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I didn’t get to hit up many bucket list dive destinations in 2016. While I absolutely did some very cool dives — in Thailand, Brazil, Jamaica, and Hawaii! — I didn’t go on any dedicated dive trips and didn’t check off any dream dives. And so, as many of you know, I instead focused on keeping myself engaged and excited about diving by jumping headfirst into a trio of continuing education courses.
So, my fellow dive enthusiasts may know that there is kind of a catty term in the scuba community which refers to someone who is obsessed with racking up specialty certifications — “card collectors.” Well, I’m saying loud and I’m saying it proud — I am now officially a certified card collector. If I could take a PADI specialty in getting PADI specialities, I would probably enroll right now. I loved these courses!
I kicked things off with the Self Reliant Diver course at Master Divers, then made my way to Ban’s for an Enriched Air certification, and finally rounded it out with a Sidemount Diver speciality at Sairee Cottage.
So um, what the heck is sidemount? It’s basically a new gear configuration — it simply means that you carry two tanks at your sides instead of one on your back. I’ll get into why you’d want to do that in a bit! Sidemount originated with cave diving in Europe, where pioneers realized moving their tanks alongside their bodies allowed them to keep a lower profile, and to remove one or both cylinders as needed to squeeze through tight passageways. The modern sidemount configuration as we know it today mostly evolved in communities of cavern and cave diving enthusiasts in Florida and The Yucatan. And now it’s spreading around the world.
Including to Thailand. My friend Gordon is a long-time PADI Instructor who got super pumped about sidemount after traveling to Egypt to continue his advanced Tec dive training. He enthusiastically brought a set of the specialized gear back to Koh Tao and started singing the sidemount siren song! I’m so grateful that he did — I have to admit that not long ago, I wanted nothing to do with sidemount. Tec related courses are kind of intimidating to me, and I just didn’t get what the point was. But after a year or so of watching so many of my close diving friends take Gordon’s course and rave about it, I just had to join the club and see what all the fuss was about. And it turns out I really had nothing to be intimidated by — it was the simplest of the three courses I took in 2016 and required only an Open Water Certification and twenty logged dives to begin.
You have two choices when it comes to sidemount training — the PADI Sidemount Diver course introduces divers to sidemount techniques for recreational scuba diving, while the Tec Sidemount Diver course teaches technical divers how to mount at least four tanks for their technical diving adventures. I enrolled in the former.
One of the best things about my little continuing education experiment here on Koh Tao was finding a new dive shop that was the perfect fit for me. I get asked for advice on this constantly and I now have a much wider range of personalized recommendations to dole out. While I had excellent experiences at all three of the dive shops I studied at, it’s Sairee Cottage that has become my go-to for fun diving with friends ever since.
For me, it’s the perfect size — not so big that you get lost in the mix, but still buzzing enough that there’s always someone to grab a coconut with at the swim-up bar after a dive. What’s that? I should have just opened with the swim up bar? Tell me about it! Between the fabulous pool, the coolest classrooms on the island, and a great team of instructors and divemasters — many of whom are my close friends! — I know where I’d sign up to do my Open Water if I was doing it all over again.
The PADI Sidemount speciality consists of one confined and three open water dives. For Gordon and I, that translated to one pool session, one shore dive from the beach right in front of the dive shop, and two open water boat dives that we checked off on a super fun trip to Sail Rock! We spread that out over three days, but some people do it in two.
The speciality also consisted of coursework from the PADI Sidemount and Tec Sidemount Diver Manual — section one pertains to PADI Sidemount Diver, while two and three are for Tec Sidemount Diver. I carefully read section one of the manual, completing quizzes along the way, and wrapping up with a knowledge review to ensure I’d absorbed the information. Of my trio of courses it it was the least time in the classroom, as there isn’t really any complicated dive theory behind sidemount.
Instead, the primary focuses of the course were learning a new equipment setup, perfecting “trim” (your underwater body position and posture) and practicing “back-finning” (swimming backwards using just your feet and fins), learning gas management, and practicing emergency procedures. When I first jumped in that pool with this strange new gear setup I had a flashback to trying drysuit diving in Iceland. After being a certified diver for eight years a lot of my dive routine is on autopilot, but not on these days! My whole body was like, whoa, what is this crazy thing we are doing! If you need to be shaken out of a dive routine — this is one way to do it.
I actually found the trim and backfinning focus to be among the most challenging and the most interesting of the course takeaways, considering those are both important skills that can be used on any dive. Your trim underwater is as important as your posture on land, and though back-finning is primarily of interest to cave divers who need to be able to negotiate tight spaces, it is also a fabulous skill for underwater photographers and videographers who need to nail the perfect composition, too.
After a long day in the pool and digging into my manual and another day putting our skills into practice with a sixty minute shore dive, Gordon and I were joined by several of our friends for the final day of our course on Sairee Cottage’s popular weekly trip to Sail Rock, where I’d really get the chance to put the pieces of the course together and see how I felt about this whole sidemount situation once and for all.
I was absolutely thrilled to be out on the water and surrounded by so many of my favorite people. The Sail Rock trips typically consist of two dives at Sail Rock followed by a third back closer to Koh Tao. One of the biggest pros to diving sidemount is having double the air, which gives you a significantly longer dive time –of course you still need to follow your dive computer’s limits closely to avoid decompression time.
Our friend Brian joined Gordon and I on sidemount, and so while a big group of us all kicked off the dive together, when the single-tank crew surfaced the three of us on sidemount were able to stay down and complete one super-long dive instead of popping up, taking off gear, having a surface interval, putting gear back on and descending a second time. One point for sidemount!
We set a goal of a 100 minute dive time — crazy, right?! — and while I admit I was getting a tad chilly towards the end, it was a pretty fun milestone to cross. The average dive time, at least on Koh Tao, is around 45 minutes, so more than doubling that at the best dive site in the Gulf of Thailand was a huge deal. Over and hour and a half kicking it with these amazing underwater critters? Who wouldn’t love that!
Eventually we remembered that we hadn’t grown gills, and returned to the surface.
After our amazing underwater marathon at Sail Rock we took it easy and did a typical 45-minute dive at the third site for the day, my beloved Shark Island. I was amazed by how quickly I’d taken to the sidemount procedure. While I did struggle with getting the gear on at time, once I was underwater it felt incredibly natural, and after just a few dives my muscle memory had already picked up the habit of switching between air sources every 50 bar or so — you don’t want to just let one tank empty all the way before switching to the other, as that would leave you lopsided — as the empty tank grew lighter — and without a backup tank.
It was a beautiful dive and the perfect note to end the course on.
Well, that and the swim up bar drinks we had when we were back on dry land!
So after three days and many, many hours underwater, I definitely got a feel for what all the fuss is about when it comes to sidemount. The benefits are significant — increased air supply (which increases dive time), accessibility of all stages and gauges (as they are under your arm instead of on your back), self reliance in out-of-air situation, a more streamlined underwater profile, easier equipment transport (with two small cylinders as opposed to one big), and versatility (it’s great for those with physical challenges that prevent them from diving a traditional configuration).
What are the drawbacks? Well, you do have to switch between tanks throughout the dive, which make it a more complex gas management system. Also, since sidemount is still fairly rare, you’re unlikely to find a buddy who’s familiar with the equipment unless you BYODB (Bring Your Own Dive Buddy, duh). But mostly, it’s just plain cost.
Want more underwater? Read more diving posts here!
I’d recommend this course to potential tec divers who want to get their feet and fins wet,those interested in cavern and cave diving, those who blow through air quickly and long for longer dive times, petite divers who struggle with a traditional configuration, and anyone who wants to shake themselves out of a diving rut.
There are only a few schools on Koh Tao currently offering the PADI Sidemount Diver speciality. The course generally lasts 2-3 days and costs 12,000B. I can’t recommend it — or Sairee Cottage — more highly.
portrait by my friend Paddy of Peach Snaps
Personally, I loved the sidemount configuration. While I have no problem with running out of air (I’m almost always the last person to hit a half tank!), I do have issues with the size of a traditional scuba cylinder compared to the size of my body.
As a 5’1″ woman, I often struggle with the traditional tank-on-the-back setup. Between the system of attaching weights to the tanks and getting the tanks off my back and under my arms, the lower back pain that normally plagues me after a day of diving was completely non-existant! And with slightly smaller cylinders, I’d have even more mobility both above and below the surface. I greatly look forward to sidemount configurations becoming more widely available as I personally would be thrilled to dive this way more often.
I had a blast with this course. Between our hundred minute dive record, the skills I learned, the amazing day I shared with my friends and the absolute badass I felt like underwater, it was not a course I’ll forgot anytime soon.
Divers, would you consider a PADI Sidemount speciality? What should I do next?
All underwater photos in this post were taken with the Canon PowerShot G7X and its Canon Waterproof Housing. See a full list of my photography gear here.
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