As I threw myself backwards off the little boat rocking in the waves I closed my eyes and held the regulator firmly so that it wouldn’t fall out of the grasp of my teeth and drenched in salt water. Oh how I hate the taste of the ocean. I was the last one out of the boat and as I was falling over the edge, tank first, I was still wondering what I had agreed to.
I had just finished my PADI Discover Scuba Diving course in Alona Beach on Panglao Island in the Philippines. My friend Robin had enrolled in the PADI Open Water Diver course and although I wasn’t interested in the time or money required for the certification, learning to dive had been on my adventure to do list for quite some time. No better time to start than in the Philippines with one of your best and most encouraging friends.
After watching an hour-long introductory video about how diving works, the equipment involved, underwater communication signals and how air works in your body as you go up and down in water, it was time to get suited up.
A relatively painless, however, hilarious trip to the on-site gear closet had me tugging on the shorties for what seemed like forever, trying to get them to crawl even an extra inch up my thighs. After a not so graceful wiggle-dance, the wet suit was successfully in place above my knees. Luckily, they had sized me correctly and I only had to try on one wet suit and keep it on. I shoved my feet in my booties, sized my flippers and snorkel mask and then we headed to the nearby pool for our confined water training.
My instructor checked over my gear and helped me into it while my friend was in charge of checking and preparing her own equipment as part of her more in-depth open water certification. With my regulator clenched between my teeth almost as tightly as a dog clenches his bone, we were instructed to put our faces in the water and then submerge in the shallow end of the pool. We were then towed gently underwater to the deeper end of the pool, stopping every few feet to equalize by swallowing and/or blowing gently into a pinched nose.
Next up we got to practice inflating and deflating our BCD (buoyancy control device) to achieve neutral buoyancy. I must admit I didn’t do so great at this. I would definitely need more practice on this one before doing it on my own. We then practiced a few of the basic skills of diving, including clearing a mask that had started to fill with water, how to find our regulator if it were to become dislodged from our mouth, how to clear it to start breathing again and sharing our air if our buddy were to run out.
Although only one meter under water and in a pool, when I went from having the regulator in my mouth as my air source, to letting it float away, I panicked slightly. I was able to successfully wrap my arm backwards to find the regulator, but remembering all of the other steps was a struggle for me. I immediately held my breath instead of releasing air which is the cardinal rule for diving – ALWAYS breathe. If you are releasing air you are breathing, because you don’t want the air in your lungs to expand as you rise. I was fine up until the point that I had the regulator in hand and close to inserting it into my mouth. My instructor reminded me to continue breathing and letting bubbles escape. As I inserted the regulator back into my mouth I realized that I didn’t have enough air left in my lungs to clear it by blowing into it. Although we had been taught what to do, I had a moment (of a few) of panic when I wasn’t sure what to do. I remembered to use the release button on the regulator to clear it, but just as I gently pressed it I realized that I wasn’t blocking the opening with my tongue and everything was going to be pushed into my mouth. Hence, a stronger panic, as I felt like I was running out of air and was scared if I breathed through the regulator that I was going to take in water.
When my instructor signalled to ask if I was ok, my panic rose a bit more as I couldn’t remember the signs immediately. Finally, (likely only 2 seconds later), I signalled that I wasn’t really ok. I then pressed the release on the regulator a second time, remembering to place my tongue to block it from pushing back into my mouth. I then inhaled lightly and realized air was flowing just fine, so I took a deeper breath. We stayed there for a moment until I was able to give the ok sign. It took me a minute for my heart to drop back out of my throat. It was at that moment, despite being ok, that I really wasn’t sure if I could do this in the big open ocean.
We swam a couple of circles around the small pool practicing our neutral buoyancy and then started our ascent to the shallow end. I just couldn’t seem to get the whole neutralization thing quite right. At the bottom of the pool I would sink too far and scrape my knees. At the top of the pool I seemed to lose my balance easily and felt like I was being pushed forward all the time. When I finally took my regulator out of my mouth and was standing on my own two feet in the shallow end, I choked back tears and spit out, “I’m not sure I can do this.”
Our instructor was great, making sure that he talked me through what happened and then reassuring me that I wouldn’t have to do any of those skills on the dive, all I would need to do is breathe and use my flippers; he would take care of my buoyancy and guiding me. Robin, on the other hand, had to do a bit more work and testing while in open water for her course.
As we moved from the weightlessness of the pool to full on gravity it gave me a new appreciation for the weight of all of the gear on my back. I carry a lot of heavy camera gear in my backpack regularly and it didn’t even compare! We went directly from the pool to the small boat, handed off our gear to be loaded and hopped over the edge. I guess it was probably a good thing that I didn’t have time to sit and think too much about it. I was really unsure if I wanted to do the open water dive, but none-the-less I was going through the motions of getting on the boat. I would have at least a few more minutes to decide.
The rocky boat ride lasted only about five minutes to get to Garden Eel Reef. I was super glad I had remembered my Transderm patch the night before as it was perfect conditions for me to get horribly sea-sick. Choppy swells and a boat sitting without movement … my arch nemesis! Before I had time to turn green, we were plunging backwards over the edge into the waves with our vests inflated and regulators in our mouths. I was still nervous and unsure if I could do this.
The plan was to follow a mooring line down a few meters, but for whatever reason, I wasn’t able to release enough air from my BCD to start sinking. After a minute, the instructor assisted and I started going down, all of us stopping to equalize every few feet.
What an odd sensation when your head starts to feel heavier than normal and you can feel the pressure in your ears. It’s similar to descending in a plane, but somehow was much more intense for me. In my mind I revisited childhood memories of diving for pucks in the deep end of the Florenceville swimming pool where I was a life guard for several summers. I could vaguely recall the same pressure, but was only ever going down for a few seconds and then straight back up to the surface. This time would be very different as I would be staying under to explore the underwater world!
At the end of the mooring line, our instructor led us to a coral shelf that was full of corals and fish. We glided horizontally through the smooth water despite the choppy seas only a few meters above us. We then came to the edge of the coral where, all of a sudden, the shelf abruptly dropped off and there was nothing in front of us but the deep, dark, beautiful unknown beckoning us.
Despite my earlier panic in the pool, I was breathing normally and curiosity was slowly winning over my fear. The slow, methodical sound of my breathing was unusually calming as we glided through the open ocean toward a world that too few people see.
Our instructor slowly led us deeper and deeper with the coral shelf only a couple of feet to my left. Although I would never reach out and touch it, it was easily within arms reach. In fact, a couple of times I got a little too close and I was scared I was going to touch it by accident. Not sure if I was more concerned about damaging the environment or the environment biting me! Just as I was too close for comfort, the instructor who was guiding us from above, steered us slightly away and deeper again.
Although I was slightly nervous throughout the dive, I was able to relax enough to enjoy the beauty, knowing that the instructor was controlling my depth and direction. With this peace of mind, all I had to do was clear my mask occasionally and breathe normally. Luckily I enjoy deep yoga breathing and know that it calms me, so I was a conservative air user.
At 12 meters below the surface, it is amazing in itself just to be able to breathe freely. It is amazing that air can be bottled for consumption under water. It tickles your brain in a totally new way as you explore a whole new world below the surface.
Through the various depths, we saw schools of bright blue fish, beautiful black ones, the occasional bright yellow one and a school of Angel fish. Along the coral shelf there were blue starfish clinging to the side and small clown fish poking their heads in and out of sea grass. The size and textures of the different types of coral were a delight in the spotty sun that was reaching through the water. The plants and grasses were waving with the motion of the water and fish were dancing in the current.
We stayed at a depth of 12 meters for a short period of time before turning the dive and gradually making our ascent back to the top passing new schools of fish, a small grey eel wiggling vertically in the water, and hundreds more small, colorful fish.
At about three meters from the surface, we stopped for a non-mandatory rest and equalization period. Robin was tested on a couple of skills and then we self-inflated our BCDs until our heads popped above water and we were again bobbing in the swells waiting for our boat to draw near.
We were underwater for approximately one hour. Somehow it felt like time stopped while we were there. I had no concept of time, nor any need to be concerned with it. That was a liberating feeling in itself. The only ‘time limit’ we had was the amount of oxygen in each of our tanks.
I’m still contemplating my feelings on the entire experience. It was nothing short of amazing to be able to breathe underwater. Despite there being three of us under water, nearly attached to each other, somehow I got lost in my own little underwater world, amazed at the beauty and color that exists where our eyes rarely see. And somehow, I still harbour an uneasy fear from my panic situation in the pool. I’m excited that I tried it, yet, somewhere inside me, I’m not sure if it is something I want to pursue further. I feel like I need to give it more than one chance, yet, I also feel like I’ll have to do some self-convincing to jump over the boat’s edge into the unknown. In the end, I hope that my curiosity will win over my fear. After all, I am in the Philippines and who knows when I will be back. Some of the best diving in the world can be done right here, it would be a shame to miss it, wouldn’t it?