I've just arrived back on the mainland from an amazing four days on Koh Rong Samloem (Cambodia) getting my Open Water Diver Certification. It was an incredible experience from start to finish. From the unspoiled island, the fellow divers and staff, and finding a whole new world to explore – it was an unforgettable experience.
There were two of us getting our scuba certification this week. An English guy named Nathan on holidays from teaching in China became my "buddy" for the week. You always have a buddy when scuba diving because everything is checked and double checked. Underwater, your buddy’s air tank serves as a back up for you.
Koh Rong Samloem remains even less developed than it's big brother Koh Rong (where the last season of Survivor was filmed) with no power during the day, no hot water and of course, no WiFi. While I was happy to return to the internet-smothered mainland, I must admit that it was a nice break to be disconnected for a while.
The first day of our course was theory. Pete – an Aussie guy in his late 40s with a tongue ring and pony tail – would be our classroom instructor. He had a great sense of humour and I was sad that he was only with us for the day (he was trying to get some cuts on his legs to heal so he had to stay out of the water). We spent the day going through all of the theory, doing quizzes and ending with our final exam after dinner. There was so much to learn. I wondered how we could remember it all.
The next day, we were joined by our second instructor Fabrice – a 40 something guy from France who has over 7000 dives and has trained more than 1000 people. He knows every reef, every species of fish and every inch of the underwater world in this area having scuba’d his way around the island over 5 times. An incredible amount of experience. His English was good but still had a heavy dose of French. Sometimes he would be slow to get my jokes (even the good ones!) but had a great sense of humour. His constant “Ben, oui!” to almost anything we said, whether it was right or wrong, was a great source of humour for me.
We suited up with all of our equipment – wet suit, a buoyancy control device (basically a vest with weights in it that connects to the air cylinder); a weight belt (to keep you down – mine was 6 kgs); a regulator (hose you breath from that connects to your cylinder); a second regulator (for my buddy, just in case); a buoyancy inflator/deflator; and a pressure gage. Along with a snorkel, mask and fins, we were ready for our first confined water lesson. If only I could walk to the beach…the kit was so heavy!
Thankfully, I made it and within minutes I was breathing my first breaths under water. It was awesome! In the shallow water of the beach, we proceeded to go over all the necessary skills. We practiced taking our mask off underwater and replacing it, switching from snorkel to regulator, inflating our buoyancy vest orally and swimming without air in the case we ran out. It was so much information that it was like drinking from a hose. I literally swallowed more than my fair share of salt water. I pity the people who have learned these skills within the confines of a swimming pool. Even while practicing in 10 feet of water, we saw schools of fish including one of crocodile needlefish as well as many sea urchins hiding in the sand.
The third day was our first day of diving in open water. First, we had to do a swim test, which I thought was pretty hilarious given we’d spent the previous day swimming in the sea. Once it was confirmed that Nathan and I could swim (and float!), we were on the boat and heading to our first dive site. I was more than a little nervous. I was worried about my ears not equalizing properly and about feeling claustrophobic under so much water. After all, scuba diving is like nothing I’d ever done before. I couldn't just figure it out as I went. Diving is risky. When you’re descending, you need to equalize your ears or you can rupture an eardrum. You can’t simply abort a dive if you freak out – at least not safely. If you come up too fast or hold your breath, you can damage your lungs. If you don’t watch your pressure gage, you can run out of air. If you run out of air and are too far to reach your buddy quickly – you have to drop your weights and hope you have enough air in your lungs to exhale while you rush to the surface. This was a whole new world. But as quickly as you learn the consequences, you also learn that if done right, you’ll be rewarded with amazing sights.
Fortunately, we were in good hands with instructors like Pete and Fabrice. Our first day of diving went really well. We were joined by another group of “fun divers” - Valentina (Nathan’s friend from China), Bruce (a retired American travelling the world for the last three years), Lucas (Instructor) and Adana (learning to be a dive master). Upon resurfacing everyone talked about all the fish and different organisms seen below. Apparently, I missed quite a few as I was so focused on remembering to breath. Woops! I guess it didn't matter though. When we got back to the island, a new English friend named Kat asked me how my first two dives had gone. As she would later recount to a round of laughter, I turned to her with wide eyes, a huge smile and excitedly told her about every detail. The day was a great success and I couldn’t wait to dive again.
Not surprisingly, our second and final day of diving was even better. Once I got down to the sea floor (it took me a bit longer as one of my ears didn’t equalize very well), the first dive was amazing. There was so much to look at and now I could enjoy so much more of the view that I had missed the first day. By maintaining my buoyancy (staying at the same depth by controlling the amount of air in my lungs), I could avoid equalizing more often and could focus on the amazing underwater world. The coral was really impressive. It almost seemed fake. Even though you lose colour the deeper you go (due to the refracting light), the colours still seemed so bright. Among many others, we saw a school of curious orbicular batfish who swam with us for a while (Google them - they are so cute!). We also saw a school of cobias that look like a cousin of the shark but aren’t and are actually quite skittish. One of the cooler fish we saw was a scorpion fish who camouflaged itself so well that it was hard to distinguish it from the coral it was lying on. Perhaps the funniest sight we saw was upon resurfacing. With our dive boat a few hundred meters offshore, the area was quiet that day. Besides our bubbles floating to the surface from deep below, the sea was empty. The three of us surfaced with little more than an inflated marker to note our presence for boats. I guess that’s why the two topless girls tanning on the rocks didn’t see us. It was Fabrice’s keen French eye that spotted them. Much to our enjoyment, they quickly saw us too and scurried off the rocks grabbing their towels. We waved hello just to make sure they knew we’d seen them. Ha ha.
After a lunch of curry (not the best food when you’re trapped in a wet suit for the day), we were on to our final dive. This dive wasn’t quite as colourful as the first one but it was exhilarating being so deep at 16 meters. The second dive also had an interesting twist. While at the surface getting ready to descend, I could hear a bit of air escaping from either my vest or tank. We checked the seals and all was fine but when Fabrice, Nathan and I reached the sea floor, my tank was already down to 140 bars. We usually start a dive at 200 bars and being only 5 minutes in, I was losing air much faster than usual. On our other three dives, Nathan had used his air more quickly, so it was strange that I was ahead of him. We had planned to ascend when we got to 50 bars or had been under for 50 minutes. At this rate, we would have to surface well before. It wasn’t long before I was down to 70 bars while Nathan and Fabrice still had about 130 bars. So instead of going up early, Fabrice and I traded vests and tanks under water. We traded regulators and I put on his big vest (he’s probably 6’4 and 200 pounds) while he put on my small vest (no need to note my weight here - you get my point!). Nathan told us later about how confused he was watching us swap kits. He wondered if this was a skill he also needed to practice. Ha ha ha. Given Fabrice’s experience, he uses much less energy by being calmer and moving more efficiently under the water. He can actually reduce the amount of oxygen he uses by the way he breaths. As a result, he could use my remaining 70 bars in the same length of time that Nathan and I could use our 130 bars. So with our new vests and tanks, our dive continued. We surfaced our final dive with huge smiles and a hearty congratulations from Fabrice. We passed!
Getting my open water certification was such a rewarding experience. I think, in part, because I was scared that I might not be able to do it. I did it and I loved it. I felt challenged and refreshed by learning something new. I’m reenergized for my trip and already thinking about the next challenge I want to take on. Suggestions welcome in the comment section below!