Learning to dive in Koh Lanta – The Sea Strikes Back

Learning to dive was on of our top priorities at the beginning of our world trip so we could dive in other destinations throughout the year. After a busy start to our year away travelling we finally arrived in Koh Lanta, Thailand.

We chose Koh Lanta as during this time of the year the Andaman Sea side of Thailand is supposed to have better visibility for diving. Many people, blogs, articles, forums, etc. suggested Koh Tao as best destination to learn diving in Thailand, however, we were slightly put off by a friend’s description of it as the Thai ‘sausage-factory’ for novice divers. So we settled on the quieter peninsula of Koh Lanta, which is also supposed to have two of the best dive sites in the world (Hin Daeng and Hin Muang), albeit only for advanced divers.

We booked our PADI Open Water diving course with Blue Planet Divers and started learning the theory at home. Expecting a tedious, theory-loaded first day we arrived somewhat unprepared to our first day learning to dive – without swimwear! We collected our bikini & swim shorts and set off to the swimming pool.

Our instructor, Kat, was great. She explained everything clearly and was really easy to get on with. Theory reviewed and test done, we were ready to go on our first dive day. We were both very excited and I slightly nervous as I have issues equalising my ears when trying to free-dive (especially head-down). I really didn’t want my ears to be another show-stopper, especially since we had planned a few more dive trips, at least in our heads.

Our boat left the next morning at 8am sharp. We used the 2-hour journey to have breakfast, prepare our gear, review some more theory and plan our first dive at Koh Bida. The time passed quickly, not leaving much room for nervous over-thinking.

The early morning procession of dive boats leaving Saladan Pier, Koh Lanta
Small islands on the voyage to Koh Bida
Few of many small rock islands on the early part of the trip to Koh Bida. What the many speedboats passing us make up for in speed, they lack in comfort.

We geared up, waddled to the end of the boat, trying not to fall over or knock someone else out with our tanks, and made our first “giant stride” into the water.

Once ready we deflated our BCDs (Bouyancy Control Device – a bit like an inflatable swim vest) and slowly sank. I deflated my BCD only bit by bit, slowly watching the world in front of my eyes transform from choppy sea to underwater calm. I anxiously felt the pressure in my ears building up and wondered every time if this would be as far down as I could go. To my relief I found that I could keep up with Alex and Kat’s descent. I started to concentrate on slow, relaxed breathing and look around, amazed by what the underwater world had to offer. We saw a huge school of little yellow snappers that seemed quite accustomed to divers, rainbow-coloured parrot fish, clown fish, puffer fish, trumpet fish, an octopus and a huge school of barracudas.

Our first dive was a huge success. After a break back on the boat – where we ate far too many spring rolls and pineapple – we kitted ourselves up for a second dive. This time was much smoother and we were lucky enough to spot a golden trevally feeding on yellow as well as a couple of lion fish and perhaps a stone fish…although it could have just been a stone.

Waiting amongst the islands of Koh Bida
After our second dive we enjoy the view whilst waiting for the other divers to complete their dives.

Back on the boat we enjoyed some lunch and a snooze and were back in Koh Lanta at around 4pm, tired but happy.

Learning to dive is tiring work!
Petra taking a nap on the voyage back to Koh Lanta (in the distance). Who’d have thought learning to dive could be so tiring!

Only once we went for dinner did things start to take a different turn. Alex was feeling nauseous since the boat ride back and started to feel light-headed and dizzy. We didn’t think too much of it at first but studying all the symptoms of dive-related illnesses and then experiencing some didn’t help to calm the nerves. By bedtime Alex felt worse so we decided to call the local medical centre. We couldn’t get much advice over the phone but the clinic happily sent a car to pick us up. Ten minutes later we arrived at the 24-hour Andaman International Clinic on Koh Lanta. In stark contrast to what one might expect at an NHS ER in the UK Alex appeared to be the only patient and was instantly looked after by the friendly and competent local staff. The nurses carefully took notes and a blood sample, rather painfully if Alex’s expressive grimace is any measure.

Once the blood results were ready a doctor came to see Alex and explained, to our relief, that he did not have decompression sickness, or any other diving-related illness for that matter, but tonsilitis (i.e. a tonsil infection). We then experienced what the American, or in fact any private, health-care system must be like. The doctor ordered Alex a drip-feed and 5 different medications plus an overnight stay for observation and check-up every 2 hours. I curiously observed the nurse handling the different needles and, to my satisfaction, noticed that all were packed individually in sterile ‘medical wrapping’. Alex was transferred to a different air-conditioned room (private by the virtue of being the only patient) and even I got assigned a bed and blanket I could sleep in for the night.

Sleeping off illness at the medical clinic in Koh Lanta.
Alex sleeping off the worst of the illness at the medical clinic in Koh Lanta.

In the morning Alex was discharged, relieved but also worn out from the night’s events and in desperate need of sleep. We moved our next dive out by another day to allow 3 full day’s of rest by which time we hope Alex will be in ship shape again.

In the meantime here’s the gallery to our first diving day:

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