Saturday, December 17, 2011

Taking the First Dive (Anilao Batangas, Philippines

Published by Oklahoma City's The Tribune in my TravelOkcity column (December 2010).

The days are beginning to get colder and shorter, making me long for days under the sun and the feel of the warm tropical water on my skin.  To briefly escape the snow flurries and the blustery wind, I’d like to take you with me on a little diving expedition in the Philippines where the water is friendly and as blue as the wide open sky. 

                               One of the first wonders I saw was a clown fish welcoming me to its world.                                          Photo by my gorgeous ninang and dive instructor Susana May.

An archipelago of 7,107 islands covering a land area of 115,739 square miles and a coastline twice as long as the United States, the Philippines is an ideal place to explore sea life with 40, 15,444 square miles of coral reefs teeming with underwater creatures, a universe so different from ours.

To my dearly departed friend Zen Robleza (in striped shirt) who started this adventure with me.

If the cold has not frozen your sense of adventure yet, take off your mittens for  a moment, slather on some sun block, and defrost with me as I take you on my first diving adventure...

Celebrating after my check out dive aboard the Strega de Mare.

Taking the First Dive

The sun was blissfully burning my cheeks as Strega de Mare, the white witch of the sea, sped past the island of Sombrero. We were a few meters away from Beatrice, our first dive spot in Anilao. 

Getting suited up.

Located 140 km south of Manila, Anilao Batangas is known as one of the best dive sites in the country. It does not possess the powdery white sands and the lush resorts of other beaches in the Philippines, but its treasures can be found down below,  in the coral slopes and the shallow gardens with about 34 dive sites offering countless wonders.  I couldn’t get over the fact that in a few minutes, this secret world would be opened to me.  As the white washed boat slowed to a stop, I got ready for my first dive.

Resurfacing after the plunge.

All geared up, I jammed the regulator in my mouth and bit on the rubber fitting awkwardly. My first whiff of air from the mouthpiece sounded hallow. It was unnatural. Why was I breathing air from a 5.6 liter cylinder tank when I could breathe the salty air freely without this intrusive contraption in my mouth? Instinct urged me to breathe through my nose. I gagged as my inhalation came up with nothing. The rim of the mask bit into my cheeks as the deep breath vacuumed the mask tightly on my face. It took every ounce of will power to stop myself from yanking off all the tubes from my face. I breathed again from the regulator. And again. Nothing changed except for the fact that I was able to push panic a few inches away from the safety line.

Starting the descent.

To distract myself I looked around and observed the rest of the dive crew busy with their last minute set up. There was no room for fear or anxiety. It was either jump or suffer the humiliation while sweating in a dry wetsuit. One by one they toppled over on their backs and disappeared into the water until there was no one left but me. I had no choice. Fear was taken over by pride. I may be a 95 pound weakling, but I was not a coward. At least not from the outside.


I held the alternate regulator against my chest, secured the regulator and mask on my face with the other palm, leaned back and let gravity do its work. Before the plunge, my neck was burning softly under the sun’s rays and my body was slowly warming beneath the tightness of the body suit. Suddenly coolness embraced me. It was actually quite a relief. Hundreds of tiny bubbles kissed my cheeks and for a moment, cold dark silence engulfed me. I flailed my arms to find balance and kicked to seek solid ground. Anything to anchor and stabilize me. From somewhere I heard my instructor Susana in her heavy Mexican accent, “Very good! Relax!” Suddenly I remembered one vital thing that I forgot to do: breathe. I sucked air through my mouth and heard that alien vacuum sound again as if Moby Dick was breathing beside me. I clamped tightly on the mouth piece of the regulator, afraid that water would seep in. Oxygen in my head got me thinking again as I slowly regulated my breathing. All of a sudden, without effort, my head bobbed above the water’s surface. As sunlight hit my face, the world made sense again. All these happened in a matter of seconds.

How beautiful the work of your hands.

As I breathed more regularly and as the coolness of the water soothed my skin under the neoprene material, my fears started to melt. Slowly we descended into the water, holding on to the anchor line. An inch at a time we descended deeper. We didn’t dare move faster afraid we would suffer from nitrogen narcosis or decompression sickness as the pressure of the water increased.

I uncovered one of God's greatest secrets in the form of this little slug.

I could see nothing but midnight blue, the color that dreams are made of. And it did feel like a dream as we moved in slow motion. Our bodies floated, disfigured by the moving water. We almost looked ethereal, illuminated by transmuted light from above. Somebody signaled to look down and suddenly I was transported into another dimension of my dream. The world below was awash with muted colors, unimaginable shapes and rich textures. I was supposed to check my gauge regularly to watch my rate of descent and the air level in the tank but the world beneath me was too distracting. I couldn’t take my eyes off it for one minute. I thought that it was unfair that this was kept secret from the rest of humanity.

Read the rest of the story  in my travel column, TravelOkcity, at Oklahoma City's The Tribune


You've conquered American media!? Woooohoooo!!!!!

I guess you can say that :) Another big project brewing...God willing, I'll be sealing the deal in the next few months :) Thanks for dropping by Resty!

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