I’m sitting at the Emirates lounge in Bangkok with a plane home to catch in an hour. The only good thing about this scenario is that I can drown my sorrow in the bottom of a bottomless champagne glass. And the fact that there is fast wi-fi so I can plan my next adventures. Other than that I am absolutely miserable due to the fact that yesterday I was swimming next to a whale shark and now, well, I’m not. Over the last few weeks, I have developed a new addiction, found a new love. And unlike smoking and an unfortunate attraction to French men I want this habit to stay: scuba diving.
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The truth is I wasn’t all that keen on diving before I came to Koh Tao. I knew I liked snorkeling, but I also knew that I didn’t like confined spaces (and I would call a lot of water all around you a confined space), had a lot of respect for the ocean, and even more respect for anything living there but little Nemo. It also seemed like one of those sports that is only done by people who are incredibly tanned, lithe, and good looking – more than a little intimidating when you are coming straight from a German winter. So when I asked my dad to get me an Open Water course for my birthday, it was more of an Okay let’s see what happens than a burning desire to get under water.

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That feeling lasted until my first glimpse at little Nemo who lived all by himself in a stone circle at Twin Peaks, a dive site just northwest of Koh Tao. No anemone in sight, no friends, no family, he surely must have been Pixar’s inspiration. I was happy that I already knew how to kneel on the sandy ground, somewhat motionless. Not as easy as it may seem, but appropriate course work for my fourth and final Open Water dive, the first step to becoming a mermaid.

Just a few days earlier Julia and I arrived at Samui airport and took a ferry to Koh Tao. A quick walk to 7Eleven and we were picked up in one of the island’s typical 4×4 bakkies. The New Heaven Dive School is located in Chalok Bay, far away from the overrun Sairee Beach, and therefore truly heavenly. Like most dive schools in Thailand, it also offers its own accommodation and we settled into our room above adjacent Koppee Cafe, ocean view from the bed included.

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While I’m usually not one for getting up early on holidays, I was too excited to sleep in the next morning and was at school too early, pencil and notebook in hand, waiting for class to start. I wouldn’t have needed to take notes for what was first: wetsuit fitting. Let’s just say I was happy for an empty stomach for this gruesome task. After some time in close embrace with neoprene I was sorted and Erkan, my instructor, showed me how to pack my equipment bag. Then it was finally time for the real class to start and to learn the ins and outs of diving, breathing, and how not to anger a triggerfish.

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A few hours later we were putting our equipment to good use for the very first time. Under the watchful eyes of dining guests, we made our way to the cafe’s pool. I felt a bit embarrassed to hobble along in fins, that unflattering wetsuit, and a heavy tank on my back, but managed without incident to get into the pool. As Erkan had predicted, everything got so much easier once I emerged in water. To my surprise, I realized that I was a natural at shutting up and just breathing – even below the surface.

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The First Dive

After class the next day, we got to pack our bags again and this time the diving was for real: our very first boat dive to be officially logged and approved was about to happen. On the boat, we learned how to set up our equipment without going overboard, how to do a buddy check, and how to get into the water with one giant stride. I had a moment of panic when Erkan signaled us to empty our BCDs to go under. Why did I volunteer for this? But then the feeling passed as I was too busy to clear my ears and adjust my regulator. In any case going down seemed easier than going up and so I just stared in awe at this new underwater world that I had never seen before. The visibility was bad as I would learn later, but it didn’t matter to me – I was in paradise and wondered why Arielle ever wanted to leave.

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On the way to professionalism

The morning after we were allowed to play with the big kids and board the King Kong III, New Heaven’s biggest dive boat. I felt very grown up, already knowing how to connect regulator, tank, and BCD and how to spit in my mask like an old pro (it prevents fogging, in case you are grossed out now and wonder why I would do such a thing). In between dives, we spent our surface interval on the sun deck with cookies, pineapple, and mainly fish related chatter.

“Erkan, I really wanted to see a turtle”, I complained. “Oh, man, I saw one this morning!”, he grinned at me “I see one every day.” I punched his shoulder, knowing full well that he wouldn’t have seen a turtle without showing us and was therefore talking about the baby turtles at the nursery. Marine conservation is a big part of New Heaven on and offshore and turtle feeding an excellent substitute if you didn’t get to see one underwater.

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After writing my final exam and getting my certification card, Julia and I headed for a celebratory dinner. At the little Japanese restaurant across the road, we toasted to my new skill and I practiced my marine life underwater hand signals on her – oh the irony! – over sashimi.


While I finally got to sleep in the next morning I was inconsolable at breakfast when I saw the long tail boat depart full of happy divers, but without me. I was starting to get rather grumpy, so it was just as well that we were moving to the Baan Talay Resort, our new home for the next couple of nights. This part of New Heaven is a steep dirt road away from the main road and any happy divers, in fact, you will either need a 4×4 or excellent motorcycle skills to get there. But with the most tranquil setting and magnificent view over Aow Leuk Bay we were happy to spend our days in lovely seclusion. That was easily said and easily done as we had a veranda for yoga, wi-fi for working, and a restaurant with awesome margaritas. Needless to say, I was also spending a ridiculous amount of time in the bathroom once I discovered the outdoor shower with ocean view.

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All seemed well in our little island heaven, except that I still missed not being in the water all the time. I got the sneaking suspicion that by now Julia was only listening with one ear when I talked about diving, corals, and fish types. Not that I could blame her. After four days of moping around in paradise, I decided to put an end to it and my business class ticket to good use: I extended my stay, changed my flight, and booked an Advanced Open Waters course for the end of our holiday. With that prospect ahead I was okay to trade ocean life for mountain sights for a bit and started talking about elephants instead.

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Back for good?

A few weeks and three elephant sightings later I was back and had moved into a diver’s hut, overlooking the beach next to a big Banyan tree. In the morning, I met Pablo, my new instructor, and apparently all it took to convince me to do a scary night dive was an enticing Spanish accent. But first we spent our day practicing buoyancy, underwater surfing, and navigation. To make my first, somewhat dreaded, 30m dive more appealing he took a packet of chips with for my reward. In the depth, I was to see physics in action and observe how the packet lost color and looked vacuum packed due to the pressure. Only when we back on the boat, packet and me unharmed, I got to eat them all.

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The next evening, night dive under my belt too, I was officially an advanced diver and got to celebrate with the new divemasters at their snorkel test. I guess a snorkel test is like Vegas and so I won’t go into detail, but the next morning a few looked a little bleak until we were back in the water. It was a perfect last day and I was not only happy to be on the boat with some new friends, but even happier when we learned that we were going to South West Pinnacle, one of Koh Tao’s favorite dive sites and the best place to see whale sharks. I wasn’t so sure if I was ready for that, quite frankly the words ‘whale’ and ‘shark’ were still intimidating to me. I also had no real idea what a whale shark even looked like and what to look out for.

So when I saw a large something above me on our descent I just pointed, hoping that Chris, one of our divemasters would know. A minute later and a few meters closer to surface I didn’t need them to tell me anymore. I did know what a whale shark looked like after all and it was looking right at me.

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I was somewhat relieved to get out of my gear and just get back in the water with fins and snorkel. The whale shark seemed to like us and kept close to the boat, not minding our group surrounding him in awe. I gave Chris my Polaroid Cube for close-up pictures as my hands were shaking too much in excitement to get a decent shot. We decided to stay for our second dive and though we went down and around the pinnacle we came up early – nothing compared to the majestic creature that was waiting for us by the boat.

On our way back we were all high. High on knowing that we had just seen something extraordinary, something beautiful and rare. Or as the instructor Alain admitted – something that some people have to wait 165 dives to see. After that, I was at least okay to go home. I may not have seen it all, but I had seen one baby whale shark, which was more than just the one little Nemo I had been hoping for.

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Thank you to Emirates for getting me to Thailand, thank you to New Heaven for having me. A special thank you to Erkan, Pablo, and Alain for being the most awesome teachers with enticing foreign accents a girl could wish for.

This post was written by Annika Ziehen who was a Travelette until 2019. Originally from Germany, Annika has lived in New York and Cape Town and now travels the world full time. She considers herself a very hungry mermaid and writes about her adventures, scuba diving and food on her blog The Midnight Blue Elephant. You can also find her on Instagram here!


*All photos by Annika Ziehen.