Firstly apologies, I had planned on updating the blog as I went along regarding the divemaster course, but anyone who follows my Instagram will be aware I have now left Koh Tao and am a fully qualified PADI Divemaster. Go me! Although this does now allow me to update the blog by looking back across the whole experience. I’ll also be writing two blogs as there is far too much to cover in only one. In all honesty, the reason for not writing as I went, is I got absorbed in living in the moment. It takes a considerable amount of time to write these blogs and I knew I only had a limited amount of time on the island. I therefore just fully threw myself into enjoying my time and letting my hair down. I knew I’d be home in a few months, where I’d have loads of time to catch up on the blog. My daily habits and routine were all over the place. I just lived carefree and as I pleased. Truth be told it was great. It was like a final blowout almost, knowing that shortly my travels would be over (for a little while at least). I think part of me just said forget about documenting it all for a while. Just live it yourself while you’re here, as before you know it, it shall be over. If I’m honest it’s a battle I’m always fighting, wanting to capture stuff and write things for myself/blog/Instagram. But also, not getting so distracted that I don’t take the time to enjoy things as I do them.
But I digress, my last blog left off having just finished my Rescue Diver Course. Here I shall get into the nitty-gritty of the Divemaster course, plus any other notable things I got up to during my time on Koh Tao. The first week of the course consisted of the usual paperwork, followed by some lectures on what it means to be a divemaster, what’s expected of you in the role and various PADI standards and procedures you must follow. There were also various tests related to your swimming ability. For example, a 15-minute treading water exercise, a 400 m swim (without any swimming aids) and then an 800m snorkel and fin swim. All of which you are scored out of 5 based on your time. Safe to say I was very average, which motivated me for all of about a week to train to improve, but that soon sadly fell by the wayside and my scores remained averaged haha.
After this, there were land and pool-based skill circuits. These skills are exactly what’s taught in the very first PADI Open Water Course. They are skills essential for safe scuba diving and range from clearing a flooded mask, recovering your regulator, sharing air with your buddy, removing your kit and hovering with neutral buoyancy. These are only a few examples from the whole list, but all the skills have a purpose and use for scuba diving, hence they are taught right from the start. Now as a PADI Divemaster the goal is firstly to have mastery over these skills yourself. But then adding on from that you are now moving into the realm of having to demonstrate and somewhat teach or more accurately reinforce these skills in others who once knew them but have maybe now forgotten. This is a very different experience from mastering the skill. It’s very easy to know the skill and do it successfully yourself. It’s very different having to perform and demonstrate a skill, while underwater, not being able to talk and incorporating a variety of sub-skills with your fellow divers. Therefore, Sairee does a land-based circuit, it sounds ridiculous, all stood there with no kit, running through the skills list. But what this teaches you is how to teach/demonstrate the skill. It’s all the hand signals and little sub-skills within the skill that you reinforce while demonstrating. For example, with the mask clear skill. I can easily take off my mask put it back on and clear it in a few seconds. But to demonstrate effectively, I need to emphasise, removing the mask, keeping a firm hold of it, clearing my hair back before putting the mask back on, breathing slowly and efficiently through the regulator the whole time and tilting my head to the side to stop the bubbles irritating my nose while the mask is off. Then finally clearing the mask by tilting my head up and blowing air out through my nose. Hopefully, this emphasises the difference between merely being able to do the skill yourself and actually helping teach someone else to master the skill. After learning the nuances from the land-based circuit, we moved on to doing the skill circuits in the pool. Where again we were scored out of 5 and not just once, we repeated this multiple times. Now is probably a good time to mention Flav, the guy leading the Divemaster program at Sairee Cottage and the one scoring me on all the different skills. Flav has lived on the island of Koh Tao for over 20 years. I think he has actually lived there longer than I have been alive. He has quite literally helped build Koh Tao into what it is today and has seen the development of the place from the 1990s until now. He has also certified well over 7000 people to dive. What he doesn’t know about Koh Tao and diving here, probably isn’t worth knowing. It’s also worth noting he is one of the coolest and most chilled out guys I’ve ever met. I guess living on a tropical island paradise diving your whole life will do that to you. Flav also works heavily with Marcel, the Course Director at Sairee Cottage, again another vastly experienced scuba diver, having lived and worked on Koh Tao for many years also. Marcels although still heavily involved with the Divemaster program focuses more on the IDC (Instructor Development Course).
As well as the standard diving skills, we also underwent what is called a stress test. Under no normal circumstances would you ever do this during diving, but it’s included to get you used to managing difficult and challenging situations underwater in a controlled manner. Conducted in the Sairee Cottage dive pool which has a maximum depth of 3m. My self and buddy Toni had to swim in full scuba gear from the shallow end down into the deep end and then fully exchange all our gear. Mask, fins, weight belts, BCD and full scuba unit. Doesn’t sound too challenging. The catch was we could only breathe from one regulator. Meaning we would be sharing the same regulator the whole time. What this boiled down to was I got two breaths, then had to hold for say 20 seconds, while Toni then took his two breaths. Side note you should never hold your breath while diving, so as opposed to actually holding your breath you are letting out tiny bubbles while you wait for the regulator to return. It was certainly a crazy experience, swimming along sharing air from the same regulator back and forth. Then once on the bottom meticulously taking off our gear and exchanging it with one another. Overall Toni and I did really well scoring a 5. I do think that was partly due to Toni’s calm presence underwater. He seemed more chilled than me for sure. There was one time when I really thought I was going to bolt to the surface, as upon taking my second breath I stupidly let pretty much all of it out and gave the regulator to Toni. Toni later said he could see it in my eyes I needed air so quickly gave me the regulator back after his 2 breaths. Quite the exercise, but used to demonstrate you can overcome almost any situation underwater if you remain as calm as possible and rationally think it through.
We also had classroom sessions covering the topics of boat and dive leader briefings. There were navigation, knot tying and search and recovery workshops. Along with workshops on the use of lift bags, mapping dive sites and deploying your SMB (surface marker buoy). All run through first in theory or a controlled environment and then out in the open water. The group of DMCs (Divemaster Candidates) as we were called during training, would head out on the dive boat and then give briefings and lead dives as if we were working professionals. At first, it all seems very daunting having to navigate and lead a dive. Up till now, I’ve always been diving with someone else in charge, however now it’s my turn. But after all, that’s what the training and whole course is there for. It is designed to make you a leader in the scuba diving world. Don’t get me wrong the first time you go diving and you have to lead you are nervous, you use your air quicker and you hope you don’t get lost. But over time as with anything you practise, you become far more comfortable and confident in yourself. By the end of the course going diving just myself and a buddy was no issue to me, I could lead, navigate the dive site knowing where we were the whole time and come back to the boat, no issues. In fact, I loved diving just myself and one or two other people. Especially with a buddy you’ve dived with countless times before, you know each other’s skill and ability and feel so natural underwater you just get to enjoy the beautiful environment you’re in. When I arrived at Sairee for my divemaster course, I had the belief that my underwater navigation was terrible. This was a little confusing to me, as without trying to brag, my navigation and sense of direction on dry land is very good. This belief though stemmed from my Advanced Open Water course 3 years ago. When on the navigation dive, I was tasked to lead the end of the dive and get us back to the boat. I surfaced a good 50 – 100 m from the boat. I, therefore, concluded underwater navigation is hard and I suck at it. Fast forward 30 dives and 3 years later the belief remained. Mainly because I never had to do it again or practiced to improve. Every time I went fun diving the resident divemaster took us out and they deal with all the hassle of navigation. Part of the appeal of diving with the shop divemaster. During the Divemaster course, that belief changed. Over time, through diving the same dive sites multiple times, working on my compass and other underwater navigation skills and with the help of Flav I soon learned that actually, my navigation skills were pretty decent underwater. After a while, I was confidently leading dives of fellow DMCs knowing exactly where we were on the dive site and bringing us right back to the mooring line of the boat at the end of a dive. It’s a great feeling knowing exactly where you are and where you need to go to get back to the boat. And while before arriving I didn’t think I had it in me. As with anything it just takes a bit of patience and some practice, and you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve.
Early in the course, I was also visited by two of my best friends, Fred and Lisa. They were making their way back to Australia having been in England over Christmas like me and decided to stop by Koh Tao for a little while to say hi. They couldn’t have timed their trip better. Sadly, having gotten over the wisdom tooth issue, I then went down with an ear infection, which ended up keeping me out of the water for 10 days!! I actually think looking back, it wasn’t an infection and my eustachian tubes which are small passageways that connects your throat to your middle ear just became inflamed and irritated. This is due to the pressure change you experience when going underwater and why you must equalise your ears when you descend. It’s the same sensation as when you go on a plane and your ears pop. You’re going from a higher to lower pressure when you take off. The same is true when you go diving just the opposite. When you dive down the pressure is increasing on your ears due to the force of water above you. You must balance the outside pressure to that in your ear. You do so by equalising, commonly done using the Valsalva Manoeuvre (squeezing your nose and blowing gently). Moving on from nerdy dive stuff. Fred and Lisa came during the time I was out of the water, so it meant I was able to explore the island with them and take it easy for a few days. Luckily my ears finally settled down and I could go diving again. My first dive back was with Fred and Lisa. They have never dived but I convinced them to come and do their discover scuba diving (DSD) with me and an instructor at Sairee Cottage. As the name suggests this is just a dive or two to introduce people to diving. You don’t get certified and you only dive to a max depth of 12m but it’s a great way to see if it’s something you might enjoy. Also on the divemaster course, there are several programs you have to assist with. A DSD being one of them, so they were helping me out too. The day started with a few pool skills such as mask clearing and regulator recovery before we went on two dives. The instructor led the way with me just assisting from the back. Safe to say Fred and Lisa smashed it, they both had one little wobble during the first dive, which is completely normal. After all your doing something that goes against all your instincts. Your body shouldn’t be able to go and stay underwater for this long. But once they or people overcome that you discover a whole beautiful world down there. They both did great and really enjoyed both their dives. For me it was quite something, I don’t think I saw any fish as I was so focused on making sure they were okay I just kept my eyes glued on them. I think because it was my first assist of any kind, I thought things would go wrong at any second. Plus with it being your best mates you really don’t want anything to happen.
Outside of assisting a DSD, other courses you have to assist on include the Open Water Course and then either an Advanced Open Water Course or Rescue Course. A day after Fred and Lisa’s DSD, I was then assisting an instructor with 6 open water students. The instructor again teaches the course, but the role of the Divemaster / DMC is to just help supervise and act as a kind of bridge between the students and the instructor. The first day was all classroom and pool-based, going through all skills in confined water. There were no real standout moments here, everything went smoothly and everyone completed all the skills. Of course, there was the odd moment where someone freaked out a little, but most of the time people can just stand up. For me, it was interesting seeing people in the water who were complete novices. Obviously, I was there myself not too long ago and even Flav with over 7000 certifications, once started in the same boat. But it was fascinating to see how far I had progressed from a complete novice to where I was at that point. The progress curve isn’t even that long, having only done 60 or so dives compared to their zero. Day two then consisted of dives 1 and 2 which is when things start to get real as people are now out in the open ocean and everything becomes far more daunting. The skills that were done in the pool yesterday now have to be done in the sea at a maximum depth of 12m. It’s nerve-wracking, I remember myself being scared and apprehensive before descending that line for the first time. It’s the fear of the unknown and the thought that you could drown. But once you overcome that and settle into it, it’s very easy to get hooked, as most do. Sadly it’s also not for everyone. Although we started with 6 people on that first dive within 5 minutes we were down to 3. As we began to descend the mooring line, the instructor at the front, 6 students in a row then me at the back. One person had just psyched themselves out before it began and didn’t want to do it. I, therefore, escorted them back to the boat. By the time I returned the short distance to the line, 2 of the students had made it about 7 m down the line while the remaining 3 were on the surface. I went to join the 2 students at 7 m and told them to wait here with me while the instructor was on the surface. At this point one on the surface had ear troubles so also went back to the boat. This left 2 to come down the line and eventually all 4 students, the instructor and I made it to the bottom of the line about 10 m. As we left the line and started to swim to a sandy patch to do some skills, one student’s mask filled with a little bit of water. Completely normal and easy to deal with, yet when it’s your first time, you’re inexperienced and 10 m under the water it’s easy to freak out. Sadly this induvial did. They started to bolt to the surface but ascending too quickly is also dangerous. I managed to grab her and slow her for a second. Getting them to look me in the eye, take a few deep breaths and then use the mask clearing skill they had learnt in the pool. In fairness, the individual tried but just didn’t get it. At this point, you can see the panic in someone’s eyes. There is no reasoning with them and they just want out of the water as quickly as possible. By this point, the instructor was with me and we did a kind of handover, with the instructor returning to the surface with the student. While I joined the 3 remaining students on the sandy floor at 12m. I will admit even I was a bit stressed by this point, hoping we have no other issues with the final 3. But thankfully they were great. We waited where we were for a few minutes as I could see the instructor at the surface and she knew we were at the bottom of the line. When I saw her coming down to join us I did breathe a sigh of relief. Having lost 3 students just like that the remaining 3 were great and smashed the rest of this dive. They then also smashed the second dive on day 2. Followed by the 2 dives on day 3 which are down to a depth of 18m.
It was really insightful assisting on the course and seeing what complete beginners are like underwater. It was also rewarding helping them out, answering their questions and just being a reassuring person while the course was ongoing. While as a divemaster you can’t “teach” diving. I would have to do my IDC for that. I can theoretically take a diver out who has just finished their Open Water and only has 4 dives to their name. Essentially still a beginner. Meaning similar situations and scenarios can occur even for a divemaster. I will also admit it did put me off wanting to be an instructor. It was never in my thoughts to begin with, but I think this experience just reinforced it. I love diving, I will do it for the rest of my life. I’m not sure that translates into a love for teaching diving which is something very different. But who knows things can certainly change.
In the next blog, I’ll talk more about my experience with the Divemaster Course at Sairee Cottage and some of the other stuff I got up to aside from diving. Did someone say Fishbowl…