanced diving course. One of the major angles he works is that advanced diving gives us the chance to get "narced" (as in nitrogen narcosis). As I mentioned previously, this silliness occurs when a diver submerges past 30m (100ft), and the concentrated nitrogen mix they inhale results in a variety of euphoric effects. I'm sold.
Before taking on the advanced dive training I spend a whole day getting a little more friendly with this alluring island of Koh Tao. I meet up with my English dive buddy Marcus and we set out in search of a swath of serene beach. Rather then take the easy way there by taxi (lame) we decide to rough it and climb along the boulder strewn coast towards our destination.
Rock climbing in sandals is not ideal! Marcus and I silently dare each other to take on increasingly dangerous maneuvers. Sandals and dangerous rock climbing maneuvers do not mix well! At one point while standing on a steeply tilted rock face, my mind overrides the adrenaline veil pumping me full of overconfidence in order to inform me "Parker, if you fall from this height it will not result in a very pleasant sensation for Parker." Thanks common sense! I take a different route on that occasion.
We shuffle along steep palm shaded hillsides past dozens of half-constructed ghost bungalows. Remnants of a failed investment, or precursors of a resort to come? Either way, it's clear that Koh Tao is growing. Fast. Overpriced tourist-trap outlets and trendy beach resorts are popping up all over the island like boners in a middle school sex-ed class - whether you want em there or not.
Finally we stop to take a breather at a hidden beach that's been overtakenn by a small resort. Mostly European families lay around the palm shaded sand, taking advantage of the private bay that Marcus and I have dropped in on. After grabbing some pricey resort water and checking a map we find we've made little progress...In fact we've backtracked a fair amount, making a huge loop. Looks like a taxi will have to do after all. Can't say we didn't try!
Fancy beach bay resort. I prefer deserted beach bays myself, but if I had a wife and kids I wouldn't mind staying there.
Finally we arrive at Freedom Beach where we find Marcus' friend Julia as well as their travel friends Jacob and Hayley. Local dogs sprint back and forth nipping at each other playfully and paddling around the shallow ocean bay that surrounds the beach. Us humans spend a while loafing around the warm waters as well, lazily whacking a little pink rubber ball around to each other with wooden paddles.
The sun beams down steadily upon the bay; every once in a while one of us dives into the near-still waters to cool off. Not a care in the world, aside from one minor thing. The sand under the water is riddled with bits of coral and many small holes. Every once in a while one of us steps on a hole with something occupying it, and an angry claw pops out to pinch the unlucky foot in protest. Keeps me on my toes!
Time slips past without notice, and when I finally remember to slather on some sunscreen it's far too late. My skin slowly turns to the shade of a steamed lobster. I've never been much good at staying unsunburnt - it's just not my forte. I hitch a ride back to Big Blue on the back of Julia's rental scooter. This marks the second occasion I've found myself whisked around town behind a kind gal (the first experience being in Lopburi, when that kind old Thai woman found me lost and gave me a lift to the train station). I got it made!
The next morning the dive group meets up to start learning some fancy new tricks. The group remains nearly the same, aside from one change in the female role. Alina had to make her way back home (her knight in shining armor boyfriend was anxiously awaiting her return) so Marcus' German friend Julia fills the underwater void with a bright smile, youthful air, and fair looks to rival any siren of the sea.
The dive sights around the Koh Tao are speckled with colorful sea life swimming around patches of reefs in various states of health (you can tell the heavy tourism has affected the underwater ecosystem). I can't forget to mention the droves of divers kicking around down there everywhere I look earning their own certifications. It gets a bit crowded down there from time to time! Comes with the territory I suppose. Koh Tao is the cheapest place to go for dive certification - the island is home to countless dive schools, two of which crank out more certified open water divers then anywhere else in the world (Big Blue is number two).
One particular highlight is our wreck dive along an eerie, algae coated US battleship, the HTMS Sattarut. A triggerfish hovers silently over the long frozen turret at the bow of the boat. Very surreal. My only question is this: How ya 'spose to battle if you're underwater covered in muck, ship? Hmm?
My last few Koh Tao dives leave me with many vivid memories. Hefty titan triggerfish guarding their territory aggressively; if a diver ventures too close to their nesting territory their chameleon-like eyes lock onto the trespasser and the fish attempts to take a chunk out of anything they can fit between their jutting buck teeth bone plates. I keep my distance, but secretly hope to watch some poor, unsuspecting diver get chased off by one of these big testy fish.
Titan triggerfish in attack mode. Can't take credit for this one, props to Christian Loader, whoever you may be - I hope you dodged those gnarly fish teeth in time
Beneath a low coral arch rests a solitary, mysterious looking blue-spotted stingray. Her skin is alive as wave after wave glides along her thin grey edges of hypnotically, like a skirt patterned with neon blue polka dots blowing lightly in a breeze.
The stealthy looking blue-spotted stingray. Thanks to Klaus Jost for the image. What a swell shot.
Now for a Pokémon reference. Spotting a new aquatic life-form for the first time in person is much like the thrill of catching a new Pokémon and having it's info filled into the Pokédex. I keep a dive-log which acts much like a Pokédex. It allows me to keep track of everything I've sighted along my various sea-faris along with location, dive time, water temperature, and any other info I might care to jot down. Some creatures are far more rare or difficult to spot than others. When I happen to spy one of these gems it's as if I've just caught a wild lvl. 61 Gyrados. Gyrados, use Hydro Pump! Critical hit!! Thrills and chills.
Just imagine if there were such thing as an underwater Dive-é-dex...Working on it.
One of the simplest yet enticing sights lies throughout the reefs in cluster after cluster of these dainty feather worms that sprout out from corals in a variety of intense reddish oranges, goldenrods, deep blues, and bright whites. With a quick sweep of the hand near their vibrant fanned tips they all vanish into their tiny holes to hide away from the commotion.
Can't say I snapped this photo, but it has to be seen. Now imagine all of those feathery disappearing at once! It's like magic.
If one wished to create the equivalent of this phenomena but is currently in Colorado, first find a field of prairie dogs. Next, attach a brightly colored feather to the top of every prairie dog head. Finally, run through the prairie dog field while screaming like ravenous bird of prey and observe all the little feathered rodent heads plunge down into their dirt mound tunnel-holes. It's kinda like that.
Closest thing image I could find to match step two of my concept. If the party hats were flipped upside down it would also work. Props to whoever made this!
We learn to hover weightlessly, upside down, and tap our noses lightly upon a metal weight upon the sand. Undersea circus seals! Thirty meters under Ollie pulls out a regular old can of Coke, only instead of it appearing in its signature red glean, it's blackish-brown. The dense blue ocean water filters red light out from the light spectrum more and more as one descends underwater. Some divers wear masks with a red tint over the lens to give the reef and it's colorful residents back some of their magenta and crimson hues.
Then there's the night dive - my fondest memory in my time spent gliding around the calm waters surrounding Koh Tao. The sun sinks into the horizon and darkness seeps into the sea, disguising nocturnal shapes in shadows. The only light to reveal my aquatic surroundings spills from the long, narrow beam of my underwater flashlight.
Along this dimly lit dive I can't help but provide my very own undersea soundtrack. Singing into the respirator doesn't result in the most pleasant sound but it will have to do. My DIY sea radio-station plays all aquatic themed tunes (what else would you expect?). I'm talkin' Unknown Mortal Orchestra's "Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)", I'm talkin' Grizzly Bear's "Deep Sea Diver", I'm talkin' "Deep Blue Sea" (cover also by Grizzly Bear).
It takes some adjusting to, but being wrapped in complete darkness many meters beneath the water's surface creates this fantastically surreal and relaxing sensation. The lack of light puts the senses at ease, with only my small spotlight of illumination to process at any given time (and maybe one or two others from the other divers in the group.
Pairs of raccoon butterflyfish flash briefly into view, dressed in vivid yellow with stark black and brown streaks, a narrow white forehead band, and their signature raccoon-like masks over their eyes. Watching these silent ocean lifeforms under the veil of night makes the whole experience seem a bit more alien then it already feels.
Suspended, weightless, cruising through the void of cool darkness, a calm yet electrified sensation pours into me. An aquatic astronaut am I!