For our first day of snorkeling we woke up to a gorgeous morning—bright sun in a sky of the purest blue. It was pretty much the same for the next two equally beautiful mornings—an American breakfast at 8am, ready to hit the water by 9:30. Mac-Mac was never late, and in these days of immediate communication we were able to confirm his arrival at any moment before he showed up. Of course, he knew that if he was even a few minutes late without explanation that he would likely lose us as customers since boatmen are everywhere waiting to serve potential fares.
Mac-Mac came right to our door along with two of his able bodied boatmen—a young boy about 12, Mac-Mac’s little nephew, and a robust fellow in his early 20s, a cousin. Like most endeavors in this country, businesses are almost always made up entirely of family.
The crew carried our stuff as the three of us followed them out to the bangka. As always upon boarding Mac-Mac told us to go slow. Good advice; the tendency is to rush it with a headlong sprawl into the boat being the normal result of trying to hurry it. I make sure that I always keep one hand on one of the overhead wooden supports. Doing that and listening to Mac-Mac, I only fell once in the five days that we used his services—not bad for rickety old me.
I had mentioned the day before to him that I would like to go back to the Coral Garden dive site. He had just nodded then, so I had figured there was no problem with that plan. But when he asked me again that morning just before we boarded his boat I began to realize that there WAS a problem with it.
The boatmen extricated the bangka from its beached mooring, transitioned into a 180 turn and motored us out into the swells. The seas were choppy the entire length of our stay, something that was certainly not true during my first two visits years before when for the most part the water was relatively smooth. Mac-Mac said that the El Nino was the cause, and in fact, was also the reason we weren’t going to Coral Garden, since the underwater garden of coral no longer existed. I made a mental note to ask him later for details on exactly how the El Nino weather phenomenon had evidently destroyed it.
“I will take you to another place where there are many fish and lots of living coral. I think you will enjoy it,” he told me knowingly.
It wasn’t until we had turned left up the Batangas Channel instead of continuing straight to where I knew the Coral Gardens is on the north side of San Antonio Island that he told me where he intended to take us. But first, he pulled into the little island village where he lives on the very pointy end of San Antonio Island (The rest of most of that large island belonging to some rich family; I think he said it was the Lacsons). We pulled up next to a little wooden dock where boatmen in the area go to get gas and supplies. In less than ten minutes we were off again, only now we had two smaller boats following along on each side of us.
For the next few minutes Divine and I nervously watched these young unsmiling fellows with dark shades hiding their eyes.
“Do you know what’s going on? Why are those guys following us? I don’t like this!” I muttered into my girl’s ear.
She nodded in agreement and admitted she wasn’t feeling comfortable with them there either. Finally, she asked Mac-Mac why they were following us. He said they were just coming along in case we wanted to be pulled through the water while we were swimming. She told him to send them away, that we were uncomfortable with them following along like that.
In retrospect, we had nothing to worry about; but we live in a place rife with criminality and scams, a place much different from that part of Mindoro, which I hear is quite safe for foreigners and tourists. Our boatman called out something to the two young men and they peeled away. Until that moment I was thinking the worst, wondering how I was going to protect my fiancé and her daughter if worse came to worse. Ultimately, once in a situation like that though it’s too late; for the best protection is to avoid getting into those situations in the first place—sometimes easier said than done.
Mac-Mac took us to what turned out to be a wonderful diving spot just off an area he called Mangrove Beach, named after a small grove of that type of tree on the west side of the Batangas Channel. I asked him to take us into the beach first so I could teach my future stepdaughter how to use her snorkel. I love this kid. Still just 11 she’s fearless, unlike her mom, who refuses to get anywhere near deep water unless it’s in the hotel pool where she then holds on to the side with a death grip. I showed Jen how to breathe through the snorkel, how to clear it of water with a hard puff of air, and how to spit a film inside her mask to keep condensation from forming. (Next time we’ll bring baby shampoo for that purpose!)
I left Jen to practice her new skills in the shallows while I swam out to the deeper water looking for some sea life to view. There are few fish in the hot sandy shallow water, just a few little brown fish and sea plants. As the water deepened it became noticeably colder with a lot more fish. But it is where the coral starts that the real sea life begins. It was just as I remembered, beautiful corals of every shape and size enlivened by more kinds of fish than I could keep track of, at times shimmering in tight knit schools of what seemed like thousands of individuals yet all moving miraculously together as one, or swimming in smaller groups of a few dozen, or even in pairs. Some of the most colorful and interesting swim alone, such as the parrotfish. I saw a few of those more than a foot long.
I remembered to pull a plastic bag of bread and potato chips from the front pocket of my swim trunks. I have a system where I let the bag fill with water which dissolves the contents into tiny crumbs. Then all I have to do is to squeeze the bag a little to make a cloud of crumbs swirl out and about me. The fish at that particular spot are used to being fed by swimmers and soon it seemed that hundreds of them enveloped me in a feeding frenzy. I loved it. Later on Jen joined me in the deep water and spent hours experiencing the weird feeling of being part of a feeding school of ravenous fish. She loved it too.
I noticed something though that made me quite angry; there were spots all over the coral masses where holes had been punched through it. I knew already what had caused it but I asked Mac-Mac anyway.
"Its from the tourists," he said.
"How come you don't tell them before you let them go into the water to be careful not to step on it? It takes forever forever for that stuff to grow back!" I was angry.
"We do, and most people like you, from the Europe and the US already know, but the problem is the Koreans. They don't want to listen."
"Are you sure? Maybe they don't understand?"
"Maybe, but it seems like they don't want to listen, or take any instructions."
I shook my head and spat out some sea water before putting my snorkel back on, "Well, all the resorts and the local government needs to get together and create some pamphlets or some way to tell ALL tourists to keep off the coral man. There's NO excuse for the damage I'm seeing down there. It's pissing me off!"
On that sad angry note I cannot begin to describe the variety of creatures and their myriadness of number that can be observed beneath the lightly choppy waves of The Batangas Channel, but I can tell you that for me, someone who loves nature more than anything, being afforded the privilege of viewing it is akin to a religious experience (all the more reason why seeing the effects of stomped coral sickens me to the depths of my soul!).
In fact, there are two places on earth where I truly love to be—The Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania, and the coral snorkeling sites near Puerto Galero. When I visit those places time seems to have no meaning, hours go by like minutes. On that first day I stayed in the water for more than four hours and had no idea it had been more than one. It was almost 2:30pm before I allowed Mac-Mac to help pull my waterlogged prune body out of the sea.
Some might ask, “What could a person possibly do in the water for such a long time without getting out?” It’s a good question, because for the life of me I have a hard time explaining how I can do it, but it happens every time I go.
We did figure out why the boys were following us earlier in their small bangkas though, because Jen and I went ahead and paid a couple hundred pesos to a boatman to have him drag us through the water by ropes tied to the outriggers of his small boat. We held on face first in the water while observing the sea life pass below us through our masks and snorkels. It was okay I guess, especially for a novice like Jen, but I’ll never do it again. I noticed a lot of other tourists being towed around like that, mostly Filipina female tourists, all wearing life vests along with their masks, snorkels and flippers. I don’t know, why wear a life vest while snorkeling? As long as I’m wearing a snorkel I don’t need a floaty vest since I can simply put my face down and breathe through the snorkel for hours without moving a muscle.
What finally did me in was my hiatal hernia. It’s gotten much worse over the years to the point that the heavy American breakfast caused a problem. My upper digestive system doesn’t like me being horizontal, much less upside down vertical, which is what I tend to constantly do while snorkeling. I’ll see a brilliant green large parrotfish a dozen feet below me, I’ll jackknife down to in hot pursuit, and then repeat the process time and again for hours on end. At 2pm the nausea started as bile and hours old breakfast began to erupt past the hernia above my stomach. I started to try to snorkel standing up in the water, which is actually quite doable, but once the retching started I knew it was time to call it a day. A little queasiness I can take, I’ve run miles feeling like that, but vomiting while snorkeling is a bit much. So, I wimped out and quit. Anyway, I still had two more days to enjoy my underwater cathedral.
I guess I’d better wrap this up. A buddy and I have plans to go back to PG this week, only this time I’m taking an underwater camera; AND, he’s promised to get me checked out on some actual scuba diving. I’ve always wanted to give that a try. Now’s my chance....