With the ending of the year comes the inevitable reflection on all that has come to pass in the last 365 days. At the start of this year I had no concrete plans for 2015 and if someone had told me all that would happen in the following 12 months I probably wouldn’t have believed them. Certainly it hasn’t all been rainbows and smiles (nothing truly great can be achieved or learnt painlessly or easily) but through both the tough times and the good I have learnt so very much this year.
It has been a diving year, a learning year, a year where I gained a Finnish family, a new life and a new career. A year during which I lucky enough to meet a multitude of amazing, talented, intelligent, compassionate and loving people and I got to see parts of the world (both above and below the water) that, prior to 2015, I had never even dreamed of seeing. I can’t put into words how happy this year has made me; if 2016 is only half as amazing as 2015 I will be grateful.
More important, by far, than the things I’ve done this year is the people that I’ve done them with. So this blog post is my attempt to thank all of the inspirational people I was fortunate enough to spend time with and learn from this year.
Before I get into all of the new people I have met this year, let me first thank my family back in Australia; my sister, Kirsty, her husband, Gavin and their beautiful family. Without your support and guidance when I needed it the most I don’t think I would have made it this far. Whenever I stumbled and was about to fall you guys steadied me and put me back on the right path. I know these words aren’t enough, but I love you guys and I can’t wait to see you when you visit Tablas next year.
So here are some of the highlights of my year and the people that made them so special.
My Finnish Family
First and foremost – Obi-Wan, aka Pekka. Instructor, mentor, friend, big brother and on a couple of occasions even my little brother.
In the space of 3 and a half months at the start of this year, Pekka took me from a PADI Advanced open water diver through to a full cave diver, advanced trimix diver, helitrox rebreather diver, advanced gas blender and PADI Divemaster. A total of 14 courses, 12 of them technical diving courses, and what a ride it was.
It was such an enjoyable time for me. My ability to learn something new is directly proportional to my interest in the subject matter and for me technical diving had turned almost into an obsession. I revelled in all the new knowledge and skills I was gaining; I soaked it all up like a shrunken, dried up sponge suddenly immersed in water.
Pekka has the nickname Obi-Wan because of his skills in the water… he doesn’t just dive like a normal human being, no; he uses the force and just accomplishes whatever it is he wants to do (do, or do not, there is no try). I swear there were some dives we did together during which I didn’t even see him use his fins at all… I swear he just used the force to move through the water. I think it took about 10 courses with Pekka before I earned the title Padawan and I still have much more to learn.
Through all these courses Pekka taught me in his unique way which I really connected with. In Pekka’s typical Finnish style, he is a modest man and would probably deny every word of the above paragraph, claiming he still has much to learn. Another typical Finnish trait of Pekka’s is his spare use of speech; that’s not to say that he doesn’t talk much, just that he only speaks if he has something important to say. For that reason I am always an avid listener and greatly respect what he does say. Actually this is one of the things I love most about the Finnish culture, there’s no need for small talk and it’s completely acceptable to spend time with them in complete silence.
Thank you is not enough, Brother, but it's all I've got. Thanks for bringing me in the world of tec diving and helping me learn so much and inspiring me to keep learning and accomplishing thing I never though possible.
Of course, no mention of Pekka would be complete without also mentioning his amazing, beautiful and talented wife Mummo (Finnish for Grandmother), aka Tiina. These guys have been married for longer than I have been alive and they’re still as close as I imagine they were when they first met. It’s such an inspiration to see such a beautiful relationship between them and gives me hope that there is indeed the possibility of finding someone who you can spend your whole life with.
Tiina is the one who welcomed me into the family and at first it wasn’t for any special reason, but just because that’s the way she is, so loving and compassionate. I’m so grateful to Mummo for everything she has done for me, from organising all of those courses I did with Pekka, to giving me a shoulder to cry on and exceptionally helpful advice when I needed it. Nothing is too much trouble for Tiina and I know I can call her any time of the day or night if I ever need anything.
During this time in Phuket I got to know the extended Finnish clan and they are the ones who taught me how to have fun… and how to drink. Yes, there is a country that drinks more than Australia, and it’s Finland.
Marko (who first got the hook of technical diving into me), Yaska (who looks like a big tough guys but is about the biggest teddy bear you could meet), Tommi (Tommi… what have you done this time?!), Mari (about the fittest person I have ever met), Mia (ah Mia, I wish you could see just how beautiful you really are) and Miia (always so happy), Laura (machine-gun Laura, I miss your laugh) and Bebe and Matti and all the rest… they are too numerous to name them all – you guys are all crazy and I love you all. So many great times were spent with these guys, the culmination of which was probably the joint Divemaster party Mummo organised for me and Tommi. I suspect the dress code was instituted purely so that they could see me in a dress… how’s that for dedication? It worked though so here’s probably the only photos of me in a dress you will ever see. Enjoy.
Finland and Russia Diving Trip
This trip is easily my favourite diving trip of all time. It was my first time in Europe and just to see the natural beauty of Finland, which is so very different to northern Australia where I’ve spent most of my life, was amazing. I would recommend everyone visit Finland and see it for themselves.
On this trip I was lucky enough to dive with some big names in tec and cave diving circles. But, while their names might be big their heads most certainly are not. Every one of them will tell you that they still have much to learn, even while they’re in the midst of (perhaps even unknowingly) teaching you something. They are truly some of the nicest, most genuine people I have met and I count myself lucky to know them and have dived with them.
Of course, Pekka was there and is the one (along with Mummo) that put all the effort into organising this trip. Ben Reymenants, aka Yoda (who certified Pekka as a tec instructor), is quite literally writing the book on diving in overhead environments (ie. caves and wrecks) for SSI right now. Any cave diver should already know his name, and if you don’t, do yourself a favour and look him up. I had met Ben a handful of times during my stint in Phuket but it wasn’t until this trip that we had the opportunity to form a friendship.
The following guys I had not met prior to this trip but I’m certainly happy I got to meet them. Jani Santala (the supreme being) who has spent more time instructing in caves/mines in freezing cold water than I have spent underwater. He might look like a Viking but is another teddy bear in disguise. Damien Siviero, a fellow Aussie, underwater photographer and explorer of immense talent who has an equally immense ability to drink. He is a true Aussie and a good bloke. Moto Orita, a humble Japanese man who may not say much but whose obvious confidence and skills at diving spoke louder than any words. Lassi Karttunen, a young Finnish guy who is just a natural diver. Lassi has the potential have a huge impact in diving and impressed me greatly as both a diver and a person.
I was, by far, the novice in this group. These guys outclassed me in both experience and skill level by many orders of magnitude. I will always be grateful to Ben for his moral support during that trip. We were at Oravikoski during the second week of the trip and I was still struggling with learning how to dive with dry gloves, particularly when the rest of the group seemed to have much less trouble with it; and over the trip I had had my opinion of my own diving skills greatly downgraded after comparison to this group. We had just taken the photo below, of the four of us, Moto, Ben, me and Damien, and I noted also how lacking in height I am compared to them. And Ben said something along the lines of 'But at least you are here, putting yourself into these challenging conditions when a lot of other divers just stick to their comfort zones'. I think that was the first time on that trip that I felt like I had the right to be there diving with guys.
You can read about my experiences at Ojamo Mine in Finland in my previous blog here. From Ojamo we went to Oravikoski Mine, Paakila Mine and then on to Orda, Russia. Throughout the trip we were joined at various times by various other divers, all of who are great divers and are once again too numerous to name them all.
While I could go on in great detail about how amazing the diving was and all the things I learnt about diving during this trip, it was the people I got to meet, or those that I already knew, but had the opportunity to get to know even better, that made this such a special trip. I mean, there’s only a few unique individuals with whom one can experience a Russian sauna in a small, remote village in Russia, after consuming copious amounts of very cheap but very good Russian vodka, with a local Russian that didn’t speak English and have your naked back beaten with a tree branch (it was mostly leaves, not like a big chunk of wood) and not feel weird about it.
To all that I met and spent time with on this trip - thanks and kiitos for the memories.
Tablas Island and First Buddy Tablas
Chronologically last, but certainly not least in importance. This is where my new career has started. It wouldn’t have happened without Tiina and Pekka who took a chance on me when they offered me this job.
Of notable mention is Jari Toivonen, Heinz Buechler and Willi Baumeister without whom this idea of opening a First Buddy dive centre here would never have even happened. Heinz’s continued support and Willi’s vision, determination and tireless efforts in building the infrastructure for the dive shop have been instrumental in the success we’ve been able to achieve here so far.
This job, this lifestyle here on Tablas Island is something that I will always be grateful for because it brings me into contact with so many different people. From dive customers who come from all parts of the world, to the local people that live and work on the island and the other ex-pats that live here. For the fellow travellers out there I won’t have to explain just how intellectually stimulating that is to be exposed to so many different cultures and lifestyles through these people. It keeps you humble.
So, in order to keep this blog from getting too much longer than it is, I will mention only a couple of those wonderful people I’ve been lucky enough to meet and work with here on Tablas Island.
First among them would have to be Deo, Tablas Islands’ best tour guide. Born and raised in Manila, Deo moved to Tablas Island about 7 years. He is just a beautiful guy with a beautiful family and a passion to share the natural beauty of Tablas with the world. I was lucky enough to meet him fairly early on and he has helped me so much. Actually Deo is the reason we’ve been able to expand our diving exploration on the island by getting us started running dive trips to the Blue Hole. I literally couldn’t have done it without him.
Deo will do absolutely anything for his customers and he will regularly go for days with almost no sleep just to make sure all his guest have the best experience of Tablas Island during their stay. He also does all the cooking during his tours and he is an exceptionally talented chef. I’ve been lucky enough to taste many of his meals (including his famous 50000 Peso chicken) and I can tell you it’s some of the best food you can find on Tablas.
The last group I want to mention (and it was, in fact, Deo who brought them to me, thanks again Deo) are Jan, Wil and Petr, the freedivers you met in my last blog. Although I have known them for a shorter time than anyone else I’ve mentioned above, that does not in any way lessen their significance.
During their stay on Tablas Island they quite literally moved into my dive shop; there were bags in every corner, clothes hanging over the back of chairs, laptops and cables running everywhere and music, laughter and pandas filled the shop; and it felt like home for the first time since the First Buddy Tablas doors were opened. In my experience, that’s exactly what a dive shop should feel like, so thank you Wil, Jan and Petr and I look forward to having you guys back here soon.
I want to offer a big thank you to everyone else who has been a part of my 2015; you are all too numerous to mention by name but know that I have learnt something from each and every one of you and I will always be grateful for that.
I'll end with a quote from Jim Carey that I just came across because I find it quite pertinent; every person I have mentioned in this post has a good heart and has had nothing but a good effect on me...