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Pictures, Memories, and Lots of Fish: Diving in Koh Tao

Last October I completed a diving course with ScubaShack in Koh Tao, Thailand. The four-day course which was offered for a bargain price of 8,500 Baht certified me as a PADI licensed Open Water Diver and equipped me with a lovely little booklet in which to record the colorful fish I shall get to see in my future dives. The last day of the course was of course the highlight: two 18-meter dives in Chumphon Pinnacle and Hin Pee Wee.

In anticipation of our first dive that morning, my friends Levent and Seda, and our instructor Claus boarded the dive boat at the unbearable hour of 05:45 am, thinking: “Why this Thai torture? Aren’t we on vacation?” ScubaShack is one of the earliest risers among tens of diving schools on the island famous for licensing the highest number of new divers. They torment their students with a 05:00 am wake-up call so that they may relish the wondrous magic of underwater Koh Tao, undisturbed by the hundreds of other divers who arrive at the very late hour of say 08:00 am and scare the pretty fish away with their bubbles.

No National Geographic spread could have prepared me for the extent of beauty I would experience once below 18 meters: Floating among what seemed like millions of fish and other aquatic animals, feeling nothing but the elation of complete lightness, hearing nothing but the sound of my own breathing, and forgetting that there is a real world above the surface, where a concept of time exists.

Despite being unaware of our impending National Geographic moment, we were very much interested in having some kind of documentation of the event. As students, we weren’t allowed to bring our own camera to the dive but Claus had assured that we would have the opportunity to pay for a professional videographer. Perhaps it was our crusty eyes that scared the cameraman–who chain-smoked all the way to Chumphon Pinnacle–but without exchanging any words with us, he decided that he would film the Asian group and not us. Or so we were informed by Claus that morning. Annoyed that we would have absolutely no record of this amazing event, we trash-talked (in Turkish!) the chain-smoker videoman and his Asian posse, which provided excellent morning entertainment as we sailed towards Chumphon Pinnacle.

When I surfaced from our second dive at Hin Pee Wee, videos or their lack-of was irrelevant. On the contrary, I was relieved that no strange man followed me around with a giant camera as I floated my way in heaven. Being photographed or filmed is a bit like being stalked. The awareness of an external eye watching you transforms the experience. You pose, you smile, you wonder how you look, you glance away for a natural shot and ups! you just missed that Martian jellyfish. Thoughts of being recorded for future eyes nibble at your present, and you are already thinking about a future you flipping through the photos of the experience you haven’t finished experiencing.

post-dive euphoria

post-dive euphoria

The cranky videographer had given me the gift of the present. As I sailed back to the marina that late morning with warm winds sliding on my cheeks, the impressive coordination of the school of fusilier (I like to call them very-many-little-yellow-fish), the majesty of the blue ringed angelfish, and the magic with which the Christmas tree worms retract their colors as I flick them with seawater were so vivid that I could still see them in front of my eyes.

But the inevitable slowly occurred after my return back to Israel. With the passing of weeks and then months, those once livelier-than-life images started to fade away. The memory my 36-minute dive at Chumphon Pinnacle morphed into faint flashes of memories without a clear beginning, middle, or end. A photo or a video to rekindle my memory would have been nice, I thought, but alas, one cannot have it all.

Well… it turns out one can indeed have it all. A few weeks ago, a video surfaced from the depths of YouTube. It turns out somebody from Fat Fish Movies did film us for a promotional video. Suddenly my blurry memory was reshaped with a 5:33 video of me swimming among the corals, floating, waving to what I then thought was a camera not interested in filming me. Around minute 3:40, I look straight into the camera, open my arms for a pose, and then nonchalantly look away with disinterest. Ironically, I don’t even remember doing that! Who knows, perhaps if I knew that the camera was actually filming me, that I would one day see its contents, I would have smiled, lingered a bit more, made another pose. At the time, it seems as if I couldn’t have cared less. I just look away, return my gaze to the school of fusilier, and forget all about foreign eyes, digital or otherwise.

I can’t help but wonder how my memory of this dive would have been if I had watched this video when we returned back to Koh Tao that morning. How different would the memory of my dive be if I had watched this video multiple times in the hours, days and weeks following the event, showing it to friends and family upon my return, or when I wanted to reminisce on a sleepless night in Tel Aviv? And how different would the actual experience be, if I had dived with the awareness of a stalker-smoker cameraman? The answers I will never know, but for now here is the video of my friends, our instructor Claus, and I swimming underwater at Chumphon Pinnacle, unaware that their magical dive is being recorded.