Ever the romantic, I got up at 5am this morning and left Hollie in bed. I took a taxi from Krabi to the nearby resort town of Ao Nang, which dropped me outside Aqua Vision Diving Shop. I paid 4300 baht (getting on for 100 quid), to go on two dives around the islands just off the coast of Ao Nang. There were cheaper options available that provided the same dives, but the leaflets I looked at for the cheapest diving schools were written in really poor English. Having dived in Menorca before with a Spanish guy who’s only English phrase was “Okay?” I decided it was worth the extra money to go with people who I could understand – although once you’re underwater I guess it doesn’t really matter what language you speak.
I was met at the shop by a Siberian lady called Rina, who kitted me out with my wetsuit and flippers and took me through the insurance form. She asked me if I’d ever dived before, and I told her that I’d done one try dive in Menorca. “Wow, the water is cold there!” she said, and I thought “You should try paddling on Skegness beach in November, love.”
After completing all of the formalities I joined a crowd of other people in the back of a songtheaw which took us a couple of kilometres up the road to the beach. We transferred to a motorboat that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a James Bond movie, and sped over the silky waters to a rocky outcrop that jutted about twenty metres tall out of the sea. The waves from the open sea broke either side of the rocks, and our boat anchored up in the calmer waters behind it.
The divers on the boat were a mixture of experience levels, and we were divided up between the professional divers who were to be our guides. I was put in a group with a young girl who had never dived before and her smartarse boyfriend, who wanted to make everybody aware of the fact that he was an expert. He talked loudly about how he’d been on “Over a hundred dives” and politely argued with our instructor about the best setup for his gear. More offensive than his bravado though were his shamelessly tiny Speedos. He pranced around on the deck resembling a pot-bellied peperami with a rubber band wrapped around it, whilst his girlfriend grew steadily more nervous. Later when we got in the water and prepared to descend, the girl began crying and got back in the boat – I’m not entirely sure whether this was because she was afraid, or because she wanted some peace from the tiresome bleatings of Speedo man.
Our instructor was an American guy called James. He was one of those extreme sports, all-action kind of guys who probably climbs a mountain and wrestles an alligator before breakfast. James was an interesting geezer – he told me he’d worked as a “Reverse Osmosis Technician” in the Antarctic for eight years. I have no idea what that means, but it sounded suitably impressive. He was polite and patient with Speedo man’s incessant questions, whilst talking me through what I need to do – which was effectively nothing. “I’m gonna do everything for you man – I’ll sort your oxygen, deflate your jacket and guide you round. All I want you to do is breathe through the mask – and it’s in your interest to do that”. I agreed with him.
We geared up – I slipped my arms into the “Bouyancy Compensator” – this is the jacket that you wear which can be inflated and deflated to move you up and down in the water. Attached to the back of this is the oxygen tank, which is bloody heavy – it feels as if you have a small fridge attached to your back. James then slid some weights onto the belt which you clip around your waist – the belt is to help you sink, then when you find the right depth you put some air into the buoyancy compensator to keep you steady at that level. James picked out a mask for me that had a GoPro mount on the top of it, so that everything I looked at would be caught on camera. He sprayed the goggles with de-mister and I donned my flippers and mounted the camera, and we were good to go.
The most nerve-racking part of diving for a novice is getting in the water. You’re acutely aware of the fact that you have enough weight attached to you to ensure that you sleep with the fishes for a very long time, and you have to fight that instinct and remind yourself that once you jump in, you’ll float. I was helped up to the side of the boat and I slid my bum backwards so that it hung over the edge of the water. Then I was instructed to put one hand on my mask to stop the water pulling it off my head. I put the regulator (the mouthpiece that allows you to breathe underwater) in my mouth, and allowed myself to fall backwards into the sea. It’s the strangest feeling to drop under the water with your mouth still open – for a moment your brain tells you that you need to close it, but then you’ll take a breath of oxygen from the tank and gain the reassurance that you can still breathe. After my head popped back up I bobbed around in the water next to the boat whilst James attempted to convince Speedo Man’s girlfriend to dive. When he’d given up he jumped into the water and grabbed hold of my buoyancy compensator to release some air, and we began the descent.
For a while there was nothing but murky blue, and it felt as if I was floating to the bottom of a snow globe. James was above me, grabbing on to my tank. He kept making the “OK” sign with his fingers, to ask me if I was okay. I returned the “OK” sign and we went deeper. There’s an important difference between the “OK” sign and the usual thumbs up that you’d use on the surface to indicate that you’re happy. In diving semaphore, a thumbs up means “I need to go back up to the surface” – it’s all very confusing. As we got deeper the pressure filled up in my ears, and I pinched my nose and blew to get rid of it. As we neared the bottom it felt as if I was adjusting the focus on a pair of binoculars – everything became sharper, more defined, and I was able to make out fish, and coral, and the scrawny form of Speedo Man who was swimming below us.
When we were just a couple of feet above the coral, James put some air in my jacket and I levelled out. We began to skirt over the top of the reef, being careful not to touch it – the oil on a human hand is enough to kill a piece of coral. There were clownfish poking their heads gingerly out of anenomes and disappearing back into the tendrils when our shadows swept over them. Parrotfish, all kinds of Groupers, and Pastel Green Wrasse weaved their way through the coral whilst schools of Crocodile Needlefish (long, thin little fellas) meandered overhead. I saw more kinds of fish than I’ve ever seen before, and the names I list above are just a few that I was able to remember and identify when I got back above the water.
We moved over the last of the coral and floated about ten feet over the sea bottom, following a wall of rock where greasy grouper fish lay in the cracks, pouting at us. Greasy grouper fish live near the seabed and look like they’re permanently fuming at the world around them. They have a similar, bottom lip out expression to the one that I pull when Derby County lose. The sea got murky as we moved out of the shelter of the island. James spotted something on the seabed which looked to me like sand. He kept his finger pointed and I stared for ages before my eyes were able to define what he’d seen. Half submerged in the sand was a stingray with an electric blue tail. It lingered for a while before sweeping off into the deeper ocean like some kind of cloaked phantom. As we moved on we saw another one, gliding across the bottom like a stealth bomber. They’re beautiful creatures to look at, but I wouldn’t like to poke one – a giant stingray is what did for Steve Irwin, although he did apparently try to ride it before it stung him.
After three quarters of an hour or so James indicated to me that we were going up. He took a luminous orange bag out of his dive belt then took his regulator out of his mouth and filled the bottom of the bag with air. It shot up to the surface to warn any passing speedboats of our imminent plan to come up. James stuck some air in my jacket and together we slowly came up from the depths.
The boat took us further out to another group of rocks. Before we got back in the water, James briefed me on the plan. “Listen man, you need to kick your legs less or we won’t get all the way round these rocks and we’ll have to come up. The more you kick, the more oxygen you’re going to use and the shorter the dive will be”. I didn’t realise that I’d been doing it – maybe it was the adrenaline – but I’d been thrashing my legs behind me like one of those wind-up bath toys.
I dropped backwards off the boat again and held on to a rope that was trailing from the back of the boat so that the current didn’t carry me away. James attempted to get Speedo Man’s girlfriend into the water again without success, before we submerged and went to the bottom. I tried to kick my flippers less, but every time I saw something cool I got excited and started thrashing my legs again.
The fish were much bigger here – I saw a puffer fish the size of a football, and in the distance to my left there was a Titan Triggerfish the size of a small wardrobe. We rounded the edge of the rocks and came upon the school of baby barracuda that James had told me about before we got in the water – he estimated that there were literally a million of them. At first I was sceptical, but once we’d swam into the middle I could definitely believe it. Everything else disappeared, and all I could see were barracuda in every direction. Each one was about seven or eight inches long, and they glinted in the submerged sunlight whilst performing a colossal conga trail all around us.
It took a few minutes to clear the barracuda and be able to see fully in front of us again. James then took us down to the bottom and asked me to lie on the sand and wait for him, as if he was just popping off to the shops. I had no plans to go anywhere, and I sat on the bottom of the sea humming the Beatles song “I’d like to be, under the sea, in an octopus’s garden, in the shade”, whilst James disappeared for a minute. He reappeared and beckoned me to follow him, which I did. He pointed to a pipefish which was chilling on a sandbank. Pipefish are a kind of seahorse and have similar heads, but their bodies are long and pipe-like.
We resurfaced after about forty minutes – I’d obviously managed to conserve my oxygen okay because we popped back up in the same place that we’d started. As I was waiting to climb the ladder to get back on the boat there was a commotion in the sky above, and I looked up to see what was happening. An eagle was hovering in the air with a sea snake in it’s mouth, wrestling to keep it in it’s talons. It felt good to finally be able to say “It’s a f****g snake!” and be correct about it. I bobbed in the water watching the airborne struggle, hoping that the eagle didn’t drop it’s prey on my head. After getting the snake under control, the eagle flew up onto the rocks to devour it’s feast, and James said “You just caught all that on GoPro!” and I felt dead cool. James identified the snake as a banded sea krait that had probably come up to the surface to hunt – before it became the hunted. Interesting fact – a sea snake’s venom is just as deadly as any land-going snake, but the poison is contained in their rear fangs, so you’d pretty much have to shove your finger down one’s throat to be killed.
The entire adventure I’ve just described took place in about five hours. After climbing back on board the boat we were taken back to Ao Nang and dropped off at the dive shop – I looked at my phone expecting it to be mid-afternoon, and it was 11:30am. I stopped off at a bar for a celebratory Chang then paid over the odds for a songtheaw driver to take me back to Krabi Town. When I got back to the hotel room and saw Hollie I felt like a kid that’d just been on a daytrip out to the zoo, and spent the afternoon boring her with my tales.
Later in the evening we went to Bistro Monaco for tea, which was a complete mish-mash of culinary influences. The owners were a German bloke and his Thai wife, and the menu contained Thai, French, German and Italian dishes. I doubt there are many other places in the world where you could have pad thai washed down with a stein of weissbier! I had smoked salmon ravioli and Hollie went for chicken in mushroom sauce. It was excellent if slightly extravagant snap, and it capped off an amazing day.