Learning how to scuba dive...

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Safely on board before my first dive - with my instructor, Born (right)

From nervous swimmer to water baby

By Carol Driver

If you’ve been unlucky enough to see me in the water, it’s clear that it’s not my natural habitat.

I’m not the strongest of swimmers – I had to hold a pole while trying to do back crawl during lessons when I was younger because I was so afraid of the deep end.

 I can’t dive, I hold my nose when I jump in, and, embarrassingly, I wear flip-flops in the sea because I don’t like weird creatures touching me.

Holding on to a fellow diver at our safety stop

Just three weeks before unfathomably deciding that it would be a good idea to complete a Scuba course while staying in Phuket, Thailand, I tried snorkelling. I fell victim to the oldest trick in the book after mentioning to the boat boys that I’m not a fan of fish.

They then found it hilarious to throw bits of bread near to me in the water. Cue thousands (well, it seemed like thousands) of brightly coloured blurs, thrashing about, fighting over their generous find.

It was far too close for comfort for me. After an over-reactionary rant, using language that quickly wiped the smiles off the boat boys’ faces, they helped me out of the water.

Strangely enough, my diving instructor, Born, isn’t deterred by any of this when I tell her on our first meeting just how out-of-place I feel in the water.

Underwater photography as part of advanced course
Instead, she smiles and calmly tells me that I’ll be fine. I just hope I don’t prove her wrong.

I’m taking Scuba Schools International’s four-day Open Water course with Sea Bees, based in Chalong Bay.

Born and I spend the morning of day one in the classroom – an environment I’m only just a little bit more familiar with. I watch DVDs explaining the dangers of diving, which, if I’m honest, doesn’t fill me with much confidence. But the lesson also stresses that with the right knowledge, skills experience and equipment, the risk of an accident happening is lowered.

That afternoon, I have to put into practice some of what I’ve learned. The Sea Bees’ resort is the only one in Phuket with a three-metre-deep pool, making it ideal to experience the closest thing to a dive without being in the sea.

Born’s patience prevails again as I ask her to repeat for the third time what I should do if I run out of air – and what to do if I’m attacked by thousands of fish.

Weird and wonderful sealife

Twenty minutes later, and after checking how all the equipment fits together, I’m kitted up, with a regulator in my mouth – as I’m still above water, I’m convinced this is my instructor’s way to stop me from nervously talking so much.

We sit in the shallow end as Born holds my hand, literally, for my first attempt of breathing underwater. I survive and manage to stay down for a full minute. Rather pleased with myself, I surface, ready to move to the deep end.

Here, we spend about 20 minutes underwater. I learn, well, try to learn, various skills such as how to clear my mask if it leaks, how to control my breathing and buoyancy, and how to retrieve my regulator should it be pulled from my mouth.

So far so good. Then Born informs me we’re on one of Sea Bees’ boats tomorrow for my first open water dive.

Beautiful coral
She doesn’t listen when I suggest keeping my experience pool-based, because of the fish.

So the next morning we set sail on Aragon for an hour-and-a-half and head over to Racha Yai island. We moor at Bay 3 and I manage to impress myself by remembering how to put my equipment together. Born and I then “buddy” check each other to make sure everything is working.

I stand on the edge of the boat and make a jump for it - the air in my buoyancy jacket keeps me afloat as we make our way to the spot where we’ll do the dive.

Born signals “OK” to me and then turns her thumb down – rather than showing me that she’s unhappy, it’s the signal to descent. I agree and let the air out of my jacket – slowly.

As my face is covered by the water, I can hear my breathing, which is deafeningly loud, and I can see air bubbles furiously surfacing as I anxiously keep eye contact with Born, who is gesturing to me that I should keep equalising my ears to stop pressure from building.

Fish swim in and out of coral
I check my depth gauge and we stop at 12 metres.

It’s fascinating. I almost forget about my fears and instead I am captivated by the stunning life forms which happily live below the surface. There are miles of beautiful, colourful coral out of which fish of every hue dart in and out of plants unlike I’ve ever seen before. It really is another world.

Born signals to me to kneel on the seabed. She carries out the tasks I learnt yesterday and then gestures for me to do the same.

I’m not confident about the mask-clearing exercise. I hate the feeling of water up my nose, and only pull at my mask gently as though in doing it that way, it will only let in a few drops. Instead, of course, the water rushes in – and I panic.

It stings my eyes and I can feel my breathing quicken. I try to blow out of my nose and tilt back my head to clear my mask, but fail to get rid of all the water.

Manage to snap a fish before it darts off
Instead, I breathe some of it in, had I been on the surface, it would have made me cough.

I feel my heartbeat start to race. Born signals to ask if I’m OK and I give her the “so-so” hand gesture.

Thankfully, she’s the epitome of calm. She smiles and gestures to me to breathe slowly. And I do. I think of nothing but the sound of my breathing and a few minutes later, I’m OK.

But near-death experiences don’t phase Born, who signals to me to repeat the skill. This time, I know what to expect and I manage to get almost all the water out of my mask without nearly killing myself in the process.

Then we’re free to explore, and I spot stingrays, batfish, mantis shrimp, giant moray eels and an octopus, before it’s time for our ascent.

We do one more dive that day and I already feel my confidence growing, perhaps it’s because of the wetsuit I’m wearing, but the thought of being close to fish doesn’t even phase me anymore.

On day three we’re back in the classroom and the pool, learning new skills such as diving without a mask on – which I’m able to do fairly easily – and a fitness test of swimming for 200 metres without stopping and 10 minutes of treading water, which thankfully I complete without getting too out of breath.

On the last day of the course, we head back to Racha Yai to Lucy’s Reef for two more dives.

I’m confident and so much more relaxed than the first time. After completing the skills from yesterday, Born takes me to 18 metres – along the way, she points out a huge green turtle sleeping, while schools of brightly coloured tropical fish swim nearby, curious of the aliens in their territory.

We also spot schools of barracuda, bearded scorpion fish, pike fish and the more dangerous trigger fish before our time is up. We complete the three-minute safety stop at five metres, which reduces the chance of decompression sickness.

Back on the boat, Born informs me that I’ve passed the final exam and therefore am now a certified diver, which is slightly worrying given just four days ago the thought of jumping in the sea filled me with trepidation.

But once you’ve tasted life underwater, it’s easy to be bitten by the bug – and, despite my initial fears, I think I might have been.

I book myself on to the advanced course – much to the surprise of my friends and family. Who knows, with this rate of progress, I may even leave my flip-flops at home next time I go to the beach.


Getting there:

Carol dived with diveworldwide.com. The £1,1890pp price includes seven nights at Palm Garden Resort, Phuket, Learn To Dive Open Water Course with See Bees (www.sea-bees.com) and return flights.

EVA Air flies from London Heathrow to Bangkok six times a week. Flights start from £490 return in economy including all taxes. To book visit www.evaair.com or call 020 7380 8300.

Travel insurance was booked through AA Travel Insurance – visit www.aatravelinsurance.com.

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Safely on board before my first di…
Safely on board before my first d…
Holding on to a fellow diver at ou…
Holding on to a fellow diver at o…
Underwater photography as part of …
Underwater photography as part of…
Weird and wonderful sealife
Weird and wonderful sealife
Beautiful coral
Beautiful coral
Fish swim in and out of coral
Fish swim in and out of coral
Manage to snap a fish before it da…
Manage to snap a fish before it d…
8,006 km (4,975 miles) traveled
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photo by: Aclay01