Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Scuba Diving

Back in October, by boss asked me if I'd like to join him taking a scuba diving course. I'd always wanted to try scuba diving and this sounded like the best opportunity I was ever going to get, so I jumped at the chance.

We spent two Thursday nights taking the classroom parts of the course and then got to spend our first few minutes breathing underwater in a pool in Singapore. I was very happy with the teacher we had and was looking forward to our "open water" certification dives.

During the last week of October, the class piled into a van and drove the 3 hours from Singapore to Mersing, Malaysia. From there, we got on a boat that took us to Palau Dayang island for our dives. Over that weekend, we made 5 dives and took our written test. By the end of the weekend, I was a certified scuba diver.

I'd had such a great time learning to dive, I couldn't wait to get back under water. Over the next three months, I started buying all of the equipment you need to dive. While you can rent the gear pretty easily, I decided I wanted my own equipment that I could rely on and that I knew was well maintained and fit well. (Most standard rental gear in Asia isn't designed for people who are 6'4".)

Now that I had this big bag of scuba gear sitting in my house, I had to come up with a reason to use it. Last week was the perfect opportunity. Melissa and Jack were going to Norway for 9 days over the New Year holiday to visit our old friends, the Ronnings. I didn't have quite enough vacation left available to join them on the trip, but I did have just a few days left that I could use to stretch out the New Year's weekend. Diving trip, here I come!

Where to go? That was the first question, but one that was quickly answered. One of the guys here in the office is a certified master diver. When I asked him where he goes when he's got a few days available to dive, he answered very quickly. "The Similans."

The Similans are an island chain a bit northwest of Phuket, Thailand in the Andaman Sea. They are part of a Thai national wildlife park that is only open to the public 6 months each year. The main source of visitors to the islands are scuba divers on "liveaboard" dive boats. This sounded like a great opportunity and after some research, I found that this was one of the best diving sites in the world. Passionate divers will plan trips from around the world just to dive the Similans and nearby "Richelieu Rock".

The next step was to plan the trip. What it really came down to was finding a boat the met my schedule. I was very happy to find what I was looking for with West Coast Divers and their boat, the M/V West Coast Explorer.

Last Tuesday, I took a 2 hour flight from Singapore to Phuket. From there, I jumped into a taxi and made my way to the West Coast Divers shop in Patong Beach. I had a chance to meet the divermaster and trip director, Andy. I also was able to jump into their pool and test out all of the brand new gear I'd bought over the last few months. After grabbing a quick bite to eat, we were off to the boat.

Most of the liveaboard diveboats in the area actually dock in Khao Lak, about two hours north of Phuket. We arrived at the boat around 7pm and were able to meet the crew and all of the other guests arriving in the two other vans as well. The boat sleeps 16 guests, plus 5 divemasters/guides and 5 boat crew. We all got a tour of the boat and were assigned our rooms before departing the pier and eating a great dinner onboard.

It felt wonderful to be out at sea in the night air. It had been a long time since I'd spent any real time living onboard a ship. I spent most of the night after dinner just sitting on the bow and enjoying the ride. I did force myself to go to sleep after a while though. We had a dive briefing at 7am and were supposed to be in the water by 7:30.

A bit before 7:00, I was up on deck having a cup of coffee and a banana before our morning briefing and dive. I was a bit nervous at this point. I'd accepted the divemaster's offer of taking the Advanced Diving course while onboard. While this was going to be my first dive in 3 months, it was also going to be my first "deep" dive as part of the advanced training.

The initial "open water diver" course only certifies you up to 18 meters (about 55 feet). The advanced course trains you to dive past that, up to the theoretical limit of 40 meters that you can dive on regular compressed air. As a safety precaution, almost all recreational dives are limited to 30 meters and that's where we kept ourselves for all of our dives.

I was paired up with my dive buddy for the trip that day as well. She was also a new diver that would be taking the Advanced course onboard. We were in a dive group with 3 other people our age and were lead by our divemaster, Andy.

Me and my dive buddy, Kat.

Me and the divemaster, Andy

Our team: Patrick, Martin, Sidre, Kat and me.

Before I knew it, I was in my gear and jumping into the ocean. After a quick check on the surface, I dumped the air from my BC and exhaled the air from my lungs. I was on my way 30 meters down to Anita's Reef!

I was still nervous, but I was happy to feel like I knew what I was doing. The training dives in Malaysia were fresh in my mind and I was comfortable in the water.

The first thing that hit me when I neared the bottom was how diverse the coral was. All different kinds of hard and soft corals everywhere. At 30 meters, colors are pretty dim. Red is non-existent and the yellows are very faded. Everything looks very blue. As part of the "deepwater" training, the instructor shows you and object that you should instantly recognize to reinforce the point that colors can play tricks on you at depth. Andy reached into his pocket an pulled out a black soda can. But, it wasn't black, it just looked that way. When he turned it around so we could see it, it said COKE on the front. Lesson learned.

From there, we started to swim around and slowly ascend as we looked at the coral and wildlife in the ocean. Our 45 minutes under water ended much too quickly and it was time to ascend to the surface and get back on the boat.

After the dive, everyone at the breakfast table was very excited talking about their first dive of the trip.

"Did you see that turtle?"
"What was the name of that fish?"
"That wrasse was huge!"
"How much air did you have left?"
"When's the next dive?"

The answer to that last question was, "two hours later." We did 4 dives each day for four days.

The next big adventure was my first "night dive". It is exactly what it sounds like. Scuba diving in the dark with nothing but an underwater flashlight. I was very nervous that I wouldn't like it. I was surprised that as soon as I was in the water, I knew that this was something I'd enjoy. I think it's the closest you can get to feeling like you're floating in outer space. When you're diving with a group, there are enough other lights around so that you can keep your bearings. One thing to remember is to always keep you light pointed in the direction you are traveling. If you are looking at something off to your side, you've got no idea what you might run into head first.

Aside from the training and new diving experiences, the beautiful coral and wildlife was the star of the trip. On the the reasons that the Similans are so popular with divers is the clear, warm water and the diversity of the wildlife. There is no better dive spot to see hundreds of different species than Richelieu Rock. It's actually such an amazing spot, we dove there three times in a row and were disappointed when it was time to leave for another location.

That's not a plant, it's an animal.

Awesome eel.


Richelieu Rock is a spot much closer to Myanmar than Thailand. It's a pinnacle of boulders in the middle of the sea that is 1 meter above sea level at low tide and under water at high tide. The small rock you can see from the surface barely hints at what is below. This steep tower of boulders and coral goes down over 40 meters in some spots and is one of the most bio-diverse spots in the ocean. In this one location, you can see everything from tiny schooling fish to huge manta rays and whale sharks. Dozens of hard and soft corals, and hundreds of colorful tropical fish surround the area.

We also spent New Year's Eve onboard. Thankfully, it was a really fun crowd onboard and we had a great night. Everyone had a great dinner served by the crew that even included a nice glass of wine. The party went on from there with plenty of beers and even a bottle of whiskey that somehow found it's way onboard. We had a great night together that ended with a midnight jump from the top deck into the dark ocean.

The most photographed stars of the trip were of course the coolest (and rarest) animals we saw. Searching for manta rays takes a lot of luck. They kind of come and go as they please. All of the boat captains in the area keep in touch with each other by radio. If one boat gets luck with a good sighting, he'll pass the word so others can try that spot too.

We'd been just floating in the water about 20 meters down near an island called Koh Bon hoping for mantas to pass by when there was a "clang, clang, clang" in the water. It was Andy banging on his air tank to get our attention.

It's bigger than it looks. This one was at least 4.5 meters wide. That's almost 15 feet. It looks like a flying car moving through the water. You can just feel the power it has as it passes you. It's an amazing thing to see. Even the divemaster Andy, who has over 3700 logged dives, is impressed every time he sees one.

During one dive, this huge sea snake decided to just swim right through the middle of our group. It was about 2 meters long and moved very quickly.

We also saw a few leopard sharks throughout the dives. Aside from the mantas, these were my favorite. This one was about 3 meters long.

I know you're thinking, aren't these dangerous animals??? Short answer: yup. IF you mess with them, there are dozens of animals in the ocean that will either kill you or poison you so bad you wish you were dead. The thing is, none of them want anything to do with you. The manta swims past you like you'd walk past a pigeon on a sidewalk. It's like it hardly notices you. The snake and the sharks both went about their business, but kept their distance from the divers. As long as you don't cause trouble, or touch something that you shouldn't, you don't have to worry about the wildlife attacking you. The fish are much more afraid of you that you are of them. The best rule of diving in the ocean....look, but never touch.

To sum up a very long post, I think I'm hooked. I'm sitting at my desk trying to figure out when I'll be able to go diving again.


Ryan and Becky Weiss said...

so, so cool, Matt! i am completely amazed at how vibrant the colors are in your pictues! i'd love to scuba dive but i'll just stick to living vicariously through others:)

Deacon Frank Tremblay said...

Totally wonderful. Once the warm weather returns your mother and I have to make time for this - especially with a parishioner as a certified dive master.

Newby said...

AWESOME! (except for the sea snake. No thank you to that!)

Andy said...

Yeah, that was great! That night dive would have creeped me out, though.