Getting 15 ft under water and up close with Ko Tao’s exquisite water-world, in Thailand.
My knees kept brushing against the ocean floor, displacing the fine, creamy-white sand. Still, I knew I was coming along fine, as I had not disturbed any of the marine life so far. My instructor — a burly New Zealander in his forties, friendly yet authoritarian — gave me a ‘thumbs up’ and I smiled back, sending out bubbles through my mask. His sign, I presumed, indicated that I was doing well for a first-time diver. I grew more confident, and propelled myself forward by gently moving the yellow flippers strapped to my soft, black ballerina-like shoes.
I was in the waters of Ko Tao, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. I was awed by the vastness of the watery universe I had entered. I couldn’t help but marvel at the unique colour and form of every creature I encountered during the 45-minute dive. Tiny blue fish with matching scales, larger black-and-white ones with orange spots, sleek silver fish in the shape of a flattened banana, clown fish, some with big, perfectly round mouths, and others with tiny eyes or tinier fins.
As I groped for my underwater camera, which I’d slung from my wrist, I missed seeing the extraordinary milky-white fish my instructor was pointing to. I began examining the corals around me which seemed to comprise every single colour there was in the world. Meanwhile, various kinds of fish glided past, some brushing against my scuba outfit. A school of silvery fish, each the length of my palm, formed an irregular geometrical figure behind me. I slowly turned my head to watch as they swam sideways collectively. Three pretty purple fish came charging towards me, and then abruptly changed course to the right, barely four inches from my bulky optical lens — I wondered if the trio had trained as Charlie’s Angels.
However, 15 ft or deeper in the sea, you simply don’t have the luxury to lose yourself in such thoughts. Presence of mind is demanded, and inhaling and exhaling must be perfectly coordinated. Whenever I felt the slightest discomfort in my ears, I remembered to use the technique to equalise ear pressure — pinching the mask at my nose and heaving out a big breath, a bit like sneezing with one’s nostrils clipped. Our group had earlier rehearsed this and other techniques while heading out to the dive spot on board a sparkly-white speedboat named Poseidon.
I repeated the technique until I felt fine, and looked towards Steve for another ‘thumbs up’, but he was busy focusing his camera on a light-pink fish emerging delicately from the corals. All the while his right hand held my left in a firm grip, and I was effortlessly pulled in his direction. I knew he had achieved the perfect shot because he proudly turned the display screen towards me. I replied by bringing my thumb and index finger together to signal ‘Super!’.
I made sure I was breathing regularly through the section of the mask that was clenched between my teeth, and I was thrilled each time a row of bubbles escaped. I had read that in Ko Tao, rare turtles and even barracudas have been spotted in the dive site for beginners, but I had no such luck. A fellow diver was gazing at a rust coloured rock with jagged edges. I counted at least a dozen small green fish, closely resembling delicate leaves, on the flat end of his maroon flippers.
A few feet from me I spotted the young Canadian I had befriended on the boat, a first-time diver like me, seemingly in a panic. He flapped his hands wildly, and then shot upwards with his instructor. I later found out he had allowed too much water to enter his mouth and nose. I was sure he would be out of trouble, but felt sad he had missed out on the adventure midway.
Further ahead, another diver, seemingly in his thirties, was toting a fancy camera. He moved swiftly, but managed to become perfectly still every time he took a picture. I assumed he was a professional diver. Just then Steve signalled me to follow him behind some large rocks that appeared ahead. He bent his forearm to show me his sports watch — 40 minutes had passed, and time was up. I was curious about our ascent. The descent had felt like a trick because we had simply walked down the shore, the slanting sand floor gradually leading us to the bottom, where we were free to navigate.
On the ascent, Steve helped me bring my cylinder pump forward. I reduced the pressure in the 8-kg cylinder and found myself rising smoothly, arms positioned downwards.
I fumbled for a moment, wondering whether I was supposed to continue breathing and equalising, and at the same time glanced below to catch the last few glimpses of the exotic aquatic world I was leaving behind. Within seconds, I bobbed up and out of the water. One by one, all 23 divers resurfaced and pulled off the face masks. I kept mine on and slyly dipped my head inside the water in the hope of getting a peek underwater. All I managed to see was the bottom of my black suit and flippers.
Pictures by the author