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During our trip to Thailand, we got a lot done! Trekking, camping, zip-lining, cooking, swimming in the Andaman Sea, kayaking in the gulf. If it was on a tour brochure somewhere, we did it. Near the end of our trip, we stayed in Koh Phi Phi, which is renowned for partying, but also offers plentiful scuba diving and snorkeling day trips.
The snorkel tours leave way too early from an island that encourages so much drinking. After a long of night of drinking on the beach, with the music blasting till about 3:00AM, I was expected to wake up and be ready to get on a boat by 8:15AM. You might think that wasn’t such solid planning on my part but you weren’t there, so shut up.
I had never been snorkeling before (and didn’t have the time for scuba diving lessons) so snorkeling it was. While Thailand has an awful lot of tourism, they don’t have an awful lot of native English speakers to help with instructions. We showed up and were shuffled onto a small boat. No directions were provided for first-timers, they simply handed you a mask and some flippers. Can’t be that hard anyway, no worries.
Despite my immense hangover once we got out on the water I felt heaps better about my insides and was ready to take on the ocean outside. I am not Michael Phelps or anything but I can swim a lap or two and I had been snorkeling before. I was really looking forward to the day.
In the course of the afternoon, the boat stopped along several little islands and gave everyone some time to explore.
- Monkey Island (not the PC game) – Many monkeys inhabit this island and assault tourists who step on their beach. – Koh Mak
- “The Beach” Beach Island – You know, the one where they filmed “The Beach” – Phi Phi Leh
- James Bond Island – More like a rock formation, it made an appearance in “The Man With the Golden Gun.” One badly proof-read sign called it “Jams Bond Island,” which is what I now call 007 to this day – Khao Phing Kan
Thailand is as lackadaisical in its awareness of safety precautions as it is in its approach to tourism and translation. By this I mean there were no safety precautions.
The Thai have a rather… laissez-faire attitude towards personal safety. If you get hurt, it was probably your fault.
Groups of these snorkeling tour boats would pull up in the same island’s beach at the same times, careless of all the face-down swimmers who could neither hear nor see their approach.
Thai water-crafts are not precision machines. Typically there is a large outboard motor that used to belong to a small car mounted on a post at the back of the boat. Jutting out from the motor, a long steering pole with an unprotected propeller at the end. Steering is accomplished by lifting the propeller arm in and out of the water to change directions.
More than once I popped my head up and was shocked to see the hull of another boat suddenly approaching me. I definitely did not want a transmission in my face…
Don’t you mean spinning blades of death? It’s definitely not a transmission. You know nothing, Shana Kehoe!
Despite these concerns, I was having a great time. The water was stupid warm, amazingly clear, and filled with beautiful fish, coral, and massive dancing anemones. Usually it was also quite shallow, so all I had to do was float face down and breathe. Andrew and I kept pretty close, so we could make sure to point out each new awesome-looking fish that swam by.
At one point I decided I was going to follow this really cool looking fish as far as I dared before turning back. I got to the point of no return and popped my head out of the water to gauge my distance and start my return swim.
At one stop, the boat pulled up along side an island that was basically just a sheer rock face. The time of day and lack of beach made for choppy conditions. The waves kept breaking to the rock face, and I kept going with them.
When I looked up I saw Shana roughly 100 meters from the boat, treading water and looking very frustrated at her mask. I saw the Thai guide wave his arms, which was our cue that time was up. I motioned to Shana that we should return and began my swim.
I looked up to see Andrew nowhere nearby, and our boat even farther away. I started to swim back when my snorkeling mask broke. The band that keeps it attached to your head snapped. Not wanting it to float away, I held it in my hand and attempted to continue swimming.
The next time I came up to check my bearings Shana had actually moved farther from the boat and was now waving her mask in the air and shouting at me.
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to swim with flippers on, but they aren’t really effective for anything besides face down paddling. Starting to flounder a bit with the flippers on, I decided I had better just take them off. What’s harder than treading water with flippers on? Treading water while holding a pair of flippers, and a busted snorkeling mask.
From my vantage, I gathered that her mask had broken and she was trying to get her fins off to make it easier to swim with her head out of the water. I was a little annoyed because I didn’t think that was a good idea but there wasn’t much I could do to help her from her current predicament.
I wasn’t making any headway and I was getting legitimately tired. While I hadn’t been afraid initially, the more that seemed to go wrong, the more anxiety I felt. The waves pushed me closer to the coral, which were now only a few feet below me. Soon, I couldn’t avoid stepping on it, and I was too slight of breath, mostly from exertion but also fear, to do anything else. I stood up on the mass of coral and used the flipper to wave to the boat.
About 30 meters from the boat now I glanced back at Shana to see she still hadn’t really moved from her area but it was clear that she was no longer treading water, in fact she was standing on the coral!
If I could get the boat to come close enough, I could toss my stuff and free up my hands for swimming.
“Shana, you can’t stand on the coral!” I am very sensitive about the environment.
“You think I don’t know that!” she yelled, “I didn’t have a choice, my mask broke.”
“Fix it.” I shouted. This seemed like solid advice at the time.
“I can’t fix it.”
“Figure it out Shana, YOU have to get back to the boat on your own.” Shana made a go of it and got off the coral trying to swim while holding her mask and flippers.
Coral is 30% scalpel knives, that’s just science. ‘Twas only a flesh wound and Shana got the disinfectant on it right way and bandaged it up.
Andrew was helpful with taping my wounds, probably to make up for his lack of help in the water. It wasn’t until the adrenaline started to fade that there was room in my head for anger. Like a dark cloud creeping into one’s mind, I started to conjure up unwarranted resentment towards Andrew for not helping me.
I felt really bad but given my distance from her and the current, I didn’t think there was much I could do even if I had swum over there. More than likely I would have been marooned on the coral as well.
How dare he not know what was going on? How dare he leave me to nearly drown? Blah blah blah. The more questions he asked, the more annoyed I got. I was shaken up, and I took offense at his ex-post facto suggestion that I leave the gear behind. Why wasn’t he being more understanding? Why was he being so practical right now?
So… why didn’t you lose the gear?
What I should have been angry about was the fact that I wasn’t wearing a life jacket. They hadn’t been offered to us, I didn’t even know where they were. I should have been angry that the Thai guides picked a bad spot at a bad time of day, and that they had provided us with no way of indicating distress to the boat crew. My practical self realized all these things and calmed down. After all, I was fine. It wasn’t Andrew’s fault, he was just an easy target.
She kept swimming that day like a trooper but did ask the kindly pilot of the vessel to lend her a life jacket for the next few snorkeling spots. The life jackets were haphazardly piled underneath some other tackle in the storage area. Of course no one had been brave enough to ask for a life jacket until that point but once the guide dusted one off for Shana there were several other takers.
With a new mask and jacket, the rest of the day was great, and as I look back, that event taught me a valuable lesson. Going snorkeling for the first time is a lot like a new relationship. You may not know what you’re doing, it may be frustrating and a little scary at times. You can experience beautiful things, but you might not always feel safe. That’s why you need a life jacket. Something to hold on to for stability, something that is not your significant other. Once you have that, you can truly feel free to go exploring.
You go girl!