Learning to dive has been on my bucket list since I left home in 2010 and learning to dive in the Philippines became something of a dream around 2013 when I saw how insanely beautiful the reefs are there.
I had grand plans for our ’round the world trip: that I would learn how to dive.
Fast forward five years and I still hadn’t managed to learn how to dive. I could have done it in Australia in 2013, but “it’s way too expensive” I griped.
In 2012, I spent five weeks in Bali, two of which were on the diving paradise that is Gili Trawangan. I didn’t dive there because “I don’t have enough time”.
There was always an excuse. What it really boiled down to was the fact that I was absolutely petrified.
The idea of the underwater world intrigued me. But that’s about all I loved about it, the idea.
You see, I’m not a very strong swimmer. I tried to become a lifeguard when I was in high school and I nearly drowned trying to save a brick. I resigned myself to the fact that I was happy enough floating on the surface, foam noodle beneath me.
I also hate getting water up my nose. HATE IT. When it happens I cannot control anything and all I want to do is get out of the water.
A few years ago Luke and I were body boarding in Byron Bay, Australia. The waves were huge, taller than I am and had a riptide that pulled you off your feet. Every time I tried to catch a wave on my little blue board, I mis-timed it and got dragged under. After the third time, I couldn’t take it anymore. I was shaking and, blaming it on the cold, got out. I contented myself with watching Luke catch each wave with a huge grin on his face.
Read also: Diving in Indonesia
Learning to Dive in the Philippines
One of the reasons we chose the Philippines was because the cost to travel the Philippines is incredibly affordable and yet quality of the instructors and courses are still very high.
When it came time to plan our trip around South East Asia, I knew it was time. Time to conquer my fears of the water and just do it.
I booked us into a dive school on an island in the Philippines I’d never heard of before. We stayed at a beach resort in Puerto Galera.
After what felt like a full day’s journey from Manila, we arrived in the port town of Sabang and walked to our dive center, Sea Rider.
We had organized it so that we started the next day, giving us the afternoon to get our bearings and read up on the course. One of the reasons I chose Sea Rider was because they are an SSI school, rather than a PADI school. As someone completely new to diving, I’m certainly no expert, but from what I read SSI gives the instructor much more freedom with their lessons. It meant that if we were struggling, he could adjust his teaching to suit us. It’s also a cheaper course overall. This site gives a good explanation of the differences between PADI and SSI.
Mark, the head instructor and owner of Sea Rider, met us that afternoon, gave us our books and told us to study. He’d see us at 9 o’clock the next morning.
The next morning we walked down from our little apartment onto the sand and into the dive center. Mark got us fitted for wet suits, mouthpieces, masks, fins, and weights.
“Should we dive?” he said, less of a question, more of a statement.
“Uh, right now?” I asked, my mouth going dry. I kept trying to swallow, but it wasn’t happening.
“Yea, lets go!”
We waddled down to the beach and walked waist deep into the water.
“Let’s breath” he said, sensing that suddenly we’d both forgotten how to.
We practiced breathing in and out of our mouths above water and he slowly walked us a little bit deeper. He taught us how to inflate our BCD, buoyancy control device, so that we could just float on our backs. Then he told us to deflate them and bend our knees.
“Right now?” Luke asked, my heart racing with the same concerns.
With a nod and a smile, Mark turned his thumb upside-down, signaling for us to go down.
Heads under water and hearts in our throats, we breathed in and out of our mouths.
We gave the OK sign and after a minute underwater, he gave us a thumbs up, signaling for us to come up. We inflated our BCDs and our heads popped back above the water.
I can’t begin to describe the elation of successfully breathing underwater for the first time. I couldn’t stop smiling. I couldn’t stop saying, “that was amazing”. Mark smiled and applauded our first effort, the beginning of a long three days.
Becoming a Diver
Of course, it got harder. We had to take our goggles off at five meters (16.5ft) and again at 18 meters (60ft). I had to figure out how to cope with getting water up my nose at depths where surfacing immediately wasn’t an option. We had to take off our floatation packs, lose our breathing apparatus, and practice running out of air. But nothing seemed scarier or harder than that first day, that first moment of putting my head underwater and breathing in.
Credit has to be given mostly to Mark. He was patient and kind. He didn’t rush us or treat us like buffoons for our fears. He was understanding and supportive and he shared his immense passion for the underwater world.
When we weren’t diving, we spent most of our free time just hanging out at the dive shop. Mark and the other divers had so many stories. They showed us videos and photos of things they’d seen in this new-to-us world. They were legends in our eyes.
We talked about the best dive computers, where to get masks that fit our faces properly, and the best wet suits depending on the time of year and temperature of the water.
It felt like we’d been initiated into a secret club that we didn’t know existed before we were even members.
I sat there on our final afternoon drinking a cup of coffee, my wet suit pulled down to my waist, looking out over the sea. I was no longer content just floating on the surface, I wanted to get beneath it, needed to.