Since I got to Koh Lanta in mid-January, I've been earning my keep at Blue Planet Divers by writing monthly articles (sometimes two) for Krabi magazine, which is circulated all around this region and in Bangkok.
As a 'part-intern' I have 'part-paid' for my Divemaster course and writing a half dozen articles about diving on the island has been a good way of keeping me active on the keyboard as well as being of benefit to the centre.
Stories just seemed to pop up every few weeks, such as the family from Cornwall who have sold their house and are touring the world for a Channel 4 documentary to be screened in the Autumn. They did their Open Water course with us. Then there was the American couple, Antonio and Jenny, who got engaged eight metres underwater on St. Patrick's Day.
Now that the course is virtually over, I'm not looking forward to leaving the island, even as I watch the numbers of tourists dwindle away. Lanta seems to cast a magical spell over people and many tell you that it's hard to leave. Some of the DMs are going to stay right through the rainy season, even if it's virtually impossible to get work in diving.
Anyway, here is the article I wrote about the Divemaster course for next month's Krabi magazine. I hope it captures some of the magic I've experienced here, trying something new, something that I love, and meeting new people. It really has been a phenomenal experience.
Next week is Songkran, the Thai New Year, so the whole place is about to go crazy. A fitting way to end what has been a thoroughly enjoyable season, as we see in the year 2554 (!). So.. Happy Songkran!
Divemaster dreams on Koh Lanta
Words by: Ciaran Tierney
It had always been something of a dream. On four previous visits to the Krabi region, and Koh Lanta in particular, I used to fantasise about extending my holiday in order to turn the hobby I love into a whole new career. But reality always seemed to get in the way of my dreams!
Somehow, ten days or three weeks never seemed to be enough, and the thought of returning to my wet and windy home town each November or December used to fill me with dread. Days spent diving at Koh Haa or Hin Daeng, or touring the island on my hired motorbike, seemed to be light years away from the winter gloom I had left behind for two to three weeks each year.
But I never did much about turning my dreams into reality, apart from a few half-hearted inquiries at the reception of my bungalow at Phrae Ae (Long Beach) or a few brief chats with the staff at my favourite dive centre, Blue Planet Divers, in Saladan. After diving for fun for 11 years, I felt that the chance to become a PADI Divemaster had passed me by.
And then, out of the blue, the financial crisis hit Ireland. My boss, acting out of financial necessity rather than any huge desire to see my dreams come true, asked whether there was anyone interested in a 12 month career break. Not one other person in my company put up their hand, but suddenly I found myself blurting out that I wanted to get away for a year to become a professional diver.
Emails were exchanged with Mellisa Bunyan, co-owner of Blue Planet, after my boss gave me a few months to make up my mind. Mellisa was full of enthusiasm and encouragement, as she had taken the same route (i.e., a career break) into the dive industry herself a few years earlier.
She had no regrets about leaving a well-paid job in London behind and sent on all the necessary advice about getting the visas required to spend four months in Thailand.
And so in early January, a little anxious but also very excited, I found myself on a ‘plane bound for Bangkok, and then Krabi. On the ferry to Koh Lanta, I hardly had time to consider what lay ahead as I chatted to a couple of fellow tourists, before I found myself, rucksack in tow, walking into the Blue Planet shop which was to be my base for the next three months.
Mellisa had already fixed me up with a bungalow at the back of the acclaimed Red Snapper restaurant and, within hours of my arrival, I had a lovely motorbike which was to become my mode of transport over the following weeks and months.
Being slightly older than the ‘normal’ Divemaster (DM), I was still full of trepidation as to what lay ahead at first. Who would I meet? What would the skinny and super-fit 20-something instructors make of this big Irishman in the midst of his midlife crisis?
My fears were totally unfounded. From day one, I was made to feel part of the team. I had to be on the jetty 45 minutes before the customers, but I got to know how the whole dive operation worked from the shop and the office to the boat which departed for glorious dive sites in the Krabi region each morning.
I soon discovered that I was the eighth and last DMT (Divemaster Trainee) to join Blue Planet for the season. And they didn’t all fit the stereotypes I had conjured up in my head!
I was totally inspired by English couple Chris and Jane, in their late 40s, who had decided to change their lives and sell their home after she had bravely battled a serious illness two years earlier. They were full of enthusiasm and encouragement in the first few weeks, when I wondered whether or not I should have been there in the first place!
There were the two French speaking girls, Aude and Sabrina. Aude moved to Sweden in March after falling in love with one of our customers, while Sabrina was so sad to be going back to France at the end of her course that her only desire was to sell her car, get rid of her flat, and move back to Thailand to work as a Divemaster!
Then there was Luke, from England, who was just finishing the course as I began it in January. He had also left a career behind in the UK to try something new and helped me to improve my dive skills which had become ‘rusty’ over a decade of diving since I first undertook the Open Water course in cold Irish waters.
Well-travelled Emma, from London, was delaying her return home after a year in Australia and 20-something Raghnild (or Raggi, as she became fondly known at the dive centre), from Norway, was perhaps the party animal of the 2010 DMTs. She enjoyed her nights out, but it’s hard not to enjoy the beach bars and restaurants of Koh Lanta!
At first, things moved quite slowly, and boring days of learning dive theory in the Blue Planet classroom, when I really wanted to be on the boat, made me wonder from time to time whether the whole course was worth the effort.
In the first few weeks, my appearances on the boat were rather infrequent – and sometimes I’d receive rude awakenings when I was asked to go back over the basic skills! – but later I could see the logic behind Mellisa’s approach. After getting the boring stuff out of the way in peak season, when there were more customers on the boat, we had more time for quality dives through the months of March and April.
Those who know me might find it hard to believe I’ve chosen a hobby or job that involves getting up at 5.30 a.m. on certain days, but there is a magic about spending two hours under water, looking at turtles or leopard sharks or rays or tiny shrimp, which only fellow divers can really understand.
It was great to dive with a variety of instructors over the three months, learning each professional’s quirky ways of dealing with customers, how they brief dives, or how they guide the guests around the beautiful sites of the Andaman Sea.
Every day, whether in the shop or on the boat, I seemed to be learning something new, which I could hardly say about the job I’d been in for years in Ireland. If we weren’t diving, we were practicing basic skills on Long Beach or helping out in the shop, where a variety of customers from all over the world took part in Open Water, Advanced, and Rescue courses. Diving really is a great way of meeting new people.
By their nature, dive professionals are a sociable bunch, so even though I’d come to Lanta on my own I soon found myself with a whole new set of friends from a host of countries. Every week there seemed to be a party or two and the socialising could get quite frantic for people who had to be up and on the boat at the crack of dawn!
As each and every one of us passed the course, the infamous ‘snorkel tests’ loomed. For some DMTs, this was tougher than the course itself as they were put through gruelling and amusing tasks at Opium Bar.
Highlights of my time on Koh Lanta included the Andaman Freediving Challenge, the only competition of its type in Thailand, in February and the three day Laanta Lanta festival in which the whole island seemed to party together in Lanta Old Town, with bands from all over South East Asia playing into the early hours. Plus, of course, the lunacy of the Songkran (Thai New Year) celebrations in April.
At one stage, Mellisa managed to coax the male members of staff to pose for a charity 2011 calendar which is bound to be a big seller on Koh Lanta . . . thankfully, I will be off the island by the time that appears!
Sightings of sleepy leopard sharks and turtles became so frequent that it was easy to forget how exciting they were for the customers on the boat and, after a good deal of practice, I finally got my rusty basic skills in order before finishing the course in April.
So now I’m a PADI Divemaster, licensed to guide divers all over the world. And was it worth it? Well, even if I never end up working as a PADI Divemaster in the long term, I can honestly say that my three months on Koh Lanta were among the best experiences of my life.
• For information about pursuing the PADI Divemaster course on Koh Lanta, including three month internships, check out www.blueplanetdivers.net
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