The Underwater Buddha: Diving with Scubafish in Koh Lanta, Thailand

Niki and Dave Diving

“How long has it been since you’ve last dived?”

“A few years,” I said. “Maybe five.”

Whilst searching for my PADI Licence number amidst my emails I found a message to a friend from 2010 that told me it had been a whopping 8 YEARS since I’d taken my Open Water Course in Koh Tao as a 25-year-old!

I could remember my initial fears gliding down the rope for the very first time and watching the world turn blue before my mask. Being a person who is prone to a little panic every now and then (that may be an understatement), I’d been worried about how I would react to SCUBA diving, but I remember the sense of calm I had gotten from the experience 8 years ago.

Would that ring true for me now? Would I remember the skills I had learnt? And more importantly, why hadn’t I found the time in 8 years to get back in the water?

Diving in Koh Tao, Thailand
Diving in Koh Tao for the first time 8 years ago!

Whilst living in Koh Lanta for a few months, my boyfriend (Dave) and I decided that we mustn’t leave the island before experiencing the amazing diving on offer. On our motorbike, we’d explored every road and dirt track, as well as most of the trails through the jungle (many of them lead to dead ends FYI!) yet apart from a flirtation with snorkelling on a day trip to Koh Rok, neither of us had an idea what treasures lay under the deep blue.

Choosing a Dive School in Koh Lanta

We met a couple of dive instructors at a party who consolidated our desire to make this happen. The friendly folks worked for Scubafish, one of the most established schools on the island.

Scubafish was founded 14 years ago by an English entrepreneur, Saffron, back when the island was much quieter, and since then their school has grown to employ some 40+ people with three boats, four dive shops and a sweet partnership with the 5-Star Resort Pimalai, the most luxurious resort on the island. (Great for treating yourself to 2-for-1 sunset cocktails by the way!)

We felt like we’d be in good hands with their experienced team – (and we weren’t wrong!)

Our Discover Scuba Diving Course

My boyfriend Dave had never dived before, and along with my 8-year absence, we opted for a ‘Discover Scuba Diving Trip’. With a little training before-hand in the swimming pool, this one-day course enables you to enjoy a day diving in the ocean up to 12 meters.

For budding divers, the DSD is a great way to start as you can really get a feel whether or not this activity is something that you would like to pursue. Of course, many people catch the bug and end up taking their PADI Open Water Course (the first diving certificate) soon after. Would that be Dave?

So, on the first day of our adventure, we set off to Pimalai Resort in Kantiang Bay.

Pimalai Resort, Kantiang Bay, Koh Lanta
The beautiful Pimalai Resort, Kantiang Bay, Koh Lanta.

We met our dive instructor, Paul, who would be looking after us for the next two days and he went over some initial safety points and “important things to remember whilst diving” – like never hold your breath underwater! Already these facts rang a bell with me and I felt confident and eager to take the plunge again.

Paul kitted us out with our heavy SCUBA gear and we hobbled like penguins to the lovely swimming pool at the resort. For a backpacker like me it’s not often that I get to show my face at a 5-star resort and so I was pretty chuffed, even if it was covered in a SCUBA mask!

Once in the pool, we went over skills like how to breathe with the regulator, how to clear your mask and how to find your regulator if it gets knocked out of your mouth. The skills came back to me like riding a bike and I felt really comfortable with all of my equipment under the water. Dave was having a little trouble clearing his mask and as I imparted my wisdom to him from my PADI Course all those years ago, I felt secretly pleased to be the one who was the least anxious of the two of us – for a change!

The Bubbles and the Rock

If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m the panicky, over-excited one and Dave is the calm, logical one. We work well together, especially as travel partners, and were once nicknamed by a Yoga Teacher in Goa as the “Rock” and the “Bubbles”.

Well, Bubbles was showing the Rock how to blow bubbles this time and she was feeling (just a bit too) smug with herself – as became apparent later in the course!  

That night we could hardly sleep with excitement and awoke after just a few hours sleep to see one of the very few sunrises that we’ve seen whilst living on Koh Lanta. We left the house at 7 am and boarded the Scubafish boat, MV Maya II, to Koh Haa at 8 am having a delicious breakfast along the way. 

Boarding the boat to Koh Haa at Kantiang Bay, Koh Lanta.
Boarding the MV Maya II to Koh Haa at Kantiang Bay, Koh Lanta.

Koh Haa (Five Islands)

Located about an hour from the West coast of Koh Lanta, Koh Haa (literally meaning five islands) is home to five spectacular dive sites that are perfect for beginners or more advanced divers.

The sandy lagoon in the centre of the five islands provides a calm, sheltered spot to enter the water and is great for newbie divers. Whilst the swim-through cave systems (most notably, the Chimney and the Cathedral) and the whale skeleton entice more advanced divers!

Each of the islands is blessed with a colourful coral reef that’s home to a diverse array of marine life, from parrotfish to reef sharks… and can be enjoyed even by snorkelers! (The Scubafish team had even seen a whale shark in the waters around Koh Haa a few weeks ago!)

Approaching Koh Haa (5 islands) from Koh Lanta
Approaching Koh Haa (5 islands) from Koh Lanta

Our First Dive of the Day!

On our first dive, we saw an abundance of parrot fish, barracuda, angel fish, lion fish, lobsters, clown fish, colourful nudibranch (sea slugs), a banded sea snake (apparently one of the most venomous creatures in the world, but also one of the most chilled out!) and an orange speckled octopus.

Magnus, the photographer, had me pose to take a photo swimming next to the octopus, but at the time I thought I was posing with a piece of coral!

Picture with an octopus
Octopus in the foreground, such a weird creature! (I bet he thinks that about us!)

As I lost myself amidst the spectacular nature, I remember the feeling that I’d had on my first dive ever. I felt like I had discovered a whole new world.  A world that relaxed me and made my over-active mind feel at ease. For once I wasn’t thinking about our future travel plans or my to-do list.

Underwater, the Bubbles became the Rock. I felt like I was living in the moment. It was a feeling like no other.

Before I knew it, it was time to resurface and get back on the boat.

The Underwater Buddha

We enjoyed three dives that day and during the third dive, Dave had a bit of a splutter and felt like he was breathing in water through his regulator. (Of course, he wasn’t, but I think his mind couldn’t get used to the fact that he could actually breathe underwater! After 35 years thinking that this is impossible, it takes some getting used to!)

A diver jumps off the boat into the sea
Jumping into the sea for our final dive of the day!

About 10 meters down, I’d watched Dave rise to the surface in a bit of a panic and Paul, our dive instructor had gone up with him but had motioned to me to stay down under the water. I know that rising to the surface too quickly can be dangerous when diving and I was also confident that Dave was in very good hands with our experienced instructor, Paul, so I took his advice. 

Paul gave me the diver’s OK sign and pointed behind me. I turned around and saw Claus, another dive instructor who motioned me to breathe (stay calm) and follow him. I was impressed at the reaction of the team to the minor situation and they made sure that both of our individual needs were attended to.

Claus’s presence was like that of an underwater Buddha; serene and relaxed.

I followed him around the corals as he shone his torch into nooks and crannies displaying hiding lobsters and colorful sea slugs. I hoped that Dave was okay and that he’d managed to continue the dive with Paul, although I had no idea how far away he was at this point. Distances and time blurred and I just followed Claus and trusted his navigation.

... look what we found - Nemo!...
… look what we found – Nemo!

Claus led me past the mouth of a huge underwater cave where a couple of the more experienced divers had swum into with a torch. It was incredible, although I felt no desire to explore the dark cave – just yet anyway!

We turned a corner and I saw Dave with Paul. Claus gave me a Buddha nod and I left his calm guidance to reunite with my dive buddies for the day.

Before Dave even realized I was back, it was time to resurface and the last dive of the day was over.

The Bubbles Feeling Very Pleased With Herself

Wow. No dives for eight years and then three in one day! I had thoroughly enjoyed the experience and I felt so pleased with myself for being a calm, confident diver. I hadn’t had one panic the whole day!

Sunbathing on the boat deck on the way back, I excitedly told Dave that he must get his PADI course so that we could take fun dives in various places that we travel all over the world. A new world of exploration lay before us!

Diving in Koh Haa, Koh Lanta
Me feeling very pleased with myself after my three dives!

High on adrenaline, I hadn’t realized how exhausted I was. After a pad Thai and a beer on the way home, I could hardly keep my eyes open.

Back on Land… It was a Different Story…

It was then that I started to feel a bit weird. All of a sudden I felt dizzy and my skin felt a bit…well… tingly.

Uh oh. I did that thing that no one should ever do. Ever. Not ever. And that is… Look up your symptoms on the Internet. That was it from then on. I had the bends. I had it bad.

My mind raced. What if on the third dive with Claus, he’d taken me down really deep, not realizing that I was only meant to go to 12 meters that day? What if I hadn’t stayed down long enough before resurfacing… what if… what if…

It seemed that back on solid ground, Bubbles had turned back into her old self. The Rock (Dave) was there to calm me down, tell me I was being ridiculous (in a nice way), that I probably just had a bit of sunstroke from staying out in the sun too long on the boat. He told me that if I really wanted to put my mind at ease, I could give the dive school a call.

Knowing what I’m like (and before I drove Dave around the ‘bends’) I went with his advice. I called the dive school and spoke to the lovely owner Saffron. (I wonder how many times she’s had hypochondriacs call her after hours!) I told her my silly worry…

She couldn’t have been more understanding and lovely with me. Even though there was no surely need, she got in touch with both Paul and Claus and reassured me that, of course, I hadn’t gone any deeper than 12 meters with Claus and that when swimming back to Paul and Dave, I had already completed my “safety stop”. (A safety stop is a pause that divers must do before resurfacing to ensure that any excess nitrogen has left their body). She told me that I was probably just a bit dehydrated and that I should drink some water.

With so much experience and knowledge, I trusted Saffron’s final word and my mind finally let up panicking.

I drank 5 glasses of water and crashed into bed, thoughts of fishes and colourful corals floating around my dreams.

Even if Bubbles hadn’t managed to retain her calm once back on dry land, it was nice to experience a sense of calm that day in the water and I hope to return to diving for that feeling again and again in the future.

Nikki and Dave
The Rock and the Bubbles. 

As for Scubafish, I couldn’t recommend the school and their staff more and we felt looked after the whole day. The diving was absolutely amazing and if you’re in Koh Lanta, you should definitely try to make it out to Koh Haa for this once in a lifetime experience!

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Scuba Diving in Koh Lanta, Thailand

By Nikki Scott

Nikki Scott - Founder South East Asia Backpacker
Nikki Scott | Founder & Editor

Nikki is the founding editor of South East Asia Backpacker and The Backpacker Network. In her early twenties, she left her home in the North of England on a solo backpacking adventure and never returned! After six months on the road, she founded a print magazine that became legendary on the Banana Pancake Trail. The rest is history.

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