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Diving Instructor Sasja - A True Water Baby

19 Mar

Hey Sasja so what is your Koh Phangan story?
It’s my first time here and actually my first time in Thailand! Everybody ‘does’ Thailand so I put it off and put it off. I did my diving instructor course in Bali and travelled the Philippines but still everyone talked about Thailand so I got a job here.

I didn’t know about Koh Phangan or about the full moon party so I came here with zero expectations which I think is the best way to travel, when people say ‘go here or don’t go there’ you get a picture in your head and you're most likely going to be disappointed.

People said Phangan was the home of full moon and close to Koh Tao which I heard bad things about in terms of diving but now I disagree with it now I’ve dived it myself.

I came for the job with Haad Yao divers and went from there, I was planning on staying longer but Koh Phangan has a habit of pulling money from you, you think it’s not expensive but then at the end of the month you wonder where all your money went!

It’s the only area of Thailand I’ve been to so far.

When did you start diving?

In 2004 when I was fourteen in the Red Sea, Egypt. My mum was like my hero so when I was younger she gave me skiing lessons which then led to me working ski seasons.

We went on holiday and there was a dive school so she asked if I wanted to try, I did my open water course then went back to do advanced and went from there.

So what are the differences between Egypt, Bali and Koh Phangan for diving?
There’s so much difference and the thing is it depends what you like as a person. If you like small things, tiny frog or scorpion fish where it’s reef oriented then Bali is insane.

Bali has the most variety and diversity, it’s indo pacific, Indonesia has it all with big sharks and stuff.

But if you like crystal clear water then it’s Egypt, you can see hammerheads, manta rays and it’s always crystal clear.

Then when you come here, I personally had low expectations but then you go to sail rock and oh my god! It’s not how people describe it, sail rock is a weird anomaly, there’s so much on it and such diversity.

I can’t speak for the whole of Thailand but working in Koh Phangan is a pleasure as sail rock is one of those dive sites where it’s different everyday. One day there’s a current on both corners then another you’ll see a whale shark and people screaming in their regulators!

I waited twelve years to see a whale shark and I saw one here.

You always see on adverts the perfect shot of a freediver with the gopro and that’s what you want to see so when you see a whale shark it’s something, there’s no words for it, it’s a huge creature that looks so kind. It’s just swimming around then you climb on the boat and be like ‘did that really happen? Yes I did just swim next to an eight foot whale shark!’

Talk us through a typical day instructing…

In the boat or classroom?

Both please if you can!
Typically it is the padi open water course so this includes classroom, confined in the pool and ocean, you get your official license to dive all over the world.

I come and greet them, try to get to know them, I like to be friends with you. We sit down and there’s always lots of paperwork so we can check medical conditions etc and then we watch the video. There’s five chapters with a knowledge review for each chapter in a book. I mark it and help if they get stuck and make sure everyone understands.

Once we’ve finished the five chapters they do an exam. If you finish then you go to the swimming pool, we sort equipment, get the right fins etc, masks, regs and weights. Once we get to the pool I do everything first, then we get into skills and this is where you see the skills and personalities start to come out, you start to bond and the customers get the trust in you.

To breath underwater is unnatural so it’s good to be sympathetic as I still remember what it was like to learn.

We do loads of skills, there’s five confined water sessions and each day when we’re finished I teach them how to clean and hang everything up which is important if your gonna buy all of this equipment that you look after it. Then I fill out my paperwork woo hoo!

That’s a classroom day.

Boat days are completely different, our boat usually leaves from Chaloklum pier at 7.50 to 8am ish, we collect them in a taxi and they meet together, everything is packed the night before. Once on the boat we do a count, count the tanks with one minimum spare. Then we do a boat briefing, in this industry it’s a bit ‘tell them what to do then leave them’ and the same again.

Our boat’s quite a big boat, we tell them not to litter off the side and no paper in the toilet as it would go into the sea.

The Thai culture means they have ribbons on front of the boat so we tell the customers not to touch the ‘soul ribbons’ as they are very strict on it as they believe that’s what will get you back, most people are very respectful of this. Then we start the one hour drive to sail rock, sometimes it takes forty five minutes if it’s flat.

Then on the hour journey the instructors go down stairs to set up, if the customers are on a course then they set up themselves, we make sure everyone’s comfortable as they may not have even been on a boat before.

Then we do a dive briefing, the maximum depth we’ll go to, the max time, what to do if someone is separated, where to meet and how to identify me, I have a bright green palm tree wetsuit so I’m easy to spot!

I tell them about skills in the ocean, the same as in school, the course pulls up piece by piece until you’re ready. I inform them what we’ll be doing, sometimes I have an assistant.

Once at the dive site I tell them to gear up, we have two great boys on the boat who are Burmese so they help everyone with the gear, I jump in first then the students after.

Once in the water we swim to the rock then we go do a dive. After the first dive we have lunch, wait an hour and then do the second dive.

When we’re finished we have a roll call, our boat can hold forty five people so if we have people from other dive schools then we need to make sure everyone is back.

We pack all the gear away then drive back to Chaloklum pier, then the heavy lifting comes in, phew! You don’t need to go to the gym if you’re a diving instructor, it takes three or four people to get the tanks then we let the customers off.

We clean the equipment, hang it up and put it away. It kind of varies what you do next, if you are associated with one school then you have office hours but if you’re freelance you don’t.

At the end of the day I have a beer or two which is super fun if you have cool customers as you’ve built the report already. Then it’s the same again the next day, four open water dives in total, different skills in the ocean and a little deeper.

What have you learnt about the ocean around Koh Phangan since you’ve been here?
I see a lot about protecting sail rock and I have worked in one of the most successful marine parks in the world, if you want to protect something then a lot has to change.

You can’t just say ‘don't touch the coral’ we train people there so people make mistakes.

What I've learnt is that the moon controls EVERYTHING! That’s the hardest thing on the island, the full moon party has a lot to do with the industry here, our busiest time is Half moon and Full moon. When it’s full moon the conditions are not in favour, high waves and wind currents, we have all the customers etc but can’t get the boats out.

We’re like ‘yes we’ve got customers!, cool let’s make some money’ but then no boats are going out. It bothers me that people come for the three day party and not the rest as it’s such a beautiful site, you’ve just got to appreciate it.

When so many people start they want to see a shark or to see a turtle, and yes everyone does but it’s a whole ecosystem, some of the fish stay in the same place, it’s a suburb for fish.

Such a diverse thing on a tiny rock, you can swim around the shallowest part in twenty five minutes then go down deeper and see huge barracuda and also tiny dancing shrimp, it’s such a diverse mix of things which you don’t get all over the world.

You‘re going to Brunei to dive next, what are you looking forward to and will u miss Phangan?

I’m looking forward to the shipwrecks there, there’s around five to nine shipwrecks, one is a minesweeper and one is an Australian ninety metres long so I am super excited.

To see different things is important, it’s different if you’re younger or older but I became an instructor as I want to go to every country in the world, I love diving, am good at diving so this is what I’ll do to keep moving.

Will I miss Phangan? Of course! I’m just freelancing for the summer and then I’m considering coming back. I love island life, Bali is beautiful but Bali is a big island like Samui with lots of tourists, street pollution etc whereas Phangan reminds me of the Philippines with palm trees and grass, not seven storey hotels, I get to live in a little house and the people are such a diversity which I’ve not seen in other areas of the world.

I work for Haad Yao Divers but on other dive boats everyone is friendly, cool and mixed together, as the months have gone on you get to know people from other schools and drive around and people are waving, it makes you feel that you belong here, some days it obviously it sucks but that’s life! It’s the same wherever you live but it’s what you make of it.

It’s a great island and I wish more people would stay rather than just come for full moon and leave with their uv tshirt and butterfly still painted on their arm when they’re getting the boat to somewhere else.

What else do you like to do when you're not diving?
I just became a freediver, does that count?! I actually got back today from free diving sail rock.

It’s more like a sport, freediving is a true sport like a sprinter or football player, it is nice to see a different side of things.

It was the first time I’ve been down to twenty metres with just one breath, I can feel my heart beating through my chest it’s amazing!

Most of my time I spend with friends, people come and go though. I hang with my girlfriends quite a lot, go to the beach or the driving range.

Also I do wakeboarding but haven’t got round to doing it on the island, I’m a water baby I just like being in water.

What would you say to people thinking of diving on Koh Phangan?

Do it! Don't listen to what other people say I'm a true believer in that if you want to do something, go find out yourself.

Come with no expectations and take it as it is, somedays visibility is good and sometimes it’s bad. It’s underrated here, we don’t give it its dues enough. Also learn to dive the house reefs more, I went to Haad Salad and couldn’t believe how beautiful it is, just being underwater at five metres or thirty metres and to see something, that’s really cool.

Do aliens exist? Yes! Just go underwater and see for yourself all of these weird things.

And finally, what is your ‘Dive Philosophy’?

What’s the worst that can happen? I have moved to so many places and people say ‘what if you don’t like it?’

So what?! You can move on, go somewhere else and try it!

You can contact Sasja on her page here.


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