Learning to dive without sin in Phuket
"For each sin committed..."
My diving instructor was a red-headed Canadian named Larry Wedgewood. If PADI were a religion, then he would be one of its priests. During our early morning sermons, held at the dive shop on Kata Beach, Phuket, I learned among other things that in diving terminology, an “octopus” meant an attached alternate air source, and that one particular ballet-like pose meant, “I’m OK.” Larry repeated the most important rule of diving to me – “Never hold your breath,” – until it became my mantra. He also taught me Larry’s Rule: “For each diving sin committed, you owe him a beer.” By the end of our four days together, I was nearly without sin, owing Larry only two Singhas.
Our final deep-water dive for the basic accreditation was at Karon Rock, a massive coral encrusted boulder 10 meters below the water line, near the tip of Karon Bay. A fifteen minute long-tail boat ride from nearby Kata Beach had brought us to the dive site, which was marked by a bobbing white buoy. From where we perched on opposite sides of the long tail boat, my husband and I simultaneously rolled backwards into the calm turquoise sea.
Descending down the mooring line, we slowly made our way into the dark blue world beneath us. At 10 meters, I felt comfortable; at 20 meters, apprehensive; but after a few slow, regular breaths the apprehension vanished, leaving me totally enraptured by the stunning seascape around me. Tiny clownfish darted playfully upon a waving stage of flowing translucent sea anemones. Below, spiky sea urchins abounded, lying scattered in groups across the ocean floor. Above, shafts of light penetrated the deep blue depths.
Suddenly, a school of silver baitfish streaked by in unison, enveloping me in a shimmering metallic cloud. I was the neon fish from the world above, equipped with a day-glow vest, bright yellow fins, shocking pink gloves and a loud, bubbly yellow tank.
As we made our leisurely orbit around Karon Rock, Larry paused to show me what appeared to be an ordinary rock. Suddenly the rock moved, and I realized the “rock” was actually a superbly camouflaged stonefish, hugging the face of a rocky shelf. An array of soft corals flourished in this wondrous submarine garden. Time ebbed away as I lost myself in one intriguing microcosm after another. Checking my air gauge, I was shocked to see how fast my air supply was diminishing, diving at the greatest depth I had yet experienced.
Leopard Sharks, Eels and Lionfish
A week after passing our final exam, my husband Eric and I arranged for a trip out to Shark Point, a well-known diving destination near Phuket, and one which as the name suggests, is frequented by leopard sharks. Diving at 20 meters, I scanned the sandy ocean floor surrounding the famed reef in hopes of spotting my first shark.
Dozens of small, fierce looking moray eels danced hungrily around a crowded rock known as the Eel Nursery. However menacing they may appear, moray eels pose little threat to divers and are more shy in nature, than ferocious. Delicate orange fan corals shadowed a group of stately, hovering lion fish. Protected by an impressive defense system, the fearless lion fish can afford the luxury of quiet meditation. Among its striped feather-like dorsal fins are eighteen sharp spines, each filled with venom powerful enough to cause paralysis and on rare occasions, even death. It is perfectly safe to dive close to these beautiful lions of the sea, however, as they are not in the least bit aggressive.
In the midst of my weightless captivation, I was suddenly startled by a boorish parrot fish, which actually tapped on my mask several times, strangely demanding my attention. Later in the dive, as I was passing Eel Nursery for a second survey, I saw a group of divers congregated together, surrounded by a whirling cloud of striped fish and writhing eels. In the center of the cloud, a diver held a banana in his hand. This occasional feeding by a few local dive operators explained the earlier behavior of the fat parrot fish, who perhaps was expecting a treat of some sort. Explosions of vibrant color could be seen in every direction: but where were those leopard sharks for which Shark Point was famous?
Back on board our dive boat, Horst Ruttgers, the owner of the Kata dive shop, told me he had recently counted thirteen sharks of assorted species during a single dive at Shark Point. Aside from numerous leopard sharks, apparently there had also been nurse sharks and one lone hammerhead cruising the depths of the popular reef. Wisely, Horst had arrived at the rocky outcrop at 7:30 a.m., an hour before dive boats typically appear in the area.
The following week, we continued our search for a leopard shark, joining a group of divers bound for Koh Gai, an island close to Shark Point. I kicked along, unhurried, exploring the rock caverns and small dark coral caves. A timid lobster hid beneath one coral overhang. Meanwhile, a paranoid eel kept watch close by, poking its head in and out from its dark lair. Peering into still another cranny, I discovered an alluring octopus. Sensing my presence, it suddenly changed color, going from deep red to pinkish white. From deep within the dark crevice, his strong, suction-powered tentacles curled out, attempting to remove a rock that was lodged inside his cramped hole.
I swam on, marveling at the abundance of sea life occupying the waters around me. Suddenly, out of the corner of my mask, I glimpsed a leopard shark lying motionless on the sandy bottom. I couldn’t believe it. Finally, a real live leopard shark – and here at Koh Gai, a dive site that elicits comments like: “You’re diving where?”
My husband didn’t see the shark until he was nearly face to face with him and to my surprise, the creature didn’t swim away as I had anticipated, but instead remained stationary only half a meter away from us. Abruptly, the sleepy, rather docile creature stirred and moved toward us and then with a graceful flick of his tail he swam away, vanishing into the murky blue distance beyond.
I couldn’t have been more ecstatic. And the elation intensified when, moments later, I spotted another larger leopard shark hovering above a coral bed. Slowly, in an effort not to startle it, I glided towards the two and a half meter shark. The shark stayed absolutely still, ignoring the bubbling from my regulator, giving no intention whatsoever of leaving its resting place. Its casual acceptance of our floating in circles around him mystified me. Perhaps we were a familiar sight, harmless big bubbling fish not worth losing precious sleep over.
As fate would have it, we saw a total of three leopard sharks during our one dive at Koh Gai. The last friendly shark allowed us to follow it across the coral reef, through schools of luminous striped and polka-dotted fish that fanned out to clear a path in front of us. I was mesmerized by this darting, dazzling fish play and having a leopard shark as my guide, was the best way I could imagine to see a reef.
It’s hard to believe two decades have passed since our nearly sinless dive lessons with Larry and our fantastic leopard shark guides. In the time that has elapsed my husband Eric also became a dive instructor and certified hundreds of other new students, including our two children. As a novice, every dive is a thrilling experience of “first encounters”. Our first encounter with the leopard sharks of Koh Gai, however, was an undersea experience I have always treasured.
PHUKET DIVE COURSES
If you’re undecided on whether you want to become a certified scuba diver, I highly recommend taking the PADI Discover Scuba Diving course. PADI stands for Professional Association of Diving Instructors and was founded more than 30 years ago in the USA. Since that time, PADI has become the largest international diving certification agency in the world and is recognized worldwide.
The advantage of taking the one day entry level dive course rather than the 4 days Open Water Course, is that you can experience diving without spending too much money and decide if diving is the sport for you or not. Alternatively, if you’re comfortable snorkeling and love the ocean, than I recommend skipping the Discover Scuba and investing in the Open Water Course.
In Phuket, there are hundreds of dive shops to choose from and dive courses are available year round. Most people prefer the high season when the weather is the most ideal for diving from the beginning of October to mid-May. Low season diving from mid-May to September, however, offers the advantage of escaping the high season diving crowds and lower rates on dive excursions.
RECOMMENDED DIVE SHOPS IN PHUKET
There are some excellent dive shops in Phuket, but the only one that we can personally recommend is Scuba Cat Diving. They are also currently ranked as the leading dive shop on TripAdvisor. Our last trip with Scuba Cat was January of 2011 and as always, we had a perfect 5 day live-aboard vacation to the Similan Islands and are planning another trip with them in January of 2012.
Scuba Cat Diving
For more information on other dive shops, I recommend reading the reviews on TripAdvisor.