Published: April 15th 2011March 31st 2011
Leaving Korea was difficult. A year may seem small in a lifetime, but it's huge when living abroad, because the people you form relationships with become your family away from family. Everyone is living far from home, in a foreign land, having similar experiences and emotions; we come to rely on one another more than we realize, that is until one leaves. I started to realize before leaving that it would be tough, which played into my decision to head straight to Borneo to start my Divemaster course. I'd pondered taking a couple of weeks off to travel first, but thought I might be having a tough time leaving Korea, so being alone somewhere in Malaysia could potentially be more lonely than relaxing. I figured, if I head straight to Borneo for a month-long stay to do my Divemaster course, then I'll be moving from my Korea island community to a smaller island community, but I'll still have people around me to keep me from feeling lonely and help with how much I miss my Korea friends. It was one of the better decisions I've made, because it was exactly what I needed!
Leaving Geoje was surreal. I was a blubbering fool, to the point that my taxi driver to the bus station handed me tissues, then got out to help me with my bags, handing me a few more tissues for the road. I sobbed on and off for the majority of the 4 1/2 hour bus ride to Seoul, then having cried my tear ducts dry, I made my way to the airport bus stop and waited patiently for nearly an hour. I took the almost 2 hour bus ride to the airport and had a couple hours to spare before my 11:20pm flight. It was a good thing, because it took about that long to get through the huge Incheon airport to my gate. Then I boarded my Air Asia flight, a 7 hour journey, to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. When I stepped onto the tarmac in KL and felt a wave of heat (at 5:10am, mind you) I smiled for the first time since getting into the cab in Geojedo. It was only a half smile, because I was so exhausted, but a smile nonetheless! From here, I had another 2 hour layover, again just about the exact amount of time I needed to figure out where to go and check in for my flight to Borneo. At 7:30am I boarded a flight to Tawau, which is in the state of Sabah, on the Malaysian side of Borneo and arrived shortly after 10am. A driver from Sipadan Scuba was waiting for me with a sign that read, "Kelly Jasan." I looked at it, looked around at the 5 or so other Malaysian men standing around with signs, looked back to the "Kelly Jasan" dude and then noticed his shirt that read "Sipadan Scuba" and decided he was there for me. From here, we had an hour and a half ride to the east coast town of Semporna, where the dive shop is located.
I arrived in Semporna and the driver dropped me in front of Sipadan Inn with my bags on the sidewalk. So, I went inside where they were clueless as to who I was, worrying me slightly, as I'd been emailing back and forth with the owner for over a month. They informed me that Sipadan Inn and Sipadan Scuba are not affiliated and I needed to go to the scuba shop next door. I was curious as to why the driver hadn't thought to direct me into the dive shop in the first place, but was too tired to really question much, so I went next door to Sipadan Scuba, where they welcomed me with smiles, yet some unpleasant news. The first two things the woman behind the counter, Merly, said to me were: "As you've been told, the new hotel isn't ready yet." and "How would you like to pay for your Divemaster course?" Now, this did not make me happy. The last email I'd received from the owner stated that he was building a new hotel, which was just being finished and I would for sure be one of the first guests! There was no mention, even a day before my arrival when I was emailing about airport pickup, that the hotel was not finished and I would need to sort out other accommodation. So, after traveling for the past 24 hours, I was now being told I had no accommodation booked and asked for money for my course! It wasn't the best start and I was a bit worried about my decision to do my courses with this company.
Luckily, the instructors that work at the dive shop are travelers, who support their travels and diving by instructing all over the world. Two of the instructors in the shop that day were Lucy, from England, and Nuria, from Spain. I told Merly that she'd have to wait to talk money until I had a place to set my bags down, because to my understanding, that had been taken care of previous to my arrival. I was polite but firm and I'm sure Lucy and Nuria could see the frustration in my tired face. They stepped up right away and started telling me which hotels to look to for accommodation and they helped me out a lot! I was so grateful for them in that moment. I ended up staying for the first few nights right next door at the Sipadan Inn, then moving to the City Inn, a hotel that is about a 5-minute walk from town, where all the instructors were staying, for a much cheaper price.
I set my bags down in the Sipadan Inn and wanted so badly to just fall asleep, but as it was only 1 o'clock in the afternoon, I knew sleeping would be the worst idea. I went back to the dive shop and Lucy invited me out to eat with her at a little Indian place across the street, Restoran Bismillah, that I would come to frequent quite often over the next month. After lunch, I informed the dive shop that I needed to do my prerequisite courses before I could start my Divemaster, which again, they should have known from the past month of emailing, but they did not. Honestly, if it weren't for the instructors, I am not sure if I would have signed up for my courses there, because there is a dive shop on every corner, happy to accept students! But, as Lucy and Nuria were so helpful and Nuria had stayed in from diving that day, just to start my course, I signed up for my Advanced Open Water and received my book and already had a few chapters to read and knowledge reviews to complete that night, before heading out for dives the next day! All I could think about was how happy all my little students in Korea would be if they knew Kailie Teacher was having to study, when all I wanted to do was play and sleep!
I got my reading and knowledge reviews done, took a quick 30-minute power nap, had a shower and met the rest of the instructors and divemasters (who'd all be out diving that day) at Arthur Bar, just on the opposite side of the dive shop. I met Baz, from France, Chris, from England, Pedro, from Spain, Georgina, from England, Michelle, from England and her husband Ali, from the Philippines. We had a few beers and played some 9-ball. This was my first experience of another place I would frequent a lot in the next month! I also met Arthur, one of the owners and Leon, the barman. I ate a delicious meal of fresh grilled fish, prawns and squid, then retreated early to my room for some much needed sleep before meeting at the diveshop at 8am the next morning for my first day of diving in just over a year.
Now, the attraction of Semporna is to dive Sipadan Island. It is one of the top 10 diving sites in the world and people travel many miles to dive there. But, what gets less attention is the vast amount of islands surrounding Sipadan Island, which also have fantastic diving. Sipadan has great visibility with many reef sharks, uncountable amounts of turtles and a vast variety of fish species. The surrounding islands have varying visibility, but are superb for macro life, which in diving terms, means the small stuff. These islands are where I have had the opportunity to dive nearly everyday for the past month and I am so grateful for it. I have learned where and how to find the little things, such as shrimp, nudibranchs and flatworms and my appreciation for them has grown immensely. I have also been learning to find the hard to find things...the animals that are masters of camouflage, such as scorpionfish, crocodilefish, and frogfish. My first three dives at Sipadan were overwhelming and fabulous. There were huge schools of jackfish, batfish and barracudda. There were grey and white-tip reef sharks, turtles and tons of fish. I loved it! But, by the time I did my second day of diving at Sipadan, a couple weeks later, I felt I was missing out on the fun of diving, which has become the search for the cool things. As a Divemaster, it's your job to show your guest cool things and I've been getting good at finding these cool things. At Sipadan, there were amazing things all around and anyone will be awestruck by the beauty of it, but it somehow just wasn't as much fun. This is something I never would have expected to think or feel, but in training to be a divemaster, my interests in diving have changed and it's a really cool thing to see happen in just a month!
So, to say the least, my first day of diving and each diving day thereafter were wonderful! I first completed my Advanced Open Water (AOW) certification, followed by Emergency First Response (EFR) training and a Rescue Diver certification, then I began my Divemaster training.
My AOW consisted of doing 5 specialty dives: navigation, deep dive, peak-performance buoyancy, fish identification and night dive. In navigation, I was reintroduced to the compass I used nearly 11 years ago in my Open Water (OW) certification course. I learned to be aware of the many natural references, both before and upon descending, such as island, boat and mountains at the surface, then sand ripples, currents and unique coral underwater. In my deep dive, it is meant to be the first time descending to 30 meters (100 feet), as an OW certification only allows you to descend to 18 meters (60 feet). I, on the other hand, had done a dive to 30 meters back when I was 16 and diving with my family. I remember thinking it was the coolest thing ever that I'd hit 100 feet!! But this deep dive was still interesting, because I learned about color saturation and the effects of pressure change at depth, which are both fascinating. In peak-performance buoyancy, we practiced hovering vertically, horizontally, upside down, frog kicks and lastly, but most interesting and useful, we attempted to swim up to a bottle placed in the sand, touch our nose to it, then swim away from it. This requires great control and the ability to swim backwards, which was a fun thing to master. It is useful when you want to get close to coral, especially to look for the little things, then back away from the coral without touching anything. I use it every dive! In fish identification, I learned about a few different families of fish and practiced identifying them underwater. I'm becoming more and more fascinated with fish species everyday and find myself reading fish books or, more surprisingly, I find myself inthralled in a book all about sea slugs called nudibranchs, which are beautiful! Lastly, on the night dive, we descended with our flashlights, knelt at the bottom and turned our lights off. We began to wave our hands frantically to bring out the bioluminescence of neon colors. Then I had to navigate my way in the dark, which was a very eerie feeling as my instructor turned off her flashlight, so I'd have to navigate based on my compass, instead of just looking to her flashlight and navigating myself back. Night dives are also cool, because all the crabs, squid and shrimp come out to play and it's the only time you get to see them out and about.
My EFR course was general CPR and first aid training, which I needed updated and was a prerequisite to the Rescue Diver course. The Rescue Diver course is a lot of fun and a lot of work! You learn how to deal with divers in any sort of trouble. It teaches you to respond to panicked, tired, or unconscious divers both underwater and on the surface. You learn how to bring an unconscious diver from depth to the surface, check for breathing, begin CPR, while towing the diver back toward the boat and removing their and your own gear, all while giving rescue breaths every 5 seconds and not breaking the rhythm of breaths. Talk about multi-tasking!! I also learned how to lift a diver out of the water and on to the boat or to carry them to shore. But, out on the boat those two days of my Rescue course were a bit nerve-racking, because all the instructors just loved knowing I was in my rescue course and were torturing me mentally all day, saying, "You know Kailie, I could be drowning at any moment today and you'll have to save me." Followed by an evil laugh. I had three unexpected issues that I had to jump up and respond to, while everyone else on the boat, staff and customer alike, got to watch and laugh! It was great fun, but I was also happy when it was over!
I felt a real sense of accomplishment on completing my Rescue Course and I was more than ready to start working towards Divemaster. As a divemaster, you learn to be part of the staff at the dive shop, which was such a great experience. I was in charge of making sure our boat was equipped with the necessary amount of tanks, oxygen and first aid, lunches for guests and boatmen and all guest were accounted for. If I was assisting an instructor with their course, I would gather all the necessary materials for whichever part of the course was being conducted that day. It was my responsibility to do boat briefings, in which I'd give the customers a rundown of the day and all precautionary information. Then throughout the day, I would interact with customers, help them with setting up their gear and getting in the water, then keep the boat organized after each dive. It was an on-going, all day job and I loved it!! It's so fun to meet divers from around the world and hear their dive stories and experiences, then take them on dives and show them new and cool things they may have never experienced before!
Diving aside, I came to adore the little town of Semporna and the people I interacted with on a daily basis there. The best way to describe a town like Semporna would be, unfortunately, a dump. There is trash everywhere, rats and cockroaches and an abundance of stray cats and dogs. But, the people are beyond friendly, as they are quick to smile and say hello. I went to one of two Indian restaurants for breakfast most mornings, where I would order coffee and a roti for 3 RM, which is $1. One of the restaurants was on my walk between the hotel and the dive shop, so I would enter in the front and leave out the back. Everyday, unfailingly, when I walked out the back, one of the young male cooks would wave and say, "Goodbye Lady Gaga!" Everyday! In the other Indian restaurant, Bismillah's, they all learned my name and would all turn to say, "Hello Kailie" when I walked in. So each morning at breakfast, I already had a smile on my face. I would arrive at the dive shop to have all the local divemasters, Ali, Rosalee, Sandrix and Jon greeting me, along with the instructors, then I would get to work. When it was time to head down to the dock, I would see our local boatmen, Samir, Russell, Doshai and a couple more whose names I was never able to catch, all happily waving and chatting. We also had a black and white mama cat, with 4 kittens and an adopted black kitten living down at the dock, so I was always happy to visit the kittens before heading out for the day.
We'd arrive back to Semporna around 4:30/5pm in the afternoon and head to the dive shop to rinse equipment and log our dives in our logbooks. I found myself sitting in the dive shop everyday until 6:30/7pm talking about the things we'd seen and going through fish/creature identification books. The underwater world has so many unique creatures, it's amazing! Then, after running home for a quick shower, we'd all head to Arthur Bar for drinks and pool. We'd break from drinks/pool for dinner at some point, then all end up heading to bed by 10:30/11pm, because a long day of diving wears you out! A month of this routine was really wonderful and as I have now left Semporna, I already miss the interactions, the diving and even the studying I've spent my last month partaking in. The only consolation is that ending one journey means another is only just beginning...