Chris Mitchell is a British scuba journalist based in Thailand. He writes regularly on two of his websites, Travel Happy and Dive Happy. I recently emailed five questions to Chris to find out what makes him tick. Here are his responses...
Question 1. You are a British freelance scuba journalist based in Bangkok. This is basically three questions in one: Why scuba, why freelance and why Bangkok?
I'd already learned to scuba dive in the UK in 1999, the highlight of which was seeing a burnt out car at the bottom of a flooded quarry in freezing cold water. Super. When I went travelling at the end of 2002 to Australia, I decided to give scuba another go when I got to Byron Bay. After the first few dives, I was nicknamed "Air Pig" because I went through a tank of air so fast due to being so nervous. But with a bit of perseverence and some help and encouragement from other instructors and divers as I travelled up the coast I finally got the hang of it and it basically changed my life.
Like most things, scuba has quite a steep learning curve and needs practice - but then there's the "aha!" moment and you relax right into it. Once you stop thinking about it, everything comes together.
People call scuba diving an adrenaline sport, but that means they're usually doing it wrong. Scuba is actually one of the most serene things you can ever do - to paraphrase David Bowie, you're "floating in a most peculiar way" just like an astronaut, and that sense of weightlessness coupled with the silence of the ocean is incredibly peaceful and calming. Besides that, you have this genuinely mind-blowing, endless surprising and still largely undiscovered and uncharted other world down there beneath the surface, and it opens up whole new fields of interest and perspectives to an even vaguely curious mind. It certainly makes you a conservationist by default, because you can see first hand the destruction of the reefs and decimation of marine life that out of sight to everyone else.
Trying to describe what I was seeing was also a major motivator in wanting to be a scuba journalist - plus of course spending my time underwater as much as possible. I'd already been an IT journalist in the UK working for Future Publishing so I knew how to write - the biggest problem I had was that I was clueless at taking underwater photos, which for most dive magazines are more important than the words. I set up my own site Divehappy.com to record my own trips and pass on tips to other divers and I kept pestering editors with queries and finally got my break writing about the impact of the 2004 tsunami on Thailand's Similan Islands as I was on one of the first dive boats to go back out after the wave. Something of a pyrrhic victory, but I was glad to contribute to getting the word out that the islands' coral reefs, which are Thailand's premier dive destination and so generate millions of dollars in tourism each year, had not been destroyed as originally feared.
I ended up in Bangkok because when I travelled from Australia into South East Asia I quickly realised 1) how much cheaper everything was 2) it was actually much more fun to not understand what's going on around you most of the time and 3) how much better the diving in Asia was - Indonesia's reefs and marine life in particular are spectacular, the best in the world. For me Bangkok was a convenient hub for travelling through the region - I was getting quite a few story assignments from scuba magazines and I still had a quite a wanderlust, but I liked having a homebase to come back to rather than just endlessly moving from hotel room to hotel room. Bangkok in that sense is perfectly situated in South East Asia. It took me quite a while to grow to love the city, but now I find it hard to think about living anywhere else, mainly for the eclectic mix of friends I have here and also the amount of interesting people passing through.
Question 2. You left the UK in 2002. Did you jump or were you pushed and will you ever return?
"Leaving the UK" makes it sound very dramatic. It certainly wasn't my intention when I got on the plane. It was more that I'd just lost my job, I didn't really want to jump straight back into the rat race, and I couldn't basically think of anything better to do than go travelling. There was no masterplan or anything like that - I thought I'd be back in six months. I was quite daunted by the idea of going travelling to be honest, because I wasn't really sure what I would do.
But now I think not having a plan is hugely underrated these days. We need to give more credence to just randomly stumbling into situations, for which travel is an excellent catalyst.
As such, travelling for me really did fulfil the cliche of expanding my horizons - I realised there was so much more I could be doing with my life than showing up at an office and collecting a pay cheque, which is essentially what my life in London had been reduced to. That, incidentally, is not meant to be a slight on either London or office life - I really enjoyed my time at Future Publishing and then Vodafone, which were basically desk jobs - it's just how things worked out for me. I had (and still have) an awesome group of friends in London, a great job, I loved the buzz of the city particularly as I had the money to enjoy it, but somehow it still didn't feel quite right, and I did used to beat myself up about why on earth I still felt unfulfilled when I was supposedly ticking all the right boxes.
For the first few years I remained abroad, I would say I'm never going back - but now, 10 years on, and 10 years older, I can see myself spending more time back in the UK, mainly to be with my parents and to spend time with old friends, who I've managed to stay close with despite being away for a decade. The internet is a wonderful thing in that regard. I've also fallen in love with some of the places that featured heavily in my childhood and that I of course took wholly for granted at the time - Dartmoor in particular is now one of my favourite places in the world, and it's just a half hour drive from my parents home in Plymouth. Healthwise, being in a warmer climate was a vast improvement for me - before I left the UK, I'd been plagued with eczema which disappeared never to return six months into travelling.
(Giving up smoking and not being stressed out were admittedly contributing factors). As such, I certainly never want to be back in the UK for winter, which seems to be extending to six months of the year.
Question 3. You recently wrote an article about the amazing scuba diving and underwater photography opportunities at Cenderawasih Bay. The whale shark photos are beautiful. Do you ever worry that by writing about places like this that you may be encouraging increased tourism and hasten the demise of beautiful places like Cenderawasih Bay?
It's a good point but thankfully places like Cenderawasih are protected by their sheer remoteness - the only way you can get there is by boat which is at least 12 hours cruise from the nearest port. Even as it becomes more popular it will remain fairly low numbers simply because it's such hard work to get to. Places like Hanifaru in the Maldives and Sogod Bay in the Philippines are good examples of areas that have seen a big influx of divers as they are whale shark and manta ray hotspots, and within a couple of years quite strict legislation has been imposed banning diving in the area because there's just too many people are coming in. Snorkelling is still allowed, and it follows the Australian model pioneered in Exmouth. So there is a lot more sensitivity to protecting wildlife than there was even a decade ago.
The issue is not so much the amount of people going to a place, it's about how their behaviour is regulated and policed when they are there - I know that sounds quite dictatorial, but if you have clear policies of what you are allowed and not allowed to do, people abide by them.
That obviously requires quite a lot of forethought and effort on the part of local authorities, who are often already overworked and underpaid already with other pressing priorities. The issue is when regulations are made and then never enforced. A good example of management is Sipadan island in Malaysia, where they have a quota system in place so only a certain amount of divers a day can be in the water.
Question 4. Is it too late for the oceans?
No, but only if the political will is there to make radical change to save the oceans. This is the part that is extremely frustrating - there are thousands of brilliant grass-roots initiatives around the world with ordinary people doing their bit big and small to keep their own aquatic backyards clean and in the best shape they can manage - yet without the world's governments bringing in the sweeping, radical legistation that's needed to reverse the unarguable damage we're doing to the environment, all of that effort is arguably futile. It's hard to comprehend just how huge the problem is - from industrial pollution to the fishing methods that are destroying everything on the ocean floor to the mislabelled, over processed, shitty quality food that's becoming more and more prevalent in our supermarkets. There is a chain of deceit built into the way we live that ultimately ends up dumping all its poison in the ocean, and at the same time stripmining the ocean without any care about the future - or concern that those same poisons are coming back into the human food chain. Most of us assume that because these processes are legal, they must somehow be benign. It's not necessarily the case.
Question 5. You co-authored a book with your friend Jez Tryner called "Thailand's Underwater World". He took the photographs and you wrote the text. Is the pen mightier than the camera?
That book mainly came about because I was flabbergasted no-one had used Jez's photos for a book before. He is one of the best underwater photographers around and after four years working on liveaboards in Thailand's Similan Islands and Indonesia's Komodo National Park he accumulated a tremendous collection of shots, all done with his signature high-contrast style, which makes for quite dramatic shots that are different from the usual underwater aesthetic. Jez and I have ingested heroic quantities of booze in various exotic locales working on magazine stories and he was happy to let me just get on with shaping the text around his pictures. His photos are definitely the star of the book - I don't kid myself anyone will be reading my text!