Feeding the Fishes: Scuba in Koh Tao

sink or swim by Vicki

Feeding the Fishes: Scuba in Koh Tao

I had heard rumblings of how it was cheaper in Thailand to do your scuba license, particularly in Koh Tao. But I figured it would be relatively the same in the other islands of Thailand. We didn’t have many days left on our visa and I didn’t want to rush from one island to another JUST to scuba. So while in Koh Lanta island I looked up how much the 4 day open water scuba course would cost. A whopping $200 CAD cheaper in Koh Tao WITH 3 nights of accommodation included. It was a no brainer. So with 6 days left on our Thai visa, we rushed over to Koh Tao to take the 4 day course. I did do my research, reading the trip advisor and facebook reviews of every company. There were so many to choose from. They all practically had the same reviews, small class sizes, so in the end I went by who gave us the best price. A friend had also gone with this company and loved it, so two birds, one stone. We were ready to scuba.

We had a hut by the beach, our scuba school was right next door, and our classmates were another couple from Finland. Our instructor (I will name her Jenny) is nice, laid back and confident. Everything was coming together, with one minor detail: The weather. It’s not supposed to be great in December, but had been beautiful the week before. Now though, it was slowly turning. Perhaps an omen for what was to come.

With the theory behind us, I was pumped and nervous. The videos made it all look easy and being calm and cool seemed to be the key to doing it all. Let’s do this! I was ready for our first practice session. We were going to be eased in, I thought. I knew we weren’t going to do it in a pool and I scoffed. Yeah, the pool is for newbs. I’ve watched the videos! I know what to expect! I pictured us walking out to the beach with all our gear.


Without any warning, we were herded into a pickup truck with other divers doing other courses. Driven to the dock and loaded onto a large fishing boat. OH. We are going on a boat. Immediately on the boat, I told the instructor that we both get sea sick. She didn’t know (may be she should have asked). She finds us motion sickness pills. The waves are steep and the boat is a ‘rockin. 20 minutes into the boat ride, Mike and I have puked maybe 4 times each, occupying the boat’s only toilet. There goes lunch. The pills don’t even get the chance to stay down.

Mike trying to keep it together

Mike trying to keep it together

The instructor Jenny tells us we will feel better if we go into the water. I thought I had warned her about Mike not being a strong swimmer. I myself can paddle around, but not for very long. Floating on my back is my go-to, I could do that for hours. I went into the water, anything to make me feel better. Jenny says we can do our swim test. Swim 3 times around the boat. First of all, our boat is parked very close to many other boats. Second of all, it was wavy as hell. Third of all, Mike has a fear of open water. I’m too sick to process all of this, I swim. One lap, two laps. I use good ol’ back float. Wait, the waves keep splashing over me every time I try to breathe. Ugh, I’m getting tired and am starting to drink tons of salty sea water. Is Mike okay? I know he can’t swim well and the waters are rough. I hear the instructor tell Mike if he holds onto something he has to redo the test again. I am running on empty and can’t waste energy. I really, really can’t make it and am struggling. What kind of swim test is this? Three-quarters into my last lap and I can’t do it. I hold onto the tires hanging off the boat.

Sputtering, I climb back onto the boat. I just want to curl up into a ball and stay there. 15 minutes later, with Mike and I sitting at the back still feeling sick, the instructor tells us we will feel better if we just get into the water. Oh no. Not that again. She has actually put most of our equipment together for us. We put it on and just as everything clips into place, I hurl again right over the edge, tank on my back and all. I thought I had nothing left but hurl I do. I’m actually surprised the tank doesn’t make me tip overboard. Now I truly have nothing left inside me. “Feeding the fishes,” Jenny says. What makes us feel better is another fellow student hurls too. Ah finally. Vindication. Our instructor straps us in and shows us how to jump. Sure, sure. I jump, don’t do any signals, I just want to be okay. She inflates me and then watches the others jump. Oh. So I just went from rocking on a wavy boat to now floating in the waves. Much better?? Jenny tells us to try putting the mouthpiece in our mouth and breathe. Oh weird. This doesn’t feel right. I hear Mike ask her if we could swim to the beach. She says, no, we aren’t going to learn there and then she’s gone. Off swimming. How do I use this thing? Omg, I’m so sick. Screw the mouthpiece. I just start meagerly paddling towards to beach. It’s got to be 700 meters away. LAND. Mike struggles like I do. The other two students have their faces in the water with their mouthpiece on. Show offs. Swim, swim. Where is the instructor? These flipper things aren’t as helpful as I thought they would be.

LAND HO. Mike and I reach the beach and dump our gear. We just gasp and savour the feeling of land. Right then and there, I dread going back into the water, back on the boat. I contemplate, how do we quit and get off this island without getting back onto the boat? I can’t possibly make the swim back.

Jenny finds us on the beach and asks us if we want to do some exercises. HELL NO. She says she will teach the other students and will come back to us again after we’ve rested.

When she comes back we ask her if there was any way to quit and get off this island. She says no, we will have to go back to the boat the same way we came (Those waves of death? No, thank you). We start to feel better so she asks us to come try to do some skills in the calm water by the beach (Is this not where we should’ve started??). I started using the mouthpiece and in water only 2 metres taller than I, we begin to learn. It was as if Jenny actually came to life, as an instructor. It started feeling like a class with clear instructions (ironic because you cant speak or hear underwater) as she gave very good visual signals on how to use the breathing equipment. Finally. Mike and I did well. We were crushing the skills and saw tons of fish too! Except for the fact that I still felt sea sick. I could still feel the current underwater and went up to the surface a couple times to dry heave. Mouthpiece out of course. Fun times.

We were going to a deeper spot to do a few more skills and then we would go back to the boat. I was reaching my limit again so I asked if I could do the skill tomorrow instead. I stayed at the surface praying for it to end soon as she did the exercises with the others. She suddenly surfaced and pointed behind us. A sea turtle!! One of my favourite animals!! With my last amount of energy, I put my mouthpiece on and followed it on its swim for a while. Loving the moment but also internally wondering when we would leave. I couldn’t take it anymore and went to the surface to dry heave again. After my bout, I saw the other divers and Jenny swimming away. “Are we leaving?” I asked. One shrugged. Then started following. I looked around. Mike looked like he was struggling (apparently in one of the exercises he had to take off his gear underwater and put it back on. He did it but didn’t feel properly strapped back in but then they saw the sea turtle). Jenny was so far away. We had to just start swimming. Omg, let me survive this. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Like Dory’s theme minus the fun humour and Ellen Degeneres’ delightful voice. At least I was used to the mouthpiece this time.


Back on the boat, I was able to do 2/10 things needed to properly put your equipment away. Basically I stood at the side of the boat praying not to be sick anymore. At least the other girl was bent over too like I was.

On dry land, Mike and I had a long talk about our experience. I could still feel the waves while walking around. We decided not to continue the course, stopping halfway in. We were severely disappointed with ourselves for quitting and I still have regrets about it now. But looking back, I am happy we didn’t just push through. A storm was coming and the visibility and waters were only getting worse. I was not comfortable with our instructor and we were only going to deeper depths. I learned from our former classmates that at one point during the next dive, they couldn’t see the instructor so they just went up. I was in disbelief because with Mike and I dropping out, our instructor only had the TWO of them to take care of. And she still lost them? Going up is one of the most dangerous things a diver has to do. And they had to do it alone. I think if we had taken motion sickness pills beforehand and not had that horrible first experience, we may have been able to power through the rest of the course. Our instructor’s teaching style was not our style, but if Mike and I were more confident swimmers or less sick it would’ve been adequate.

But adequate is not a word I would want to use to describe our scuba journey. I want to fist pump like YEAH scuba is awesome!! So, alas while our first time was pretty much a complete disaster, I’m glad we passed up the “adequate” experience and will instead try for an awesome one that makes us appreciate how scuba should really be. One thing I will never do is to forget to take sea sick pills. Even if we are going to a pool. The fishes aren’t getting my food anymore.




Vicki Li

Always up for an adventure, I travel with an open mind and am ready to discover the world.