Caitlin Russell

Big Blue


Diving the Big Blue 

life lessons from island living


5AM wake up

8AM boat dive

5PM beers

Rinse and repeat

That was life.

For three months I studied and cared for Koh Tao’s coral reefs. I geeked out on fish, joined underwater clean ups, tended to coral nurseries, and designed a new kind of artificial reef structure. In the end, I walked away with an Advanced Nitrox dive certification, a taste for Chang beer, and a newfound appreciation for my own independence.


1 | fact: There’s no way to make this look cool

Diving isn’t pretty. It’s lifting tanks twice your weight, peeing in wetsuits, and bloody noses on the ascend. So, not pretty, but pretty hard core.

I figure, if I can untangle 30ft nets underwater, I can find my feet on land.

When you’re underwater you can’t hesitate, because you have 20 minutes of air left in your tank. You have to be thoughtful, because you’re navigating delicate coral. And you have to give clear direction, because you won’t have the luxury of chit chat.


2 | the hobbit hole

artificial reef design

Koh Tao faces a complex environmental problem: dive tourism both degrades the coral and funds its restoration.

It’s not that divers don’t care - we love the blue. It’s that most divers don’t know how fragile coral can be. With a careless kick, a diver can break coral that took decades to grow. With that problem as the foundation, I set out to design a solution:

What if we could design coral structures with dual purpose?

1) Teach divers to control their buoyancy, by having them swim through the “hobbit hole.”

2) Create a structure for new coral to adhere and grow

We brainstormed over beers, handed sketches to the dive shop welder, then submerged the structure ourselves. Last I checked, baby coral had begun growing on the structure, the first step in creating a fully grown artificial reef.


3 | yes, you can cry underwater

that time I almost died

I said it before and here it is again: diving isn’t pretty. Especially when a rip current is dragging you to open ocean faster than your fins can carry you. Diving is dangerous. You have to navigate complex equipment. But you also have to navigate a fickle, unpredictable ocean. It can turn on you in a second, and you’ll have about a second to make a split decision to save yourself - or a friend.

So there’s me, on the ocean floor. Clinging to a rock. Crying.

That’s where I learned: tears won’t help. But here’s what will: Intellect. Hustle. Heart.

I grabbed what I could find - a rock, banged like holy hell on my tank, and trusted my team would hear my call for help.

I made it to the surface. And I’d go back down again in a heartbeat.