Koh Tao: an island of beautiful beaches and spectacular diving

Deanna Martin
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August 6, 2017
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Thailand

We spent a little over a week on this tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand. It was equal parts adventure, relaxation, and exploration. I think I still have sand in my hair.

The island of Koh Tao is a pretty darn close to paradise on earth. Very much worth the 7 hour bus ride, 2 hour ferry, and first bout of seasickness it took to get there. We came to this island for the same reason that almost everyone on it does: diving. The place is overflowing with SCUBA divers, free divers (insane people who go down to crazy depths with no gear and hold their breath for way longer than we previously thought humanly possible), and the occasional snorkeler. The island is tiny but there are over 90 dive shops operating on it. Seeing how we were both Animal Planet junkies as kids (before it bafflingly and heartbreakingly started airing only reality shows) and are unapologetic Planet Earth enthusiasts as adults, we decided it’s about time we make our dreams into reality and figure out how to get down there with some of the island’s famous marine life.

Boats on the beach in front of our bungalow. Yes, this place really exists

Never having done more than a bit of amateur snorkeling in our time, we needed some serious guidance. Thankfully we didn’t have to compare all the dive shops on Tripadvisor since Skye and Ethan (Kolt’s sister and her husband) had been to Koh Tao, loved it, and gotten a certification with a dive shop on the island called New Way. In true diver style, they were incredibly laid back and didn’t even shrug at us moving back our start day. Despite their casual nature, the 4 day course that followed was anything but lax. We had instruction, took written quizzes and exams, trained with regular skills checks in shallow and deep water, and were expected to be able to thoroughly inspect and assemble our own equipment so we could ensure our safety anywhere else we choose to dive. Honestly, it was exhausting. Two of the 4 days were over 9 hours and the final day required being at the shop at 5:30AM. But in all the exhaustion we found a new and exciting way to engage the places we’re in and experience the beauty the world has in store.

Happy and exhausted on the dive boat

If you’re wondering what SCUBA diving is actually like, I think everyone has a different experience, but I’m happy to recount ours. Initially, it’s completely unnerving when you start sinking meters below the water and are telling your lungs to inhale while your instinctual brain is screaming “HEEELLLL to the NO! Have you lost it? I’m not inhaling under here!” My instinctual brain has a few more colorful expressions it uses as well. This battle gets more intense when they have you take off your mask, exposing your eyes and nose to the salt water, and continue to breathe through the regulator mouth piece. This is apparently a crucial skill because you have to do this multiple times every dive. The first steps of diving are really just a mind game and it’s a challenge to keep your nerves from getting the better of you. On our first day of training in the water, Kolt had a mild panic attack at 14 meters under- for the record: that’s more than 45ft underwater. We had just descended quickly from a sudden storm on the surface with waves that were tossing us around and driving rain in our face. Then we looked up and saw a 4-story building’s worth of water on top of us and were trying to breathe through a strange piece of noisy plastic stuck between our teeth. Thankfully, our dive instructor, Drew, was well-rehearsed in managing these kinds of reactions and he calmly reassured Kolt, helping him get his breathing back to normal quickly.

You can’t really express emotion in this gear but we’re happy

From there, everything got easier. The water was 80 degrees or more and most days the surface was smooth,although that didn’t stop me from getting seasick everyday. We learned to control our bouyancy with our breath and to manouver around, over, and in-between the colorful corals and unusual rock formations. As we gained comfort, we grew to recognize and then to love the feeling of weightlessness and fluid, slow-motion, soaring over the seascape below. Fish are much less jumpy when you’re under the water with them and we watched schools of tropical fish meander peacefully by, engulfing us for brief and blissful moments and then moving on. To see the marine life at eye level and watch them stream over the edge of the underwater cliffs, hover in the middle of the blue, or dart within the corals and anemones was something out of a dream. When we finished our course, we were absolutely beat, but also felt accomplished and amazed at the new world we can now visit. After our class, we went out for a fun dive as certified SCUBA divers and found ourselves swimming next to a 3 foot long banded sea snake. I learned after we came up (also after filming it from a close range) that it is one of the deadliest creatures around and a bite would almost certainly kill. Apparently I did not pay enough attention to Animal Planet after all. But they are also some of the least aggressive (thankfully) and most curiously, eerily beautiful creatures to watch weave their way through the waters. My personal favorite was the Christmas Tree worms, which poke their brightly colored ribbon and tinsel-like fronds up through holes in the coral only to instantaneoulsy suck them back in at the slightest wave of pressure nearby. If you stay long enough, they’ll slowly unfold again, like a brilliant alien-looking flower blooming before your eyes. We’re definitely looking forward to the doors this experience and certification open for diving in other places and the other amazing creatures we’ll be able to witness in their natural environments.

 

We took a few days off after our class before going on that fun dive and spent time appreciating the beach-front bungalow we had scored. The first night we stayed in a shadier establishment and happily used our bug-proof sleeping bag liners, but the next day we walked down the beach a ways and found adorable little bungalows right on the water for even less than the crowded hostels nearby. Like all good beach houses, amenities were minimal and we were perpetually sandy, but our door opened to palm trees and gentle waves and we were less than 10 minutes walking distance from our dive shop. Bonus: the beach is populated by friendly beach dogs who will happily escort you to your next destination in exchange for a few pets. We also spent a day with a rented motorbike and scooted around the island, over the mountainous mid-section to a gorgeous and more remote bay, called Ao Tanote, that took our breath away. Here we snorkeled over a pristine coral reef and even got up the guts to take the plunge from “Jump Rock,” a massive boulder in the middle of the bay. Then we dozed on warm sand and drank tea on patios overlooking the ocean before puttering back to our side of the island.

An adorable picture of me in one of our bug-resistant sleeping bag liners
View from our bedroom
Ao Tanote, a peaceful bay where we spent a blissful afternoon

We had some scrapes, rashes and bruises, I got seasick almost everyday until I embraced the miracle of dramamine, and we spent a good amount of time dealing with our sponsor (see the previous blog post if you’re curious). But in all that, we avoided anything major and counted ourselves successful to not be part of the hordes of people walking around the island with various limbs wrapped in gauze. Apparently the locals refer to a scar from falling off your motorbike as a “Thai Tattoo.”

We’re so happy that we visited this tiny island and got to experience the joy of diving as well as the beauty of the local beaches and bays. And we’re incredibly thankful to our dive instructor and the dive shop for keeping us alive and teaching us how to stay that way! We left with tans, sand in our hair, and a new way to explore our world.

 

Deanna Martin

Originally from New England but having spent 10 years in Chicago, I'm a hybrid. A Physician Assistant by profession, I love medicine and most things science-y (not space though, I'm apathetic about space). I also love trees, the ocean, languages, and the vast array of people throughout this breathtaking world of ours.

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