Diving the Philippines

Arriving in Cebu I catch the bus to Maya where my lodging awaits at Skip’s Beach Resort.Resting The conductor assures me that he knows where it is and will tell me when to get off, but you still can’t help but worry when we’ve been hurtling through the countryside for three hours and he still hasn’t told me anything. I don’t really dare to get off at any of the places we stop for leg stretchers either since it would just be too easy to be left by the road in the middle of the night. One of the passengers has some equipment with him that I finally recognize as Arnis gear. I ask him about it and suddenly he is very talkative. He brags about training some of the Arnis Filipino national team which is a couple of kids on the seat next to him. He offers to come out to the island later to give me a couple of lessons and I get his number. It would be really fun if I have time later!

Finally at 22:30 I arrive, fortunately it’s the right place as well! They have a nice room for me and some really good food. In the morning I try to get going as soon as possible but there is something of a rainstorm going on. The owner gives me a ride to the bus stop and even makes sure that I get on the bus okay, what a darling!Mandarin fish mating In Maya port there is a shack where you wait for the boat to Malapascua, but since I seem to be the only one waiting for it and it won’t leave until there are sufficiently many passengers I finally take the locals up on the offer to charter a boat for the ride over (for 1500 php).

It doesn’t rain as badly anymore and to get in the right mood on the way over I listen to Rammstein – Haifisch on repeat. The lyrics to that song is really funny; it is about the shark that lives in the sea and he gets lonely and cries, but since he is under water noone can tell that he is crying. His tears are the reason why the sea is salty. Thresher Shark Divers (TSD) turns out to be something of a little Britain, almost all the staff and many of the guests are brits and I highly enjoy reverting to the Queen’s English.

Accommodation is arranged, I settle for the Bed’n Bucket right behind the dive shop (well that is a rather accurate description, it contains a bed, shelves and a toilet that you flush with said bucket).Dramatic nudiebranch I’ve signed up for the Nitrox course but before all that starts I tag along for the two remaining dives this day. TSD makes four dives a day and you can sign up for any or all of them. The first one is always a shark dive in the early morning, and when I say morning I mean it! We set out at 5 am every day, which means that you have to get up at 4:30 the latest so that you have time to get your gear in order and analyze your air if you’re diving Nitrox. The second is usually around 9:30 or 10, the third at 2 pm and a fourth, night dive at around 5:30 pm. That makes them evenly distributed over the day so that you have time to get your Nitrogen load under control between dives.

On average I manage three dives a day. For some reason that I haven’t quite figured out, diving is really exhausting! The Nitrox course isn’t very hard, and when we’re done I’m treated to the celebratory Sharkbite shot by my instructor Nathan.Blue ringed octopus Detailing all my diving would be rather boring, but a few ones stood out:

Chocolate Island Muck Dive – This is a rather shallow site with lots of small things to look at, since it’s shallow it also means that the light is really good. My divemaster Max warned me prior to jumping in that there was dynamite fishing in the area so I shouldn’t be surprised at any loud noises under water. It’s hard to be prepared for the really loud KABLOOEY! that comes out of nowhere though and I almost soiled myself before remembering that Max said that it wouldn’t be close even if it was really loud… The shallowness also means that you get a lot of bottom time and can even make a swimming safety stop towards the end, very nice!

Gato Island South Wall – We make a day trip here with Chris, one of the tech divers (the guys that go really deep), and it’s a really great site. Celebrating my 50th dive with a extremely enjoyable 71 minute dive where we see cornet fish, scorpion fish, cuttlefish, a school of squid, sea snakes, lots of nudibranches, open mouth mackerels and lots of other stuff I’ve forgotten.Nudiebranch The site itself has a lot of levels so that you can get great bottom time by starting deep and gradually go up the next level as the dive progresses. There are also lots and lots of beautiful soft corals and big hunks of rock with interesting stuff under and on them. The only thing we missed out on were the White Tipped Reef Sharks, but we got to see those as well at a later dive. Chris by the way, must be the most economical diver I’ve ever seen in the water! The guy hardly moves at all and still gets where he wants to go. Very impressive to watch!

Calanggaman Island day trip – This spot features some really great wall diving and a shallow lagoon with plentiful corals and fish. Wall diving is fun, especially that first moment when you go over the edge and just allow yourself to “fall” down. It’s an awesome feeling and probably as close to as I’ll ever get to BASE jumping. We do a lunch stop on Calanggaman Island itself and that place is just a picture postcard with perfect sand, a few palm trees and turquoise water. Another reason this trip was awesome is that I got to meet Jen, a really fun Canadian girl, working as a school teacher in China in some podunk town I’ve forgotten the name of.Dive boat in sunset She’s a grade A geek just like I am so we find lots to talk about during all that time we aren’t in the water.

Kimud Shoal Hammerhead hunt – Melissa assured me that she’d been sleeping with her fists on her temples (the dive sign for Hammerhead) all night before we left for Kimud Shoal where Hammerheads gather in large schools. It’s the usual early morning dive but the site is rather special, it’s a “sunken island”, but to see Hammerheads we only descend over the island and then immediately head out into the blue outside. This is veeery unsettling at first… There is nothing else but you, your dive buddies and the deep blue ocean around. You have no point of reference other than your dive computer to tell you your depth, so you need to watch that carefully.Crabby For the next 40 minutes we do nothing but swim around at 25 meters seeing nothing but jellyfish (and getting stung every now and then). After a while it becomes very Zen-like and I’m able to relax a bit. It’s still a very strange feeling though, but I would certainly try another blue dive some day.

Deep rock is another dive site that’s really nice, both times I dived them we were supposed to go to other sites but had to switch because of heavy current. On one side of it there’s a 3-4 m high wall with lots of interesting critters and coral, here I saw a juvenile sweetlips for instance dancing around. If you go in the other direction there is more of a coral hill of sorts with lots and lots of life and very good light as well so it’s excellent for photography. That dive was also memorable for the chaotic current and clearly visible thermocline.

The deep dive course was a real highlight as well. I had initially wanted to do the Rescue Diver course, but decided against it since it would cut into my fun diving too much. Nathan then suggested that I do the Deep Diver course instead and he made a really good pitch for it as well as is the tech diver of TSD and really passionate about going deep.Pink shrimpy As an added bonus I would be spending some more one-on-one time with Nathan which sounded great as well!

Due to scheduling difficulties however, Nathan is unable to do the course with me after all. A bit of a bummer if it weren’t for the fact that I get to do it with his girlfriend Melissa instead! (No not like that, the course! Get your mind out of the gutter! =P) Melissa is the token American of TSD and I like her a lot already, so things couldn’t have gone better!

Mel, as she’s called, turns out to be my shark amulet. All the deep dives we do are as the morning shark dives. The first one is at Shark Point, the newly discovered site. Mel has brought a bag of chips (sorry _crisps_, they’re all brits after all…), a water bottle and an egg to show what happens with different objects under high pressure. The crisps turns almost flat, the water bottle is all squished and the egg, when gently cracked at 30 meters retains the white around the yolk, pretty neat! The rest of the dive is a fun dive and we swim along a wall at ~25 m and coming back to where we started, a Thresher Shark comes swimming out over the edge above us, just for us!Peacock Mantis Shrimp My heart is pounding so hard I need to check my air. On the other shark dives so far, we’ve only managed to see shades in the distance, this time it was only like 5-6 meters away and above us, so the contrast was perfect and you could make out every little detail. It couldn’t have been better!

The second deep dive is when we go to 40 m, this time it’s on the old site, Monad Shoal, and we drop over the wall and slowly make our way down to a little ledge to kneel on. My dive computer is showing that I have no more than 3 minutes of no-decompression time left at this depth. Her computer doesn’t agree with mine, but my Suunto is known for being a bit conservative with the limits and besides, I’ve done a lot more diving than her these last week. In a situation like this you always go with the more conservative computer and that’s why we ascend up to 35 m to do a timed test to see how much Nitrogen narcosis I have. I complete the test in 41 s compared to 32 s on the surface, not bad!

Ascending up over the edge of the wall again, we run right into another shark! Once again it’s only Mel and me around which makes it feel really special. The shark takes its time to pick up the cleaner fish before swimming off into the blue. A double high five celebrates the encounter!

Wrestling crabsOn our last deep dive there are no skills left to do so it’s purely a fun dive really. Right after we’ve descended we run into yet another beautiful Thresher. It’s like they’re made out of liquid steel! After that one we don’t see much else until Mel starts waving frantically and pointing out into the blue. It takes a long while before I see anything, but at last I see the wings and horns of a Devil or Manta Ray (hard to tell which it was, the only difference is the size). What a way to end the course (and my stay at Malapascua for that matter, this was my last dive)!

That’s it for the diving part of my stay, but there were also the evenings (I generally skipped the night dive, three was enough) where I hung out in the bar talking to Nathan and Melissa, the bar staff who I became really friendly with and also the Canadians Jen, Dana and Max. The bar staff had me set up with one of the server girls, Venus, and constantly teased her with having a crush on me. Very funny as a running gag! I also went and sung some Karaoke with the bar staff one night, a lot of fun and what made it even funnier was that we all were head and shoulder above all the other people there.

Last evening was a bit special; me, Max, Dana and Jen went over to another bar on the island: Maldito’s – famous for the Rum and Coke that gets cheaper if you order a double (and cheaper still if you order a triple!). There Dana talks about how growing up a misfit was in Newfoundland, the discussion soon derails into a lot of below the belt humor. At some point Dana decides that she really likes my t-shirt and proceeds to literally steal it off my back! That girl is freakishly strong! In the end I manage to trade it for one of the whittled wooden sharks that the locals sell though. Riza and Marisa from the bar also join us after a while and since it’s both mine and Max’s last night on the island, noone really wants to go home. In the end we’re thrown out by the staff at Maldito’s who are keen on closing up.

Without question this has been the best diving trip I’ve made to date, but there also isn’t much competition I guess. I ended up amassing 22 dives over seven days and two specialty certifications and it all cost me 70 000 php including food and drink, excluding lodging (1600 php for the entire stay) and getting to and from the island. That also included renting all the equipment and paying extra for 15 l tanks on most dives. Roughly half of the dives where on Nitrox as well, which cost a bit more. Thresher Shark Divers is a really well-run dive shop with very competent and friendly staff, great food and nice facilities. I heartily recommend it. I am going to miss Melissa, Nathan, Max, Dana, Riza, Cecil, JT, Marisa and Venus a lot. But most of all I will miss Jen, who I got to hang out with far too little.

(Most pictures in this post is courtesy of Andres Bradshaw (adbradshaw8@gmail.com) who was kind enough to share his pictures as my camera decided to die on me)

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