Tuesday, November 6, 2018

A mermaid in the making!

Yes, we are officially certified Open Water Divers! Advanced Diver next?

I think this comes as a huge shock to many of my closest friends because those who went to beach islands with me would have known how freaking terrified I was of fishes. The first time I went snorkeling, I had to get into the water at an area near the jetty that was SWARMED by huge fishes cos people nearby were throwing food at them. It took me so long to get into the water and swim about 50 meters to the floating platform where I cried and never got into the water again. My dad had to carry me back to the jetty so I don't have to touch the fishes again LOL. And since then, every single time I had to go snorkeling like touring the phi phi islands, I cried my eyes out. I could still remember my very traumatic experience, but this diving trip changed everything.

First off, the reason I decided to take it up was cos I really wanted to try something out of my comfort zone. And also, a really close ex-colleague of mine recently came back from diving in Bali and she was talking about her amazing experience and how much she loved the ocean. She even said that if she ever encountered a whale, she will tattoo it on her arms. She has convinced her boyfriend to take up the diving course so they could dive together someday. And I was telling Sam about it and he also mentioned that he hope to take it up someday too, it was something that he had wanted to do for awhile. And since I left my previous job, and had 3 weeks of free time, I decided to just go for it. I was quite excited too, while Sam was a little worried I might panic underwater. But I thought he's the best person to go with since he'll always lookout for me.

We signed up for SSI certification, Open Water Diver Course with Gill Divers. I only went with them cos my ex colleague said that was the store her boyfriend signed up with. So I thought since his course went smoothly, then it should be no problem for us too. And also all the prices regardless which store are roughly the same prices, and we paid about $650 each. My experience with Gill Divers is great, the responses are really quick, transactions were smooth, and everything was really clear in the emails. I experienced no problems at all. 

The course was divided into 3 parts:
  1. theory lesson + test
  2. pool session
  3. Tioman dive trip
Theory test is held every Tuesday at 7pm, so you can just come after work. Pool sessions are held every Sundays. And the dive trips are from Friday night to Sunday night. So if you're working, you actually don't have to take any leaves at all. I thought that was quite cool how they thought of the people who might be working. In case you're wondering, the theory test is not difficult, I doubt anyone can fail from that. Plus, they give lots of hints during the lesson so it's really quite impossible to fail. I don't think they will let you fail too after paying such a hefty sum. I got 47/50, and Sam ggot 49/50. I lost the stupid bet.

Then came our pool session, which is definitely the more exciting part. We gathered at Outram Secondary School. The pool is not very big, and we had to share among I think 20-30 other students altogether. I think the worst part of the pool session was starting it off with 8 laps, which I had to cheat if not I would have kept everyone waiting for another 10-20 minutes HAHA. We went through the necessary skills such as mask clearing, sharing air, weight belt removal and retrieval, BCD removal and retrieval, etc. I think everything went quite ok, but I super hate my weight belt. LOL, it makes me way too heavy for my legs to even support myself. And it doesn't help when I had to remove my BCD on the surface cos whenever I remove it with my weight belt on, I sink almost immediately and without help I will drown and die. HAHA, we passed our pool lesson with breeze, and anticipated the actual dive the following weekend.

On Friday evening, we gathered outside Outram Secondary School to take our attendance and check that all our equipment are working and of the right size. Then we hopped onto the coach that took us to Tuas checkpoint, then straight to Mersing jetty. We had a few rest points at the start, which I used every opportunity to clear my bladder cos me has a smol bladder and is very very bad at holding my pee. The last 3 hours was a no-break drive all the way to Mersing jetty, where we boarded our dive boat called Princess, all the way to Tioman. We arrived at around 2am at night, slept throughout the entire coach ride, and was freezing our ass off the entire boat ride LOL. Thankfully there's a marine toilet on the boat, so no need for holding my pee.

In case you're wondering where we stayed, we checked in at our beautiful Tioman Island Reef Resort, that we paid an ADDITIONAL AMOUNT OF $160 just so we get to sleep in the same room because the room allocations are initially 4 people per room, by gender. And we were, surprise, the only couple. Apparently diving is not usually a couple thing to do together. The first room we got, we weren't able to lock the door, heck we weren't even able to close it. Like a gentle breeze would have blown the door open in the middle of the night while we were asleep and we will probably wake up with bats in our room. So we changed to a second room, where everything was fine yknow. Water is a little brown in the toilet, killed two cockroaches first thing we got into the toilet, things like that. Yeah, I mean at least we were able to lock the door. I guess...

I thought it was definitely not worth the additional money paid on top of whatever we already paid for the course. I mean, it's SGD $160 sia, which means $80 per night. We could even have gotten a much nicer place to stay in Singapore with that price, let alone Malaysia right? I got over it quickly cos the money is paid anyway, and the thought of having the share the terrible room with three other girls I don't know kinda justify the money for me (not really I know, but ok).

We tried to sleep cos we had to report early in the morning for our first open water dive. I barely had any sleep cos the aircon was mad cold I had to sleep with my entire head covered. I didn't even dare to brave the cold to turn the aircon off so I woke Sam up to do it. HAHA 

A little consolation for the shitty rooms we had to sleep in. The morning view was stunning. And breakfast at the resort wasn't terrible. There's a HUGE school of small fishes near the jetty, we usually just call them jetty fish. Occasionally another school of bigger fishes comes near to disturb them and the entire school of jetty fish make a small jump out of the water simultaneously. Super cute, but still looking at this huge school is very terrifying.

Our first diving site is at Tomok. Sam and I were in Open Water Diver Group 4 (OWD4), together with 4 other divers so that makes 8 of us, including our instructor and divemaster. We will have to complete a total of 4 dives to be officially open water divers certified. First two dives will generally be going through all the skills we learned during our pool session, and making sure we were able to do them in open water. Then the last two dives will be just swimming around and exploring!

The first dive was a little nerve wrecking cos we had to equip everything to the oxygen tank on our own, and there were about 10-15 people on the boat trying to do the same thing. It was quite chaotic. And I was super blur on what to do cos no way I can remember so many things hahaha. So I just copied whatever the person beside me was doing. Thankfully, OWD4, the group I was in has a few quite pro people. For instance, we have a swimming instructor who is currently working in the dive shop I signed up with, so he's very familiar with the equipment and stuff. Then we have this other dude who had prior experience diving, but just wanted to get the cert over and done with. HAHA, so I was in very safe hands. I got everything equipped, and put on my vest with the oxygen tank (my second least favorite part cos it is so freaking heavy). Sam is my diving buddy. And buddies were supposed to help each other get equipped. He usually help me put mine on first, but when I am fully equipped, I am not at all capable of helping him get equipped cos I can barely keep myself balanced. It is really super heavy, and bulky too. So Sam being super understanding and capable too, has no troubles getting equipped on his own, or with the help of the boat people.

So we took a giant stride and jumped into the water, and I took a little peep at the fishes underwater. I am a little scared...but I didn't really mind. I think I had too many things to think about so fishes weren't really my concern I guess. And they weren't big, and none of them were touching me too cos there weren't too many of them at the surface. Once everyone in OWD4 are in the open water, our instructor ran through a bit on the instructions and stuff. Then I realized my vest is making a sound...so I asked about it and they told my my vest was leaking air. GREAT LOL. My first dive in open water and scared of fishes, and now I have to manually blow air into my vest to stay afloat. HAHA, but it was a really minor problem cos we will be doing most of our exercises under water at 8m deep. I trusted my instructor, and my buddy to take care of me so I tried not to be too scared.

We first had to descend by deflating all the air in our BCD, and we will be descending slowly using a rope they tied to the coral at the bottom. We descended really slowly and had to constantly equalize cos the ears can hurt quite bad. Sam and I were the second pair to descend, and once we were at the bottom, we held on to the rope so we don't float away from the group. There were fishes underneath, duh. But it wasn't a lot, and the fishes were small. And they were so curious! When you're underwater, you can't speak. So all you have to entertain yourself while waiting for the other pairs to get to the bottom with us, were your eyes. So naturally I looked at the fishes. One of two of them tend to come quite close, like wondering what we're doing. And when we extend our hands to them, they just swim away. It's really cute. And you see some fishes you see in movies haha. Sam was quite worried I'll be scared, so I just kept signalling to him that I'm ok. I think he was really proud of me for not panicking. We went through all the things we learned during our pool session, the only difference is this is salt water. And unlike the pool, if something goes wrong, we can't shoot up to the surface immediately. So we have to deal with everything underwater. Salt water really stings the eyes, and when I had to do my mask removal exercise under water I think some salt water went into my nose. It's normal because you're trying to breath through your regulator in your mouth, but without the mask your nose is exposed to all the water. I tried not to choke, and quickly put my mask on and cleared the water. I was so glad I got through that without anything going wrong cos I was honestly quite worried. Luckily, it went smoothly for everyone in the group as well.

Also, I thought what really helped was the way I tied my hair. During my pool session, I had my hair in a bun and that really made me struggle to put my mask on after removing it. So during my open water dive I braided my hair so it wouldn't get caught. It made putting my mask on much easier. Anyway, the first dive was basically just going through all the exercises we did in the pool, sharing air, regulator retrieval etc.

Our dive duration is largely dependent on the the amount of air we have left in the tank. So 8 of us in the group, whoever reaches 50 bar of air first, means all of us have to go back to the boat. We usually start off with 200 bar of air in the tank. 100 bar of air usually last me about 30-40 minutes, but that's the amount of time it takes for guys to reach 50 bar cos they take up so much more air than girls. Not sure why haha. So I guess having a buddy with opposite gender is quite good too, cos if Sam runs low on air, I have plenty to share with him. After our first dive (each of our dives last about 30-40 minutes), we swam back to the boat. Here comes my absolute least favorite part...defying gravity and getting onto the boat with my heavy ass oxygen tank. Ugh. Worst part ever, the ladder hurts my feet so bad cos of how heavy the tank is weighing down on my body, and every time I'm on my last step onto the boat, where I have to support the rest of my weight with only ONE leg to be completely onto the boat, I always fall to the floor on my knees. And once I'm on the floor, not only does my knee hurt like a bitch, I also can't get up unless someone hold the tank up for me to lift some weight off my body. It's really too heavy for me, but it also sounds like I'm the only one complaining, so it's probably cos I am too weak. Growing up I am never good with giving piggy backs. If you jump onto my back out of the blue, I will fall. I've said to my friends many times not to try. I've also tried carrying many people, can't do it, only except my brother when he was super young maybe that's all. LOL

We had about 2 hour break, having lunch and taking a short rest before we went back for our second dive. Second dive we practiced neutral buoyancy mostly, because in order to actually swim around and dive you can't be on the floor all the time. We needed to be more buoyant. This can be done mostly through our breathing method. When we inhale, we have more air in our system, we will naturally float a bit, and sink when we exhale. Sam went before me, and he could do it perfectly without pumping any air. And then it's my turn, and I had to pump air into my vest 4 times before I am neutrally buoyant. I should just remove a weight on my weight belt. Once that's done, we went through some other exercises and since we had enough oxygen after the exercises, we could swim around the area to explore a bit. And that's when you see some people struggle a bit. HAHA, cos previously we had a rope at the bottom of the water to hold onto to stay at the bottom. Once we release we're on our own hahaha, some people couldn't sink. I was one of them that struggled to sink in the third dive cos air couldn't completely come out of my BCD. Previously my BCD was leaking air, so I had to change to another one which is size L, way too big for me. So I was having some trouble with it but it was all good once I got the hang of it. 

During our third dive swimming around the water (at Renggis dive site), we managed to see a turtle eating a dead jelly fish! It was definitely the highlight of the trip. Later we even saw another big turtle swimming around. It might be the same turtle we're not very sure, but still excited hahaha. Before we went into the water to explore, our instructor has informed us of some hand signs she would use when she see certain animals, like sharks, turtle, triggerfish etc. Triggerfish apparently attacks people when we get too near to their territory, and our instructor informed us to swim away when she gives the hand sign. During our third dive, we did encounter triggerfish in which I swam away as fast as possible hahaha. It was really fun and the entire experience was so amazing. It felt like I was in a completely different world, probably how it would feel like if we went to outerspace. And the fishes were just minding their own business, you get to see them in their natural habitat. We even got to swim through schools of tiny fishes, and the way they gave way to us to avoid us was so beautiful! Just imagine a lot of small fishes surrounding you while you swim through it, and then they form back with their other fishes behind you. We get to swim wherever we want and fishes will just avoid contact with us naturally, so there was really nothing for me to be afraid of.

After the third dive, I was still itching for another dive but they said it was getting late and we had to return back to our resort. It was also during this time we realized there was another group of people who got to stay at a much nicer resort after paying a much higher price...they even get buffet lunch...I feel like I got scammed a little bit cos I did pay a lot more but still stayed in a shitty room with packet lunch onboard. But whatever, I said I got over it.

The next morning, we gathered super duper early in the morning at the jetty cos we will be leaving to go back to Singapore at 10am. We only had enough time to make one dive, so gotta enjoy it to the fullest. We didn't even have time to eat breakfast, and could only eat it breakfast/lunch after diving lol.

On our last dive on Sunday morning, I was one of the first in my group to jump into the water. I can't wait to explore the waters and really make full use of my time in the last dive. At this dive site, we saw a huge puffer fish! We also saw sea urchins hiding inside rocks, and an eel as well. Some guys from another group said they saw cuttlefish as well. We went all the way down to 11 meters underwater, and swam through many schools of fishes and encountered triggerfishes again hahaha. None of us got bitten though. We also swam to another part of the dive site where someone dropped a treadmill underwater. Not sure if it's for aesthetic purposes or what, but it had lots of barnacles on it, and some guys went to take photos with it. I skipped out on that, haha don't really want to touch it. There's also sort of like an obstacle course on the left, but not really, we're not really sure what to make of it but it's an interesting thing to see underwater aside from all the other fishes. hahaha

On our last dive, we managed to dive for a really long time and make full use of the oxygen in our tank, but of course not till it gets dangerous. There was one guy in our group that hit 70 bar in only the first 15 minutes LOL. Sometimes panicking can cause you to consume your air a lot faster, so he ended up having to share air with the instructor and divemaster, and we continued exploring as usual. 

Sadly, we have to make our way back home after the last dive. I think the entire boat ride back to the resort I was just telling Sam, "omg it's so fun", "I never thought I'll love this so much", "I can't wait to dive again" and "I'm so glad you're my buddy". HAHA, I wouldn't wanna go for any dives without him, cos he's the best buddy ever. He's really good in the water too (even though his mask is too small and water constantly gets in, he stayed really calm and dealt with it) and always make sure I'm in his line of sight so nothing bad happens to me. I couldn't have done it with anyone else. 

I was really sad the trip was coming to an end. I still remember before the first dive I told my instructor I'm quite scared of fishes. But after the trip, I kept telling her I'm so glad I decided to do this. Really, I can safely say this is one of the best decisions I've made in my life. I discovered something I really enjoy and love, and is quite good at too. I was really calm in the water, and was able to do everything as told. I also really enjoyed wandering around in the water and to think we only explored a tiny tiny tiny part of the massive waters. My instructor said usually after a dive, people have two reactions, either "omg I love it" or "omg I'm never doing this again". HAHAH, I'm so glad it's the former for me. The only thing is, this is quite an expensive hobby so I really gotta save more money to go on my next dive. I hope to get advanced diver certificate too! I think they get to try out night diving. It'll be quite cool. Of course, I have yet to encounter big big fishes, so I'm not sure how I'll feel about that. Or if there's a stingray or shark coming towards me, I'm not sure if I'll panic. But for now, diving is my new found hobby hehe.

I'll be back in the waters soon!