Ever since stumbling upon Alex’s blog a year ago, I’ve been enamored with her. She dedicated herself to a life of travel at age 19 while also finishing a university degree. A year later, she took a photography apprenticeship in Grand Cayman and learned underwater videography along the way. And at 21, she left New York for good to pursue a dream of becoming a dive videographer—and she’s succeeded, tenfold. Alex spent 6 months this year working dive seasons in Thailand, interspersed by 6 months traveling. Really, it’s a dream existence (though there’s no doubt she works her butt off to achieve such a schedule!). Plus, she’s got spunk and a knack for telling a story in a gripping way—and her photos only further enhance her blog appeal.
I wasn’t sure what my time and connectivity would be like back on the ship for this two weeks, so I asked a couple of my favorites like Alex to fill in for me sporadically while I’m at sea. Since I’m currently off leading a dive trip of Enrichment Voyage cruisers through Mexico’s underwater national parks, I thought it only fitting to have a professional divemaster give us a glimpse into her day-to-day routine.
It’s nearly impossible to describe to someone what it’s like to live and work on a tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand. Believe me, I’ve typed thousands of words while trying. Perhaps the best way to explain my job as an underwater videographer filming private dive videos on Koh Tao is simply to take you through a day with me, minute by minute.
5am: The alarm on my cheap Nokia phone blares as I grunt to life. I stumble through the bungalow in a haze, cursing myself as usual for not packing my dry bag the night before.
5:25am: I manage to leave the house with two flip-flops and my bike keys—everything else is a bonus at this hour. The sky is still pitch black and so I turn to my trusty Nokia once again, this time as a flashlight. My bike’s engine breaks the morning silence on the mountain and I cruise into town, so grateful I overcame my fear of driving. The streets are empty except for some marathon party-goers just now making it back from the beach bars. I wonder how I ended up on the wrong end of this equation.
5:35am: I unlock the office of the small video company I work for and collect my arsenal of camera, batteries and supplies.
5:45am: I arrive at the dive school I’m filming for today, which prides itself on being the first school on the island that is out on the water every morning. I used to resent this, but it did once result in me having half an hour of uninterrupted whale shark time before the 20 other dive boats on the island arrived at the site, so I feel a bit more kindly toward them these days. We hop on the back of a pickup truck and make our way to the pier.
6am: The boat pulls away from the dock, and I meet the group I’m filming today: five Open Water students from across the globe doing the final two dives of their PADI certification course. The instructor is one of my favorites, always enthusiastic to be filmed, setting up shots and pre-selling the video to the students. Having a fun instructor who is happy to have a videographer onboard can make or break the day. A little joking here, a little flirting there—it’s all part of the job, when your job requires you to be in a bikini all day.
I love meeting and talking with the people I’m filming. They are always incredible enthusiastic about diving, and it’s fun to watch others fall in love with the thing you are so passionate about.
6:30am After filming the students setting up their gear and some general shots of the boat, I head to the top deck to wait for the dive briefing. I’m the first one up, and so I’m treated to a peaceful moment watching the sun rise over the island. My annoyance at being awake so early melts. I love this job.
7:05am: After gearing up I’m the first one in the water so that I can film the students jumping in. It’s a tricky shot but always one of my favorites of the day. Once everyone is together I descend down ahead of the group, as it usually takes new divers a while to get down. I love those first few minutes alone underwater.
7:30am: Chumphon, Koh Tao’s premier dive site, is stunning today. There are schools of batfish, endless barracudas and the biggest groupers I’ve ever seen. The groupers sit patiently while I film them, suspiciously eyeing my camera. It’s tempting to only film the fish but we have a saying in underwater video: “Fish don’t buy movies.” So my goal is always to get a shot that has both my divers and some amazing aquatic life. This is a deep dive site, so my camera struggles a bit with the lack of light, but otherwise it is a beautiful dive.
The second dive is a shallow one, so that the students can demonstrate skills to the instructor like removing and replacing their masks and regulators underwater. It’s always tricky to make this part look interesting on film but creative editing helps. My camera loves all the light coming through as we stay shallow and the sun brightens, so the footage from the second dive is always bursting with color.
10:05am: Back on boat. When we dock up we are tied up three boats from the pier, meaning we have to pass 40 empty tanks and full gear bags in an assembly line across the boats, while trying in the process not to fall in ourselves. It’s always a pretty entertaining sight.
10:30am: We’re in the pickup truck again, headed back to the dive shop. The students talk about retreating to their rooms for a nap and I feel some momentary jealousy. Many people think the day ends when the filming ends. Ha! Now the real work begins. I get back to the video office and start my routine: I begin the long process of footage capture, rinse my camera housing, charge the batteries I used.
11:50am: I sit down for a working lunch with the Thai takeaway lunch I grabbed from next door. Massaman curry, rice and a fresh-squeezed orange shake all for the equivalent of about $4USD. I throw on my headphones, open Adobe Premiere and sit down to edit.
3:30pm: Today is one of those miracle days where there have been no editing disasters. Everything captured correctly, no programs have crashed, and my footage was pretty smooth. It took me a while to get to this point but now it takes me about an hour of editing for every 6 minutes of final video. The problem with working at the speed we do is that there is simply no time to go back and do a second edit; you have to trust your instincts and get it right the first time. I set everything to render and export, and then I get on my bike and speed home to shower off the salt water and answer some emails—and work on my blog. This is my first real break of the day.
4:30pm: I head back to check the shop to burn the DVD. Everything looks good, and soon I’m on my way back out the door. I’m done early and decide impulsively to head to the afternoon Muay Thai session. Muay Thai is the perfect workout for me: I get in an intense workout in a short amount of time. Plus, it’s fun enough that I kind of forget I’m exercising.
After, I shower and get ready again, put on my best saleswoman face, and meet my divers.
6pm: Everyone meets at the dive shop with Chang beers in hand. I show the movie and we all watch it for the first time—myself included. Sometimes I cringe at an editing error (that of course only I will notice), but for the most part I love watching the students react to seeing themselves underwater on camera.
Next comes the hardest part of the job for most people: sales. I worked upscale retail in New York City while at university so I’ve gotten used to selling expensive goods, but it never gets easy.
Videographers work solely on commission, so there is always the possibility that I have now put in a full day of work and will walk away with nothing. Our pricing structure depends on how many people buy the video. If one copy is sold, it’s 2,500 baht (about $75 USD), if two copies are sold, it’s 2,000 baht each, and we discount steeply from there. It seems like a lot of money in Thailand, but a lot of people need to be paid. The instructor, the dive shop, the video company, and of course the videographer all need a cut. I work for the best company on the island, in my opinion. They give me 50 percent of everything I sell, which is unheard of. On my okay days I walk away with the equivalent of around $35 USD, and on great days I can walk away with up to $100 USD. It might not seem like much for so many hours of work and with such specialized training, but to put it in perspective, my share of rent is $175 per month. So, certainly no complaints here!
8pm: Today was a success. I had a fun time on the boat, I had two beautiful dives, I had enough room to squeeze in some personal time, and I sold three videos! After finishing up at the showing, settling the bill with the shop, and returning to the office and burning the additional DVDs, I am finally done for the night, 15 hours after waking. Next stop is dinner on the beach and a drink at the local bar—tomorrow, I’m sleeping in.
A huge thanks to Alex for offering a peek into her rad life. Please show her some love in the comments, then head on over to her blog to immerse yourself in her adventures. Some of my favorites of her stories include exploring Angkor Wat by bike, falling in love with Santorini, diving in Cambodia and running for the Burma border.