As I slid my aluminium cylinder into the tank rack, I caught a fleeting glimpse of white sand beaches and palm trees dusting the distant horizon. The smell of massaman fish curry bubbling on the deck above overpowered the lingering scent of neoprene and salt water trapped in my nose. Traditionally boisterous postdive stories in various corners of the deck turned to the impending night’s pub crawl. I thought to myself, “This place just might be paradise.” A map, however, had a different name for it: the Chumphon Archipelago.
Anywhere in the world, island life tends to be a bit cliché. All right — a lot cliché. That being said, beyond the oversized vessels of booze and omnipresent Bob Marley jams that most people associate with the islands of Thailand’s eponymous gulf, there’s more to each of these specks of green than initially meets the eye.
Nestled in the Ang Thong National Marine Park, each of the islands has its own perceived specialty. Koh Phangan: wild, moon-related parties. Koh Samui: parties of a slightly higher class, yet also respite from the chaos inherent to Thailand. Koh Tao: diving. The smallest island in the food chain is a veritable Mecca for the sport. I was fortunate enough to explore it to the fullest.
In between spurts of regional travel, I spent a large chunk of time in the Gulf, living, training, and working as a “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus” (or “SCUBA”) professional. As such, it was appropriate that my initiation to the island cult came not with a trial by fire, but water. Songkran, the Thai New Year celebration hallmarked by throwing buckets of water in amounts nearly equalled by the volume of alcohol consumed, occurred within twenty-four hours of my arrival in the Kingdom. A friend of mine from Bangkok insisted that we meet up on Koh Phangan for the festivities. There, we waded through muddy 7-Elevens to purchase cheap beer, discharged squirt guns into the air and at each other, and toured the island on the back of a local’s pickup truck with a soberish driver. The next night, we dove deeper down the rabbit hole, joining a tidal wave of backpackers at the Full Moon Party.
Though tempted by Thailand’s abundance of, shall we say, “leisure” activities, I’d come here to dive. While my much-abused liver was still processing alcohol, I swallowed some Dramamine to fend off seasickness and hopped on a ferry, heading to my new twenty-one-squarekilometre Koh Tao home. Digs there consisted of the requisite small, stale room with barely-working A/C, spotty power, a trickle that barely passed for a shower, and an angry landlady. In other words, it was perfect for my needs. Days were passed diving in the warm, clear waters, and the nights drinking along the bar-riddled beachfront spine known as the “yellow brick road.”
I am a certified divemaster, which puts me one notch below an instructor. I am also certified in specialties, like diving with different mixtures/compressions of air, swimming around inside shipwrecks, and diving very, very deep. As a general rule, divemasters plan and lead dives, assist new divers, and double as a safety expert for the boat. As such, we spend a lot of our time under the water – where things can get a little weird.
Koh Tao’s dive sites are infamous for “trigger fish” — a somewhat large, bony fish, approximately a half metre in length and five kilos in weight, so named for the articulating dorsal fin that springs upward when they aren’t happy. A very territorial (particularly during the spring mating season), trigger fish frequently “attack” divers by using their coral-chomping teeth to nibble at fluttering swim fins and occasionally the fleshy parts left unguarded. Your first encounter with trigger fish is quite memorable, but when you realize they’re not much more than “terriers of the sea,” battling these little buggers can be a blast.
One day, during a dive at the Green Rock site, we were a bit overstaffed, so a friend and I decided to do our own thing. Green Rock has a “pit” of trigger fish that we happened to moor over the top of that day, so he and I decided to check it out. After doing a brief circumnavigation of the dive site to kill time, we assumed everyone else was aboard the boat and decided to rile the triggers up. Swimming directly over the pit, we watched the fins spring up, pushing a few away with our flippers and getting the whole community up in arms.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the beginner divers from our boat floating like sea lions into this swarm of very pissed off fish. We immediately turned from instigators to bodyguards, fending off the onslaught while mildly panicked students and staff went through their decompression protocols. After getting everyone safely aboard the boat, we feigned surprise at the erratic fish behaviour, but our story of being innocent victims did not hold up. In the spirit of dive-course camaraderie, we made it right by buying copious beers that night for the survivors
Diving, you see, is a sport governed by tradition. One such tradition dictates that, on your hundredth dive, you go as the Good Lord made you: in the buff. Wise divers coordinate their century dives to ensure they happen at sparsely populated sites at odd times. Not so for one divemaster in training on our boat. He went for it at a sandy bottom training dive site, crawling with newbie divers, in the early afternoon. Reluctantly, I agreed to be his buddy, but only because I wanted to observe the chaos. Learning to dive can be stressful and mentally taxing, so I can only imagine being in the middle of a lesson and looking up to see a naked man float by.
Working on Koh Tao for only a few months, I could easily fill volumes with stories like this. Each day was another experience I never thought I’d have. Randomly finding a stuffed Winnie the Pooh bear floating on top of the waves. Trying to have a 50 metre “dash” race on the bottom of the ocean (much harder than you think). Coming out of a darkened shipwreck only to be face-to-face with a 100 kilo sea turtle. Going on dives specifically to look for lost snorkelling equipment so we could sell it for booze money. Every trip into the deep blue seemed better than the last.