Our home for the last few weeks has been a little piece of tropical paradise called Koh Tao, or Turtle Island (not that we’ve seen any turtles, but allegedly a few still remain).
STOP PRESS: I was in the middle of posting this when Keith came sprinting back from a spot of snorkelling to announce he has just seen a turtle. I am green with envy!
Despite being just 3.4 km wide and 7.6 km long Koh Tao manages to pack in over 60 dive schools around its sandy beaches and boulder-strewn capes, and so much competition makes it one of the cheapest places in the world to get your Open Water certification. Friendly locals, clear water, acres of coral, and more sea life than you can imagine makes Koh Tao THE place to learn to dive. It’s also got some fine snorkelling, breath-taking scenery, great bars and a very hard-working vet who’s always happy for volunteers to wield a poop-scoop.
We’ve fallen so in love with the place that we’ve been seriously tempted to spend the next few months here training as professional Dive Masters. It’s funny to think we hadn’t even realised we wanted to learn to dive until a handful of months ago! When we returned to China back in February this year my (Tamar’s) brother had just got his Open Water and Advanced Open Water certificates. He enthused about the experience and soon announced he would to be returning to Koh Tao in August with his girlfriend for more underwater adventure, and so we hatched a plan to join him.
We arrived on Koh Tao a few days ahead of Duncan and Spring and decided to ease ourselves underwater with a ‘Discover Scuba Day’ before signing up for the full Open Water course. Ostensibly this was to find out if Keith’s ears would be cope with the depths (he had repeated surgery on one of his ears as a child) but it was also a chance to find out whether scaredy-pants me would cope with clearing my mask and just being so unimaginably far away from the surface: something I was secretly rather apprehensive about.
Bruno (the manager) and Sascha (our DSD instructor) must have picked up on my ‘excitement’ (I can’t imagine how – I normally have such a good poker face, ahem!) and quickly got us kitted up, onto the boat and into the water before I had time to talk myself out of it. To our delight and amazement (and after only a couple of false starts with the mask) we were soon doing our very first dive. Even though it was only in a shallow, sandy bay with relatively little coral we were instantly hooked (fishy pun intended), and the next day launched enthusiastically into the Open Water course. ‘Scuba Steve’ was our OW instructor and thankfully he was just as professional and reassuring as Sascha had been (I was still not particularly enamoured with the mask-clearing process). The rewards, however, were well worth any momentary, eye-stinging unpleasantness and four days later we were certified Open Water divers, competent to dive to 18m.
We were so captivated by the experience we immediately signed up for the advanced course and with the lovely Judith as our instructor we improved our buoyancy skills, learnt how to use a dive computer and compass, dived down to 30m, investigated a wreck (from the outside only as to enter is a more advanced specialism) and did a torch-lit night dive.
Scuba diving is a thrilling sensation: suspended weightless in the depths and surrounded by shoals of darting fish, we glide slowly past intricate coral structures, watch blue spotted rays undulating sedately along the sandy bottom, peer at moray eels as they mouth at us from their lairs, and have to remember to breathe when something unusual swims by and excitement nearly gets the better of us. Many fish are curious and fearless, swimming right up to us; others keep their distance and make us work for the privilege of seeing them; and some, like the territorial titan triggerfish, have to be treated with a degree of respect if we want to be allowed to share their world unscathed. But no matter what we see, every time we go underwater we feel incredibly privileged to be there.
Unlike terrestrial wildlife, which generally disappears the minute we spot it (if we even get to see it at all), submarine life is often more than happy to get up close and personal with us (or is simply too immobile to effect an escape). In fact at times it was all too easy to become distracted from our training as shoals of fish swam in front of our noses. From the moment we enter the water we’re dazzled by troops of stripy sergeant major fish; forests of bright, primary-coloured Christmas-tree worms; pairs of sunshine-orange butterfly fish; colourful, coral-crunching parrot fish; iridescent green and purple moon wrasse; serene, ultramarine-striped angel fish; and streamer-trailing, black and white banner fish. Strip-thin crocodile fish flash silver just below the surface. Grotesquely distended sea cucumbers and rapier-spined sea urchins patrol the seabed in slow motion. Giant clams open their soft lips to us. Corals fan out expansively, spread like lichen over boulders, fold over and over like cerebral gyri or branch rigidly like a forest of antlers. Swathes of staghorn coral make the seabed look like the spoils of a spectacularly successful Highland hunt – an underwater antelope graveyard. Anemones bloom like huge, carnivorous chrysanthemums and barrel sponges sit like sunken cast-offs from a potter’s wheel. If we’re lucky we might see a comically-shaped porcupine fish. Its blunt face is about as streamlined as a double-decker bus and its gibbous eyes and ‘o’ of a mouth give it an expression of surprise at odds with its lethargic movements. Equally rare treats are peculiarly inverted razor fish, hanging motionless, head down, tail up near the seabed, and lugubrious metre and a half long groupers, which are a stereotypical “fish-shape” but blown up to such massive proportions they unsettle Keith. In his world big fish are meant to be a different shape to little fish and these over-sized imposters offend his sense of scale. Keen eyes are rewarded with a glimpse of tiny, translucent shrimps or diminutive, dalmation-spotted nudibranches which, for some unfathomable reason, are the darlings of more than one of our dive instructors (although I suppose that for slugs they’re quite pretty). With so much to see wherever we look, writing up our dive log is a bit like trying to remember items on the Generation Game conveyor belt, and a challenge we repeatedly fail to master.
We have yet to invest in an underwater camera so for now these aquatic delights will have to be conjured by your own ample imaginations. Enjoy!
Scuba Steve is trying to persuade us to stay on and do our Dive Master qualifications, and we’d be lying if we said we weren’t sorely tempted. But our diving budget is finite and with so many enticing dive sites still to come in Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia we’ve decided to stick with the qualifications we’ve got (for now) and spend our money diving in different locations over the coming months instead.
One unexpected benefit from learning to dive has been a massive improvement in our snorkelling skills. Keith was always happy going underwater but only to a depth of one or two metres, at which point his ears would become uncomfortable, and I didn’t like getting water in my snorkel so refused to do anything more challenging than drift around on the surface with my face in the water. But our new familiarity with the underwater world means we can both now easily swim down to depths of five or six metres and stay underwater much longer than we ever thought feasible. In fact we’d love to do a free-diving course and improve our breath control even more, but for now the budget dictates we try to glean as much as we can by simply hanging around the dive school and enthusing with the instructors.
Back on dry land our time has been split: Keith has predominantly been trying to diagnose whether our computer’s hard drive is about to go soft on us, and if so then working out how to make a copy of the system to install onto a new hard drive; I’ve had the far more enjoyable occupation of volunteering at the island’s veterinary clinic.
Over the last few years Koh Tao’s only vet, Jae, has waged a successful neutering campaign on the island’s dog population and is now aiming her busy scalpel at the multitude of fecund cats that islanders are happy enough to feed but aren’t comfortable taking responsibility for when it comes to reproduction. The veterinary clinic is currently home to over twenty kittens and young cats, all needing new owners, and Jae is aided and abetted in her mission to reduce these numbers by a small band of helpers who bring in any unneutered stray cats they come across. I spend my mornings cleaning litter trays whilst being used as a climbing frame by a horde of mewling, needle-clawed kittens, each determined to sit on my shoulder, purr in my ear, dance on the poop scoop, upscuttle the litter tray and generally be as entertainingly disruptive as possible. I love it!
Much of Jae’s work is done on a charitable basis, and with the current glut of hungry felines on the premises (in addition to the handful of canine waifs and an injured fruit bat that call the surgery home) her operating costs are considerable. If you want to help some cute animals then you can make donations here.
If you get greater satisfaction from helping humans then please visit our Just Giving page (if you haven’t done so already) where we’re appealing for donations for MAG (Mines Advisory Group) who work tirelessly to clear unexploded ordnance and make safe new land for schools, hospitals, villages and farming. We first came across MAG and the work they do, when we travelled through Laos earlier this year and you can read why we’ve chosen to support them here.