Wednesday, August 23, 2017

August 21 – Diving in the Philippines

Ana made the observation today that we are currently staying closer to an ocean beach than we ever have before. From the patio door it is 14 steps to the sand and another 23 steps to the water’s edge (at high tide). We are paying more for this hotel than any other on the trip, but at only $70 per night, it is well worth the price. I have been getting up at around 5:45 am every morning and going outside for a short walk and then usually some writing - sitting on a chair on the beach, looking up every once in a while to watch the waves, wiping the occasional ant off my chair, enjoying the salty smell of the ocean breeze, and enjoying the beautiful temperature. This is certainly the Philippines we had been hoping to find, and I am sure I will be reliving these moments on cold Monday mornings in February, when I am behind my work desk, looking at project reports and budget spreadsheets instead of rolling waves.

This morning I had a solo breakfast at a French bakery up the way, as I had to be at the dive shop for 7:45 am, so I snuck out of the room early and left the others sleeping. The breakfast was good, mainly because the toast was made from freshly baked bread, and while I was there the Divemaster from the dive shopped hustled in, picked up a couple of croissants, and ran back out. That was my queue to leave.

The Bohol Divers Club was right next to our hotel, and although they usually load up the divers in boats right in front of the shop, it was still windy and choppy today so instead we were all loaded into a jeepney and taken to a nearby beach on the other side of the island where it was calmer. We were ferried out in a smaller boat to the main dive boat which was one of the large Filipino outrigger canoes. These seem to be the workhorses of the islands and you see them everywhere. They are basically a single hull boat with one short mast towards the bow and one at the stern, between which is strung a protective sun canopy. Also, these act as supports for the huge bamboo outriggers that extend nearly the entire length of the boat on both sides, providing incredible stability, and lend the boats more than a passing resemblance to a Klingon ship. It is interesting to note that every place we have been to on this trip has their own, localized boat design, obviously built for the particular sea conditions there, but it is remarkable how completely different they are from place to place.

The dive site was located at Balicasag Island, which was a 30 minute boat ride in normal conditions, but took us much longer because of the heavy winds and huge waves – some of which looked to be in the three to four metre range, which provided for a good soaking of all the passengers as we crashed into the troughs of the big ones and sea water sprayed the deck. I was sitting next to a young Spanish couple from Madrid, and they were quite surprised when I started speaking Spanish to them. The Spain accent is much different than that of the other countries in Latin America (they lisp some of their “s” sounds) and it takes a while to tune your ear to it, but I did manage to pick up most of what they were saying. At times like this I am reminded how valuable it is to have a second (or preferably third, or fourth, or fifth) language to be able to communicate with people in their own tongue. I really must work more on the Portuguese, and it shouldn’t be hard for me to find a teacher, considering I have a native Portuguese speaker sleeping in my bed.

I was reminded today of how much I love diving, and how little of it I have done in recent years. I did the majority of my dives in the initial years after I received my SSI (Scuba Schools International) diving license in 1997 in Karachi, Pakistan, racking up something like 60 or 70 dives (somewhere along the way I lost my log book so I’ve honestly lost count). Since returning to Canada I have done very little diving, even though there are plenty of opportunities for fresh water diving in many places – especially the Great Lakes. All of my dives in the past ten years have been during vacations in the Caribbean or in the Azores.

Here is how a dive works. I boarded the dive boat and found the crate labelled with my name and containing my dive gear, which I had selected back in the dive shop when I first booked the dive. I made sure everything was there – a wetsuit, boots, fins, mask and weight belt holding 4 kilos of weights. Once we arrived at the dive site the owner of the dive shop split us into four groups, and each group was assigned a Divemaster. This is the guy who has had extensive training and is licensed to lead teams of divers. I was with three other divers and our Divemaster gave us the dive briefing, in which he explained how deep we would go (20 metres), what the terrain would be like (wall dive), what to watch for (frog fish, turtles, eels) and what to be wary of (touching coral, trigger fish that will chase you if you get near their nests), how long the dive would last (50 minutes) and what hand signals to use to indicate air level, when to descend/ascend, and other safety signals. He also paired us in into groups of two – called the buddy system, and it is your responsibility to ensure that your buddy’s equipment is all functioning and properly set up. Once underwater, your buddy is your responsibility, so if he has any trouble with his air supply or gear, you have to be there to help, and he does the same for you.

With the dive briefing taken care of, I spit into the lenses of my mask and rubbed it around, which prevents the lenses from fogging once underwater. Before we had arrived, the dive shop staff had assembled all the tanks, BCD’s (buoyance compensator device – the vest you wear underwater), and octopuses (a four branch device that connects to the tank and has two regulators to breathe from, an inflator for the vest, and a depth and tank pressure gauge) and they were ready to go. One of the helpers on the boat lifted up my vest and helped me to put it on. The whole contraption is very heavy, so once you are wearing it you need to move slow and steady so you don’t fall over.

I walked to the edge of the boat where there was a seat, and sat down to put on my fins and mask. I then stood up and walked to the platform over the water, filled my BCD with air, put the regulator in my mouth, put my left hand on my weight belt, put my right hand over my mask and regulator to hold them in place, and then took a giant step forward and plunged into the water. Since the BCD was full of air I popped right up to the surface, where I then waited for the rest of the group. Once everybody was in the water, the Divemaster signals to go down, and I held the inflator above my head and pressed the button to release air from the BCD, and then slowly started to sink. This is an exciting part of the dive as you slowly fall, weightlessly, down into the sea, watching around you and, in this case, seeing the bottom getting closer and closer. As you sink, you need to plug your nose and then blow from your nose, which is called “equalizing” and prevents your eardrums from blowing up from the underwater pressure. The equalization process basically pumps air in behind your eardrum, and increases the pressure there to match the outside water pressure, which becomes greater the deeper you go, so you need to keep equalizing every couple of metres until you get to your dive depth.

As I approached the bottom I added a few puffs of air into the BCD until I was neutrally buoyant, meaning my body was no longer going up or down. This is something you need to continually adjust as your depth changes, and is very important to master if you want to be a good diver. Once neutrally buoyant, it is like floating weightless in space, and now you can go upside down, face straight up towards the surface, do somersaults, swim sideways – whatever you like. Today’s dive was called a wall dive, and this is where there is a sheer drop-off on the ocean bottom which leads to a deeper plateau. The deeper plateau here was only about another 15 metres down, but when I used to dive in the Bahamas, some wall dives dropped down more than 6 kilometres, so when you looked down there was nothing but blackness, and it was more than a little scary.

During the dive the Divemaster led the way and pointed out objects of interest. He has probably dove this spot a hundred times, so knows where to look. Along the way he showed us moray eels, frog fish, ribbon eels, clown fish clowning around in sea anemones, and we even came across a few turtles! I was close enough to reach out and touch one of them, but I restrained myself, and instead just looked into its eyes and admired such a sleek, beautiful animal.

The Divemaster regularly checked to see if everything was okay, which I signaled back with the OK sign – done by making a circle with your thumb and forefinger with the other three fingers extended. When it was getting close to the end of the dive the Divemaster signaled for us to ascend to five metres where we did a three minute safety stop. When diving you cannot ascend too fast, otherwise the nitrogen in your blood can bubble and cause major complications (called “the bends”), so to be extra safe you do this safety stop.

I popped up to the surface, removed my mask and cleared my nose, which is a rather disgusting part of the dive routine. For some reason, breathing dry, compressed air through your mouth only for nearly an hour causes a huge accumulation of mucus in your nasal passages. Once everybody was up, the dive boat spotted us and slowly drove over to pick us up, as we had traveled quite a distance from our original starting point.

We got back on the boat, removed our gear and took a break, eating some fruit and crackers and drinking water. We went for a second dive about an hour later, and it too was excellent and at one point we saw five turtles all together, having some sort of underwater tea party, or perhaps they were mating – it was hard to tell.

The sea conditions on the return trip were very rough, but since we were traveling with the waves, it was a much more comfortable ride. We arrived back to the dive shop at 3 pm, nearly two hours later than expected, and the gang was waiting for me with noodle bowls for lunch. We had been scheduled to do our fishing trip at 1:30, but since the diving went late, the boy agreed to move it once again to the following day. The kids, Ana and I exchanged stories on the events of the day - I told them all about the dive and they reported back on a very relaxing day, just walking up and down the beach, swimming in the pool, reading, and chilling out.

They had spent some time watching the pack of young kids that we’d seen cruising up and down the beach every day. We had started calling them “beach urchins” which I guess was the Filipino version of The Rascals. There were usually four of five of them, possibly siblings or maybe cousins, and we assumed they must live very close to the beach. Their hair was tangled, some of them were perpetually naked, and one of the girls wore only a giant t-shirt, ten sizes too large, and unimaginably filthy. Watching them move around was a lesson in randomness. One moment they were digging around in the sand. The next moment they were seeing who could climb the highest on a coconut tree. Then they would be running back and forth on the beach, until one of them found something interesting, and they would all gather around to look at it. Then they would jump into our hotel pool for a rebellious swim, quick to exit before any staff from the hotel could catch them.

Rivaling the gang of beach urchins was a gang of beach dogs that roamed around from here to there, spending all day on and around the beach. Sometimes they would fight each other, sometimes they went for an ocean swim and sometimes they drank out of the pool. They did some mating (but that usually turned into a fight), but usually they were snoozing in the sand, and they never bothered any people. These two groups were almost like rival gangs in Alona Beach. I wonder if they ever met on the beach for a midnight rumble?

We went for dinner at Gina’s place, right beside our hotel, and by 9:30 pm we were back in the hotel. Only one day left…

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