Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Monkeys on the roof

The day after completing my PADI scuba training we moved to the Sinandigan Lodge over on the Coral Cove side of the peninsula. It’s like moving from a heavily populated big city out to an unpopulated rural berg. That’s where my dive buddy was staying, so that’s where we went. I didn’t mind; there’s some good diving over there.

The staff told my wife that we were like the first customers they’d had in about a month. It’s a pretty nice place but its way out of the way, so obviously, no one can find it or get to it. The cost is definitely reasonable though—less than $25 a night. The food is good with prices equally moderate. And a nice thing is that the staff doesn't mind carrying it up the tiring series of stairs to where I loved to eat it at the little dining table on the outside terrace while gazing at the wonderful view.

Billy is the owner, an affable Irish fellow. He bought the place a few years ago and is looking to sell it now. If you have a million or so bucks, you can probably pick it up easy.

We had our choice of about 25 open rooms. Billy had just added a whole new building for some reason. With so few customers I have to wonder why. I think I would have built a pool instead since they have no direct access to the cove.

For our choice of room though, we decided, or I should say I decided to go with the room that I thought had the best view. As I said, the lodge is not right on the water, and with some ornery German guy’s house between the hotel and the water blocking the ground floor view with his allegedly purposely thick high trees, the only way to see the sea is to get up high. So that’s where we stayed, WAY up high. We had a lovely view, but MAN did we ever have to work hard to earn it. Trudging up and down those stairs, especially UP the stairs, I kept muttering, “Dang, I need to get in SHAPE!”

Before 6 a.m. the next morning we woke up to a ruckus on the roof. Something, a LOT of somethings in fact, was running back and forth up there and they were a lot heavier than a rat, or even a cat, both of which I hear on occasion overhead on my own roof.

Groggy but curious, I rolled off the bed and peeked through the curtains to see if anything threatening was out there. There was nothing on the veranda walkway so I opened the door and poked my head out for a look and a listen. I heard some screeching down at the far end of the roof and realized it was a troop of monkeys. I slipped into my slippers and went out to see if I could catch a glimpse.

There are some steep steps going up the hill behind the lodge that I used to get a view on top of the roof. By the time I got up there all I could see were glimpses of them through a thick screen of leaves in the trees at the far end of the structure. They must have spotted me because soon they took off up into the thick vegetation along the hillside. I had my camera ready every morning after that but the monkeys never returned. Rats!

To dive, all we had to do was suit up and walk down to the now defunct Coral Cove and use its access to the water. Every time I did that I felt sad to see it like that, closed up and already falling into disrepair. Its a wonder how quickly the disintegration process goes into effect.

Don drove down and parked his SUV in the little gravel parking lot so we wouldn’t have to carry the heavy bits down there, like the tanks and weights. Coral Cove still had a guard and he didn’t mind watching over the car while we were out in the water.

After the dive we’d bring all our gear back up to The Sinandigan Lodge where we’d rinse out the salt and let it all drip dry from a tree next to its quaint little waterfall pond. It wasn’t convenient like being at a dive resort, but we made do just fine.

With that routine going we got in a dive or two per day for the next five days we stayed there. Unfortunately for me, on the last dive day of the trip as I came out of the water from my first dive I suddenly felt sick as a dog. At first I thought I had done something wrong and was suffering from a light case of decompression sickness; but no, it wasn't that thank God.

Alas, I soon realized that it was MY turn to experience the same virus that Don and Pedro had both suffered through. It definitely took the stuffings out of me, and I mean that literally. I was "out of it" and stayed that way during the journey home the next day. Urp! Squirt!

But that nasty stuff wasn’t until the end of our stay. Over the course of the nine dives I did get in, I got a chance to try out my new Pedro-given dive skills, especially for buoyancy. I didn’t go back to loading up with 24 pounds of ballast but I confess that I DID add a couple of two pounders to the upper trim pockets of my BCD. So, along with my 14 pound drop weights I ended up carrying 18 pounds.

What a relief! With that measly four extra pounds I no longer had any problems with being too light at the end of any of my dives. My problem is completely solved, but I am happy to have learned what I did, because now I am much lighter than I was and so more maneuverable and better balanced underwater. So thank you Pedro for making me learn how to do it the right way.

This will likely be my last post for about a week. In a few hours, at 1:30 am, Don will be picking us up for our next dive trip. This time we will be heading up to the far north of Luzon to dive the waters of the South China Sea on the shores of western Cagayan province.

We’ll be staying at little resort on the beach that doubles as a way stop for truckers. Don has stayed there numerous times but always took his motorcycle, so has never had a chance to dive the area yet. He says he’s never seen any divers at all with the closest dive resort almost 50 km away. So, we’ll be in uncharted waters diving wise. Who knows what we’ll see? I’m getting excited at the prospect. I’ll let you know how it turns out next week. Til then….

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Puerto Galera Stingray

A couple of bannerfish had my attention when my dive mate began to raise a ruckus behind me off to my right. I glanced over to see him excitedly waving me over before disappearing down below a steep drop off. I had no idea what was up but I figured it must be something pretty cool. He's learned his lesson; there've been times I've given him hell for not getting my attention when he sees something notable, or even things just new and different.

Keeping the video running I kicked through the water to the edge of the precipice and followed my dive buddy down to where he was at about 60 or 70 feet. He was horizontal at the base of the terrace, pulled back from what He was pointing at, which was something at the base of the cliff. Stare as I might, I could not see what it was. I suspected then that it was a stingray, since hiding in plain sight is there thing.

They use their "wings" to dig under whatever silt and sand they land on. I've never actually seen them do that, I've only observed the result. Actually, I've gotten fairly good at spotting the telltale outlines of their flat bodies, especially the two eye stalks.

Still not sure where or what it was he wanted me to film, I cautiously pushed in with him continuously guiding me. Finally I spotted it.
Normally, when I've come up on a hiding stingray they blast off in a cloud of silt and that's it, they go and they're gone. This time it took off but not all that quickly and didn't go very far. It gave me the opportunity to to continue to film it while following it.

Maybe it was sick or had just eaten or something. It might even have been injured. Examining the video in slow motion and the stills I notice that the back part of its left wing looks split. That might be normal, but that's all I could see out of the ordinary. On second thought though, I just now reeaxamined the still photos and it appears normal, with no obvious injuries at all, except for the slight scrapes or scarring on the center of its back.

After bothering it with my cam in video mode over two of its "escape" swims, I followed it one more time to get a few still shots. It held still for me while I slowly moved around it snapping one shot after another. I was very surprised it let me do this. I've spotted at least a dozen of these things and none have ever allowed me to get that close.

At that depth the coloration is very limited without a very strong flash. I would love to get a more elaborate lighting system for my Canon underwater package. I know they have them. It's on my wish list for some day. We were below 60 feet when I took these stills and the video clip. Although notice that the blue spots on the ray do come through pretty clear.

The final photo is more typical of my stingray sightings. Don was a few feet to my front when I noticed the ray directly to my front. I had just enough time to bring the camera up and push the button when it exploded from the seafloor banking off to the left. I had no idea what its direction of escape was until I spotted movement off to the left. I was lucky to catch this typically shy and very fast stingray in this action shot.

Friday, May 27, 2011

We amble up the coastal walk...photos!

All my girls have made the trip to Puerto Galera with their mom and I. The one who goes most often though is the youngest; SHE is the fun one still. Her two older sisters tend to be sticks in the mud by comparison, always texting or just sitting in the room. She’ll be 13 soon—I hope she doesn’t suddenly turn into her older sisters, more interested in socializing on Facebook and cell phones than swimming with her dad.

And, unlike her older siblings, she is ready at the drop of a hat to go anywhere we go and do anything we do, especially whatever it is I AM DOING. If I'm climbing a steep jungle covered hill, she's right behind me. If I'm snorkeling deep choppy waters, she's right there too.

She would have loved to go out and scuba with me, and now I'm thinking to take her back with us and have the Big Apple get her trained up so she can. She takes to the water like a fish anyway, and fears nothing, so why not?

During the five days we stayed in Sabang, in the afternoons after my last dive of the day, she, her mom and I would stroll around the tiny resort village taking in the sights and stopping in at various seaside cafes and restaurants to check out the coffee and ambience of each.

I always carry my Canon looking to snap shots of everything that catches my eye. Naturally, my girl wants to do the same thing. Like I said, if I'm doing it, SHE wants to as well. I've got her snapping photos with my little Sony Cybershot.

Including my wife and stepdaughter in my pics is always a favorite photo subject of mine. For me, without people I know in the shots, the photos just don't have the same interest when I view them later.

This is one of those "only in the Philippines" shots. We were having some coffee and snacks at a place called Eddie's, when this mangy dog trotted in and decided to relax next to my feet as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Fine by me as long as he didn't get TOO close. No one paid the pathetic creature any mind at all, except for me as I pestered it with several flashes from my camera.

Using my mangy dog neighbor to frame this shot of the boats moored in the cove outside of the restaurant was a kind of whimsical thing to do I think. I mean who DOES that? ME!

These three little kids were playing on the edge of the still unfinished Sabang Pier. It always amazes me how kids are left to their own devices like this. I'm sure they were perfectly safe, but still...

This little girl having a pensive moment sitting on the stern of one of the numerous resort dive boats was also taken from Eddie's. It's a good spot for photo taking, opportunties at every turn of the head.

On this particular afternoon, from Eddie's we ambled east up the coastal walk. Noticing an enticingly tropical entrance to a hotel called "The Garden of Eden," we decided to check it out. Here the girls are asking the desk clerk about room rates, which, we learned, are considerably higher than Big Apples'. Still, they aren't THAT bad. The place is SO gorgeous that we may just give it a try one of these days.

The Garden of Eden's pool and garden. It seemed to me that most of the customers frequenting this place are Europeans. I say that since almost all the men lounging around its pool were sporting speedos. Ugh.

The Tropicana Hotel, easily the loftiest resort in Sabang, makes for a pretty backdrop above the Garden of Eden's pool.

My girl and I took dozens of photos of the myriad flowering plants on beautiful display along the long promenade that passes through the length of the Eden resort, probably well over a hundred meters long, all the way up the hill to bungalow rooms with a hillside view.

Orchids, lilies, flowering tropical plants of every imaginable ilk line the long walkway in The Garden of Eden. Whatever they are paying the gardener, he deserves more.

The girls passing through Eden's restaurant and bar patio on the way back out to the coastal sidewalk to continue our early evening stroll.

Looking back over their shoulders into the setting sun at the sweeping curve of the Sabang coastline.

The waterside entrance to Sonny's Inn, one of the many resort hotels that front the cove of Sabang.

Tina's, this hotel is just about to the end of the beach side walk, which passes right through the middle of it's restaurant seating.

Doing a U-turn at the end of the sidewalk, here we are about to walk back through Tina's on our return back up the coast from where we started.

Almost back to Eddie's, the concrete sidewalk turns narrow as it passes by the JAA Lodge, a rather unattractive name for a resort hotel if ever I heard one.

I realize that the town probably really needs this new pier, which is STILL not completed after almost a year of construction, but unfortunately it really destroys the beauty of that part of the cove's coast.

The next day we moved to the other side of the peninsula to the Sinandigan Lodge not far from the place we used to stay at, The Coral Cove Resort, before that sad sack place finally closed due to legal disputes a few months ago. We stayed over there for the rest of the trip where I put my new diving skills to use on that side of the peninsula.

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.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Hole in the Wall and Tangled

When Pedro told us our next dive would be to “the hole in the wall” I was excited enough to set aside my obsession over my continuing difficulties with buoyancy. And by difficulties of course I’m referring to having too much of it, buoyancy that is; especially at the end of each dive when my tank pressure gets down close to 750 lbs.

Pedro and I had been skirting the subject. I dealt with it on my own by continuing to blow air out of my lungs when my butt started to float upwards. And when THAT wasn’t enough, I’d blow out air AND point my head towards the seafloor and kick down to it.

Additionally, on my own, I continued trying new ways to remove the last of any air hiding in my buoyancy compensator. After all, Pedro insisted that the problem wasn’t weight, but residual air causing the extreme positive buoyancy.

I’m sure Pedro saw me struggling through all this—the constant swimming down, the continuous pulling on the air release handles, and pushing the deflator button. And what REALLY frustrated me is that I was the only one struggling with that particular problem.

The good thing is that I WAS ABLE to stay down there, even at ten pounds lighter than what I had grown used to. I thought back to the time last year, when I first started diving, when uncontrollably, I had popped to the surface from 20 feet down while dragging my dive partner up as well. With my new skills and knowlege, THAT could never happen to me again. I’m sure of that.

The boat ride out to the hole-in-the-wall dive site was as far away as any of the training took us. Once again we headed east up the coast until we ran out of coastline as it bent around to the north. The boat stopped and we all dropped in.

As far as what we’d be seeing I had no idea what to expect. I figured it would be a cave or large fissure in the side of a cliff face somewhere down there, but it was WAY cooler than that. I followed Jamie as he went right around a bulge in the rock face and suddenly there in front of us was a hole that went right through a wall of stone.

Jamie turned around to make sure I was behind him. He pointed into the opening, beckoned me to follow, and then swam in. That’s when I could see that it is really more of a tunnel than a hole. At the entrance I waited a moment to study it. I could see that Jamie’s tank was only a few inches from the ceiling and he still had a couple feet of clearance below him. Not wanting to scrape my tank on the ceiling I hugged the tunnel floor as I passed through.

I’m trying to recall how long the tunnel is—probably less than 12 feet. It seems as I went in Jamie was already at the other end. I DO remember though that visually it is a really cool feature, stunning actually. It was one of many times that I wished I could have carried my camera with me during some of those training dives. I’ll have to take a look for it on YouTube—I’m sure several folks have posted a clip of it there. (See the one I found above).

Soon, all of us were through the tunnel. I looked around for Pedro when I heard the “look over here” metal-on-metal sound emanating from somewhere. Sound is not directional in the water; it seems to come from everywhere. I knew Jamie hadn’t made it because I was looking right at him. Yup, it was Pedro. I found him about a dozen feet away to my right. When I caught his eye he pointed up.

‘Okay,’ I thought, “I guess we are going up now.’ I nodded, but that was not the response he wanted. This time he pointed at both his eyes with two fingers and pointed up again, jabbing extra hard for emphasis. 'Look THERE!'

Oh! He wants me to LOOK up.’ So I did, and immediately I was stunned at what I saw. ‘Whoa! Look at all the humongous FISH!’ I practically screamed in my head.

Above us, maybe 15 feet up, was the biggest school of BIG fish I have ever seen. It WAS impressive. Through the greenish murk I could see that they were silver monsters packed tight together as far as the eye could see, which wasn’t all that far on that particular day.

PADI teaches that objects underwater appear about a third larger than actual; even so, these shiny finned behemoths looked to be over three feet long, so they were likely at least two feet. They seemed content to swim lazily along, a huge mass above us, sometimes not moving at all, almost hovering. The camera wouldn’t have done much good that time though, the water clarity and gloominess would not have made for very good shots; but I definitely would have tried. It was surreal, like so many other sights I’ve witnessed during my short scuba career.

For the next 15 or so minutes we explored the area. When it was time to go up for our three minute safety stop at 15 feet, Pedro gave the signal to Jamie to deploy the diver down buoy. It had been a longer than usual dive or we had gone deeper than usual because my pressure was already well into the red. That meant I was light as hell, forcing me to swim down hard to stay down, all while alternately pulling my air release lanyards and pressing the deflator; and AS usual, ALL to no avail.

For once Pedro decided to take an active part in my buoyancy struggle. He approached and began tugging on my air releases as well. But then he swam over the top of my head and disappeared behind me. I felt him pulling and pushing on me but I had no clue what he was doing. I decided to stay still and let him do his thing. I thought perhaps he was trying to find the wayward air in my BCD by squeezing the bladder.

As Pedro swam over me I glanced at my console because I could see that we were both drifting upwards. I knew this was bound to happen since I could no longer actively work against it. About then I think Pedro also realized this and began to swim away from me, or at least he TRIED to.

YANK! Somehow we had become tangled up. Snap, jerk, yank! I have no idea how he managed to do it but we were now tied together back to back. I couldn’t see a thing behind me. I had no idea what was knotting us up like that. TUG! Yank, jerk. He continued to try to pull away. I couldn't see it, but I sure could FEEL it.

I didn’t know what to do. He was behind me, the snag was behind me; all I knew is that Pedro began to sharply tug and wrench so hard that it felt to me as if he was angry. At that point I was concerned that all that heaving on my regulator hoses was causing damage to them, and that made ME angry.

By this time we had busted our safety stop and we were close to the surface. I could see Jamie and I beckoned for him to come on over thinking he could help sort us out. I could still breathe normally from my regulator and as long as I was breathing I knew I was fine. What WAS causing consternation for me though was Pedro’s continuous yanking. What he was doing FELT destructive but I was completely powerless to do anything other than to clutch my console with BOTH hands. (Make a note of BOTH hands).

With Jamie deciding not to come over just yet and with Pedro continuing to jerk me around like a ragdoll I finally decided to just come out of my BCD and go on snorkel. I reckoned I’d then be able to find the problem and release it. I had my top clasp unfastened when Pedro made one last mighty tug and we were free. I was relieved but I was sure there MUST be some damage to my equipment with all the abuse, at least it sure felt like it to me. I couldn’t see a thing, so it was fingers crossed for me.

Back in the boat, Pedro didn’t say a thing. Not so for me.

“What happened back there” I asked, perched on my piece of the gunwale ledge.

Matter of factly he explained, “I was TRYING to adjust your position in the water to get that air out of your BCD, but when you didn’t cooperate I said screw it. But then, as I swam away from you we got tangled up. And when you began grabbing at me, I tugged away from you as hard as I could.”

Hearing HIS explanation shocked me for a moment, but a flash of anger closely followed. Feeling my stomach go into knots I quietly exploded: “WHAT! Are you KIDDING me? How could I have grabbed at you when I was facing AWAY from you…!”

At that I stopped. I could see Jamie across from me on the other side of the boat. He didn’t say anything, but he subtly pursed his lips and slightly jerked his head in a sideways “No.” By that time I’d really grown to respect that guy. From one retired air force sergeant to another I read him loud and clear. I grit my teeth and kept my grumbles to myself. No more was ever said about it by anyone, which was fine by me.

So, try as I might, my underweighted buoyancy woes continued, and so did my certification training… It was ALL part of the fun.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

...up in a puff of smoke.

The quest for a dive card continued. Three decades in the U.S. military can make one extremely task oriented; so, once I decided I HAD to have an advanced open water card, earning one was inevitable. To make that happen, the curriculum called for us to hit the water three times a day, mostly in the open water, but sometimes in the pool. Of course the open water is where I prefer to be. Regardless of where, the PADI training is challenging and fun; not extremely difficult, not physically, but to do the tasks correctly does take focus.

Watching my two training buddies occasionally struggle with some of the drills made me appreciate my previous hours in the water. I’m pretty sure experience counts for the greatest percentage of how a good diver is made.

As for me, I’m still on my way to becoming a passably good diver; meaning one that dives safe, is competent and confident. Even though I now have my advanced openwater card I still don’t FEEL advanced—far from it. I’m on the way though; experience will get me there.

On our second to the last dive of the basic course Pedro informed us that THIS time we’d be required to completely remove our masks, then put them back on and clear them of water. I’d done that many times by then so I didn’t sweat it. My two classmates, now that was another story. Hearing what was in store immediately started up the anxiety. I think they thought they were all finished with the mask removal drills. The earlier drill we had only flooded the mask, this time Pedro wanted it all the way off. I was amazed how doing something so simple could be such a bugaboo for the new guys. It’s that experience thing again I suppose. The idea SHOULD be to keep doing that which causes discomfort until it no longer has that effect.

Pedro had me do it first, pointing at me while acting out the removal of his own mask. Showing a little bravado I snatched mine off and held it out for a moment before stretching the strap back around the back of my head. I didn’t worry about keeping my eyes closed and was pleasantly surprised that I could still see, although a bit blurrily, and better yet, there was no sting. Even after I had my mask mostly free of water I continued to experience no eye pain. Maybe it was the adrenaline of the moment that kept the usual discomfort from the salt water at bay; whatever it was, it was just fine by me.

The other two fellows needn’t have fretted. With only a hint of hesitation, each easily complied with the requirements of the task. Although I believe it was the electrician that didn’t pull the mask off enough at first. He tried to get away with a bit of cheat by just pulling it away from his face. Pedro had him completely remove it before he was satisfied. I chuckled into my regulator watching it.

While still on land in the open area between the pool and the rinse basins, Pedro had provided quite a bit of instruction on how to navigate with our compasses. It was all about how to line up the lubberline with north, moving the compass bezel around to the desired azimuth, and finally how to use landmarks to keep to our desired course of travel, all while gauging distance by counting number of fin pumps. It was quite thorough; I think Pedro actually teaches navigation better even than the PADI video clips. His advice on using underwater references to swim to as “way marks” instead of strictly relying full time on the compass is especially useful.

Ah, but the navigation subject matter became another source of a “frictional moment” between Pedro and I. I really don’t think I did anything all that provocative, but there were times that I just seemed to get under Pedro Man's skin. This time it was while he was showing me how to use the compass on my regulator console. It has a few differences from how the wrist compasses provided by the Big Apple are used.

We were doing fine during his spiel. I followed his commentary with complete attention, appreciative of the extra time he took to explain the nuances of my particular compass. When he got to the end of his teaching moment though, THAT’S when I did it. I didn’t mean to, but basically I seemed to blow off ALL of his “how to” pointers when I questioned him, “Okay, NOW, how about if I just use this window on the side of my compass to find and maintain my direction of travel?”

He looked away in exasperation and responded in a huff, “Yeah, YOU do that. YOU use the cheater window!”

At that he was done with me on THAT subject. My heart sank. I tried to explain why I asked the question. “Peter, I’m not TRYING to piss you off dude. It’s just that my console high pressure line isn’t quite long enough to allow me to hold it directly in front of me and still look directly down at the compass face. You know? That’s why I’ve been using the little viewing window on the side. Is there a problem with just doing it that way? That's ALL I'm asking.”

I couldn’t tell if he was peeved, bemused or both. He curtly repeated his reply to go ahead and use the window. At the time, when we went through what became a terse little tête-à-tête, we were in the boat sitting at anchor having just returned from a dive. Without another word or look back, Pedro jumped into the water and splashed up to the beach and into the resort area.

Carefully choosing my own footing while going down the gang plank I reflected on what just happened, ‘Dang it. I did it AGAIN! I GOT to stop making a habit out of pissing off Pedro.’

The next dive we tested our newly learned nav skills—it took us down around the bend from the Sabang cove to the east—actually, we always went east. The boat dropped us off near the shoreline where we grouped together in an impromptu underwater “classroom” somewhere around 15 feet down. Pedro had told us topside that one at a time we were to find 90 degrees or east on our compasses, swim 25 fin pumps in that direction and then turn around and follow the reverse heading of 270 back. It sounds simple, and it is, but remember, we were still doing the basic course.

My two classmates each had their turns ahead of me. I already 90 lined up on my compass and was ready to go for when my turn came. Pedro pointed first at the fireman and then motioned for him to go—off he went and soon he came back, strongly pumping his fins. Then his buddy took off and returned. By this time I was totally perplexed, because both of them had simply taken off in the direction that Pedro had pointed, which according to my compass was almost due south. Anyway, by no stretch of the imagination did they go east.

I told myself, ‘Eh? Oh well, I’ll just go East, the way he TOLD us to.’ Ever mindful of trying to comply with “orders,” I’ll always suffer from that “military” state of mind, where everything MUST be accomplished literally, not interpretively—insistence on precision is a disease I’ll always proudly suffer from I think.

Later, on the surface, while waiting for the boat to pick us up, I asked them why they all went in the wrong direction. Pedro just shrugged and smiled saying that he didn’t know what direction was what, he was just telling them to go. He thought it was funny, and as long as HE did, so did I.

My classmates sheepishly admitted that they couldn’t really see the heading on their compasses, so they just took off, did their 25 pumps and returned figuring Pedro would either correct them or make them do it again if he wasn’t happy with it.

I nodded thinking smugly, ‘So, it seems my cheater window works pretty well!’ Not wanting to provoke, I kept my self-satisfied thoughts to myself. But I couldn’t help but to shake my head, thinking back to all that great training we’d just had on navigation that just seemed to go up in a puff of smoke.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Diving Strife

THE primary source of conflict between Pedro and me was our disagreement over my weighting system. As it turns out, I’m glad we had this bit of strife because his stubborn insistence that he was right and I was wrong caused me to learn something extremely useful.

First of all, I do admit that Pedro WAS mostly right. Before starting my training under him I really believed that I needed to carry 24 pounds of lead to keep me from popping back up. When he saw how much I was using he made me cut that down to just 14 pounds. I was appalled—how would I ever keep my fat ass submerged once the air pressure in my tank got below 750 pounds? The tank becomes more buoyant as the air pressure in it decreases—something I became painfully aware of in one of my earlier dives with my original dive mentor. See this earlier post about that incident.

The lighter weight I carried mattered little for the first couple of dives. A useful thing I’ve picked up over the course of my previous pre-PADI dives has been my learned ability to control my air usage. The other less experienced trainees burned through their air a whole lot faster than I did, hundreds of pounds faster in fact. Even so, with my weight total only half of what I was used to, I could feel myself tending to float up. I constantly had to fight against it. I hate that feeling. I’d continually release air from my BCD until no more air would come out and still I could feel myself going positively buoyant.

So, I thought I’d outsmart old Pedro and sneak some extra weights into the pockets of my BCD. The only one I told was Jamie. I asked him not to tell Pedro but I don’t think it mattered. Pedro sees all and hears all. He never said anything to me during that dive but he sure did just before the very next one. As I prepped for it he informed me, “THIS time you will dive ONLY with your two 7 pounders and no more.” I looked over at Jamie and accused him, “YOU told him, DIDN’T you!” Jamie denied it.

Over the next two dives my enjoyment was much reduced; all because I was sure I was underweighted. On each dive, halfway through my time underwater I’d begin to go positive. Continually dumping air until there was no more air to dump, I found myself having to swim down to keep from popping up. It sucked.

It even affected my ability to descend. After flipping off the boat into the water I’d depress the deflator button and watch the bubbles come out, but without that extra weight I stayed firmly near the surface while the other divers were already well beneath me. I was desperate to figure out what I was doing wrong but I didn’t feel like I could speak to Pedro about it. I thought he’d just think I was being stubbornly resistant to him. Instead, I began asking the other master divers.

In trying to help me solve the descent problem Jamie suggested I go into the water with my vest already mostly deflated. He suggested it after I mentioned I was having a time just getting all the air out of my BCD. I would press the deflator button until no more air bubbles would come out, then I’d pull the handles to my vent releases, one at the top, the other at the bottom, and still I couldn’t get all the air out. It was befuddling, very frustrating, and it was happening BECAUSE I was carrying so little weight. Well, that was MY opinion anyway.

But I never got to try out Jamie’s suggestion to dive with an uninflated BCD though, because on the way out to the dive site Pedro noticed me going to great pains to squeeze out all the air. “What are you doing?” he asked. I told him what I wanted to try but he would have none of it, informing me, “No, that’s NOT how it’s done. You ALWAYS partially inflate your BCD before going into the water.”

‘So much for THAT idea,’ I thought glumly.

After that dive I finally approached Pedro about not being able to deflate my BCD. His first comment was to belittle the type of BCD I had, which is back inflated where the bladders are situated on the back on both sides of the tank. He called it a turtle vest. I told him, “Well, I need to learn how to use it, since that’s what I have.” He told me it didn’t matter what kind I used, that my problem was that I wasn’t properly deflating it because of my body position in the water. He said I needed to make sure the air was at the top of whichever release valve I was working with. He spent several minutes showing me how to do this. Not completely convinced, I asked him if I could add some weight nonetheless; but he held firm that THAT was NOT going to happen.

Going around Pedro made me feel disloyal as hell. I felt that doing so demonstrated very poor form on my part, but I did it because I needed answers. Jamie told me to gut it out and once I was certified I could wear as much weight as I wanted to.

Not stopping with just Jamie, I went to another master diver, an affable American guy, and asked him how much weight he dove with since he was closer to my size. I was shocked to find out he only carries a total of eight pounds. I couldn’t believe it. ‘What! How could that be?’ I marveled.

This diver, who approached my more buoyant rotundity, gave me a great clue as to what I was NOT doing—I wasn’t using lung volume to my advantage. He told me that he would simply empty his lungs and doing that caused him to drop to the bottom as fast as gravity would allow him to. Now THAT was something I could try.

The very next dive I gave it a shot. Pushing just half the air out of my chest while deflating my BCD a little, caused me to sink immediately. Yes! I actually went down faster than I wanted to and had to kick my flippers a bit to allow me time to clear my ears on the way down. It was a revelation. Anyway, that ONE problem was solved.

However, I was STILL sure that I was underweighted, because at the end of the dive I continued having to fight against popping to the surface as my tank emptied. There WAS one important difference from before though, NOW I could much more easily control the tendency to float upwards. All I had to do was empty my lungs and allow gravity to assist. Even so, having to work so hard at maintaining depth was destroying a lot of the pleasure of the dive.

I continued to ask around about my buoyancy problem and I’m sure it got back to Pedro because he called only me over to the dive hooch. As is his way, he did not let on as to his intentions. It made me nervous. He asked for my weight. As is my way I made a joke about it before telling him. At first he had me be the one to enter the numbers into a calculator, but not familiar with it, I botched it. He took over and in a few seconds had a result. The display along with some kind of chart came exactly to 14. In that slightly sardonic Aussie way of his he told me, “So you see, your weights should only be 14 pounds, and no more than that!”

At that we got into it again. I asked, “Okay, so WHY am I popping up at the end of all these dives? You’re KILL’N me man.”

Without hesitation he answered, “I told you before that you aren’t getting all the air out of your BCD.” He went on to repeat what he’d told me before, that I was not correctly positioning my body in the water as I attempted to vent the air. He explained that back inflated vests have a tendency to trap air, but that trapped air could STILL be released if I moved my body either vertically or horizontally in the water so that the air COULD vent. He was quite adamant. At that, motivated and mostly persuaded, I became determined that the next time, I WOULD make it happen! Or would I?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

“Man! I have NEVER felt ANYTHING like that before!”

So, back to last month’s dive trip where I went to The Big Apple dive resort with the express purpose of earning my advanced recreational diver open water certification through PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors).

If you read any of my earlier posts about the trip you’ll know that I MOSTLY found the certification course quite easy. But! Just because I found the series of instructional dives pain free, and even mostly pleasurable, it doesn’t mean that it went without a hitch. I have to confess that I had a couple diving moments that were a bit dicey; and I’ll also admit here and now that my relationship with the instructor was not perfect either.

My difficulty with Pedro was entirely my own doing. My mistake was telling Neil, the resort manager, in an email that even though I wasn’t certified by any diving associations that I did have over forty dives already under the tutelage of a highly experienced diver friend. To make it worse I even told the manager that I’d been down below 100 feet, 125 feet actually. Neil responded with concern, hoping that I had the proper level of training to do something like that. I didn’t realize it until later that he had forwarded the entire email string on to his instructor, Peter, aka Pedro, the angry Aussie! (No, he's not THAT bad. I jest!)

Pedro does have a bit of a reputation and in my case it had preceded my meeting him. The guy who I had heard about Pedro from is also the guy who convinced me that The Big Apple is the best place around to get a dive card. He said, sure, the instructor comes across sometimes as hard bitten, but that toughness is balanced by his willingness to give students the benefit of the doubt, that they actually paid attention when verbal instruction is given. And after going through the training regime myself, I can verify it’s true. Pedro tells you what you should know, he demonstrates it, has his students give it a go, and unless they completely botch it (and even if they do), Pedro will pass that student. And why not, if the new diver isn’t comfortable with their newly learned abilities, what they SHOULD do is continue to work on them until they ARE comfortable.

In my case for instance, I never did absolutely perfect my buoyancy control during the relatively short duration of my training. With Pedro observing I attempted to complete the various exercises for this important diving skill and I did get through most of them, but if I had to describe how I did, I would honestly say, speaking scientifically, that I got through much of that part of the curriculum slightly better than half-assed. Point is, I KNOW I was woeful at it and need to work on it. I still do.

The first moment I realized that Pedro was already pre-cocked to be irritated with me was on the second day in the pool. He had me demonstrate how to react to a free-flowing regulator, where it malfunctions and provides air nonstop at full blast. Obviously you can’t just leave the regulator in your mouth, the air is impossible to breathe that way. The idea is to learn how to sip air from the discharging regulator by holding it to the mouth while directing a portion of that flow into the mouth for consumption. In a real emergency situation like that you’d be heading back to the surface at the same time your sipping because at that rate of air flow your tank will soon be empty.

I was pumped at the end of the drill, which consisted of me holding the manual button down to simulate a free flow and breathing from it until Pedro was satisfied that I knew how to “sip” from it. The reason I was so wound up was that the air jetting out at that uncontrolled rate is icy cold and literally freezes the teeth during the sipping process. I exclaimed to Pedro, "Man! I have NEVER felt ANYTHING like THAT before!"

Now, I THOUGHT that THAT was a relatively innocent thing to say. No big deal, right? I was ready to press on to the next, but Pedro peered at me oddly before saying coldly, “You know, I have NO IDEA what you’ve done or NOT done.”

It was strange, because up until that moment I had never picked up any kind of negative vibes from him at all, and now, THIS. Immediately, I KNEW he had read the emails I’d sent to Neil all those weeks before. I looked at Pedro, pretending to be puzzled at his comment, while trying to figure out what he expected from me in response, if anything. I mean, I had obviously just pissed off someone I did NOT want to make upset and NOW all I wanted to do was defuse him. So, when in doubt in a situation like THAt, the best policy is usually to suck up. In other words, grovel. With groveling in mind, I said with as much self-deprecation as I could muster, “Peter, I’m here to learn from the best; and that would be YOU, right?”

He looked at me expressionless, I think looking to spot any sarcasm in me. I slapped him on the shoulder hoping to express sincerity, and not knowing if I was succeeding. Somehow, I don't think so, even though I actually WAS as sincere as I could be.

Anyway, thankfully, the moment passed and we continued on with the training checklist. At that, I told myself, ‘Dang, I do NOT want to get on this guy’s wrong side. I need him to sign me off so I can get that card! Let’s be careful with the offhand remarks, boy. Keep ‘em to yourself!’
(Famous last words!)

Unfortunately, that little incident was NOT the end of the tension between us. It turned out to be just the beginning… although, honestly, for the most part we got along just fine. It's just that every so often.... more on that in the next post.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

"Water for Elephants," a Chick Flick, but I liked it too.

I just about passed up going to see this movie. With my 30 year old daughter and a couple of her girlfriends on Facebook gushing about how they HAD to see it, and when I saw that the brooding vampire guy from the Twilight series was the romantic lead, I figured it would just be another romantically overdone chick flick.

But finally we went ahead and bought tickets for it. I mean I needed SOMETHING to watch while I ate my popcorn, so we settled on “Water for Elephants.” Basically, we chose it through a process of elimination. One of the other three at the local quad was a Filipino flick—sorry, not much on those. And then there was “Thor,” an okay show that I’d already seen a few days before. And the third, “Fast & Furious Five” has no appeal to me at all—narcissistic jerks in flashy cars, thrashing and crashing to urban thug music—no thanks.

In hindsight, I never should have resisted going to see “Water for Elephants.” I enjoyed it from the opening scenes, which harkens back to the way Titanic opens, another popular period piece from 1997. Both “Water” and “Titanic” have centenarians tell their stories many decades after the events portrayed in their respective movies, recalling the times when the old tellers were still young, dumb and wrinkle free.

Titanic uses this device with 100 year old Rose Dawson telling her story as the camera fades back to April 1912, when she as a teenage Rose begins her sea journey aboard the doomed ship. “Water” starts similarly with Hal Holbrook playing a crabby old fellow named Jacob Jankowski, also almost 100 years young, telling his story to a modern day circus boss.

Holbrook, basically in a cameo role, starts off as a seemingly cantankerous curmudgeon before rousing the curiosity of the circus manager. This “Big Top” fellow, who up until then only cares about returning the old man to his nursing home, can’t help himself when he learns that Jankowski actually witnessed the legendary 1931 Benzini Brothers circus tragedy (fictional of course). The manager opens a file drawer and pulls out an ancient picture of a beautiful blonde woman atop an elephant, circa 1931, and hands it to Jacob who seems stunned by it. Jacob’s eye glaze as he gazes at the photo of his late wife as she looked when he first met her all those years ago.

It’s dark and stormy out. Holbrook as Jankowski is deeply affected by the old photo. He asks the circus boss if he has anything to drink. The circus manager breaks out a bottle as the two of them sit down. Jankowski begins telling a tale of how he ended up working for the ill-fated Benzini Brother’s circus, back when he was a homeless young man during the Great Depression. The voice of Hal Holbrook playing a centenarian in modern times starts out cracked and shaky. In midsentence, the aged narrator changes seamlessly to 23 year old Robert Pattinson. As the narrator’s voice becomes young and virile the viewers find themselves in 1931.

So that’s how the film starts and where my account of the plotline ends. It’s not my purpose here to recount the entire story start to end; you can read that on Wikipedia if you want. After watching “Water” however, I am compelled to develop some of the thoughts that occurred to me during the movie.

On that note, lately, I haven’t much remarked on films. For a while there I reviewed just about every one I viewed. Now, it takes an exceptional flick to inspire me enough to write about it. In this case I feel that inspiration, mostly because of the intriguing historical and social aspects presented in the film as follows:

• The era of The Great Depression: The film mostly takes place in 1931, two years into the Great Depression. The extreme hardships of those times play an important role in the film. Men are desperate to work and August, the German American owner of the circus, takes advantage of their misery by shorting their pay or by not paying them at all. There are times even, when his goons simply throw workers off the fast moving train, often to their death, to avoid paying them. In the movie this brutal practice is referred to as being “red-lighted.”

• German August vs. Polish Jacob: Eight years from 1931, Nazi Germany will invade and cruelly crush the people of Poland. I see it as no coincidence then that the classic conflict in this movie between the evil and the virtuous reflects the coming international conflict, when a malicious Nazi Germany attacks and subjugates an innocent Poland, an event that marks the start of WWII. In effect then, this film presents a microcosm of how Nazi Germany enslaves the rest of Europe, with Rosie the Elephant, representing the allies (USA, USSR), coming to Europe’s rescue and bashing the murderous Nazis into submission. Unlike the events of WWII however, where Germany had its way with Poland, in “Water” Jacob the Pole provides a much more satisfying ending when he becomes responsible for the end of the German’s reign of terror. This happens when a prostrate Jacob, himself just about to be killed by one of August’s henchmen, commands Rosie the elephant with his last breath to bludgeon the German with a spike as the crazed Kraut, using a bull pike, chokes the life out of his wife, Marlena, Jacob’s future wife as it turns out. As soon as I saw the actor who plays August, Christoph Waltz, I recognized him as the Nazi SS officer from “Glorious Basterds,” so it was no stretch to see him as the symbol of a nasty Nazi, especially with his slightly German accented English.

• Prohibition: In 1931 the Prohibition Era still has two years left to go. This period in American history plays prominently in “Water for Elephants.” In almost every scene the circus workers are seen defying the law as they drink alcohol. In one scene August, Marlena and Jacob are drinking in a “speak easy saloon” when the cops raid the place. Marlena and Jacob escape together and get separated from August; this is when they steal their first adulterous kiss with each other.

• Adultery: The moviemakers seek to justify this wrongdoing by showing the extent of August’s horrible treatment of his wife, Marlena. Through much of the movie, Marlena attempts to resist her attraction to Jacob, but August’s viciousness worsens to the point that he actually pushes Marlena into Jacob’s arms. Jacob also struggles to do right, but his love for Marlena drives him to want to protect her from August whenever the circus owner goes into one of his out of control rages.

• Jamaican Ginger Extract: Also due to the ban against drinking alcohol at the time, one of Jacob’s circus buddies, an old man named Camel, who had come to Jacob’s aid when the young man first jumped the train, has the dangerous habit of drinking Jamaican Ginger Extract (also known as “Jake” back in the day). After years of indulging in this unhealthy so-called “patent medicine,” Camel develops a form of paralysis, as the extract actually contains a neurotoxin called Tricresyl phosphate. Camel’s sickness prevents him from any work, a kiss of death for anyone working for The Benzini Brothers Circus. Jacob tries to save Camel from being “red lighted,” but once August finds out about the bedridden Camel he has the stricken man tossed from the speeding train. Ultimately this sadistic act results in the end of August and The Benzini Brothers Circus.

• The string of “necessary” human foibles (as a cinematic device): The wanton murder of their paralyzed addicted circus buddy is more than several of the long oppressed workers can stomach. They exact their vengeance on August and his goons by releasing caged circus animals into the crowds at the height of a performance. It is during the ensuing mayhem, while the desperate circus goers seek to escape being mauled by the big cats, that the decisive act of the movie takes place. Innocent people are trampled, mauled and killed, this is when the disgruntled men murder August’s hated enforcers. So, one could say that without the desperation of The Great Depression, without Prohibition and the lawlessness it spawned, without Camel’s addiction to the toxic “Jake,” without August’s abject inhumanity, and without the forbidden love between Jacob and Marlena, the entire amazing story could not happen. Using a bit of alliteration, I guess you could say that human foibles, failings and folly make for fully fantastic fables! (Yes, I came up with that.)

One of the reasons I so thoroughly enjoyed this movie is that by the end of it, virtually every loose end is taken care of. Every bad guy is dead at the hands of the good guys and not so good guys (subjecting innocent circus goers to danger and death? That is NOT good). The REALLY good guy ends up with the good gal after rescuing her, along with a very good elephant. All in all we get to see one of those “and they all lived happily ever after” endings. I LIKE that.

But not every one likes it as much as I do. In doing some post cinematic viewing research, I see that a lot of professional critics, unlike the amateur reviewer that I am, fault the onscreen relationship between Jacob and Marlena. This is decidedly unjust criticism. Evidently, what these “critics” are all clamoring for is something more passionate between the two romantic lead characters; they claim that “chemistry” is lacking between Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson. I say bunk to that. When I watched them together I appreciated that the director was trying to capture what it feels like to be in a forbidden adulterous relationship. What these numbskull critics are doing, if you ask me, is projecting modern values on a time when doing such a thing would have made the participants extremely uncomfortable. THAT 1930’s discomfort and angst is what I believe was well captured by Pattinson and Witherspoon. Once again, being the contrarian that I am, the thing hated MOST by the professional reviewers is what I liked THE most. Besides, when you look at Pattinson’s so-called onscreen “chemistry” with Kristen Stewart in the Twilight series, it is not a whole lot different. And truthfully, I’m still a bit mystified by exactly what they are referring to when these supposed experts refer to “chemistry.”

At the end of “Water for Elephants,” despite my determination not to, I misted up. It starts in the last few minutes of wrap-up when, back in modern times, we learn that Jacob, Marlena and Rosie have led a long and fruitful life together resulting in a slew of children, and that the two original “girls,” Marlena and Rosie, have both long since passed on, leaving Jacob behind.

What put me over the edge, taking me from tight-throat swallowing to full-blown teary blinking, is when Jacob asks the circus boss for a job. The manager pauses for a second to consider it and then warmly responds, “Sure, why not? You’ll be one for the record books—the oldest person ever to run away with the circus!”

Old Jacob merrily responds, “No! I’m not running AWAY. I’m coming HOME!”

At that, I lost it. “Sniffle, snuffle, choke. Dang it, I got something in my eye.”

I’d held it together pretty well until that doggone Hal Holbrook as old Jacob utters that final line. Brilliant!