Thursday, January 06, 2011

Scuba trip to Mindoro, Nov 2010 pt 8; Bangka Boat Scuba Taxi

Try as he might, Don never actually fixed the resort’s out board motor; although, after exhaustive troubleshooting he WAS able to pinpoint the bad component. The problem is, as far as our scuba diving was concerned, without that boat we were up a creek without a paddle.

Ideally, we needed transportation to and from each dive; otherwise, we’d be stuck with departing and returning from the hotel waterfront each time we went out. That being the case, it would severely limit the scope of our underwater forays. Unless…

I remembered our first trip of the year to Mindoro back in April, when my stepdaughter and I, in snorkeling gear, had held on to a rope draped across the front of a small bangka boat’s outriggers; the driver easily pulled the two of us lying flat in the water over the top of the coral formations located near the Mangrove Beach area on the eastern coast of the Batangas Channel. It was great fun and allowed us to quickly check out a lot of undersea views with little of our own energy expended. If it worked with snorkelers, why not with a couple of scuba divers?

I mentioned my idea to Don, but he seemed dubious. Just the same I asked the chamber maid if she knew anyone with a small bangka that might want to make some money towing us in the water to and from our dives. “Sure,” she said, “my husband owns one.” I had Divine hash out a possible price with them on a provisional basis and afterwards approached Don about it. He nodded “Why not? Let’s give it a try.”

Don had spent much of the day giving it one final try to repair the outboard; by the time he had thrown in the towel there was only time to get in one dive before dark. We were further delayed as we prepped our equipment. Don discovered that one of the fittings on a hose was leaking like a sieve; he had bought it at Captain Gregg’s on our last dive trip, yet here it was already useless after only a handful of dives. He fiddled with it for a few minutes but realized it was no use; he’d have to buy another one.

‘Oh great!’ I thought, “Here go again. Looks like no dive today. Dang it!’

I needn’t have worried. “Never Say Die Don” jumped into his SUV for the short trip over the hill to Sabang to buy another hose. He went back to Captain Gregg’s where a dive shop employee was more than happy to sell him another one. Don mentioned that the bad hose was one of theirs from only a few weeks before, but received nary a response. It’s frustrating, but that’s pretty much what will happen when you buy anything from any store in this country if it breaks before it should. If you live here, that’s what you expect—take a deep breath and let it go. It wasn’t all that expensive anyway. To save time and effort, Don shrugged it off and hightailed it back.

By the time he returned with the new hose I was already trying out the rope arrangement by having the boat driver drag me through the waves right off the resort. It was slow but it felt like it would work. The real test would be with two of us; with all our equipment I’m sure we weigh over 700 lbs. Most of that weight is supported by the water; even so, the tiny boat would be lugging along a couple of lumpy meat anchors.

With the uncooperative hose removed and replaced in short order Don was ready to dive. It was close to five by the time we entered the water. With the sun edging closer to the horizon he meticulously explained to the driver what was expected; I listened carefully as well, wanting to get on the same page—no reason to have things explained more than once when time is of the essence.

Considering our first try with this new transport arrangement, to keep it simple, the strategy was to drop us off at the buoy directly off the hotel jetty and then, after about an hour, pick us up in the same spot, or thereabouts.

In return, the boat driver, an older mustachioed fellow about my age, had but one instruction for us: stay away from the back of the boat while the engine is running. “Got it!” I gave him a clear-cut thumbs up on that one. I could see how it might be easy to overlook that obvious bit about the whirling propeller back there after exhaustion sets in, or when the waves start pummeling and pushing a person about. I made a strong mental note to always keep the propulsion end of the boat in mind no matter what.

Don and I got in position on either side of the boat and turned around facing aft. Walking backwards, holding onto the outrigger and forward strut we pushed the bobbing bangka away from shore. In no time the water was chest level, at which point the driver bade us to get in position for towing. To save air we stowed our regulators, opting to breathe through snorkels instead.

We stretched out face first in the water and with both gloved hands grasped the nylon tow ropes dangling in the water in front of us. It was a comparatively slow ride out to the buoy; nonetheless, in less than five minutes we were on site.

“See you in about an hour!” I heard Don call out to the driver. And to me: “See you down there Phil. I’ll meet you under the boat and then wait for you on the bottom!”

I couldn’t see him with the boat between us, but I responded, “Roger that! See you down there.”

We deflated and met each other directly under the boat about five feet down. Don waved and plunged downwards. At 15 feet down his flippers disappeared into the murk. I looked on with great envy knowing that my problem with ear squeeze would cause me to take at least 8 or 9 minutes to join him. Working hard at equalizing, I slowly made my way down until I finally reached the top of the huge circular concrete base where the buoy was anchored. It took another minute or so to get completely horizontal on the seafloor at 35 feet.

Our plan was to head south down the slope as soon as I got my ears to equalize. Don said we would try for 100 feet this time. I thought that was a wonderful idea and was eager to go for it. After the 93 foot dive the day before I knew it would be—should be—no problem. Sure enough, once I had my ears clear at 35 feet I was able to easily keep them agony free as we quickly descended one plateau at a time in ten and twenty foot increments. We paused each time, to allow Don to check on my status and to visually explore each new level.

Thrilled, I kept my depth gage in my left hand to watch the needle climb ever higher toward 100. Right as we descended to the century mark we bottomed out to a sandy featureless flat expanse that continued to gently slope away toward the main channel to the south. Don showed me the display on his computer—103 feet. Yes!

Motioning both hands palms down towards the seafloor my dive mentor informed me that we would settle for a while at that spot. Happily, I settled into the silty sand at a 60 degree angle from him. At that moment I spotted subtle movement on the seafloor less than ten feet away.

‘A stingray!’ Hidden just under the sand it betrayed its position when it flapped its wings, and then smoothly darted away just inches above the bottom, leaving behind a ghostly cloud of sediment in its wake.

I glanced over at Don for his reaction to the three foot long ray, but he had missed it, his head down as it often is while scoping out the information on his dive console.

‘Wow. It sure is spooky down here. Why is it so dark all of a sudden?’ Abruptly, a veil of shade had enveloped us. It was as if someone had switched off the light.

I pushed up into a one-armed left-handed pushup and craned my head to look up at the surface. Would I be able to even see the surface from over 100 feet down? I could indeed, but I could tell that it wouldn’t be visible for long.
Looking up, for a moment I was overwhelmed with the realization of how much water was between me and free air. I could see some dim light way up there as it was shimmered by the waves, but just barely, and it was obviously fading fast. Even as I stared upwards, in the time that it takes to read this paragraph, the little bit of light reaching us quickly approached nonexistence.

I looked expectantly over at Don, and as I knew he would, he pointed up. It was time to reverse course and ascend the hundred feet back up the hill. Taking a quick look up it was now so gloomy that the top of the hill disappeared into darkness. Small squirts of air into our buoyancy compensators along with some strong fin kicks made our rise fairly easy. Additionally, an occasional push against an outcrop of rock served to help in our upward flight as well. Flight is exactly the right word, as scuba diving is really just slow-motion flying through water; it’s the best way to describe it.

Don set course to the north with a little bit of westward spin to take us back towards the buoy, or so we hoped. As he watched his wrist compass I broke out my flashlight and kept an eye on depth. At 40 feet I knew we had reached the top of the escarpment and should be very close to the buoy. By that time it was so dark though that I knew we’d have to get very lucky and run directly into it to find it. When the gage showed 30 I knew we’d missed our mark. Anyway, my air was approaching red. I showed it to Don and we headed topside.

‘Aha! That’s why it got dark so quickly.’

A large rain squall had arrived and winked out the last of any light that might have been available from the setting sun. Mystery solved. The rain drops caused a soothing hissing noise as they impacted the water around me.

We had way overshot the buoy by a good 50 or so meters. I couldn’t see it in the rainy windy dark, but I knew our location from the lights of the hotel some 100 meters away. I whooped loudly while waving my flashlight in the direction of the buoy, hoping that the boat driver would already be there looking for us. My efforts were rewarded by the sudden sound of his little outboard. He maneuvered close to us and shut down his engine. Ducking under the closest outrigger I grabbed the rope for the return tow. It was a great ending to a pretty doggone good dive.
All the photos in this series of posts were taken during the trip in November. I highly suggest you click on each one to see them in their full glory. Some are pretty awesome; even if I do say so myself. Enjoy...


Anonymous said...

Gorgeous pictures! I lived in the Philippines for six years, and I can't remember the water every looking that clean.

Then again, I spent most of it in Manila.

PhilippinesPhil said...

I hear you K. Manila Bay is basically a cess pool. I have tried a couple times to walk along the Bay walk but the sewer smell drives me back across the street. Mindoro on the otherhand, just across the channel from Batangas, which is just south of Manila has some pretty good water quality as you can see. It could be better though; unfortunately, there is no sewage treatment here, all of it goes into septic tanks which eventually seep into the water table or out into the surrounding seas.