The Philippines is a diver’s paradise; marine life here is as diverse as it is anywhere in the world and some of WWII’s largest navy battles have left behind incredible wreck diving. Since arriving here, I suspected I would find myself diving. This was despite convincing myself long ago that, if I had one fear, it was small underwater spaces; likely brought on by summers spent swimming around and under lobster boats, or climbing amongst and diving off automobile sized boulders at Barrios Beach.
Today though, possibly turned into probably when I accepted a colleagues offer to join him In Puerto Galera – one of the best places in the country to get a diving license. As the week passes I begin questioning the wisdom of my decision; I am less worried about something substantial happening and more worried that I will have a panic attack and force myself to abort. This nervousness is not a totally foreign feeling. I felt something similar two weeks ago while planning my first trip out of Manila; a feeling that a certain amount of unknown and perhaps undesirable was possible.
The weekend is now here though; at 8:30 in the morning I am walking down the pier to my waiting Bangka (A Filipino’s take on a boat – for the most part, a large canoe that is angled on the bottom instead of rounded, but has bamboo outriggers – the effectiveness of the outriggers I have questioned since hearing the statistics on ferry deaths in the Philippines).
Decked out in scuba gear on the way to the dive site with my German instructor and two shirtless, shoeless Filipino boat hands I find this all very James Bond. (Sean Connery of course). Learning I will actually enter the water via a backwards flip I decide perhaps Navy Seal is more appropriate than Bond.
It has taken some work to get here: a 5 hour drive from Manila, a study session from 2 until 4 in the morning after watching a world cup game at a bar in town, and a morning training in the pool. There were also some costs, financial as well as the foregone weekend of pool reading. The idea though is exciting, and I suppose this is another parallel of travel: any nervousness is complimented by excitement.
Putting myself at the mercy of fate and my own capacity to remain composed, I insert my breathing regulator and fall backwards into the water. Spinning through the water loaded with weights, wet suits, air lines and a tank, my reaction is to panic, ignore my instructor’s advice, spit out my regulator and thrust myself to the surface. I do what I have practiced though and gasp into the respirator. My panic stricken lungs are filled with cold dry oxygen.
I can breathe.
I finish my barrel roll. and then. Down.
Descending the 30 feet to the bottom another sentiment common to travel strikes me: wow….
Many things stand behind this wow – being weightless, seeing fish that previously only existed in Disney movies or National Geographic Magazines, watching a Scuttle fish (like an octopus) jet by, or having a fish as large as a dinner plate, colored bright white, yellow, and blue steal a banana out of my hand that I am feeding to a school of fifty fish.
Being in this underwater Avatar like world, I recognize that not everyone will get to experience a place like this which is totally foreign to everything they’ve experienced in life. Not unlike the feeling one would get when travelling in a region on the other side of the world from their home.
Underwater I begin reciting the steps that I vaguely recall reading the night before.
Slow my breathe
Stop flailing my arms.
Keep away from the fire coral.
Do not rise too fast or your lungs will burst.
Pop your ears to prevent a pressure buildup in your sinus.
This overwhelming necessity to use all my mental resources to complete the task is like that felt when trying to navigate through a new, busy town to find a bus that leaves in under an hour, for example like I did in Baguio a few weeks back….
Check Guidebook – but hide it so no one notices how much of a tourist you are.
Check Cell Phone.
Look over shoulder.
Ask for directions.
Turn down offer to buy something.
Don’t drink the water.
And this is travel at the best of times; things easily become worse when someone hassles you, or when it’s getting dark and you know the last bus leaves town in a matter of minutes.
And as I think of things getting out of hand, I’m whipped up in a current. Now I have to fight this horizontal pull on top of avoiding the coral below and the lung bursting potential above. My breath accelerates. As I take in air too quickly I begin to rise so I spit out my lungs and hold my breath only to recall that holding my breath is life threatening here. Something I normally take for granted I have to give all my concentration to completing. And my damn instructor looks so calm. I try to just float like him but find myself either rising up or falling to the sea floor.
And then, as quick as it starts the current stops. I’m weightless again. Like travel, like life, like mark twain said, of all the horrible things I’ve experienced in my life, most never actually happened. I’ve stopped hyperventilating. Scuba diving like travel, is a bit of hard work and discomfort, it is a bit intimidating, it is exciting, it gets out of control, but it is rewarding, it is eye opening, and if you stay calm and be careful things will be spectacular.