Our vacation to the Philippines was wonderfully relaxing, but we went there with a goal of doing more than just sleeping in a hammock.
For several months, we have wanted to get our scuba certification. We hope to visit Australia during our time in Asia, and we want to be able to dive on the Great Barrier Reef when we visit. We have always enjoyed snorkeling when we go to the beach, and knew that scuba diving would be even better. There was a course we could have taken here in Korea, but the timeline and requirements weren’t fitting our needs.
Jared originally found Sangat Dive Resort when planning a slightly different Philippines trip. The hope for that trip was to stay on a liveaboard boat for a week and island hop. Sangat was planned to be the final destination. Sadly, that itinerary was not meant to be. Jared saved the information about Sangat, and we happily decided to spend the entire vacation there.
We spoke with the dive shop manager about the best options for us. There are two scuba certifications- SDI (Scuba Diving International) and PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors), the resort offers certification in both. Before we went on our vacation, we spoke with our friends who are scuba qualified; they all are PADI certified and recommended it. However, once we got to the dive shop we learned a bit more. Though PADI is more popular, both certifications are widely recognized. SDI focuses more on using dive computers, and is cheaper. We were still slightly uncertain of which to get, when we learned that you can mix and match your certifications. So, we became SDI open water divers, but we can take a PADI course for wreck diving and then another for using Nitrox. It made us feel better that we were locked into one program for all of our future dive classes. (Yes, there will be more!) We were given a book to read and had to take a written test in addition to learning skills in the water. The resort has a lot of dive gear available to rent for a small price. It took us a few dives to trade out gear a few times to get the best fit. I had an especially hard time with my fins. I have ridiculously small feet, and I’d be swimming along and my fin would fall off and start sinking away. My instructor called me Cinderella, because he had to keep putting my fins back on for me.
We had our introductory dive on our first full day at the resort. Our instructor was very laid back, but a wonderful teacher. Before we would get in the water, he would go over all of the skills we would be practicing and emphasize why they are important to learn. We started each lesson with drills, and then would go explore. Most people have their first introductions to dive equipment in a swimming pool. Not us, ocean all the way. We took a boat to a shallow little cove. During the first day we learned how to clear water out of our regulators (the part we use to breathe) and our masks. I learned how to clear my mask pretty quickly, because it wasn’t fitting me properly. After practicing for awhile we followed our instructor on a little swim. It was our first dive, and we were delighted by every shell and fish we saw. I was especially excited to see squid swimming around; I’ve never seen them when we’ve snorkeled. However, the most impressive sight was the World War II sunken ship. Yup, our very first dive and we swam around a wreck. We didn’t go inside, and the ship has become a reef, covered in coral and marine life. I was mesmerized by the size of some of the growth; I realized how little I know about this huge underwater world.
We did two dives a day for the next three days, and then we were certified divers! I enjoyed diving much more than I did learning to dive. Sometimes our instructor would take us out and just let us explore instead of practicing skills. Then he would make up for it with the next dive. We had to practice swimming without our masks, swimming without our regulators, using someone else’s back up regulator, taking off and putting on our gear underwater, doing back roll entries, giant stride entries, and hovering. Divers can use their breathing to help with buoyancy. I was ok with this while we were swimming. I learned to slowly exhale as long as I could, and I would sink like a rock. When you inhale you should rise in the water; I was not as good at this skill. We had to sit on the ocean floor and use our breathing to basically levitate in a seated position. I was assessed first, and I found it incredibly difficult. Instead of rising when I would inhale, I would flip forward. Now, this really shouldn’t matter because it’s not like you are going to fall over when you are 12 feet deep, but it would mess up my concentration. I finally got it (or my instructor gave up on me, not quite sure), and it was Jared’s turn. He did it faster than our instructor had. We use hand signals to communicate under the water, and I let Jared know what I thought of him showing me up.
We dove on two reefs and three wrecks. As it turns out, the area we were diving in is known as the wreck diving capital of the world. We didn’t realize that when we planned the trip, but were delighted to find out. We learned to dive where experienced divers dream of going! All the ships we went in were Japanese war ships that were bombed by the USS Lexington on September 24, 1944. Although the reefs were beautiful, I preferred the wrecks. You get the best of both worlds with wrecks. There is coral and fish, just like a reef, but there’s also a boat! It was a little spooky the first time I entered a ship. The opening was huge, so I knew I’d fit through, but it looked dark and eerie inside. The light in the water makes everything green and the plants sway slightly from the currents. I went in anyway. And it was awesome. Nothing makes you learn the importance of controlling your buoyancy like being inside a wreck. I loved swimming through a window to discover a large fish lurking in the shadows or seeing items that sunk with the ships. On one, there is a tractor and several bags of concrete; it is believed that the Japanese were planning on making an airfield.
I had to rely on our instructor to tell me what fish we saw. My descriptions were “that fish that looks like it has an underbite” or “the big one.” We saw pufferfish, bumphead parrot fish, sea cucumbers, sea slugs, starfish, bat fish, grouper, snapper, lionfish (so many!), razor fish, box fish, squid, and two turtles. I was really tempted to swim away and follow the turtles. However, my absolute favorite marine life were baby barracuda. Ok, they really are not impressive on their own. They are silver and maybe 5-6 inches long. However, they swim together in massive schools. We were on our first dive where we went into the ship. We exited the ship and were swimming up to the deck through a hole. I looked up through the hole and could see the sunlight streaming in; above me were thousands of baby barracuda. They were all facing the same direction and the bit of sunlight that was reaching them made each one shine. Through instinct, some form of communication, or magic, they all suddenly flicked their tails and changed direction. It wasn’t like a wave, where the front changed first and the others reacted. It was simultaneous. Thousands of fish completely in sync with one another. I was in awe. I expect to be awed when I hike to a mountain top, or when I see a sunset over the beach. I didn’t expect it from fish. That was the moment I became a scuba diver. I may not have finished the class yet. I hadn’t taken the test. My fin fell off my foot about 10 minutes later, but that was the instant when I knew that this was for me.
That’s really the reason that I love to travel. Sure, I love to learn, see how others live, and try new foods, but when it comes down to it, I’m searching for that brief moment when I am reminded of how insignificant I am. Some fish turn in the current and I know that the world is inherently beautiful, and I feel proud to be part of it, connected to that beauty for just a moment. If I’m lucky, I get one of those moments during each vacation. I usually give a big sigh and try to hold on to it. Then my fin falls off.