Imagine you’re a high school student in a classroom. Imagine you’re the only student in the classroom. Imagine it’s something dreaded — like chemistry, or any math class. Imagine your teacher points at you and yells “POP QUIZ” every few minutes, like one of those water dripping torture methods used in Guantanamo Bay, where you never know when the next drop is going to hit. Imagine that the teacher has a thick French accent and uses sign language to give you the quiz. Imagine that the classroom is underwater and you can’t get overexcited and hold your breath or else your lungs will explode because you’re using a breathing apparatus.
That’s what my advanced adventurer scuba diving course was like.
It was awesome.
We arrived in Koh Tao, the scuba diving Mecca of Asia, later than expected and I was dead set on getting my advanced diver’s certificate while I was there. With the setting sun and closing shop times, Moritz and I walked into the first dive shop we saw and registered ourselves immediately. The school seemed a bit disheveled, with coffee stained papers strewn throughout the entire room and dogs walking in between air tanks. My dive shop expectations were really high, especially since my open water certification took place at what’s now been ranked as Lonely Planet’s #1 spot to learn diving.
I didn’t think I had any other option.
Well after the sun had gone down, we strolled past a tiny but tidy looking dive school just as a divemaster was locking the door to go home.
Feeling guilty for keeping the divemaster, I rattled out out in an auctioneer’s speed, “Hi. I want to enroll in an advanced course… starting tomorrow. Is that okay?”
“Ummm….” He took a moment to let the blur of words to sink in. “Yes.”
I filled out the paperwork and sprinted to the other shop to cancel my course there. “Food poisoning.” I lied, “Damn those banana milkshakes!”
Only later, when viewing Aqua Tao’s website did I realize that I’d enrolled in a French school — and as a result, all of the reviews on Tripadvisor were in French.
I arrived to the dive shop before sunrise and introduced myself to all of the dive shop’s employees chain smoking at the front of the school.
Wow. So French. I thought, half giddy with excitement and half concerned about the well-being of their lungs.
Since I was the only person idiotic to enroll in a foreign school without speaking a word of the language, I had my English speaking instructor, Jo, all to myself during one of the busiest weeks of the year.
Jo is an overachiever when it comes to dive instructing. There are five required dives needed to fulfill the advanced adventurer’s certificate (SSI: Scuba Schools International): perfect peak buoyancy, night diving, deep diving (30 meters), and navigation and orientation. He consistently tested me on multiple skills each dive — despite the fact that I technically only needed to complete each skill once. Oh, and the school has a ban on GoPros for all students (solidified when one student spent so long adjusting his camera that he held his breath and ascended rapidly without noticing — but not before kicking a few corals with his fins) so all water images are courtesy of Moritz’s fun dives.
While the other fun divers (like Moritz, who was getting chummy with the other Frenchies and another extroverted American) socialized on the dive boat while driving to our dive site… I was put through a series of questions. Jo would have us switch roles — where I’d be the dive instructor prepping him for a dive, and he’d be the student.
Underwater, Jo sometimes had me leading the entire dive. I’d signal to him in a flurry of bubbles, “I don’t know where we are!” and “Am I going the right way?” True to his role, Jo would shrug “I dunno — maybe…” and signal for me to continue on my way — incorrect or not — forcing me to really concentrate instead of falling back on his corrections. During safety stops, he’d have me inflate the surface marker buoy, and then surprise me with saying he was out of air. Apparently this style of teaching is really unique to SSI (what I got my advanced adventurer in) vs PADI (what I got my open water in) because SSI allows the instructor a bit more leeway in what he can teach and when. Jo definitely took advantage of this and kept me on high alert instead of letting me get the skill over with and onto passively enjoying my dive.
The one dive I was really nervous about was the deep dive down to 30 meters. In scuba diving, tiny air bubbles can form in your gums and teeth causing severe discomfort. I am terrified of all things regarding pain and teeth! We descended at a spot where someone had told us a whale shark was swimming at 10 meters depth. Since it was our deep dive we had to sink all the way to the bottom — passing the could-have-been-spotted whale shark and resting on the sand. Noticing that I hadn’t realized we were at the maximum depth, Jo told me to check my gauge. 26 meters it read, and no sign of dental discomfort… or you know, other actually life threatening things. We immediately ascended to 10 meters in hopes of spotting the fabled whale shark but to no avail. Instead, we saw local fish life clustered around the coral pinnacle nearby.
Out of the water, Koh Tao is a lively island that produces the most diving certifications in the world. The courses are cheap, and there’s a plethora of amazing schools to suit every personality. There’s a social vibe buzzing about, and it’s easy to make friends with other travelers passing through.
I’ve been blessed with great instructors so far and I hope the streak continues when I make the plunge — or dare I say, plongée — to get my divemaster within the next few years.