Happy Birthday to Mark, May 4th
11.05.2010 35 °C
We got up early on Mark's birthday to beat the hungover backpackers to the dive sites. I wasn't all that well, tummy wasn't happy last night and no better that morning. I think perhaps I had too many yummy fruit smoothies, or it could be those prawns in yesterdays lunch, or the pina coladas? the ice? the salad? .. I wasn't about to miss out on diving!
They'd been having problems with tank filling so only 7 divers were allowed to go -GREAT! We piled on a long tail boat and shuttled to the dive boat. It's a Thai style wooden vessel of over 12m with a top deck. The driver and wife live on board in the tiny cabin.
We did two dives, both were nice but my god these sites are crowded. I thought that being the low dive season would mean less divers. On the contrary, all the dive sites on the other side of the island are closed for the season so dozens of these huge wooden boats fight for positions over the remaining sites. I find it hard to imagine conditions would be bad on the other side of this tiny island. Conditions are completely and utterly flat and still. 31 degrees water temperature and bloody hot above. The dive masters keep mentioning current, what current?!!
Two incidents worth mentioning on day one of diving.
Incident 1: I strode off the side of the boat for my first dive. As soon as I popped up I heard a commotion and looked over my shoulder to see one of the other huge wooden dive boats ploughing in our direction, it rammed into the side of our boat, snapping the wooden pillar that held up the second level and crunching it's nose. It was either that or go over top of us. Rachael, our fantastic dive master (young pom) said that a few days ago a boat ploughed over top of her group and she got everyone underwater just in time. Every dive master carries a safety sausage (inflating bright red tube) on a string, which they pop up at the surface 5 minutes before surfacing and carry until they board. It apparently made no difference. Under water, it sounds a bit like a freeway at times.
Incident number 2: This incident involved my bottom so tune out now if you are not into travellers tummy stories. I mentioned I was unwell, but feeling ok to dive. The boat has a toilet, but no paper (not uncommon) and no bin to put the paper in (don't flush paper in asia!). So I was prepared with BYO paper and BYO plastic bag with which to "pack it out". I sat myself down with papers and bag laid out on my lap and all was going well until the door flew open giving me a fantastic view down the full length of the boat where 12 dives were busily kitting up. It was a a long way to that door handle from the seated position and difficult to manage with everything on my lap. Either everyone was too busy to notice or too polite to say anything.
I won't go into too much detail about what we saw on the dive since there are plenty of non divers reading this and my dive friends will see the photos. There are loads and loads of nice fish to look at, the coral lacks colour and some is dead but still makes for an interesting dive. Big grouper and stingrays with bright blue spots are favourites . The hand signal for Grouper is much like the signal for grabbing a pair of boobies. It's fun to hover and watch them go about their lives. Gobys in the sand formed a nice friendship with shrimps, the shrimp digs the hole, the goby sounds the alarm if predators come. One thing we noted straight up was the lack of the bigger predatory species and the large number of sea urchins - the really spikey ones with 8 inch needles - increased sea urchin numbers is a sure sign of overfishing.
With so many divers in the water it's easy to follow the wrong group. It's usually me who does that. I'm also the air guzzler of the group but it probably doesn't help that I always swim closer to the bottom. A habit from keeping out of the current at Perth/Rotto. Depth of most sites is 12-20m some deeper but with so many learner divers around there are pressures to keep to the shallower divers. Visibility 25? maybe more. Zero current. Hot and sweaty underwater, makes for very easy diving for someone who feels the cold the way I do. Normally diving is exhausting for me, but this makes it lazy.
Back at shore for lunch followed by some shopping and a Thai massage. The massage place has 5 beds in a row forming one big platform. Mark, Tanya & I all went in together. Thai massage involves the doer crawling all over the table using their knees, elbows, feet or whatever is required. They don't use oil, just press on the muscles, then manipulate you like origami when you're loosened up. The calf muscles were a good test of pain threshold after the dive. At one point they folded us in half almost sitting on our backs. Tanya and I were as stiff as boards but I was surprised to see Mark fold down to his knees.
That night we saw some beautiful lady boys, I think they were handing out flyers for a party. I have a great photo of Mark with one. The pool was a nice way to end the night but it's looking a little green. Thunderstorms flashed in the distance, some rain would be nice. It's a sticky place. At midnight the power went out so the aircon shut off and we woke up soggy. Wow it would be hell here without a/c. Turns out power outage is the norm every day. It is an island after all and much dependent on generators. What selfish complaining tourists we are.
We beat the backpackers and got on the early boat again. I've been waking at 4.30-5am every day anyway (no idea why). Charlie's tummy had him in a bad way in the early hours so he didn't make it to the dive. By the time we hit the water Tanya wasn't feeling too good either. They seem to have a much worse one than I do. Nothing will stop me diving, I'm even game to give the surprise door toilet another go. First dive we skipped the pretty reef in favour of a seahorse hunt on the sandy bottom. (Seems a strange place for them to be) after 10 minutes we gave up and were heading back to the reef - until we saw the japanese camera's flashing and found one poor harassed seahorse clinging to a little piece of seagrass. After they moved on I found another one they had pretty much been sitting on while taking the photos. The seahorses seemed to be used to the attention. No turtles, no whale sharks, but still the fish are very entertaining. It was nice to be the first to the dive site but it didn't last long.
We have been amazed at the number of smokers on these boats. At one point every single diver except us (about 12 people) was on the top deck lighting up the next one while still stubbing out the first. They don't even try to stand to one side so we can't get away from the smoke. Can't understand how a sport so dependent on good lungs and a nice clear airway would attract so many smokers.
Despite the hot bath conditions, mark insists on diving in full rashie and hood with his hired shorty wetsuit. He says it's to keep the sun off - though he wears it in the water not out so I'm not sure that argument flies. Anyway this hood has become known as his diving burka.
The afternoon was a lazy one with 3/4 of us sick. Me - not so bad.
It will take more than a runny bottom to stop us night diving! All were present. Lots of sleeping fish including a giant trigger fish. These things like to attack divers so it was nice to be able to have a closer look while he was sleeping. Saw eels, lots of blue spotted rays, plenty more. Highlight for me was a big fuzzy hermit crab wandering along with his shell, shell included he was about the size of a peeled coconut!
A great dive but spoiled for Charlie when he was pushed onto a sea urchin by someone from another dive group and got two spines in his leg. Spoiled for me when I whacked my hand into one and got a spike. They give you nasty pain for about 10 min and you can't get the spike out. Charlie dug a great big crater in his leg trying. Mark tells me they carry no poison (didn't feel like it!) but can have bacteria and can get infected. Mine healed fast.
Mark wanted to go to a Muay Thai fight tonight as his belated birthday treat. Turns out he used to do a bit of this when he was a tad younger. Sounds pretty violent but the fighters featured on the poster included some kids so maybe it's just like any other martial art. I met the local champion promoting in the street. His face looked a bit crushed.
Anyway, we were too exhausted and sick after the night dive so we gave it a miss. Cheap cocktails and Tiger beer were still on the agenda though.
This time Mark is too sick to dive so just 3 of us again. He didn't have it as bad as Charlie and Tanya who were still not so great but keen to get in the water. First dive was a good one, a giant puffer fish (probably the same as what my Dad calls a north-west blowie) posed for the cameras, about 45 cm long. The end of the dive was something Rachael described as "fields of heather". If you've ever been to Scotland you'll know about the pink and green shades of heather that look like nice soft round cushions. The coral made the same effect. Lovely yellow butterfly fish that we had seen throughout the dive in pairs, gathered in a huge school over the heather. So pretty. Last dive we had done before but with a boat full of Open water divers trying to graduate we couldn't have it all our way. The dive instructors always argue with the Master divers taking "fun"divers like us over which sites to go to.
I have never done a dive with so little current. On the safety stop (at 5m for 3 min) I just hing there without moving a muscle watching the busy world underneath. So relaxing. And so good to be warm on a dive. Too hot for most!
What the hell are all these spots on my arms? One morning I woke with them all over my right forearm, the next day it was the left. We thought bed bugs but Mark has none and they don't look right. We've concluded they are sandfly bites (actually they wee on you so it's not a bite) they don't appear right away but they end up forming hard itchy red lumps that sometimes blister. Bizzare that they are on my arms not my legs. Looking around town we see that plenty of people have revolting spoty legs. Must stop scratching!
That afternoon we booked our flight to Siem Reap Cambodia. I'm pretty sure the chick at the net cafe who helped us with the phone call was no chick - a lady boy in her day job. Eye-liner only and a bit too much.
We walked to the more upmarket end of town for dinner. By this time Mark and I were coming down with a cold so we were feeling viral and grumpy. So once again we weren't in the party mood. Despite all 4 of us being sick party poopers while on Koh Tao, we had fun catching up with Tanya and Charlie again.
I woke at 4.30 again (Why does this keep happening????) so I got up and took some early morning beach photos. Flew Bankok air via Bankok to Siem Reap Cambodia. Note to other travellers - bring a passport photo for your Cambodia visa. Bankok Air has been really good apart from not giving me a gluten free option. You can't have everything.
Time to get out my phrasebook and learn a couple of Khmer words..