Rob Emrich

Entrepreneurship, Philanthropy, Travel

Ko Tao, Thailand

I am now an Open Water Diver, certified by SCUBA Schools International. I received my certification in Ko Tao which, when translated, means Turtle Island. I arrived in Ko Tao after taking a six hour train ride from Bangkok to Chumphon, followed by a two and a half hour ferry ride to the island.

I was so thrilled to be out of Bangkok and back on solid ground that after checking into my hotel, I went out for a very long run. I ran all the way to the less traveled eastern side of the island. After an exhausting trek straight up the mountain ridge, I found a beautiful little beach cove with a giant cliff that I knew would be perfect for diving. I kicked off my shoes, tossed my MP3 player to the ground, and dove into the beautiful, turquoise water. I survived that first dive, so I had to do it a few more times to relive the moment.

After cooling off in the water, I returned to Hat Sairee, the central beach in Ko Tao where my hotel was located. As much as I would’ve liked to continue with the ‘all fun and no work’ philosophy, I had to take a few days to catch up. Don’t feel too sorry for me, though. I managed to find a restaurant with Wi-Fi right on the beach. It was by far the best office for which I could ever hope. Ko Tao is an island built for vacationers. Whenever anyone asked what I was doing while there, I explained that I was working; each time, I was told I was crazy. I realized that it would be crazier for me to not be in Thailand for work. If I weren’t traveling, I’d be back home, doing exactly the same thing, only bundled up indoors in a freezing Midwest city.

Ko Tao covers an area of around 21 km²; it’s such a tiny island. Amazingly, though, there are 42 SCUBA schools, making it the second most popular place in the world (after Cairns, Australia) to become an Open Water Diver. Incidentally, it’s also the least expensive. My four day SCUBA course at Big Blue Diving cost 9000 baht or $250. This included instruction, diving, and accommodation.

I think the enterprise of getting certified is actually one of the funnier things I have experienced. The first 15 minutes of the course are pretty cool, because you begin to develop an appreciation for how amazing, foreign and beautiful the underwater world actually is. Immediately after this lovely introduction, however, you’re knocked over the head with scare tactics. It’s very similar to a driver’s education course until you actually get into the water. The first time you get behind the wheel, you realize how dangerous a car can be. The same is not true for SCUBA, however, and I typically don’t take well to scare tactics.

I bonded with my instructors Panos (from Greece) and Nico (from Germany) and my four classmates: Andy (from Dubai), Steffen (from Denmark), Jennifer (from Sweden), and a German guy who spoke no English and couldn’t tell anyone his name. By the end of our second day of learning about all of the horrific methods of killing yourself with a single hose diving regulator, two people had dropped out. Only Andy, Steffen and I remained.

After one and a half days of scare tactics, we were finally able to get in the water. I was overwhelmed by what a beautiful experience it was—so quiet and peaceful. All you have to do is breathe. During each dive, we had to spend around 10 to 15 minutes demonstrating underwater skills. For example, we had to exhibit our ability to remove our masks and clear water from them, and we had to show that we could take off our weight belts and put them back on.

You always have the option of swimming up for air, but you put yourself at risk by ascending too quickly. You could develop an air embolism or experience decompression sickness; nitrogen in your bloodstream comes out of solution, giving you "the bends." These are very real problems and can be life threatening. We were all very aware of this fact after two days of scary stories.

This is what makes the behavior of one of my classmates so shocking. You always dive with a buddy in SCUBA. My 'buddy' was Andy, a very level-headed former rugby player from Dubai. Steffen, a nomadic Dane with long, blonde dreadlocks, was a major liability underwater. It is everyone’s responsibility to look out for the rest of your SCUBA team. Steffen constantly scared the shit out of me. We were in the middle of our first dive, and I was doing a routine check for the rest of my team. I found my buddy Andy, and we exchanged the universal 'OK' sign. I did the same with our instructors Panos and Nico. I was looking around for Steffen and I couldn’t find him. I looked everywhere and didn’t see him at all.

Finally, out of the corner of my eye I saw him all the way at the SURFACE, just breathing regular air. After all of our warnings and drills about potential problems and how to solve them underwater without ascending too quickly, Steffen ran into a small problem with his vest and ascended 24 feet to get air. This is a nightmare scenario in SCUBA, but he ignored all of our lessons, and just nonchalantly did exactly what he was taught not to do. This became a theme on our trips: "Where is Steffen?” The answer? He could be anywhere. Generally, his swimming style was to swim 10 feet below or above the rest of the team. This gave him a range of 20 feet. Just doing that was a dangerous move, but he never seemed to mind. When we would ultimately surface, I would exasperatedly ask, "Steffen, what are you thinking?" His response was typically, “Huh.”

Though you’d think our dives were intended solely for emergency Steffen searches, we also managed to see some amazing marine life. The highlight was swimming with a sea turtle for five minutes. SCUBA is a sport that I have truly come to love. I think the funniest moment of the entire course for me was when our guest lecturer Alex told us that SCUBA was a sport—not just a sport but a team sport. He told us to take a moment and really think about that. I did and then I laughed out loud. The whole idea of SCUBA buddies and of our being a SCUBA team was just too funny to me. It’s true that you put your life into these people’s hands, but to call it a team sport is comical, because the sport involves activities off the “playing field”—like reminding your SCUBA buddy not to get drunk the night before diving, making sure they drink enough water, and not allowing them to exercise afterwards. Because most of the SCUBA experience is what happens before you get in and after you out of the water, much of the sport takes place in the realm of real life. Being a good team member may involve reminding someone to “Take five” or to say, “Hey relax on the booze dude. The team has a big dive tomorrow, and we need you fresh.”

Big Blue Diving is one of the oldest and most respected schools on the island. Like the rest of the tourists in Ko Tao, the instructors are mostly European. They also love bad movies. Given the emphasis in SCUBA of diving in pairs, the overwhelmingly macho attitude, and the claim of Big Blue that the school was “the best of the best,” the fact that no one had ever made the analogy to the movie "Top Gun" was perplexing. As soon as I drew what seemed to be a cliché analogy, the place exploded. I asked my instructor, “Didn't you want to know?” “What?” he said. I replied, “You know, ‘Who’s the best?’” I made a few references to his Ice Man-like diving.

Steffen's buddy Jennifer dropped out of the course. In retrospect, it was a very wise choice on her part, so I pointed out that Steffen was like Maverick and Jennifer was like Goose. (Steffen was actually more like the guy who farted in the Top Gun classroom.) Anyway, the Top Gun theme took the dive school by storm. The following day, many of the instructors had adopted Top Gun-inspired names and listed these on the dive board.

During the hour-long boat ride out to the dive site, the dive instructors proceeded to serenade the underwater videographer with a spirited round of “You've Lost that Loving Feeling.” Top Gun had literally turned this place upside down. I'm quite sure it is still going on, despite my having left. I’m not sure that the place will ever fully recover.

I have come to appreciate SCUBA as a sport and realize that in many ways, there are a lot of life lessons to be drawn. The sport comes down to remaining calm in the face of potentially dangerous scenarios. You prepare thoroughly for those treacherous situations. At one point I lost my mask and temporarily, I couldn’t see. I panicked but then remembered the mantra: “Stop, Breathe, Think, and Act.” I did just that, continuing to breathe calmly from my regulator and managed to solve the problem. It reminded me that in many real world situations, when I’ve overcome some sort of temporary setback, the method of my doing so was simple: Stop, Breathe, Think and Act. It’s simple and unbelievably effective.

I have now left Ko Tao. I took a sleeper train to Bangkok with a two hour lay over at the train station there. I am writing this on the train north to Chang Mai, where I am planning to rent a Jeep to explore the countryside with fellow traveler Fabien Valkenburgh. Fabien fancies himself a Dutch rock star. It should be fun.

©  Robert Emrich. All Rights Reserved.