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PHUKET: Months before General Prayuth Chan-ocha stepped in with the Army’s coup to wrestle some semblance of order back to Thailand, a group of military officers from throughout the nation stormed Phuket.

But they didn’t come for the taxi mafia, tuk-tuk cartels, illegal workers or even the land encroachers – they came for the diving.

Standing pool-side amid an air of excitement, Vince Moy from Kiwidiver gave a few last instructions in Thai to the students. All but two of the 14 military and police officers were about to take their very first breath underwater – a moment that few divers ever forget.

It all started when 34-year-old Maj Dolruedee Tanma contacted Kevin Black of Kiwidiver about some diving photos.

“I offered her a free DSD [Discover Scuba Diving course] if she ever came to Phuket,” Kevin recalls. “She came – loved it – and immediately signed up for her Open Water course and started regular trips to Phuket to go scuba diving.

“When I offered Maj Jiib a chance to take all her Army friends scuba diving, to show them just what she had experienced, she organized a group to come down.”

PADI threw in its support, to help the development of the domestic Thai diving market, by giving the participants t-shirts, stickers and free certificates.

“The group breezed through their Open Water course, as it was all taught in Thai,” Kevin says, noting that PADI has a Thai-language Open Water manual and that the tests can be taken in Thai.

The financial costs, this time covered by Kiwidiver and PADI, are a major barrier for most Thais to become involved in diving, Maj Jiib explains before a pool session starts.

“Thai people have a lot of things to do, many festivals, many activities. With water activities like scuba diving, we have to know about the equipment… and it’s so expensive for Thai people. This is why Thai people don’t invest to try diving,” she says.

“For some people, scuba is just for sport or just for fun, but it can also be used to protect the environment. However, the government doesn’t promote this skill enough for Thai people. If they have the budget, they should support Thai people to become a diver, guide or environmentalist.”

As all divers know, however, once the financial leap is made, the payoff is extraordinary.

“Those that do discover what is under the ocean’s surface usually find a different sense of appreciation for it. We actively try to get people diving as a way of helping them understand the beauty and the need for conservation,” says Kevin.

“Many people from all cultures do not care about what is underwater simply because they don’t know or understand it. Once people see it, it becomes real for them and they start to understand the need to protect it.”

Though Phuket dive sites might no longer reflect the rosy tint that divers who explored its coral reefs, grass beds and walls more than a decade ago might recall, the wonders below the surface are still riveting – even to an experienced diver.

There are still many species of shy seahorses (story here), transformative mimic octopi (story here), acid-trip designed nudibranches (story here), cartoonish clown fish, drowsy leopard sharks (story here) and giant manta rays (story here)… the list goes on.

So, with the pool session complete, the Army officers, now comfortable in the equipment, buoyancy in control and no one holding their breath, are ready for the beauty of the underwater world and a lifetime of coming face to face with some of the most stunning flora and fauna of the world.peared in the August 9 – 15 issue of the hard-copy Phuket Gazette newspaper. Digital subscribers may download the full newspaper, this week and every week, by clicking here.

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— Isaac Stone Simonelli