Southern Thailand is famous for its tropical islands, complete with luminous oceans and practically spotless white sand beaches dotted with lines of coconut trees. So it’s tough to live in Thailand and not love the ocean, what with such alluring panoramas just a train ride away. It’s also warm year round, so the weather is never an obstacle. My friend Sophie and I decided last year that we’d taken these beaches for granted for far too long, so we decided that our last summer together would be spent finally getting those scuba diving licenses we’d planned to get but never got around to. Sophie was going to University of Hawaii come fall to study marine biology, so it was only fitting that she went as a certified scuba diver.
Two of our friends, Max and Gordon, joined us as we blew our savings and began our journey to becoming certified open water divers. The first three dive lessons took place at a swimming pool (closed water training), where we learned to assemble our scuba kits. This impressive equipment included the pressure and depth gauges as well as the oxygen tank, which probably weighed as much as a baby elephant. We also learned that these components had fancy names, like “Buoyancy Control Device” instead of “life jacket.” In closed waters, we learned all the basics, such as how to breathe under water, what to do when your mask gets foggy, how to use the alternate air source when your oxygen hypothetically runs out, how to ascend safely so that your lungs don’t pop, how to stay at a controlled depth and so on. Once we finished our pool sessions, we had a classroom session which took care of the less exciting piece of scuba.
There’s a lot more to scuba diving than it seems. Beyond learning how to breathe underwater, scuba diving requires an abundance of technical knowledge. These are things such as scuba language, the hand signals used underwater. For example a thumbs up for “let’s ascend,” or a horizontal hand across the neck for “dude, I’m out of air.” Scuba anatomy means learning all the names of the equipment is painstaking but crucial because you don’t want to misplace your tubes and end up with no oxygen. Scuba math requires considering depth, time and oxygen volume and to calculate how long a dive should be. And finally, scuba biology. Apart from ascending slowly so that your lungs don’t explode, there are many other life-threatening risks like nitrogen narcosis, which is a condition that has to do with depth and partial pressure and is as frightening as it sounds.
After passing a written test, we stayed at a friend’s beach house and rented a boat out for our final exam, which meant we had to dive in open water: the ocean. We hoisted on our scuba gear and descended.
Taking that first step off the boat on that first dive is daunting. We’ve memorized the important rules: ascend slowly, don’t hold breaths, stay near buddies. We’ve practiced in closed waters, and now we’re about to plunge into the vast, unknown seas of open water diving. We edge closer to the edge of the platform. The very tips of our fins are dangling off the platform. One last step and we’re walking on air.
Water engulfs my body. The ocean embraces me. I’m relishing the moment when a hand suddenly snatches my Buoyancy Control Device and hauls me to the surface. My dive instructor stonily reminds me that I forgot to inflate my vest. Apart from that mistake and Gordon’s nosebleed from ascending too quickly, we return to shore after four days as triumphant, tanned, certified divers.