The biggest planned event of our trip was the PADI Open Water certification course. Neither Lisa nor I had ever really been scuba diving (outside of a pool, once, in Tenerife), and were getting really excited the more we talked, and watched youtube videos, about it. My only trepidation was one that I think is probably hard-wired into most of the planet's human population; a fear of the unknown. We know shamefully little about the ocean and its marine biosphere, and I personally knew (and still know) nothing about the dangers of aquatic life. I tend to think everything is pretty dangerous - which, it turns out, is not a bad philosophy of diving.
Our friends Ara and Ruthie set up our dive course with Alona Divers, a dive shop on Alona beach, at the South end of Panglao island. Since we were visiting in August, during the Philippines' low season, there were no other divers doing courses at the shop so we basically had the run of the place. Our dive instructor, a young Chinese woman named Danni, had come to work on a temporary basis in place of the more permanent dive instructor who was on a home holiday. She had been diving for about 6 years, instructing for four, and for the last 6 months or so she had been living and instructing in the Maldives. Not a bad gig, I'd say. Peter, the German owner of the shop, and Maritess, the shop manager (and possibly Peter's wife), hung around during the day to make sure things were going smoothly and because, I assume, it was on the freaking beach. Who wouldn't want to go to work every day if work is a dive shop and your office opens onto sand?
A good portion of the course consisted of watching 5 different 45 minute PADI videos, which we had to watch in their entirety. Even though we watched them on a TV in front of panoramic windows that were open to the ocean breeze and a stunning view of palm fronds and white sand, I couldn't help but think that it was a shame we didn't finish this part BEFORE the trip. Like, while we were sitting at our desks in school with nothing to do during an exam week. But even 4 1/2 hours seems like a paltry part of a ten day trip, so I guess all things considered it wasn't time wasted. Plus we could drink beer and order food from the neighboring Filipino restaurant while we watched them.
We also spent a great deal of time underwater, practicing the skills demonstrated in the video, like removing, replacing, and clearing our masks, taking off our BCD (buoyancy control device) and weight belts and putting them back on, achieving neutral buoyancy (to float in mid-water without moving), etc. The benefit of doing the course in the Philippines was that we got to demonstrate these skills surrounded by swarms of tropical fish. The locale besides, it felt pretty amazing just to BE underwater for 30-45 minutes without surfacing, or to look up and see choppy waves 18M overhead.
I suppose it felt so amazing mainly because it's something human beings aren't supposed to be able to do. And like anything humans do that we aren't naturally able to, diving isn't without its dangers. The PADI course makes clear from the beginning that diving isn't for the faint of heart (literally), and that you can die if you do something simple like, oh, HOLD YOUR BREATH. I, for one, had never considered the idea that holding your breath underwater could be dangerous. And if you're skin diving without any sort of breathing apparatus, it's not really. But because you're breathing compressed air, when you're down 10M you have more air in your lungs than you would at the surface (your lungs take in the same volume of air, but it's denser). So if you rise while holding your breath, your lungs can explode.
There are other dangers as well, which Lisa and I were unfortunately privy to (though Ara and Ruthie somehow escaped their grasp). Another reason that surfacing too quickly is bad, as Lisa discovered accidentally on our third open water dive, is that air in your nasal cavity is also expanding. And while, if you surface slowly enough, it will work its way out of your ears, if you surface too rapidly it causes IMMENSE pressure and pain. Lisa later said that it felt like someone had driven a knife through her eardrum. It lasted for upwards of an hour and later developed into an equally painful ear infection.
On the same third open water dive, I got a taste of decompression sickness, or "the bends", as the diving community calls it. After we surfaced, and while Lisa was still wracked with pain, I grabbed the ladder to the boat and hoisted myself up to the first step. But that's as far as I could get. Suddenly it felt like blood was draining from the left side of my body and it went numb. I couldn't lift my leg to step into the boat. I thought at the time that this was very inconvenient, and even after the captain helped me aboard and I less-than-gingerly flopped down on the bench, I didn't feel worried. Even on the way back to shore, as my vision was washing out and Danni's face disappearing while she tried to figure out what had happened, I only felt silly. I mean, I couldn't control my leg, for christ sake. My mind controls my leg, and my mind is telling my leg to move! It's simple physiology, but for some reason my leg didn't understand that reasoning. I felt that if I willed it enough I could overcome whatever the trapped nitrogen bubbles in my body were doing to it.
Eventually, after gaining enough strenth to hobble off of the boat and into the dive shop, I gained a feeling of relative normalcy again. Only later was I told that Peter freaked out and was ready to call a speed boat to take me to the nearest decompression chamber, about an hour away. If my decompression sickness were more serious, and I hadn't been taken to the chamber, I would have died, and Peter would have had quite a mess on his hands. Peter kept questioning Danni about the dive - how long we had been under, how deep we went, etc, all things that could have contributed to my state. And even though it was our deepest (18m) and longest (~45mins) dive yet, I realized later it was probably the late drinking I had done the night before that caused the decompression sickness more than anything. I felt bad about that, but it strengthened my resolve to be a safer diver, which in the end can only be a good thing.
It also turned into a sort of boon for all of us, since Peter told us to take the afternoon off - no diving. That meant that the next day we were able to accompany a fun dive boat out to Balacasag island - one of the best dive sites in the world - for our fourth and final open water dive, as well as a fun dive after lunch. We completed our dive course accompanied by no less than four sea turtles, some pufferfish, and a scorpionfish to boot.
The scorpionfish is a tiny splash of color and beauty - a sure signal, we were told later, of danger (if its name didn't already give that away). Most underwater creatures are relatively harmless, though, as long as you don't provoke or agitate them. A general rule of diving thumb is that if something is beautiful, ugly, or doesn't run away from you, don't touch it. Which, to me, is pretty much everything underwater, so that simple guideline pretty much solved my fear dilemma for me: as long as I don't touch anything, I probably won't get hurt. And hell if I'm going to touch anything.