Snorkelling trip – trigger fish 1, 70’s reject 0

The last time I checked (which was yesterday as I swallowed the umpteenth mouthful of salty sea water) it was again apparent I do not have gills! Like most human beings my lower limbs are also rounded off not with fins, but ungainly feet and although there is a guy here on the island that claims to be one step up the evolutionary ladder as he genuinely has webbed feet, I do not posses this great swimming leveler. It is perhaps a cliché but surely had the Maker intended us for anything other than showers and the occasional bubble bath, we might have been better designed for the purpose. It therefore astounds me the real surprise I often encounter when people discover that the open sea, is not my favourite place to be.

Leaving my comfort zone, Sairee Beach

“I assume Becs has packed a life jacket for you?” joked Neil, one of the instructors and himself virtually half fish, as we set off in the longtail from Sairee beach. He then spent the rest of the afternoon feeling slightly sheepish when it became apparent that in order for me to get into the sea, it required not only this totally non-cool implement, but my ears plugged, my ‘stylish and attractive’ (I can’t believe that’s how they sell it!) hairband that together with my ‘putty buddies’ keep my ears dry, Becs holding my hand and a fair amount of peer pressure to abandon the boat at a ‘shallow site’ and paddle around for a few minutes. Incidentally, ‘shallow’ is a term that should not be banded about quite so loosely by those who have a greater affinity with water than myself. ‘Shallow’ to me means that when, and this can sadly happen at any given moment whilst swimming, it in no uncertain terms becomes clear to me that this is not where I am meant to be, I can simply stand up. Surely there is some logic there? “Japanese Gardens” the dive site that was to be me first venture off the shallows of comfort-zone Sairee beach is not in my book ‘shallow’. At roughly 5 metres below me, the seafloor appeared well and truly out of reach in case of emergencies. It is fair to say, in addition to my lack of aquatic adaption, I have also not been blessed with height. Doing the math, my little legs were simply not going to be able to stretch the distance required were I suddenly going to feel the need for terra firma.

So, it was only after an elaborately extensive series of hand-signals had been worked out with Becs, including converting the internationally accepted signal for ‘oh look, there’s a grouper fish’, sort of opening and closing both hands in quick succession, to the frankly much more sensible ‘PANIC – get me out of here!’, that I plucked up the courage to go in. The irony is that I used to love snorkeling, but a nasty experience a couple of years back on the Galapagos Islands involving big waves, sharks below me and a dive boat too far away, has left a mental scar that seems long in healing.

The longest snorkelling briefing in history?

Japanese Gardens is truly a beautiful site. Nestled in the small bay of Nangyuna Island (actually three small islands connected by a stunning sandy spit), it is an afternoon favourite with the dive schools here and yesterday was no exception with a dozen or so dive boats huddled around the buoy lines. Thousands of air bubbles ascending to the surface in long silvery streams were evidence of the almost diver crowded coral reefs stretching out below us as we made our way away from the pink Phoenix boat. We swam in the comforting direction of the shore, I’m ashamed to say ignoring the no fins rule (there was no way I was going in without), but being very careful not to touch the fragile coral that rises up towards the surface. The only thing I wanted from this experience was to see fish that I don’t usually see when snorkeling in at depths of half a metre off the beach. Within seconds; objective achieved.

Japanese Gardens, presumably so named for its very obvious resemblance to its namesakes on land (though I have yet to visit Japan), treated us to an experience akin to swimming around in a tropical aquarium. In the 35 degree Celsius water we were instantly greeted by schools of parrot fish, pairs of butterfly fish, the biggest needle fish I have ever seen, a box fish, groupers and rabbit fish galore. Now from spending some considerable time amongst divers I have encountered an attitude I have christened ‘fish snobbery’. When you put your head under water, even deep inside my shallow beach front comfort zone, you see fish, hundreds of them. They are colourful, different shapes and sizes, camouflaged, some are hunting, some a cruising around and some hiding amongst the coral. The point is you enter this incredible otherworld and it blows my mind. Go snorkeling with a diver, such as Becs, and this seems almost no longer to register. I am being slightly facetious of course, but I have certainly come to understand the power of the right kind of nudibranch, an ‘invisible shrimp’ or a plain looking bat fish, over the to-the-uninitiated-eye, much more spectacular parrot fish, butterfly fish or even wrasse (in fact am I the only one who loves a good wrasse sighting?). It was therefore no surprise that my underwater murmurings and exclamations, mostly lost to the surrounding sea, when a new fish was spotted, yielded little response, from the ‘snob’ (or simply connoisseur) to my left.

Me signalling that all is well in the wet

That was until the Trigger! Now I have heard lots of tales of these fish and even seen a few scars. I must admit I have dismissed the fear they seem to induce in even experienced divers as frankly a bit whimpish. As far as I can ascertain in the waters around Koh Tao there are three species. Until yesterday I was misinformed and under the impression only the Titan Trigger was a ‘biter’. Part of the longest snorkeling briefing in history we had undergone to boost my confidence had involved memorising the signal for trigger fish (making the universal sign for firing a pistol with your right hand) and adding a further made-up gesture (clenching three fingers on your left hand in motion designed to simulate biting) in case we came across the ‘dangerous’ variety. There was no doubt that signaling to Becs what I thought I could see feeding on the coral about 3 metres below us would require both hands! It was frankly a little scary. This fish is not called ‘Titan’ for nothing. From the safety of the dive boat Becs later told me that she ‘has seen bigger’ (would you expect any different? Divers!), but when it turned and looked up directly at me, it seemed plenty big enough and it was time to retreat!

I am proud to say that I stayed in the water for at least another five minutes before the sensible option having not panicked, not been bitten and the dive boat being only 5 metres away, seemed to be quit whilst you’re ahead. I was even brave enough to let Becs swim ahead and get out first in order to grab our camera and snap a shot to prove I was actually in the sea. Sadly the divers were less impressed with my feat and the general consensus seemed to be that in all my sexy safety gear and ‘attractive headband’ I looked like a “70’s reject”. Water of a fish’s back; I can’t say I was too fussed. I had taken a small step towards overcoming my fear of the deep.

All is well that ends with a gorgeous sunset

So, my advice to fellow sufferers of Thalassophobia (fear of the sea) at the end of it all? Although it can at times seem as if the entire raison d’etre of Koh Tao is diving, diving and more diving, there are plenty of great snorkel trips around the island on offer (they go for around 550 baht- about 10 pounds- for a full day including lunch). After my entirely enjoyable and I must say very safe experience I still believe I work best on land, but as the boat headed back to the comfort and safety of several Singha beers, I swear there was just a little more skin between my toes …

~ by 2ndcupoftea on April 28, 2010.

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