I reached to my left and grabbed the hose hanging from my shoulder as I stared back at the bungalows resting on that shore of Koh Tao, a smallish island in the Gulf of Thailand. The island and the buildings perched upon its hills seemed to move up and down in the frame of my mask as my head bobbed above the ocean waves. I exhaled deeply and pressed down on the button now positioned under my thumb. Air rushed out of the tube,the pressure of the gas in my vest disappeared in a gentle whoosh. The island moved upward one final time, pushed out of frame by the sea. And just like that I was in a different world, a type of purgatory. I was suspended in what some call “the blue”.
In this place at that time, the rest of the world had disappeared, what was left was a rope, anchored 130 ft below, my dive buddy, the bubbles of those who had gone before us, and the steady sound of my own breathing.
We spent maybe two minutes here. Falling through the blue. If it weren’t for the anchor line faithfully sloping down and away, the only sign of our descent would be the slowly changing depth reading on our dive computers and the pressure of the water straining our eardrums, reminding us of the weight of liquid that amassed above.
During my week of SCUBA diving on Koh Tao, I found descents like these to be profoundly calming. Considering the gravity of the situation, breathing underwater, where equipment malfunction, or poor judgement can mean disaster, I suppose there is an irony to this sentiment. Nevertheless, as I drift through “the blue” I feel isolated from the problems of the surface, and I take solace in the patterns of a safe and smooth descent from the predive safety checks to the iterations of thought that run through my head as I sink: follow the rope, head up, fall a bit, check your depth, fix your ears, watch your buddy do the same, repeat for 130 ft.
This, of course, doesn’t last forever. The patterns and routines of the descent give way to exploration and curiosity (within realistic limits) on the bottom. On this particular dive we were determined to explore a shipwreck off the coast of the island. It was an intentional wreck, the boat had belonged to both the US and Thai militaries and was intentionally sunk at that sport so that divers on the island would have a place to practice wreck diving.
Only submerged for 12 years, it had already become its own ecosystem, sea urchins and mollusks decorated its hull and the barrels of its rusted guns. Schools of fish, lazily swam across its bow. It’s dark insides, guarded by jagged, rusted door frames, beckoned with mystery.
We didn’t go inside. Enclosed diving requires extensive training. But gently swimming around the WWII era beaching craft form the Pacific Theater, examining its exposed engine room, peaking in its windows, hovering above where crewman used to work afforded a sense visiting a place with historic value and offered a new perpective on the world.
I wonder if diving can’t do this for me back home in Michigan, where I have come to feel as though I’ve reached the limits of things to explore. The hundreds of pristinely preserved shipwrecks that spot the bottoms of our Great Lakes present an opportunity to explore the history of my state firsthand, and may help put me in better touch with the past and again satiate my appetite for adventure.
At 130 ft the ship was the deepest dive that we did, but definitely not the only one. I completed 11 dives, for a grand total of 6 hours and 45 minutes underwater during my time on Koh Tao. Beyond shipwrecks we watched vibrant ecosystems dance around us. Schools of barracuda, fields of sea anemones, populated by clownfish and pink anemonefish, scurrying giant hermit crabs, triggerfish, rainbow-colored parrot fish, lion fish and stingrays all accompanied us as we floated over and around reefs and rocks and among forests of coral.
Diving unlocks an amazing, unique, almost alien world that would otherwise go unseen. I am thankful to have had the experience, not just because what I saw was beautiful but also because I have seen now in person exactly what environmentalists are fighting for. And I know its worth protecting