OK, so after being in the Republic for over a year and promising myself time and time again that I would get my SCUBA (Open Water) certification, I finally took the time out of my “busy” schedule to actually get it done. Shopping around a bit about town, I finally settled on Mares Dive Shop in Harold’s Mansion, a sprawling Dumaguete institution that boasts the city’s biggest backpacker hostel and – in my opinion –the best pizza in town.
Total cost of the SSI certification was 12,000 pesos with an option to pay an additional 2,000 pesos do your final three dives out at Apo Island, one of the world’s premiere diving destinations. This was pretty much a no brainer, and after a brief kuripot-fueled cogitation (kuripot – cheap), I decided to go with the Apo trip. Woohoo, turtles here I come!! Harold’s Mansion also includes transportation to Dauin, snacks, coffee and tea and lunch in the cost of their open water certification.
[Quick Note: SSI and PADI are recognized the world over. Both have online verification of certification, but SSI offers less expensive certification as they don’t require you to buy all their manuals.]
My instructor was Ching Ching Lai, a young Malaysian diver who has taught SCUBA all over Asia. The first day consisted of classroom instruction – six chapters out of the SSI instruction manual complemented by six videos and summary questions at the end of each one. Ching Ching was patient throughout the process, taking the time to answer all my questions and review all the work that I was doing. At the end of the day, we hopped over to the equipment room and I got fitted for all the stuff that I would need, with particular attention being paid to flipper and wetsuit fitting (I have a strangely shaped body…) and also the regulator and BCD (buoyancy compensation device) functioning.
The next day was our two familiarization dives at the Marine Sanctuary in Dauin. I arrived early the next morning and the Harold’s trucks were loaded up in short order with boxes of equipment and a flatbed of folks from France, China, Scotland, Australia, the US and the Philippines – a true international outing: Tom was from Australia and was receiving a pension from his work there, Ian was from Scotland and worked as a dive instructor all over the Philippines. and Malcolm from the States was facing retirement and was checking out the Republic as a possible destination. Arriving at Harold’s place right on the beach there (soooooo nice!), the experienced divers jumped right into checking their equipment while Ching Ching briefed me on the day’s schedule and started reviewing how to check over all your equipment.
After going over a bunch of safety topics, we finally donned our gear and waddled (hey, the equipment is heavy!) down to the water. Ching Ching first had me simply put my face in the water while wearing the mask and regulator, and I got to admit, it’s damn strange the first time you realize that you are breathing underwater. I then inflated my BCD and swam out a bit. Deflating our vests, we then sank to the sandy bottom and spent the first thirty minutes getting used to the environment and going over emergency procedures (buddy breathing, emergency ascents, removing and putting equipment back on, clearing masks, etc.). When that was done, we took a short spin around and were soon rewarded with a couple of Hawksbill turtles, two beautiful juvenile lionfish, jackfish and a few scorpion fish.
After lunch and a review of the morning skills, Ching Ching reviewed yet more skills and we headed out once again. The second dive was done further down the beach where there is less sand and much more coral. Again, we reviewed a number of skills and emergency procedures before heading out to see the sights. In this area of the marine sanctary (further south) there was a lot more coral formations. When Sendong rolled through in 2011, it demolished a lot of the coral beds in this area (and also on Apo Island), but it is gradually starting to come back. Heck, in just the past year, I have seen a good amount of improvement in the beds in and around Marine Sanctuary!
This last dive was an easy one, with us just basically cruising around and checking out the fish. We finished up, stowed our gear and Ching Ching told me that I was a pretty good student. Well, when I pressed her, she gave me an 8 out of 10. That’s a metric score – if we convert it to our American imperial system, that’s about a 98.5%.
She also noted that I used a smaller amount of air than most first time divers did. Usually after an hour they are at about 50 bar – I still had 100 bar. I chock it up to smoking – my poor, beleaguered lungs are used to being oxygen deprived, so it wasn’t a big stretch. Actually – and despite smoking – I do have pretty good cardio from years of hitting the gym and exercise. Still, it would be a whole lot better if I could free myself from those horrible smokes.
At the end of the day, the van took us back to Harold’s. All of us that went diving that day decided to go to Apo the next, so as I jumped on my Yamaha, I told them I would see them adieu….
And what a fateful misadventure that day would turn out to be…..
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