The hardest thing to describe to someone new to scuba diving, is the overwhelming sense of freedom that you get once you’re done. And by done I mean post-course comfortable.
Although if you’re like me, it takes some patience.
The first morning of my PADI course, nerves knotted my stomach into tight cramps and I could barely manage plain toast. What would it feel like? Would my instructor be patient with me? If I passed, would I even be able to enjoy the water?
I needn’t have worried. Shortly after breakfast I discovered that my instructor, who had moved to Ao Nang town on Thailand’s west coast a few decades ago, was originally from The Mumbles: A small town five minutes drive from where I grew up. Small World Syndrome at its comforting best that immediately put me at ease.
The kit was a faff though. Both above and below the water. After filling out forms that confirmed I wasn’t planning to sue if I died, I swam a few lengths of a swimming pool. Then it was time to submerge. Of course, going down to two meters in a shiny tiled tub with every part of your body covered by either neoprene or plastic is a bloody strange feeling at first.
This (quite understandably) is enough for some. That claustrophobia was real and yes, a little frightening. Although I was sure that something better must lie beyond. I’d watched enough David Attenborough documentaries to want to see those reefs first hand. To feel the swell of current that blows the corals and look upwards at the sun’s rays penetrating the surface.
Luckily, it wasn’t long before my perseverance was rewarded. After proving myself (during some skills exercises that included purposely letting my mask fill up with water so I couldn’t see anything – just as awful as it sounds) I was let loose on the Andaman Sea. Each morning we got on large cruisers that whisked us out to bays of swirling blue between Kho Phi Phi and other islands that jumped straight out of Bond movies.
Then we were gone. Overboard into the current, carried down to another world.
Everything simply dropped away. As I gained depth and pumped my BCD with a little air, I became weightless. At the same time, every other sound on earth apart from my breathing vanished. My senses were so overloaded with visceral sensations that it took me a few minutes to realise that there was life absolutely everywhere.
Turtles floated past, nibbling on fan corals before nonchalantly moving on. Anemone fish, like cartoon characters, popped their heads out to say hello. More sinister beauty lurked in the form of Lion Fish, poisonous spines erect, in colourful crevices. Below me, white tipped reef sharks grazed the sandy bottom with their slick bellies, oblivious to their human company.
To describe something as ‘life changing’ is perhaps the most used travel cliche. Although that’s exactly what those three days were. Getting my PADI qualification permanently opened the door to a new world.
From that day on, there was even more of the earth to explore.