Twenty minutes after arriving on the dive boat whilst hoping the seasick tablet would work, I took a nervous meander around the floating arena of strangers, foreigners and braggers that I found myself on.
Well, this guy seemed confident; he knew exactly what he was talking about, which was undoubtedly reassuring, as he was the Instructor who was to take me on my first dive
There was lots of equipment, which I had only seen before on TV, so many scuba tanks amongst other paraphernalia, which hopefully, was going to keep me alive while I was under the sea.
'Barracudas’ said the instructor, I snapped to attention, as he began the dive brief, ‘Do they not have big teeth and aren't they 6' feet long’ I thought to myself. Then he went onto to talk about Stingray's, “Stingrays, did one not fatally wound the guy who used to wrestle crocodiles for a living, what chance have we got?” asked a fellow beginner.
Sea snakes, was he now trying to put us off the dive? He then went on to talk about sharks -I was frightened, nervous but also exhilarated at the same time. Nervously, I laughed, as he maid jokes about the size of their teeth and not to pull their tails. ‘Pull a sharks tail thought,’ I'm not going anywhere near a shark, let alone pull its tail.
‘Oh and don't touch the bottom as there may be Scorpion fish down there’, he added (which apparently are so well camouflaged, that they are extremely difficult to spot and can leave you in agony for months, if they sting you).
He had a calming influence, which you need if you take people underwater. He showed great patience in answering everyone’s’ questions. Explaining how deep we go, also the effects of water pressure on our bodies, he told us how long we would be under there for, including how the equipment worked and even how we would communicate underwater (something I was more familiar with, knowing a few hand signals myself, years of driving, had made me the master hand signaler). He was dressed in smart pressed shorts, a save-the-reef-T-shirt (as were all the staff on the boat) and was clean shaven (I must admit I expected more of a beach bum like persona), all in all a true professional.
“Wait, now just hold on a minute, let water in the mask, why?” asked a young woman.
“We had to perform several kills under the instructor’s guidance, naturally.
If water enters your mask you need to know how to clear it, otherwise it would make for an uncomfortable dive. “A simple procedure if done correctly,” he assured the group.
The next skill we would learn would be to remove and replace the regulator from our mouths.
“Take the regulator out of your mouth. Are you kidding man, jumping out of a perfectly good plane without a parachute springs to mind.” An American guy joked.
It was also quite easy to perform (especially after watching the Instructor demonstrate all the skills first) and obviously a necessary skill to learn.
We also had to equalize our ears, or we would have felt discomfort. Similar to the pressure one feels while in an airplane due to the build up of pressure caused by the water as we descended.
"Pop your ears, for every metre that you descend" he explained, "If you can't, let me know". By tilting your hand from side to side while pointing at your ears, was the hand signal for this problem.
However, breathing slowly and consistently while amongst all those wild creatures down there did seem a little optimistic to me. Though that is what one must do in order to maximize the amount of time one can stay under. For once the air is nearly emptied from your tank you must return to the surface, something that was quite obvious to me but needed to said, never-the-less.
I would be the first to dive out of the group as he preferred to take us on a one to one ratio.
"Now don't jump, step away from the boat like a marching soldier," he continued “You will go under briefly but you will pop back up, due to the air you have air inside your BCD (the dive jacket).”
My right hand was holding the regulator and mask securely onto my face, so that I would not lose them when entering the water.
While making sure to look straight ahead and not down, as a stinging slap in the face by the sea is something you should avoid. "You will only ever do that one time, hahahaha" he says.”
The Instructor was waiting in the water and with a reassuring smile and a few calming words from him, it was now or never. Splash, under I went and a mass of bubbles surrounded me, I then surfaced after what seemed like the longest second of my life.
I took a sneak preview of what was to come. The sea was so clear it looked beautiful down there, almost taking my breath away, which actually put me at ease and I was ready to go.
He then instructed me to release all the air from jacket and as I start to descend I could feel the pressure change in my ears which I cleared effortlessly. I landed on the sand below and in the kneeling position I took my first few underwater breaths. What a strange feeling this was I could breathe underwater. My brain was saying, this should not be happening, I should not normally be able do this, yet I was breathing underwater, amazing.
The Instructor then signals me, ‘OK’, I return the signal, then he signals “You watch me,” and then proceeds to demonstrate the skills he had explained to me on the boat.
The Mask clearing and removal of the regulator went without a hitch as he showed me with the do-see-do method. The regulator removal was not the most enjoyable part of the dive, but it felt good after being told that mask clearing is the trickiest skill to master when learning scuba.
I soon started to marvel at my surroundings. Everything had a different look from what we are used to on the surface. The refraction, which is cause by the glass in the mask and the water, actually causes things to seem closer and larger than what they really are. The deep blue hue of the sea gave me an almost surreal feeling. To be submerged in this wonderful and exhilarating underwater world has to be seen to be believed.
Off we went, I was breathing quite heavily at first but soon settled down it was noisy experience as I could hear every breath that I took. A huge variety of colourful fish were all around, they seemed to swim effortlessly, I must have seemed like an inept lump to them. Their colours were so vibrant, the blues and greens the likes of I had never seen before.
A Moray Eel lurked in a hole it had found between to large rocks, its pointed teeth, made it look quite formidable; I decided not to get too close to it. Then a turtle swam by with such ease and elegance unlike its lumbering relative the tortoise.
I looked down to see a stingray materialize from the sand, it had concealed it self so well that if it had not moved, I would never have seen it. Then seemingly from nowhere a black tip reef shark appeared, it came so close I could have touched it, it gave me such an adrenalin rush to be so close to one of natures perfect creatures; (my breathing must have increased ten fold) its power so evident, I guessed that it wanted to know just who or what was intruding in its territory. Then with a swish of its tail it was gone, leaving me with a memory of my first shark encounter, something that I will surely never forget
The Instructor was by my side the entire dive; never straying more than a metre away. It must be quite difficult to have such control over a novice diver; the responsibility of having a novice down below the waves must be huge. .
Before I knew it, we were back on the boat and I had a new hero. The excitement stayed with me for the rest of the day and it still brings a smile to my face whenever I think of my first diving experience. This is one memory souvenir I will treasure forever.
I have since become an open water diver (which is the first course one must take and enables you to dive -with a buddy- most places in the world) and I am sure I will continue to dive for many more years to come.
Shark, now there’s a name to strike fear into any new diver. If you have ever been lucky enough to have seen a shark on a dive; if you have ever witnessed one of nature’s truly marvellous creations, if a shark has ever entered your range of visibility underwater, then you will know, that no matter what else you may have been looking at at that moment, is forgotten and the shark takes precedence.
On most dive boats around the world the most popular question is; Are there any sharks? The general public have a fear, also respect (which no doubt comes from fear) and usually a total misconception about these amazing fish.
Due largely to false press reports, Hollywood images, books and hear-say; Quite possibly this unfounded information has contributed to almost the totally annihilation of many species of Shark. It is estimated that around 70 million sharks are captured and killed annually, Not just for food ( which includes the delicacy shark fin soup, which we will come back to) but as by-catch by fishermen trawling for other fish. Also, like the seemingly happy-go-lucky Dolphins which get caught up in Tuna nets, sharks get trapped and drown too. Sharks are extremely vulnerable to over fishing due the fact they can take up to and over seven years to reach sexual maturity and do not give birth to hundreds of offspring like most other fish do. Many species are now threatened and some are on the Global ICUN Red List, they include; The Blue Shark, Long Fin Mako, Great White Shark, Salmon Shark, Megamouth, Big eyed Sand-tiger and Crocodile Shark. Other sharks which find themselves on the endangered list are The Short Fin Mako, Thresher, Porbeagle and Silky shark are also in a real danger of extinction.
One of the main reasons Sharks populations have been decimated in recent years is the appetite for the Chinese delicacy Shark Fin Soup. This dish is seen as a status symbol by rich Chinese and as China grows economically, the lust to prove one’s riches grows. This trend has seen an ever increasing decline in Shark stocks. Shark Fin Soup is considered beneficial to the health in many Asian countries. Also it is believed to prevent cancer, and be an aphrodisiac, although there is no scientific proof of these claims. The way the sharks are captured and have their fins removed with a red hot blade and then thrown back into the sea, still alive, but unable to move and subsequently suffer an awful death, has had many claiming that this practice is unlawful and barbaric. However the trade in Shark fin is very profitable with some fins being sold for anything up to $500. With this in mind there seems to be no end in sight for this ever increasing crisis.
Sharks have been around for over three hundred million years; The modern shark that now patrol the Oceans are highly evolved and have been unchanged for over one hundred million years. Human beings on the other hand have been around for little over one hundred thousand years and we are still evolving. Sharks are fish, and have little or no bone what-so-ever. Their skeleton consists of cartilage, similar to the top part of the human ear or nose.
There are over three hundred and sixty different kind of sharks, (not including Rays, Skates and Chimaeras which are a relative, being cartilaginous fish). One of the smallest being the Pygmy shark which is no more than 20 centimetres in length to the largest fish in the world the Whale-shark, which can reach staggering 12 metres. The whale shark is probably the most sought after fish in the world, by divers that is. People spend thousands of dollars a year on the off chance of seeing this magnificent animal, Which is totally harmless. Well unless you are unlucky enough or daft enough to get hit by its tail fin as it cruises through the water, filtering tiny plankton, its staple diet.
In fact Eighty percent of sharks are totally harmless less than a metre in length and eat small fishes, crustaceans and invertebrates. Out of all the species of sharks there are only several types that are known to have attacked and killed man; Including the most famous of all, The Great White Shark; The Tiger Shark, with distinct tiger stripes down its side; The Bull Shark, which is one of only two sharks that can swim up river. This species has the infamous title of the most aggressive of all sharks, possibly for its ability to swim in fresh water, where it is more likely to come into contact with humans. On occasion Great Hammerheads, Oceanic white tips, and Short fin Mako’s (the fastest of all the sharks) have attacked human but these attacks are rare. A Shark will only attack if threatened or hungry. Humans are not on the menu unless we are mistaken for their natural food, especially in murky water or on the surface where the Shark can only see shadows. Sharks generally bump or poke their prey with their fins or snout before an all out attack. Some Surfers will attest to this.
Annually reported, globally there are about seventy shark attacks a year with about five or six being fatal. There has never once been a report of any shark attack on a Scuba diver that has not been provoked or part of a shark feeding dive. Almost 200 people each year die from being struck by lightning; 600 people a year just falling out of bed; 2,800 die each year from choking; there are 40,000 that die each year from snake bites. In fact you are more likely to suffer fatal injury from a bee sting. The statistics on road travel cannot even be compared. Even while travelling by airplane, you are more likely to come a cropper than on any dive.
Sharks are one of the biggest attractions in diving, even bigger than the Anemone clown fish (NEMO). The mystery, the power, the phenomenon that is epitome of the word shark. The fear, the respect, the curiosity that these creatures command, is truly awe inspiring. Whether you take your divers on a reef to see the Black Tip or the White Tip reef shark, if they are lucky enough to see the Graceful Leopard shark. There may be the bullish behavior of the Silvertip or Grey Reef sharks that you may be fortunate to see. People flock in their thousands to see Hammerheads in The Red Sea. Becoming more and more popular by the year are the Galapagos Islands which have a rich marine life including a large and diverse population of Sharks. Also the ever increasing in popularity of Coco’s Islands, which have some of the best Shark dives on the Planet. Then there is The Whale-Sharks of Ningaloo Reef, The Great Whites in South Africa, there is at least sixteen species of Shark around Tahiti (French Polynesia). The waters around Thailand are Home to many different species too, including, The Whale-shark, Black Tip, White Tip, Grey Reef, Leopard and nurse sharks to name a few. Although, you don’t have to go to the ends of the earth for great Shark dives, They populate every sea and ocean around the world. Even the waters around the UK home or have regular visits by up to twenty one different species of Shark throughout the year. Up and down the country many dive operations offer trips to observe the huge Basking Shark (second only in size to the Whale shark).
Many Scuba divers will appreciate the need for action, but what can be done? Instructors and Divemasters alike can help if only by talking about this problem with their customers and students. Many people in the general public will not realize the magnitude of the Sharks plight , the more that understand the better the chances of saving the sharks. There are many shark charities including www.sharktrust.org which is a founding member of the www.sharkalliance .org which is a coalition of non government organizations that are trying to bring to light this huge environmental issue and to pressurize governments. Also PROJECT AWARE are playing a huge role in many campaigns to help the sharks. Check out these sites to find out more, what can be done and how you can help. Lets hope there is massive outcry like that of save the whale campaigners of the seventies. It’s very true that we know very little about Sharks and yet still maybe there are more Sharks in the abyss waiting to be discovered. Only as recently as 1976 was the Megamouth discovered in Hawaii, USA. If we are to save these wonderful, majestic, mysterious and superbly evolved creatures. It seems, ‘act now before it’s too late,’ is the policy.
If you are a first time diver and are worried about getting in the water for a fear of sharks. Well, you are more likely to crash the car on the way to the airport and even if your plane lands safely and you do not get stung by a bee on the way to your hotel and in the morning assuming you did not fall out of bed, and, if then on the way to the dive boat you avoided being bitten by snake and being struck by lightning, then you should be quite safe to dive.
Collection of video clips and photographs from dives in Koh Tao and Phi Phi Island