I am scuba diving in the Andaman Sea and experiencing a dream come true. Or I would be if my stupid ears would play along and equalize. But they are in no mood to do so and so I am stuck, holding on to a barnacle-clad rope, a meter and a half below the surface instead of discovering one of Thailand’s best dive destinations. I try my best not to get irritated with myself as I know it will only make matters worse.

We are a 20-minute boat ride away from Koh Phi Phi. A weekend at Zeavola was supposed to be my holiday, a bit of luxury before starting my DMT (divemaster training) on Koh Tao, and this dive excursion a way to literally get back into the water after a few months on land.

Just as well that I have chosen to do that far away from my new instructors and peers because I am hanging on to the rope like a scared open water student.
Han, my divemaster, doesn’t mind hanging out with me. The rest of our group has gone ahead to explore the wreck below but he gives me time, oozing calm, which I can feel even underwater. He points towards a big school of fish and I know that he is trying to distract me so I stop worrying about my equalizing and can relax. I know this trick but it still works. I move up just a little bit, pinch my nose again – plop! We go further down, I pinch and repeat.

A few minutes later we have joined the others by a beautiful wreck full of lionfish and other creatures and I am reminded that this is what I came for.

Back at the resort, Han wants to take my equipment. I am proud to have my own gear thanks to Scubapro and am a bit reluctant to hand it over, even if it is just for cleaning. But then I remember that this is probably the last time that anybody will offer to clean equipment for me in a long time and I decide to take advantage of it and part with my beloved BCD & Co.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and it turns out that I was right. While I don’t have to wash anybody else’s equipment, I am in charge of supervising students and of course, there is nobody but me to wash mine.

The daily life of a PADI Divemaster trainee

I am one of five DMTs (divemaster trainee) at New Heaven, the dive center on Koh Tao where I did my first underwater steps two years ago. It feels like a nice symmetry to return here for my training and I like that they offer a reef conservation program though I have no time to join myself.

The PADI Divemaster program is split into theory, practical skills and on-the-job learning in the form of assisting instructors during classes. Every evening we get our schedule so we know which instructor we are assisting and on which course.
Assisting the Open Water courses is my favorite. I love to see the change in people. From the moment they walk in usually a little apprehensive to outright scared when the instructor tells them about decompression illness to the expression of sheer joy when they come up from their first dive. Some seem natural mermaids, others struggle and work hard to find their feet in this new world. But most manage somehow and cannot wait to discover more.

Assisting on an advance course is more fun and less challenging. Divers already know a bit more and instead of practicing mask clearing we get explore wrecks, dive at night and get them high on nitrogen on deep dives. The latter is especially fun as each instructor has their own tricks and games they play to show the effect of nitrogen narcosis.

During the two months I’m there I don’t see any of the many whale sharks that are around this season, but I see two giant groupers eating each other which is rare and exciting. I also see an octopus, some juvenile batfish, a car, a catamaran and a motorbike, and plenty of my favorite – the porcupine puffer fish. I learn how to spot tiny nudibranchs and seem to develop a knack for finding moray eels though I secretly think they are very spooky.

While Koh Tao’s dive sites are definitely not the best I have seen, there is enough to see to keep me entertained but not enough to distract me from observing students and my compass. How I manage not to get constantly lost on the surface without one, I do not know, and my underwater sense of direction is terrible.

But overall, I can feel my confidence growing not only in my own abilities but also with students. Even my sense of direction is improving and after leading my first dives I manage to get the diver not only up safely but back directly next to the boat.

Mind you, we all dread the skill circuit and the underwater equipment exchange. These exercises are meant to test our stress levels and show that we can confidently execute and demonstrate skills like hovering, mask clearing and regulator recovery. We do these skills in the shallow pool with curious vacationers watching, beer in hand, or swimming above our heads. My mask keeps fogging up and my eyes burn from the chlorine, but I manage with good marks and that night I celebrate with too many beers.

I also celebrate the fact that I am allowed to skip my snorkel test, a notorious hazing ritual involving a snorkel, a mask, and lots of cheap liquor. Instead, I get to spend my last evening running around gathering all my paperwork, signatures and an official PADI signet. While the organized German in me is annoyed that everything I planned meticulously is now happening at the last minute, I prefer it to choking on Thai rum.

Two months have flown by and only when I’m leaving do I actually have time to think about my experience and to reflect. What have I taken from the program and what have I given? I remember one student from Germany. A lovely girl who was so keen to go diving but when the time came she panicked. The instructor left me with her on the surface to calm her and to maybe try again when she was ready. It didn’t work and so we just hung out in the water, talked and watched the baby batfish under the boat.

I wonder now if she will try again some day. If anything that I said made a difference, not in the moment but maybe in the future. I truly hope so. Not for my sake but for hers. Because while I am overlooking the ocean on the ferry leaving Koh Tao I already miss being underwater and think, once again, that Ariel was a fool to give it all up.

Practical tips about becoming a divemaster I wish someone would have told me before:

– Choose your location based on what you want to get out of the program: do you want to party, dive a little and have a good time? Are you on a limited budget? South East Asia is your place to be. Do you want to put in some serious work and effort and learn to dive from the best? Head to Australia or Europe. Amongst many dive professionals the consensus seems to be – the colder the water the more challenging but thus rewarding the experience.

– Meet your future instructor/s beforehand. They are meant to be your mentor and I think for that you need to click on some level.
Get as much experience before as you can. PADI only requires you to have 40 dives, a practice that is sometimes called from zero to hero. I think unless you are extremely comfortable and confident, you should have more.

– Brush up on the basics before and practise navigation on every dive you do – you will need it to assist and to lead your own dives.

– Be in good physical shape. Diving every day is demanding as are the swimming skills you need to do.

– I loved having my own equipment as rental stuff can be ill-fitting. If you cannot afford a whole set do invest in a mask, fins, and your own dive computer.

Do you have more questions or need motivation? Head over to my friend’s Girls that Scuba group, an awesome community just like Travelettes only for scuba girls.

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!