Five percent. Only five percent of the ocean has been topographically imaged. This means that 65% of our planet, where you and I live, is unknown. We’ve mapped Mercury and have an incredibly detailed “Idiot’s Guide to the Moon”, complete with ramblers maps which show you how to trek around the international claims of the US and Soviet governments. But comparatively, we know very little of the abyssal plains and continental shelves. Now, this doesn’t mean I am advocating that you go and knock on your government’s door and demand they commit more money to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Whose budget is dwarfed by that of NASA by a 4-1 ratio but when you reach figures equal to the GDP of Fiji, who’s counting anymore?
Now I am just as enthused about the final frontier as I am about deep-sea exploration, I have sat and looked up into the heavens and beyond with many a telescope and been utterly spellbound. The difference in this case though is that I am no closer to floating unbridled through the cosmos in any type of spacecraft. Yes, everyone’s favourite sun-dried Bee Gee Richard Branson is surely closer than most and godspeed to him but I don’t see anyone packing their spacesuits this decade. So if you want to experience weightlessness and the spirit of exploration in an unknown and alien world, look towards the hydrosphere with PADI.
Arguably I am not preaching to the congregation here. Those of you who sail or travel to the world’s coasts and beaches will have been diving or at the very least Snorkelling. I completed my first PADI Certified dive on Alphonse Atoll 250 miles south-west of Mahé in the Seychelles, 7º south of the equator, in early 2017. Taking your first open ocean dive with an instructor is an unparalleled experience. Our oceans are teeming with life, from the vibrant coral to the mighty Manta ray and there is only one way to see them.
For the uninitiated, PADI is arguably the world’s leading scuba diver training organisation. Brainchild of John Cronin a scuba gear salesman and Ralph Erickson, a champion swimmer amongst his many accolades. In 1966 the two were sharing a bottle of Jonny Walker at Erickson’s Illinois apartment, trying to come up with a name for their scuba training organisation. After several stiff rounds, they settled on the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. Today, PADI has over 137,000 professional members, 6,600 dive centres and resorts and has issued more than 27,000,000 diving certifications internationally. To put it another way, they’ve set the bar. So when we headed out to Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand with a film crew in tow, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to get my camera team acquainted with life under the sea.
You only have to look at the works of the late great oceanographer and explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau to know that underwater film can captivate a generation. Le Monde du silence, (The Silent World ), was released in 1956 and won not only the coveted Palme d’Or but also an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Cousteau shot on 35mm cameras using an army of frogmen so I fancied our chances of getting my 21st-century crew ocean ready.
We joined the team at the Discovery Dive Centre, a PADI 5-Star Instructor Development Centre in Koh Samui who offer a range of diving courses for beginners and professionals alike. Typically any diving day starts with an early transfer to a dive centre, be prepared for a whistle-stop tour of the major luxury resorts on the Islands Northern tip and strong coffee.
We arrived at Discovery’s dive centre on the Northern coast of the Island early doors and after another coffee, were introduced to Pierre and Russel our instructors. As a group of three arguably inexperienced divers and with one member of the team already tense, I thought the guys would have their work cut out for them. It turns out that a stoic Frenchman and an animated Englishman make quite the double act. Both were credentialed up to the eyeballs of course, Piere a former Navy diver and Russel having completed his instructor training with Discovery.
As would be expected, the team were then given a whats what guide to scuba kit, equalisation, hand signals, using a BCD and monitoring ones air gauge at the centre. After we were fitted for fins and wet suits, we walked the few hundred metres down the jetty to the waiting dive boat. Our destination, Koh Tao. The small and pristine island is a 90-minute boat ride depending on how willing your skipper is to gun the engines. It’s only 55km North of Koh Samui and given its discovery took place in the 1980s, you’ll find the pace and commercial sprawl of the island to be a little more relaxed than that of its neighbour. I confess we didn’t really make landfall though unless kneeling on the shoreline a few metres down counts.
Once the experienced divers had departed the boat and our gear had been triple checked by the instructors, we waddled to the stern to take that iconic first step into the water. Swimming in the Gulf of Thailand is a lot like taking a mild bath, except without the obligatory battleship and loofah. The balmy water is a welcome replacement to the frigid lake I encountered when learning to sail at Coate Water during primary school I can attest.
The first port of call was to confirm that we knew how to recover our regulators, use the BCD, breath underwater, clear regulators, masks and equalise. Each team member was given one on one tuition by our Anglo-French contingent before being offered a handshake of approval. With the basics out of the way, our troop were taken on a 35-minute dive near the Southern tip of the island. The dramatic coral landscapes are home to reef sharks, barracudas, turtles, stingrays and whale sharks if you happen to carry a four-leaf clover. I usually try and find time to go skiing 2-3 times a year, not just for the adrenalin rush and nightlife but the isolationism that comes with climbing a mountain. When I think about the effort and cost that goes into achieving that unencumbered escapism, I wonder why more people don’t seek it on the ocean floor. Dive sites around Koh Tao include the wreck of HTMS Sattakut, Japanese Gardens, Chumphon Pinnacles and Lighthouse Bay. The team at Discovery can put a bespoke itinerary together for you of course. For me, the feeling of floating weightless, bobbing up and down like an apple in a barrel as you try to regulate your rate of breathing is an incredible feeling. You don’t feel in any particular danger, you don’t feel cautious, you’re invigorated by the sense of exploration if you are like me.
After watching Russel and Pierre glide around us, calm as Hindu cows, we’re given the signal for another air gauge check, it’s time to return to the surface. As we reach the surface the team seems incredibly elated from the dive. Though you never can tell with Josh, much like Obelix falling into the magic potion, life for him appears to be a constant high. After exchanging stories and anecdotes at a breakneck pace, we begin to focus on the realisation that our next destination is Shark Bay. Now, this is mainly due to the way the topology of the small rock formation off the coast juts out of the water like a dorsal fin. It did little to quell the immediate concerns of our group though. Your chances of coming face to face with a shark in most open water dives are small and what makes you think they are going to care about how you taste anyway. Either way, I think when I get to a certain point in my diving education, I will carry a diving knife. Less for defence and more for the false sense of security and aesthetic I think. The real bragging rights would come from seeing a Whale Shark near the island of course. Growing 18-40 feet and weighing in at about 20 tons, I can imagine few sights more incredible than witnessing a leviathan of the deep. But with lunch in full effect, there was little to do but find a comfy seat and get some chow on board with the friendly group. It happens that there are bragging rights attached to scuba gear just as much as there is alpine gear.
Shark Island transpires to be quite a convivial affair with a few other dive boats in situ. Captains moor up together and climb onto the roofs of each other’s boats to catch up, no doubt exchanging stories from the day. Given my total lack of Thai apart from the pleasantries, I smile and exchange cigarettes with Pierre who is channelling the Navy diver that he was born to be. Steadfast, wide-eyed and looking out into the distance until I interrupt his ‘breather’. We exchange dive stories, though mine are limited and his are the stuff of boys own magazine.
It’s not long and we’re all back in the boat gearing up, checking BCDs and such. Jeremy the Staff Instructor from Borneo keeps the boat in high spirits with what I can only imagine is a well-rehearsed routine as we prepare ourselves again. The time is 1209hrs and we’ll be diving to 11 metres for about 45 minutes. The group appear much more at ease this time around having become acquainted with the various gauges and procedures needed for a safe and enjoyable dive. We drop below the surface once more and into the unexplored. I make it all sound like an episode of the Outer Limits and I expect as with all things in life if you dive every day, the mystery perhaps ebbs a little. But the life aquatic really is another realm. As schools of fish make their way hurriedly around the pulsing coral and turtles the size of desks stream in-between, I lose myself momentarily and collide with Florean in slow motion. She nods her head at me angrily but sadly for her, there is no underwater sign for verdomme and so thinking of this, I laugh inside my regulator which I am sure only infuriates her more. Things are quickly forgotten at sea given the inability to converse and so with the appearance of Jeremy and an underwater camera, the group comes into its element with a selection of poses to put Run-DMC to shame.
Before we all realise it, Russel is asking us to check our air levels again and giving us the thumbs up for ‘Go Up’. On the surface, you feel like you’ve awakened from a dream state. The warm sun hits your face and smiling faces appear one by one around you asking how your dive was. I had only met some of these people by exchanging a thumbs up or a wave underwater. Josh and I quickly decide to de-rig ourselves and head back into the sea unencumbered by our dive gear for a swim.
The boat ride back to Koh Samui was filled with contented faces, exchanging stories, sharing pictures and raising a beer to the captain and dive crew. Some were out for the count of course, the experience and adrenalin having worn off. After making it back to dry land we are issued with our PADI Discover Scuba Diving certificates before being corralled into a group photo to hold them aloft. After our goodbyes to the excellent team at Discovery, we make our way back to base for a sightly stronger cold drink by the pool. It’s little more than a few hours before pictures start to flood into the shared Dropbox courtesy of Jeremy. Surprisingly we’re all rather impressed with the silhouette we’ve cut, I am sure the wet suit helps.
Later that night we head out in high spirits to The Green Mango Bar off the Chaweng Road for cocktails and some fast footwork by Josh. Despite the size of the island and its expansion, we bump into Guita a Divemaster and Eric a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer and the owner of Discovery. By this point, I think I might have been a little over-served. Luckily so had everyone else. So as the libations continued into the small hours of the morning, Eric and I talked of a life spent on the ocean and the next frontier. For me, this is of course a PADI Open Water Dive Course. Same time next year? I doubt I can wait that long. Tempus