Keen on taking a freediving course and learn the art of diving on a single breath? Follow me to Koh Tao, Thailand...
(jump here for the nitty-gritty tips!)
My visit to Koh Tao is off to a less than ideal start. I forgot just how expensive taxis are on this island and after refusing to pay 300 baht for a 1km trip, I walk. I also forgot that the road goes uphill, it is thirty-something degrees, and my bag is a lot heavier than I thought it was. On top of that, a box of Pringles didn't help with my hunger and now I have a persistent, pounding headache.
But all of these unfortunate events also mean I haven't burst into tears or turned around and taken the next ferry back to Chumphon. I honestly thought I may because last time I was here the island kind of broke my heart. Well, not quite the island itself but the man I was here with. Sometimes it seems a lifetime ago, sometimes like it was just yesterday. I still see myself in my yellow cotton dress in front of our little hut. No make-up, uncombed hair (eventually I gave up trying since I was diving every day and it just seemed too much hassle to detangle it every night), and him, slightly tanned by now, waiting for me to return from my daily dive classes while working away on his laptop. I also see him smiling at me over a glass of red wine at South Beach Cafe. This memory hurts me most, maybe because I already knew then it wasn't meant to last.
I wanted to come back to Koh Tao to reclaim my island or be done with it forever. Before last summer I have always been happy in Koh Tao, I discovered my love for the underwater world here and spent the best holiday with my friend Julia in Chalok Bay creating memories that still make me giggle now. I wanted those memories back. I also wanted to rediscover my joy of diving, a joy that was greatly diminished after my divemaster training. And above all, I needed to get away from Bangkok and was ready for a new challenge.
It seems fitting to return to Koh Tao where I learned scuba diving in order to do my first ever freediving course, a nice symmetry of events. What is freediving you may ask? Freediving is diving on a single breath. It is also called apnea, derived from the Latin word apneous meaning breathless. I like the word breathless. It sounds like excitement, like adventure and a little bit like falling in love. It also sounds quite scary which altogether makes it exactly what I need at the moment: a challenge to pull me out of my rut.
Freediving Course with Blue Immersion
I arrive the next morning at Blue Immersion, one of two exclusive freedive shops on Koh Tao. Many of the dive centers on the island offer apnea courses as well but to be honest, I prefer a shop that is exclusively focussed on freediving training. The day is off to a good start when I meet Squeeze, the cat, and Nicolas my instructor who is not only French but also reminds me of a South African friend I used to have the big crush on. After getting my equipment sorted which goes a lot faster than when scuba diving we are off to breathe, equalize, and learn all about the physiology of freediving. A little later Pong and Fong from Bangkok join us and eventually we all lie next to the other on yoga mats while alternating holding our breath and gulping air like a fish on dry land. My record time is one minute and forty-seven seconds (I quickly learn that decimals are important during freediving training and a great motivation).
In the afternoon we get to put our new skills into practice and head out into the water. For most freediving newbies this is the scary part: diving headfirst into the deep blue. For me, it isn't. While I struggle with equalizing head first and seem to have forgotten how to hold my breath for more than twenty seconds, the deep blue doesn't scare me, the ocean is my friend. The sunlight makes the water below sparkle, enticing me to follow rays into the depth and to the tennis ball. The tennis ball is our goal. Ten meters below it sits on a rope and we are supposed to dive down and touch it. Even feet first my mind is not cooperating. I wrap my legs around the rope, amusing myself for a brief moment with the thought that I surely look like a mermaid pole dancer (freediving fins make really nice long legs!). I slide down a few meters before my head tells me that all of this is utter nonsense, that I was stupid to come without a tank, that I cannot breathe, and that being in the deep blue is scary as shit. As soon as I come up and look down at the tennis ball from the distance, nothing looks better than the sparkling water and I can't wait my turn to go down again.
This becomes a pattern. On day two I get incredibly frustrated. While I have done all my equalizing exercises and managed to dive 30m on the surface, I cannot touch the wretched tennis ball. I know my body can do it but my mind doesn't want to follow suit - mind over matter is the motto but my mind is not having it.
On my third unsuccessful try, I come up and can feel tears welling up. I know by now that I won't get my level 1 certification which also entails rescuing someone from 10 m depth but I don't even care. At this point, I don't want to save anyone I just want a big hug, an even bigger drink, and go home and cry a little more. Most of all, I don't want to freedive ever again. Maybe my lungs after years of smoking are punishing me, maybe I am just meant to be a scuba diver, maybe it will be enough to say I tried. But it isn't. I don't know exactly when it clicks, maybe it is the fact that I am able to duck dive for the first time in my life but a little voice in my head is yelling at me to not give up quite yet. Call it ego or inspiration but when we return to the freedive shop, I ask Nicolas if I can book an extra session for the day after.
I kept my last day on Koh Tao to return to Chalok Bay. To sort any remaining feelings I had for the guy and our time together. To eat agadashi tofu at Asia Mood, one of our favorite hangouts. To see the little wooden hut once more and to make peace with all of it somehow. But all of a sudden, these plans don't matter to me anymore. What matters is to touch the damn tennis ball which seems to encompass everything that is missing in my life right now: drive, a sense of purpose, and moving forward instead of looking back.
I spent my morning on the beach, practicing my breathing and trying to relax. Something I have learned is necessary in freediving while being highly counter-intuitive. After lunch, we had back out into the water and I start my breathing preparation on the buoy. The first two tries get me to 8 meters and I am starting to feel frustration well up again. Nicolas offers to accompany me and I gladly accept his offer, maybe his presence will calm my mind enough to get me there. I make my way down the line again, switching hands every so often, equalizing as I do, and at some point I get scared. Where is Nicolas? For a second or two I feel utterly alone, then I get mad and I feel stubbornness rising in me. Fine, I will do it alone I tell myself, I always get shit done alone so why not this? I slide further down, I can see the tennis ball now, Nicolas appears in front of me, and I go a little deeper. I am not sure if I am pulling myself down or if I am pulling the tennis ball which is tied to a solid 8kg block of cement towards me and it doesn't even matter - I touch the damn thing. And Pong, who managed to touch it the previous day, was right - nothing ever felt so soft!
I return to Bangkok the next day. I am still not certified but I don't care. There is time for this, the tennis ball was the ultimate goal for now. That and to apply the things I learned during my course to the rest of my life: keep at something, learn how to breathe correctly, let the ego push you and then - let go of it and just relax.
All about Freediving, Koh Tao
Thailand is an ideal location to learn freediving: warm, calm water and great schools. Koh Tao diving prices are one of a kind and the same goes for free diving.
Blue Immersion offers freediving in Koh Tao with SSI (Scuba School International). While there is also PADI freediver, I was happy to return to SSI as they have their course materials available online or via an app, which saves money and paper.
Freediving equipment rental (mask & snorkel, fins for those long legs, wetsuit, and weight belt) is included in the 2-day course as are pictures and lunches. You can check out the different course and prices for freediving with Blue Immersion here.
Blue Immersion can organize accommodation for you which I highly recommend as prices will be a lot cheaper. I stayed at Prik Thai an awesome little resort which was a five-minute walk away from the dive center and close to a lot of great restaurants and cafes. After this trip, I will be updating my Koh Tao guide with more recommendations on where to eat and drink in Saree Beach - you can check it out here:
Blue Immersion invited me to do their freediving course level 1 for free in return for this post.
As always, I will tell you the good, the bad, and all about me ugly crying.