Friday, May 27, 2011

THE final test

When the basic course was finished I was disappointed that my two classmates decided not to continue on to the advanced level. Seeking to convince them to go on with me I argued that it was only for two more days and just five more dives. But no, they had had enough for the time being and just wanted to enjoy the rest of their vacation. I suspect they wanted to party, drink and carouse without having to worry about having to be ready for the morning training dives after a hard night of “fun.” I didn’t blame them—thirty years ago I would have felt the same way.

Two days later, soon after finishing the advanced course, I ran into one of them, the fireman, in the Big Apple’s bar pavilion. That’s when another underlying reason for their reluctance to carry on surfaced. He asked me, “Just curious, did you have to take off your mask again?”

I laughed, telling him that all the “torture drills” we had gone through in the basic course were never repeated again in any shape, fashion or form. In fact, the advanced diving program is really nothing more than a series of adventure dives, all chosen by the student from a list of them.

Based on the adventure dives I’d chosen, Pedro told me the day before the first set of dives to study the corresponding chapters in the PADI advanced training manual. All told, over the next two days, I spent no more than an hour and a half each night studying. I enjoy reading anyway, especially when the subject matter is interesting, and this stuff is definitely that.

The five advanced dives I opted for: 1) Peak Buoyancy Control (imagine that!), 2) Wreck diving, 3) Deep water dives, 4) Navigation, and 5) Drift Diving.

The day we finished the basic course I learned from Jamie that Pedro was suffering from some kind of nasty gastro-intestinal bug. I asked Pedro how he thought he might have contracted it—from food, tainted water, bad beer, a girl friend I teased. He had no clue, no explanation. My buddy Don, staying on the other side of the peninsula, also came down with it. Don said it really laid him low, completely prevented him from diving for a couple of days.

Pedro on the other hand, as sick as he was, hardly missed a beat. He made every dive, which during my final training phase, meant six dives in two days. I have no idea how he did it. At times he would come out of the water after a dive and throw up. And as far as the diarrhea, well, I don’t even want to think of that. But when you’re in the wet suit it pretty much seals it all inside. Ugh. (Enough on that).

I DO know one thing though, after seeing him gut that flu out with hardly a mention of it, he is ONE tough dude. He hardly let the nausea and intestinal issues interfere with his instructor duties. Now THAT impressed me. It probably just goes to show that after thousands of dives he’s as comfortable in the water being sick as he is on land. No mere mortal, HE is a dive god!

I enjoyed most of my adventure dives, although the first wreck dive was a complete bust. Here’s a quick synopsis on each one:

1. Busted wreck dive. There are three wrecks at the bottom of Sabang cove, all three intentionally scuttled for divers to enjoy. The boat took Jamie, Pedro and me a couple hundred or so meters out and we dropped in. The two of them were soon more than 20 feet down on the bottom while I went through my normal ear clearing routine on my way down to join them. Immediately, I was aware of a powerful current that caused me to have to swim hard the whole way down just to stay in their vicinity. By the time I made it to them I was winded, but that was only the beginning of my predicament.

I was on the seafloor but Pedro was still more than a dozen feet away. He beckoned me to follow and took off to the south. I did my best to catch up but the powerful tidal flow held me almost stationary. I kicked as hard as I could and barely made any headway. I began to grasp at the bottom, trying to pull my body along, but it was all soft silty sand. The best I could do was to dig my hands in as deep as I could. Even then all I managed was to barely maintain position.

Soon I was exhausted. I looked around for Jamie and found him slightly behind me. He was in the same pickle I was. Neither of us could make any progress. I caught his eye and put both palms up as if to say, “now what?” He shrugged. I saw him looking for Pedro but he was already out of sight. We lost him.

So, Jamie and I just went with the current for a while until it dragged us into a large reef formation which we spent the rest of the time exploring. We used the dead bits to pull ourselves along until the tide finally died out.

Later on, Pedro said that once he lost us he just went back up to the boat. It wasn’t a total waste though, since Jamie and I got in a good 45 minutes of underwater time. But, we would have to add another dive the next day to get in my wreck diving requirement. That’s six dives in two days!

2. Drift diving. The irony is that we SHOULD have just gone ahead and turned our previous would be wreck dive into a drift dive. Drifting is a favorite way to dive—you just let a current carry you along from point A to point B. This type of dive is almost impossible to do without a boat to pick you up at the end of it.

Unfortunately, my drift dive was pretty much of a bust as well. The plan was to drift east along the coastline toward the end of the peninsula. This time the problem was the lack of any real strong current. The three of us barely moved along. Just the same, we DID drift, so I got signed off on it.

3. Deep Water. The plan was to go out to the scuttled ship called The Alma Jane, the deepest of the three “Sabang wrecks.” Of the three sunken boats it lays the furthest out in the small bay of Sabang and is the deepest at 30 meters, or just over 98 feet. The Alma Jane is marked on the surface by a buoy tied to the wreck below. Pedro warned me to be careful using the rope, especially if there was a boat or two of divers already out there. Evidently, that rope can be the “Grand Central Station” of guide ropes at times.

He also warned that if the buoy wasn’t visible then we wouldn’t even be trying it. No buoy means the current is so strong that it is pulling it down below the surface. And sure enough, the buoy was out of sight. “Okay, we’ll go to the shark caves instead,” declared Pedro.

“How deep are they?” I asked.

“About 100 feet,” he said.

“When is the last time you saw any sharks there,” I asked Jamie.

“I’ve seen one only once, and that was months ago.”

“Well, maybe I’ll get lucky and we’ll see one this time. That would be awesome,” I declared excitedly.

But, it was not to be. As always we saw plenty of sealife, but no sharks. The caves are basically hollowed out areas at the base of a stack of terraces. It was nice getting a chance to see the caves, but I found them disappointing without sharks in them. ‘False advertisement is what I call it,’ I harrumphed.

4. Wreck dive. This time it went without a hitch. Pedro checked the tide schedule carefully just to make sure. My job was to first find the wrecks by using my compass and depth gauge. I forget the exact depth, but I believe it was at 60 feet. He pointed me in the general direction and off we went with me leading for once. I saw the first wreck loom out of the gloom and we spent several minutes swimming around and over it. It wasn’t a real large boat, and to make it sink they had filled it with several tons of stones. They said it had to be done that way to keep it from wandering off in the currents; it apparently has a lot of very buoyant Styrofoam type material in it.

The second boat is way cooler. I believe it’s an old cargo ship. It’s made of well corroded steel and has some large open cargo hatches. It’s fairly large, don’t hold me to it, but seems like it’s between 40 and 50 feet long. You can swim right into the hold and all the way through it. Several large interesting fish make their home in the wrecks. I enjoyed spying on them, peeking inside through the open port holes.

At the end of this dive during our 15 foot safety stop, Pedro observed as I went about my normal torturous maneuverings to rid my BCD of residual air. This time, I was able to get a small stream of bubbles to issue forth from the end of my deflator tube. I was pleasantly shocked to see it, but not Pedro. He was quick to point it out, giving me an animated (for him) “okay” sign. I know what he MEANT though, it was more like "I TOLD you so!" Anyway, he was pleased and so was I, and it made a significant difference in reducing my buoyancy.

5. Buoyancy training. Pedro chose this one for me and I certainly needed it. We spent a fair amount of time at a poolside table, where he prefers to give his instructional pre-dive briefings; it was there that he explained the buoyancy drills that I would perform in open water at depth. He said that he would demonstrate each one and I would repeat them.

I could tell he wasn’t feeling so hot as we went about our preparations. The flu he had must have really been giving him hell. We dropped into the drink down and around the bend from Sabang and headed down to about 15 feet. He showed me the first few buoyancy exercises, which I did; and he was about to start into another when I noticed a huge sea turtle grazing a few feet down the wall below and slightly behind him. I interrupted his demo by pointing at the giant creature chewing away almost directly under him.

I must have been very animated because he seemed startled by my sudden fervent pointing. He looked down but the turtle was slightly behind him, still out of his line of sight. I pointed again and this time Pedro came all the way forward until he went horizontal where he easily spotted the sea turtle between his splayed legs.

We all watched the big-shelled animal for a couple minutes before Pedro put us back into training mode. Thing is, he was all done in. I’m pretty sure he was just too sick to do much more. So, I continued to demonstrate the buoyancy exercises to the best of my memory and ability. I looked over at Jamie when I had done as much as I could recall and he just shrugged. We spent the rest of the dive enjoying the scenery, something I never get tired of.

6. Navigation. From my dives on the Coral Cove side of the peninsula I KNOW how important navigation is. When it comes to finding one’s way around underwater there’s a lot more to be aware of than a compass heading. The sun is not available as a reference but “the lay of the land” and the directions of any currents are. And just as I do when I’m orienteering in the woods I continuously scan behind me to see what the terrain features look like from the reverse direction. With that, plus an idea of distance based on fin pumps, along with a trusty compass of course, and a diver SHOULD have a pretty good idea where he is down there. Of course, if lost, go to the surface and reconnoiter!

My last dive “adventure” was bittersweet; I was happy to be almost done with the requirements for my advanced open water card, but I was sad that my training was coming to an end—I was truly enjoying it.

The three of us walked into the water from the beach with Jamie deploying a diver down buoy that he pulled along with him by a handheld reel. We continued out into the middle of the small bay until Pedro called us to a halt at a sandy place on the bottom.

My first task was to follow him in a single direction that he already marked out for a set distance; I suspect all he was doing was counting his own fin pumps as he swam. My job was to count my fin pumps which I then wrote down on a navigation card that he held. So many pumps equated to a determined distance. That was easy enough.

The next task was THE final test. I started at a spot designated by Pedro. Topside he’d told me to make myself aware of THAT spot because hopefully I would end up right back on it. I took a good look around and noted a nearby coral mound and especially the churned up sandy bottom beneath me. In a way that marked up sand was my “X marks the spot.”

From there I was to swim the cardinals, 50 fin pumps in all four directions, and if I did it right I’d end up right where I started from. I found south on my compass window, lined my lubberline up with the furthest visible object in the murky distance and took off. I stopped at the object and lined up another one keeping track of my pumps. At fifty I braked, putting both knees on the bottom. I snuck a quick look back and was surprised that I could no longer see either Jamie or Pedro. Jamie was probably somewhere above me though, always my guardian angel.

My compass sticks on occasion; before I could line up on east I had to level it to get it back to free floating. With an azimuth and a reference point in the distance, I took off again, always keeping track of my fin pumps. It was strange to be completely alone like that.

Three legs of “the box” were done, only one left back to the starting point. Mentally I crossed my fingers as I began my final set of 50 to the west. With ten left to go I spotted the mound and lo and behold exactly at fifty I found myself only about 5 feet from where I’d started. Done! I rewarded myself with a fist pump.

Pedro swam over, gave me an okay sign and shook my hand in congratulations. I gave him a heartfelt thank you by putting my hand over my heart Arab style. He waved and took off back for the shore, still feeling like crap I’m sure. Jamie and I finished out the last 25 minutes of the dive taking in the sights. I enjoyed it all the more basking in my moment of accomplishment.


Ed said...

Congratulations Phil. I hope now that training is over, I will see more diving videos of your adventures.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Yes, got a couple coming up. The first is of a stingray that for once was bold enough to allow me to get right up to it. That was pretty cool.