Published: May 27th 2008May 27th 2008
Apart from my closing comments for the trip (the very last entry) , this will be the last blog entry of the trip in terms of describing our activities - and as a result will probably be one of the longest as we crammed in a LOT in just 2 weeks ! (Skip this section if you don't want to hear about our Diving courses and adventures!)....
OPEN WATER 4 day PADI COURSE:
Despite the Box Jelly Fish Saga in Borneo and our two 'interviews' with instructors in Bali - both nobs - we finally got to meet our '3rd time lucky' instructor called Mike based at 'Thresher Shark Divers' a 5 star padi accredited dive centre. He was a typical Yorkshireman - blunt, down to earth equipped with a good sense of humour.
DAY 1, DIVE 1
After a days rest we began day 1 boarding the company's boat and joined hundreds of others for the island's yearly Fiesta celebrating the 'Coming of the Rains' (Monsoon for them starts beginning of June).
It was a fluke that our arrival coincided with this celebration as it enabled us to be in the heart of the
Where all the island's boats sailed around the island celebrating - complete with music, cheering and lots of fireworks (or in other words - handheld rockets!)
action with the hundreds of other boats. Every outrigger was rammed with people singing drumming, cheering or letting off fireworks (hand help rockets - safe). Trumpets provided the out of tune soundtrack as we all circled the island leisurely in the hot sun.
(I got some of this filmed so its easier to see and get the vibe from that..)
At lunch we got suited and booted in our full length wet suits. We were introduced to Peter, a trainee Divemaster who joined us for the next few days and assisted us in getting our gear sorted. The next day we went by boat joining other divers to a tiny cove where we would complete our first Open Water assessment. The divers jumped off the boat before Mike then got the boat to drop us off at the beach where we entered the water from the shore - a nice friendly introduction to the intimidating Pacific.
The first of 4 open water tests only involved a basic exploration which in real terms just meant following Mike underwater, getting used to listening to my own bubbles and practice breathing underwater, the most unnatural of tasks! After 20 minutes
Luxury transport to our dive boat
(We had to leave from the otherside of the island due to high winds)
or so my breathing felt good - I aimed to get it like a meditative style breathing - deep and slow like the text books instruct (but, as newcomers to the world of diving find out), this is not as easy as you think, especially when, in the first few dives at least, it doesn't take much to get you panicking.
My buoyancy as I expected wasn't playing ball - thats what this first session was all about - getting the basics checked - at least things like my weight belt set up right. At times I felt like a weightless astronaut floating upside down in another water-based universe...other times I would just be sinking and end up doing a belly flop on the sandy bottom hoping I hadn't disturbed any micro-organisms! As we finned a little deeper the underwater world was opening up my senses as incredible colourful stretches of coral would come into view and cheeky inquisitive fish tried to stare me out through my mask. As we neared the end of the dive I noticed huge colourful star fish on the sea bottom - brilliant reds blues greens and orange coloured - about the size of
Our dive sites
We visited Gato, Monad Shoal (sharks), Manta point, Chocolate Island, Dona Marilyn Wreck, Bantigue Cove, Gilianeo
On this dive I was relieved not to get cramp, my biggest fear, nor to sink through lack of buoyancy control on a load of spiky sea urchins (if nothing else I saw them as God's natural way to ENSURE you keep that in control at your peril!)
DAY 2: The confined water sessions
As the wind really picked up on the island from a nearby Typhoon, we had to complete the next skills in a hotel pool which unfortunately for us meant practising and doing the tasks in near-zero visibility! I would have preferred the sea!
After being demonstrated the various skills, we then had to follow in turn. For 3 hours we got through all the skills some of which involved:
>Removing the mask from the face underwater and finning underwater for a minute - practising breathing in and out through the mouth, and psychologically 'shutting off' the nose canal
>Removing the regulator (air supply) and exchanging it underwater with your buddy's spare regulator (clearing it in between time of course or you inhale a load of pool water)!
>Clearing a flooded mask-letting in the water and breathing it out through
the nose which acts as a clearing device (not pleasant)
>Controlled emergency swimming ascent - finning underwater across the length of the pool breathing out continuously from one breath
>Removal of scuba gear (weight belt, tank, BCD, underwater and on surface)
Dive 2 and 3 after a couple days very windy weather:
We were in the boat again with the others. Our gear wasn't prepared so we had to do it this time. This still doesn't feel natural to me even now but at the time I felt even more green! Connecting tubes and connectors to valves and trying to remember all the absolute MUST checks such as the 'o' ring - a totally life dependant seal ensuring no water is on it amongst other checks... Luckily Peter was on hand to check and check again but as this was part of our training, B and me had to do another 'buddy check' before entering the sea, checking eachother's regulators, air supply, releases, weight belt, and other bits and bobs. This time the boat took us all to another quiet cove as other areas of the island were off limits due to the rough sea, even then
though the sea was choppy and didn't exactly look appealling to jump in. Although we practised this in the pool it somehow felt a bit more nerve racking this time as the ledge of the boat was a couple of metres higher than the sea and with all our tank, weight belt on etc, we knew that it would mean going truly under this time before re-surfacing.
I wobbled to the edge after B already jumped holding onto the overhead rope lines to steady myself. I felt sick from seasickness. I just wanted to get in the sea now - another minute on this boat and....
My fins were half over the edge as I peered down into the choppy sea and tried to compose myself. I inflated my BCD, checked my mask, held everything in place and stepped out with my right foot then SPLAT, I was under the water. Appearing on the surface breathing frantically I was relieved to see Mike and Ben just at my side. We completed a few surface skills next like cramp removal and the tired diver tow - Ben mistakingly selected the harder of the two ways of doing this for
Mike our instructor!
Complete with tattoos and plenty of bling!
when it was my turn, meaning I had to struggle with a large sea swell whilst pulling B by his tank valve backwards. He apologised after a good laugh! I'd like to see him try it! We completed the snorkel/regulator exchange task (remembering to clear each before inhaling or you get a mouthful of sea water) before huddling together oncemore on the surface.
A few seconds later and the final adjustments complete we signalled to go down to the eerie depths.
We followed the anchor line from the boat this time - another experience. With the choppy sea the boat yanked up the anchor line violently at times meaning we really had to cling on to avoid being chucked off. In the books they say anchor lines aren't ideal in these conditions but we had no choice in the matter.
Mike, Ben, Me then Peter descended in that order metre by metre. I ensured I was equalising every metre to avoid any discomfort in my ears. The 'squeeze' is very noticeable even at just a few metres so I tried to remember to do this as often as I could. We eventually got to the sandy bottom which
felt suddenly safe and welcoming. Maybe its knowing we're at the bottom and there's no more unknowns or deep blue staring at me in the face. Then there's the fish and typical coral life which adds a more normal and less intimidating sense to it all.
This time we had to practice the confined water skills in the open sea. This felt a little more nerve racking as its not just a case of being able to suddenly re-surface should you panic, as your several metres down and commited to STAYING DOWN, if you like it or not. The dreadded mask flood exercise reared its ugly head again. Pulling the top rim of the mask away from the face to let in water seemed the most bizarre and alien thing to inflict on myself. The coldness of the sea water entered and within seconds covered my eyes, nose and face. Then its a case of trying to stay calm and remember to breath. Hearing bubbles and other strange sounds, having my vision disabled momentarily, my nose mentally ordered not to inhale, and then my mask being removed totally from my head felt totally wrong, and unpleasant - but this
Me in a catsuit!
Looking a little worse for wear after a hairy dive!
is what the whole exercise is about - and unfortunately for divers it does happen as they dive too close to one another kicking it off their buddy's face. Within seconds I replaced my mask , inhaled, tilted my head back and blasted out the water using my nose and within seconds all the water is gone! Before I knew it the time had arrived to ascend. We re-grouped holding on to anchor and clawed our way up metre by metre... then stopped at the 5 metre point - pausing for 3 minutes. Although not compulsory for the depth of dive we did (only about 10 metres) its good practice! The 3 minutes allowed me time to reflect and let the relief emotions come out as I smiled to myself that we completed half of the course. Tilting my head back underwater, I could see the warmth and welcoming shine of the sun filtering through the shallows of the sea and lulling me to the surface. As we ascended the last few metres in total calm we surfaced towards a hectic choppy sea where we instantly swam to the boat and battled to remove our gear as the waves threw
us about like bits of broken cork. Luckily the ropes around the boat stopped us getting swept away in the current and the men onboard helped getting the gear up the ladder whilst we crawled out like knackered drowned rats.
Mike seemed pretty chuffed with the dive and how we got on. I was glad to be getting back to shore and off that boat which was stirring my sea sickness up big time. We boarded our motorbikes before the crew cruised us back to the otherside of the island where our base was.
Dive 3 ....
Little did I realise this would end up being one of the most scary challenging and exciting dives of the entire 2 weeks. The irony of course is that we are still trainees at this point in time, under strict instruction and supervision (remember that!), and yet, after we got to the dive site, other experienced divers couldn't even complete it due to the 'conditions' and 'current' , others barely got to 2 metres undersurface before having to abandon it due to their nerves, and yet there was us! having to not only go down to the murky depths in this
The morning after my karaoke sesh
Celebrating the end of exams tests and practical exercises I took myself off to the local Karaoke bar where I kidded myself into 80's stardom
I was still under the influence here..but an hour later left me recovering from the worst hangover of the trip!
current, awful visibility, beginning it by entering a wild choppy sea, but to complete several exercises at depth in order to get through our course!...
This is where trust & letting go totally comes into its own. It had to.
As previously before, we listened to Mike's every word in the pre dive briefing, as though our life depended on it, before getting our kit on and fully checked. We jumped - I resurfaced in a hectic flutter as usual hectically replacing my regulator with my snorkel to conserve air before the shouts came to 'Hold on to the anchor!", "hold on", "quick", "watch out for boat", "watch the boat"! , "this way" "this way"! amongst other commands.
Hardly feeling relaxed and mentally prepared after this most hectic of starts, I willed myself to relax and take deep breaths (this is compulsory underwater if you feel relaxed or not!).
So there we were in our usual order and after the final ok, pressed our deflator buttons (to let all the air out of our BCD's), breathed out and slowly sank into the water holding onto that anchor line as though I am hanging onto a cliff
with a vertical drop. Everything seemed terrifying and exhilerating all in one. We were now out in the open sea, a rough one at that and with other divers doing the same dive. We descended in a very strong current - so strong that our bodies were horizental underwater as though a gale force wind was blowing right across my body and only the grip of the hands is the thing stopping you from being swept away into Pacific oblivion. As we descended I saw the achor rope descend into a deep blue abyss with no bottom in sight - it felt almost too overwhelming to comprehend and all so unnatural. I was asking a hundred questions a minute - 'we arn't designed for this!' 'why are we here?!' 'what am i DOING?! ' but at the same time I was thrilled beyond comprehension. I kept equalising my ears as we descended metre by metre, it felt pretty deep by now. Tiny particles wizzed past my face at speed, and people's hair looked as through it was being blow dryed in one definite direction - this of course was me thinking about currents, and whether this was a sign of
it being strong or not (I was only guessing at the time).
Mike left the anchor line first and just finned off to the side, then Ben and then me after a momentary hesitation. I viewed that anchor line as my life line to sanity and a safe normality to provide a link to the surface - letting go felt like a step off a building a suicidal person makes. How was I to know the current wouldn't just take me away? I let go and there I was just suspended in mid-water. I deflated the last bit of air in my BCD and breathed out long and slow. Then I began to sink a little to where Mike and Ben were where we finned a few metres off the sea bed to a nice sandy area to complete more of our skills (and yes the inevitible mask flood). I was oblivious to the fact that we would be completing these at our near maximum permitted depth of 17.5 metres (I laughed very hard when I found this out later!)...! We were sheltered from the current as Mike took us to the side of a Coral Wall. It was
actually very sadate and felt like a different world to the hectic frantic and frightening shallows where we descended trying to defeat physics in all respects to get to our destination!
After the exercises were complete we could then explore the reef and all the amazing fish life the Philippines contained: Box Fish, Banner Fish, Anenome, Blue Sea stars, Lion Fish, Clown Fish and plenty of very pretty coral.
The serene dive had to end as we approached the anchor line to begin our ascent, and face the full force of the current in the shallower depths. We climbed slowly following Mike very carefully. We paused again at the 5 metre mark but this wasn't a pleasant wait as all what was around us was more endless murky blue and that ferocious current trying to separate us from the lifeline. We re-surfaced having to move away from the boat immediately as it was swaying and rocking in the swell of the sea. All so hectic, so rushed! I felt sick and when on the boat had to stare at the horizon for the rest of the journey.
It came apparant after the dive that not only a couple
He even accompanied us to the restaurant!
(here he is under the table while we're eating)
of divers deemed it too dodgy to dive, another Russian guy had a potentially fatal 'run-away' ascent where he mis-timed his ascent and got mild decompression sickness. We should ascend at no faster than 18 metres per minute, and he ascended at 12 metres in 30 seconds! resulting in him needing oxygen on the boat and a transfer to the decompression chamber on Cebu Island. Although he was alright in the end it was a stark reminder of the dangers and hazards of diving if its miscalculated...
On the sea bed my weight belt was loose for instance and was starting to come over my hips. I had rehearsed the procedure for its removal in the confined water sessions but somehow I was uneasy to attempt this at 17 metres underwater. Should I mess up I could have shot up like a balloon and even with an instructor to pull me down it may not have worked. I used my common sense (I thought I hadn't got any!) and asked Mike using 'shirrards-style hand gestures' to tighten it up. He finned over at once and pinned my legs down under his - I only realise now why he did
...with the obligatory pig.
that. He tightened it and all was ok. I'm glad I wasn't too up myself to try this on my own and mess up - look what happenned to the russian!
Since this unique dive our instructor told us himself that we wouldn't experience anything like that for many years to come... fellow experienced divers backed this up saying it was 'worst' dive they had been on too!
I felt proud that we had the guts to go down - and better still, complete our skills as total beginners in conditions which were so not for beginners! It all came down to trust in Mike's experience and knowing what he was doing, and what he was letting us in for. As time went on I believed he had trust in our guts and capabilities as we got better and better as each dive proved.
Dive 3 opened up our eyes - not only to the exhileration of diving, but to the deceptive ferocity of the sea under the surface.
After the freaky, steep descent of dive 3, dive 4 our last Open Water dive of the course, seemed a breeze. We stepped off the
by the end of the 2 weeks I was relieved to get away from their 3 am wake up calls!
boat and completed our surface swim exercise circling the boat 5 times to prove we could swim. Mike then got us to descend 6 metres down to complete our emergency swimming ascent (breathing out continuously to reach the surface (should your air run out). This was quite odd as practising this in a pool in Bali proved difficult at first - but in the sea and doing it from a depth actually helped as the lungs expand as you reach the surface - revealing more air than you think you had! clever eh!
A few minutes later we had to navigate a reciprocal heading (straight line and return) underwater. This was a piece of piss but the trick was looking where your'e going AND at the compass. Especially as coral, sea urchins and occasional rocky boulders would get in the way meaning you had to inhale a little and 'rise' above the obstacles using the lungs to fine-tune your buoyancy. Obviously with sea urchins you never get that close although we did with one of the exercises on another course! ...
So! after another exploration looking at nice fishies, that was the end of the course. We completed
the exam in Borneo, the quizzes over here (so Mike could see were weren't referred from some dodgy company) and all skills passed in the Open Sea.
>Learning A LOT about the body's physiological limits within diving
>Completing the challenging and more fun exercises - totally different to anthing else I've done!
>Seing another world! which made me want to see more and more...
>Seasickness on a rocky boat - assembling the gear without spewing!
>Wearing a tight weight belt when I had the travellers shi**S and hoping that Diocalm pill wouldn't wear off whilst underwater! (no am not kidding)
>The mask flood of course!
>A dry almost tightening thirsty throat underwater with drinking not an option!
>Strong currents on the anchor line - scary.
>An uneasy amount of sea urchins
>Surface exercise for the compass navigation - the waves pushed me around meaning my compass wasn't giving an acurate reading - and peter, he nearly allowed me to fin right into the boat propeller.
>Hearing strange noises from up above..
Its a miracle we completed this course. Box jelly fish hazards, illegal padi centres, weird interviews with instructors, stomach bugs, a fiesta on the island cancelling all boats for a couple of days, a Typhoon causing windy seas - was it ever meant to happen??!
of course it was!
Mike was excellent in all respects - very safe, competant and experienced - in fact he was a Master Instructor (an instructor who teachers other instructors and is the highest technical grade). He instilled lost confidence from our very bad start, and now made us feel we could take on more.
Which we did!
Advanced Open Water Course:
Although upon completion this would label us as 'Advanced' all it really is is an opportunity to go on a few adventure dives that has a bit more focus on certain skills.
The advanced course had 2 compulsory components: Navigation and Deep. The navigation dive required us to navigate a 30 metre square underwater using the compass. I was dreadding this exercise but when it came to it I was fine. Ben had his turn whilst Peter and me sat on the sea bed - we might as well have been at the cinema watching a film on marine life. Ben seemed to be ages and I started shivering. Even Peter started peering out into the deep blue with a manner which suggested he too was wondering 'what to do if,',, type scenario. Eventually 2 outlines appeared in the murky distance and with much relief it was Mike and Ben returning from the exercise. It turned out that Ben's square was about three times longer than it needed to be! haha - thanks to a minor misunderstanding (I won't say who!).
The 'deep dive' meant we could dive to 30 metres than the normal 18, potentially opening up a lot more things including bigger fish and more unusual marine life found in the deep. Malapascua is known for its Thresher Sharks. How could we come all the way here without at least trying to see them? We therefore had our 'Deep' dive at Monad Shoal - world famous dive site for viewing Threshers, who come up from the deep to the shoal to have themselves cleaned by fish usually early morning...
Before we could watch for sharks we were taken to 30 meters to complete an exercise to test for Nitrogen Nicosis - more of a hazard than an emergency, it effects divers in different ways but has similar symptoms to having a drop too much to drink! - e.g a disregard for safety, carelessness etc.. (I should be good at this)!...
We had to spell our name backwards on the boat first- I took about half a minute! it was hard work or was I just born with a tricky surname?! Ben was a lot quicker (well his name is a bit shorter!)... As I have often thought about me, things are usually upside down, back to front, fooked up in someway! this was no exception! Yes indeed, as I was taken to the sandy shelf to perform my task I was handed the slate and proceeded to spell my name effortlessly, backwards and at 30 metres underwater, completed in about 9 seconds. So, as the exercise (didn't prove !) in my case, I sped up by about 3 times, despite the circumstances! I was laughing to myself silently for the rest of the dive!
What did that prove then?! did I have nitrogen nicosis type symptoms on the surface from the hangover the day before?!?!
We then got to the viewing platform! I call it that as the other divers were there like statues, just watching and waiting all in an orderly line - like a front row of seats at a theatre. I found that amusing too. No sharks arrived but we were treated to a couple of large graceful devil rays which glided past in the not too far distance and some BIG fish.
Our selection of the other dives on the advanced course which we could choose from several were:
Peak Performance Buoyancy
The Boat and naturalist dives didn't involve any extra tasks except basic fish spotting. The dives require us to complete a knowledge review beforehand, but no tests. This is what made the course such a pleasure! All learning without the pressure of exams. The wreck dive was something else.
The Wreck in this case was a passenger liner - a big one at over 100 metres in length. The passenger liner sunk with all 100 onboard in the 1980's as it made a perilous crossing from Cebu to Manila. A typhoon bought it down and there it rests today as a natural grave and artficial reef. I was curious to see a Wreck - I still don't know why as I'm not into history but this heavy curiosity combined with my new interest of learning to dive made me excited and thrilled at the prospect of diving to one. As the option was there to do this as part of the advanced course, and to such an impressive wreck it felt wrong not to go.
We got there - a 2 hr trip out to sea in the middle of nowhere, north west of Malapascua. The sea was as calm as a lake but again, how deceptive this proved to be. The boat took about 1/2 an hour to anchor due to the strong current. Mike was happy to take us despite the known conditions, and we trusted him. As with dive 3, we stepped off the boat geared up and had to grab the rope line IMMEDIATELY due to the surface current. We then got together and descended with the other divers down the anchor line. Like before the force of nature reared its ugly head, and the depths of the blue sea revealed themselves fully. I hated this bit I admit. Even my excitment at the prospect of seeing this site was fast diminishing. Going deeper down I felt more and more nervous, then, Mike pointed out the murky outline of a colossal ship. To my disbelief there she was, lying on her side coated in plant life and moss looking incredibly eerie and forboding.
I wasn't comfortable - infact I didn't want to be there at all. I felt regretful at my decision, and even guilty at feeling excited but by now it was too late to think all this. I had to follow Mike where he led us and nogotiate the edges of the wreck - the metal structures, the sharp rugged shell that remained. He kept us close to the vessel as the current was once again unforgiving. We had to weave and manoevre around bends and tight corners and frames careful not to catch the edges and surrounds and looking up and around the whole time as the ship seemed to be everywhere and around us at times. Our buoyancy control was crucial here! I could see parts of the ship I could recognise - little port holes and the areas of the stern but so much of it was covered in 'stuff'. There were very few fish and combined with the very poor visibility made all this very eerie. The whole area felt spooky and I had an overwhelming sense that I shouldn't be there. Luckily despite us using Nitrox Air (which gives us more bottom time due to the blend of gases) we consumed this rather quicky - even Mike himself admitted he had too - again due to the conditions, so we ascended after only 30 minutes or so.
The current was very bad as we exposed ourselves getting back to the anchor line. Mike signalled to 'go for it!' as we approached the rope, I tried to grasp it as I sailed past but I couldn't reach it.. Divers already on the line leant a hand out to grab mine but I kept sailing past - the current was so so strong. A diver at the end of the line reached and our hands met. He grasped me tightly and pulled me up - it felt like the grip of life (999 Michael Burke stuff!) . With relief I was there with other divers but I couldn't see Ben or Mike. Within seconds I felt totally disorientated. Although I felt safe not being alone in the sea, I felt hopeless as I had no experience nor the full equipment to ascend up the anchor line independantly. I was still a trainee god dammit! I looked and looked and still couldn't see them. Then I started thinking about what to do if I never found them - and more crazy thoughts - even though surely separation shouldn't have even entered my head on a dive course! I turned my head and looked behind and amidst the hectic bubbles and noise of the sea I could just make out Ben's face behind his mask. Thank FooK!
Most of the dives provided other unpleasant 'moments': near misses with b - either me or him accidentally catching eachother's regulator nearly pulling it out of our mouths (hardly a buddy team thing to do!), or having buoyancy issues! especially on the PPB dive - a fin pivot on the sea floor where a metal peg was put in the sand and us required to pivot in such control that we had to touch it with the tip of our noses! A funny game but was difficult - for me at least who felt like a floating astronaut oncemore, my weighting still not right even now. The sea urchins were also a hazard - only centimetres away from where we are doing the exercise its certainly an incentive to keep your body under control!
Diving then! - Lots of challenging situations and an internal ongoing battle to keep calm, but the rewards of what we see down there and the knowledge that we are getting better and better all the time makes it a scary if addictive and buzzing new hobby! After more dives (people say about 20/30) the balance tips, where common beginner-anxieties subside, and the rewards creep up. I can believe that.
And finally! whilst completing all the dives for the advanced course we managed to do the Nitrox course as well! enabling us to now dive deeper and longer with a higher oxygen blend! This required some hefty reading and another exam as well as some tricky forumalas to get your head around which reminded me of the evil school days. In reality everyone just uses dive computers!
So, from being sweet diver nothings to completing 3 courses and 11 dives I feel we did pretty well! And thanks to Mike having faith in us, and being an excellent instructor, he exposed us to drift diving in currents, deep dives and other adventure dives - even the last dive showed us a white tip shark sleeping in a little cave. That was special.
Now I just want more despite the chills and the thrills.