Koh Tao, or Turtle Island

I started my Emergency First Responder (EFR) course on April 7. A lot of it was review from what I had learned from being a lifeguard for four years. Basically for me it was just a review course of CPR and first aid. The instructor was impressed how quickly I picked things up, I admitted I had experience but didn’t say anything because I didn’t know if what I would learn was different than my experience. The instructor was also impressed by my test; he said usually it’s people who are students who score higher on the test because they know how to study and retain things. That evening I went out for dinner with the dive instructors I had met the day before. We had mojitos, mango and passion fruit flavored, while watching the sunset in a bar called the Coconut Monkey; then we went to dinner at a Thai/German restaurant. Koh Tao is not the place you would think to find schnitzel but we found it. 

I started my rescue diver course the next day (April 8). I started off in the classroom, watching the rescue diver movie (one of those movies that dates itself as late 80s/ early 90s) and working on the knowledge reviews. Classroom work is very boring, talking about the theory of rescue diving is not the same as actual rescue diving. You talk about the steps for getting someone out of the water but when you actually have to do it, it’s not as easy as it sounded.

That afternoon we were in the water, practicing the skills we discussed in the classroom. The work was exhausting. I had to be rescue ready at all times, being rescue ready means you can easily get into your equipment, do a buddy check, and get into the water in a minute. It can be done, I’m just a little slow (to be honest, everyone’s slow at the beginning, getting into your gear in a minute is hard). We worked on recognizing a panicked diver versus a tired diver, and practiced what to do for each of them. There was a lot of getting in to the equipment, getting in the water, towing other divers, getting on to the boat, getting out of the equipment, and repeat.
At the end of the day we practiced with unconscious divers. Unconscious divers can’t get themselves out of the water on to the boat. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get them out of the water either. The day had worn me out and I could only get them partially out of the water before falling off the ladder. It didn’t help that one of the ladder’s steps was unwrapped so there were metal bars digging into my feet as I tried to haul dead weight out of the water. That evening I had to finish my book work for homework. I fell asleep halfway through the chapters and woke up because I was drooling on myself. I finished the chapters and was in bed asleep by 8:30.

The first day of rescue diving reminded me why I quit being a lifeguard, it’s physically, mentally, and emotionally draining. One thing I liked about the rescue diver course was it talked about the mental/emotional aspect of saving someone. It even encouraged seeking professional help if you have trouble dealing with an event. Lifeguarding never talked about that. It was focused on the physical aspect of rescuing someone, but it failed to discuss what would happen after. For me, eventually the stress wasn’t worth the pay.

The second day was much better than the first day, it reminded me why I enjoyed lifeguarding. The morning was back in the classroom, finishing the workbook and the final test (which some of the questions were worded tricky and I’m a little miffed about that). The afternoon was working on skills again, except this day the skills were fun because we were putting all the skills together. I actually got the unconscious diver up the ladder! We worked on finding a lost buddy and getting an unconscious diver to the surface (which is really fun because you climb on their tank like a turtle and inflate their BCD so you float to the surface).

We had what they called a hell dive. They told me we were going to do a fun dive, I equate a fun dive with fun, but really the dive was more like babysitting. Our group was me, my instructor, a dive master intern, and another intern who was our guide. It took me a while to realize what was happening on the dive. I watched the guide descend with his snorkel in instead of his regulator (he switched it eventually because he needed to breathe) (regulators are what you put in your mouth to breathe from the tank of air) and I watched my instructor bounce along the bottom for a while before realizing I had to do something. After I realized I was responsible for the three of them everything was chaos, fins were falling off, people were panicking, masks were filling up with water, people were spitting out their regulators, and at one point my instructor was playing with a sea urchin. Ridiculous.

My final scenario was a lost buddy. I had to do a search pattern to find the lost buddy. There was a bit of a current so I ended up searching the same place twice before realizing I needed to make my pattern bigger. I found the lost buddy, but the lost buddy was unconscious so I needed to turtle on her back to bring her to the surface. At the surface I had to pretend to give rescue breaths while towing her to the boat while unhooking our equipment. Then I had to get her up the ladder, and I did it! (I have a 1/3 success rate getting people up the boat ladder, my instructor said in a real rescue scenario I would have more people helping me so I wouldn’t have to do everything by myself) I passed the course and now I’m rescue certified!

I took April 10 off, used it to recover and do laundry (I was getting smelly). I ran into some friends from the CIEE program on the island (either it’s a small world or there are a lot of teachers in the program) and spent a lot of time with them. The next two days I did some fun dives; I figured I earned it and I hadn’t gotten a chance to see very much while I was doing the rescue course. I met my CIEE buddies at Aow Leuk bay for a change of scenery. A lot of time was spent hanging with friends and diving; it was wonderful and much needed.

April 11 we dove at Chumpon reef and the HTMS Sattakut. When we descended at Chumpon, the visibility was so clear. You could see for 25 meters; the dive leaders said they had never seen water that clear at Koh Tao before. The clarity was amazing, I’m not used to diving in such clear water it almost made my head hurt. As we were descending, there was a little black and silver striped remora playing with my dive leader’s tank. The fish would swim to the tank, wiggle all over it, swim around it, and wiggle on it again. It probably thought the tank was a bigger fish because remora like to hang out with bigger fish. My dive leader had no idea what was going on. I saw my first barracuda on this dive. It was just like the one in “Finding Nemo” except less angry looking. If you didn’t know what a barracuda was you could still tell it was a predator just by the way it moved and the way all the other fish avoided it.

I learned about trigger fish while on Koh Tao. As part of my rescue course I had to write an emergency action plan (EAP). Part of the EAP is writing down hazards, one of the hazards to watch out for are trigger fish. I had never heard of trigger fish before. They are an extremely territorial fish and will attack threats to their territory. Sometimes they view divers as threats. Their attack is really just running into you or biting your fins or trying to bite other parts of you. If attacked by a trigger fish you need to swim to the side because their territory gets bigger as you get closer to the surface. Some of the smaller ones aren’t that aggressive though the big ones are. Before they attack, there is a small fin that sticks up on the top of their head, hence the name trigger fish. It’s cool to watch them swim because they use the fins on the top and bottom of their body to swim and the fins on the side of their body stay still.

The second dive was at the wreck of HTMS Sattakut, which was an American battleship that we gave to Thailand and they sunk it for diving. The water here was also so clear, again clearer than anyone had seen before. When we arrived at the bottom after our descent we saw a little stingray just chilling out next to the ship. We swam around the wreck, no going inside because it is for wreck divers only (it’s a tame wreck, stripped of everything and dunk on purpose, the wrecks in Pattaya were more impressive even if visibility isn’t so great there). After looking at the outside of the wreck, the guns were still mounted on it which were cool to look at, we headed to Hin Piwi which is a pinnacle really close to the wreck. There was a turtle! We watched it eat for a while before having to go back to the boat.

April 12, I went on the Sail Rock trip. Sail rock is close to Koh Pangnan, 2 hours away from Koh Tao and is supposed to be some of the best diving in the area. It was beautiful, again with the amazing visibility (except only on one side because there was current and a thermocline on the other side). I saw my first eel, it was so cute. It was just a small one, no bigger around than my thumb. There was also a school of barracuda. They were smaller than the one the day before but there were a lot of them. I didn’t know they swam in schools together. I asked my dive leader about the butterfly fish and the banner fish, because you almost always see them in pairs. He said you see them in pairs because they mate for life, fun fact.

In Sail rock there is a chimney where you can swim up and down it; it’s very open with lots of space and light. We swam through it several times and one time a free diver popped out of it, waved hello, and swam off. Since Sail Rock was so far away from Koh Tao we had both dives there. I put lots of sunscreen on so I wouldn’t burn on the ride to and from the rock, but I forgot about my legs so I got a wetsuit burn right above my knees. Ouch.

Songkran was held on April 13. It is the Thai new year, though it is a Buddhist holiday so Cambodia was celebrating it too. Usually it lasts for three days, but on the islands it is only one day. Songkran is a giant water fight. Traditionally it is for cleansing–cleaning your house, washing your Buddha statue, cleansing yourself–but it has evolved into the water fight it is today. In Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and Pattaya the festival is crazy and lasts for days. On the islands, freshwater is scarce so the festival only lasts one day. By the end of the day people are using salt water and it’s not as fun. I was with my CIEE friends, we went to the beach in the morning. As we drove down the street on a motorbike people were spraying us with water. Later we went to Sairee beach where the insanity was. Walking along the street you got blasted with water, people would dump water on you from their hostel balcony. It had the air of a giant spring break frat party, whereas in other places on the island it was more cleansing fun. I will post videos later when I am not traveling, having a waterproof camera was necessary. I kept my money in a plastic bag, one of the cashiers said it was smart and she appreciated not getting soggy money.

April 14 was another rest day for me. Songkran was crazy and I wanted to relax for a day (I’ve realized I’m getting old and can’t do as much as I used to, or I’m just out of shape). My plan was to leave the island on April 15, so I needed to figure that out too. Also I received an update about the potential swim instructor job. I need to have a third interview and write a letter of application. I had to track down an Internet cafe on the island to start the letter.

Since the cheapest way off the island was the night ferry, I dove in the morning April 15. The dives were at Southwest pinnacle and the wreck again. My dive buddy this time sucked up air like there was no tomorrow. He was floundering all over the place, using up lots of oxygen, pointing out every single fish that passed by. Diving is considered an extreme sport, but it’s very relaxed. When it’s done right, you remain neutrally buoyant in the water (where it seems like you are hovering in the water) and take deep slow breaths. We saw a giant grouper, this fish was about as big as me. It was positively massive. The dive was under 30 minutes because he almost ran out of air. At one point the dive leader offered to share air with him because he was almost out and he declined. When your dive leader offers you air, you take it. For the second dive he couldn’t equalize the pressure in his ears so he stayed on the boat. The second dive was awful; there were so many people and the visibility was so bad. We didn’t see anything interesting either.

The funny thing about my dive buddy that day was the previous day (April 14) he walked into my bungalow and asked how I got into his room. I informed him that this was B2; turns out he was in B1 and was in the wrong room. On April 13, the girl from B3 walked into my room and wanted to know how I got into her room. Again I had to inform her she was in the wrong room. Then her friends stopped by and were surprise to see me instead of her. I had to point them to the correct bungalow. Another day a cat strolled into my room and made itself at home on my bed. My room was unintentionally popular.

April 15 was also my brother’s birthday and he had asked for a shout out on my blog so I wrote him a mushy blog post. Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.

In the afternoon, my CIEE friends wanted to go to a lookout point near the pier. When I say near I mean it’s a hike. We hiked up a mountain, the roads are quite steep in Koh Tao and apparently I missed the impossibly steep hills on the other side of the island. We hiked up this mountain (on the road) for about a half hour, in the brutal sun. When we arrived at what we thought was the top, there was no lookout point. We went down a bit to a smaller road and found an abandoned concert/bar area with a nice view. The hike wasn’t totally wasted but it was exhausting.


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