I wasn’t at all interested in scuba diving. My passion lay in the high mountains of the Himalaya and the back country worlds of central Asia. Whilst an ocean lover and an enduring need to be near the sea, the idea of scuba diving didn’t really appeal to me…until I tried it.
My first experience of scuba diving was on the Great Barrier Reef. High winds, waves and poor visibility did little to detract from the amazement of being underwater amongst the spectacular world of the coral reef. The surge pushed me side to side as I honed my PADI Open Water dive skills and successfully completed the first step on a 15 year journey to becoming a PADI divemaster, dive professional and avid conservationist.
Whilst swaying side to side with my dive buddies during that initial foray, excited by the experience of being underwater, I had no idea where life would take me or the underwater experiences that would await me. Nor did I realise that the life of diving would transform from a part time love to a full time profession, where my life was consumed by finding solutions to improve the health of coral reefs both in Thailand and around the world.
Become a PADI Scuba Diving Professional on Koh Tao
I landed in Koh Tao with an Open Water certificate and quickly realised there were a whole bunch of courses I needed to take to give me the skills I would need to a) dive competently and b) supervise other divers effectively.
The Advanced Open Water course was a blast, learning skills that were fun and inventive. I was introduced to cool activities like the PADI search and recovery adventure dive where we used search patterns and lift bags to find and recover missing items. A favourite of mine, and many others was the wreck dive where we learned how to find and navigate around a wreck. There was so much more to learn about wreck diving that I eventually took the full four dive wreck specialty diver course to be able to go safely inside wrecks and other overhead environments.
The Rescue Diver Course on Koh Tao
The PADI Rescue Diver course is arguably one of the hardest programs I undertook. But like a lot of challenges in life, it was one of the most rewarding. We took our earlier search and recovery skills and in buddy pairs, had to find a simulated missing diver, safely bring them to the surface, transport them to the boat and egress them.
I’d never heard of the word ‘egress’ before! In a diving context it means to get someone or something out of the water. Giving rescue breaths to someone floating on the surface of the water is way harder than it looks. Conversely, carrying someone twice your weight up a ladder onto the back deck of a boat was as hard as it sounds. In the process we put into practice the emergency first response first aid skills we’d recently acquired to save another divers life.
It was a three day course and by the end of it I was exhausted, as all my group members were, but it was an amazing feeling. While it was a confronting course at times, overall it was such a fulfilling and worthwhile three days that taught me so much about looking after myself and diving calmly and safely no matter what the situation.
The PADI Divemaster course on Koh Tao
The first of the professional level programs, the divemaster course was six weeks of confidence building, learning and enjoyment. I dived almost every day, sometimes 4 or 5 times a day! The best part was assisting on courses and learning the ropes from the more experienced instructors. As an assistant the aim was to develop intuition, to begin to observe the divers under instructions, to identify the signs of trouble or potential problems before they happen.
During the divemaster program i had to demonstrate my ability to swim 200m, 400m and 800m, complete a number of theory modules and associated exams AND exchange my entire equipment load with another diver while underwater! That last bit was pretty daunting, especially as the observing instructor would often create additional problems to keep you guessing.
At the end of my divemaster training I was initiated into the ranks as a PADI dive professional by participating in the traditional closing ceremony of a Crystal Dive Snorkel Test. To be honest, not being a big drinker, this was probably the hardest part of my entire divemaster program. Although participation was not compulsory, I felt I needed to give it a shot.
I worked as a divemaster for a number of months. The long hours, early mornings, late nights and hard graft were tiring but rewarding. I was often diving 4 times a day but now I was getting paid to dive! A dream job on a tropical island in the Gulf of Thailand. Paradise!
PADI Dive Instructor Course on Koh Tao
The Instructor Development Course (IDC) beckoned as I felt a burning desire to continue my professional development and teach all levels of dive training. The PADI IDC was a 10 day course that was spread over about 14 days. There was quite a bit of preparatory work to do. As part of the training we conducted a number of classroom sessions, swimming pool and open water practice sessions. Oh, and I had to demonstrate that I could swim again.
The best part of the IDC was fine tuning those intuitive observational skills. The resident PADI Course Director, Matt Bolton, was extremely thorough with an amazing attention to detail. I felt he was very good at finding people’s strengths and weaknesses and helped me get the best out of myself.
It takes observation, time and experience to be able to effectively identify what problems new divers might experience, but when you start to pick up the signs, it becomes almost second nature. That said, you never stop learning as new students seem to find different and ever stranger ways to incorrectly clear a mask or breath through a regulator.
As a scuba diving instructor I quickly felt at home, a natural. Like most people in the world we like to share our experiences with other people. Social media’s popularity is testament to that! I found the magic of the underwater world captivating, alluring, enchanting and I wanted to share that magic with anyone who would listen, was interested and wanted to experience the same excitement that I did.
There was nothing better than the first time a person would put their face underwater and realise they could breathe. Or while sitting on the bottom they’d notice the goby and the shrimp living symbiotically together in the same hole in the sand on the seafloor.
This experience was even more mind blowing once they realised that the shrimp was almost blind and the fish provided security for the shrimp whilst it busily constructed a home and safety for the both of them. At the hint of danger, a swish of the tail and both of them would disappear onto the safety of the new burrow recently created. Amazing!
Marine Conservation on Koh Tao in Thailand
As a dive instructor, the thrill of sharing the underwater world with new divers was extremely rewarding. Every dive was different; different people, different marine life. It was often challenging, and there are many a day I finished completely exhausted, but I was never bored.
As time progressed I realised that new divers, whilst careful of the marine life around them inadvertently would kick coral, bump into things and cause accidental harm to this magical world. They didn’t mean to do it, but if you want to see marine life you often need to get up close and personal, and this can mean accidental scrapes bumps and bruises…I am not talking about the divers, but the coral and other fragile organisms that inhabit a coral reef.
Marine Conservation as a lifestyle
While it is great to teach people how to dive and enjoy the marine life of the coral reef, it would also be equally as important to teach them how to protect, preserve and conserve the marine life. Since this realisation my diving career has been focused on the specialty field of marine conservation.
I became a Reef Check Ecodiver and learned how to monitor coral reefs. I became passionate about coral and learned how to grow coral in nurseries and use those to support reef recovery and active reef restoration programs.
I spearheaded projects that lead to the construction of artificial reefs as alternative locations to teach beginners where they could avoid damaging the natural reefs around Koh Tao. Some of these artificial reefs, like Junkyard have turned into some of the most popular dive locations on the island.
With the focus of conservation from Crystal Dive and its conservation partner Eco Koh Tao, the environmental consciousness of the divers, staff and crew has ensured that the coral reefs of Koh Tao have a good chance of supporting the thriving industry that is diving on Koh Tao.
It means that I can continue to share the underwater world of Koh Tao’s coral reefs to many more novice scuba divers and continue the amazing life I have created as a PADI professional and avid conservationist, with a passion for coral and the underwater world.
I now take solace in taking people diving in the knowledge that their experience is likely to help the reef rather than harm it, which is important when, on a small island like Koh Tao, the coral reefs are vital for the continued prosperity of the local community.
Nathan Cook M.Sc
PADI MI #479720