What seems like a long time ago, though really only four or five years, I made a trip to Maui with Kai’s family—a family vacation of sorts. During that trip, we drove north along the island for a few hours to visit a place called Honalua Bay for a bit of snorkeling.
It was the first time I had gone snorkeling since I was a kid and, though I was enchanted by all the wonderful colors below me, I was terrified. Kai was like a fish—diving down below the surface and swimming along the bottom for what seemed an eternity. I was very content sticking on the surface and holding the hand of George, Kai’s step-dad.
Fast forward a few years and once again I found myself in Hawai’i, though this time on the Big Island visiting my long-time friend Denise, who had promised to teach Kai and I how to Scuba Dive over the Thanksgiving holiday. The first few breaths I took off a regulator while underwater in the swimming pool in Denise’s backyard were the most terrified I’ve ever been while diving, and it took several times of shooting to the surface for a breath of fresh air before I could relax enough to even begin doing some of the exercises required to learn how to safely dive.
Though humble, these first experiences underwater lit an ember that has since turned into flame. I love diving. As many of you know, diving has been a central role in our travels through Asia—we have literally dived in every country we have been to except for China. We were just PADI Open Water divers when left for this trip, but over the course of the past year we completed our Advanced Open Water certification in Bali; our Rescue and Divemaster courses in Borneo; and now, I can happily say, I have just completed my PADI Open Water Instructor (OWSI) in the Philippines.
Asia Divers & iDAP College
After Dianne and Katie left Bali Kai and I looked for a place to come and take an Instructor Development Course, or IDC as it’s called in the dive industry. This is typically a 10-14 day intensive course that prepares you for the Instructor’s Exam (IE) that is administered by a representative from PADI. For those that don’t know, PADI stands for the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, and is the largest certifying dive agency in the world (PADI certifies more divers than every other dive agency combined).
Though relatively short, the IDC is an intensive course covering all aspects of diving. If one is to teach other’s to dive, a deep understanding of the dive theories and principles is paramount, as are exceptional underwater skills. To become a dive instructor, one must be well versed in physics, physiology, decompression theory, equipment, and more. As such, it is important to find a dive center with a solid IDC program.
After doing some research on the internet, I narrowed down my choices to a dive center in Thailand and one in the Philippines. Since Kai was coming with me but was not going to be participating in the IDC, we both wanted to find a nice place to stay and one that would allow Kai to do some sight-seeing while I was in the classroom. We had already been to Thailand, so after a bit of debate, we settled on coming to the Philippines, which was a new country for the both of us and had well-reputed program. With that, we booked our tickets and set off to Puerto Galera, located on the north part of Mindoro island. It was an exhausting trip, spending yet another night in Kuala Lumpur airport (that makes three times now), and a 5 hour nausea-inducing mini-bus ride to meetup with an hour long ferry, which ultimately dropped us off on Sabang Beach. We were tired but had arrived relatively unscathed. We found accommodations—a home-stay for about $200 US per month—and I started the IDC two days later with a company called iDAP College.
iDAP College is an affiliate of one of the longest-standing dive centers in Puerto Galera: Asia Divers. Although iDAP College and Asia Divers are technically separate business, they share the same facilities and to the casual visitor are one-in-the-same. IDC’s are run by Course Directors—individuals certified by PADI to teach other divers how to become Instructors. Unlike most other courses through PADI, one must be accepted in order to become a Course Director, so at this level you’re generally looking at the best working Instructor’s in the business. There are several Course Directors at Asia Divers, though iDAP College is headed up by Warren Dixon, probably the best-known Course Director in the Philippines.
IDC’s are generally kept small in class-size so students can have as much time as necessary with the Course Director and Staff Instructors. I was happy to learn there was only one other student in the IDC—a strong and quick-witted 6’4” former Navy fighter pilot (as he so eloquently explained to me as I was trying to understand what he did: I’m Goose). Having Victor in the class was both a blessing and a challenge. Let’s all be honest here—I have an art degree and things like organization and delivering lectures have never been my strong point. Victor is used to giving briefings to top gun fighter pilots, so many of the practice lessons we had to give came quickly and easily to him, a little less so to me. With only two students in the classroom, Victor was the only point of comparison, which was intimidating and a challenge, but a good experience in the end.
Contrary to what most people would think, the majority of time spent in an IDC is not in the water, but in the classroom. Repeatedly reviewing physics topics such as Charle’s Law and Boyle’s Law, developing a deep understanding of the structure of the ear and how it relates to equalization, diving first-aid and more. Since I have not been in a classroom for some time and have spent the majority of the past year outdoors, having to sit still and be indoors for the majority of the day was a big change in my routine. We had long days and I was exhausted by the end. But after 3 weeks I was very prepared for the IE thanks to Warren and the two assisting Staff Instructors—Magne and Sabine—who all worked hard to make sure Victor and I passed. In addition to my OWSI, I received certification as a specialty instructor for Enriched Air Nitrox (diving with oxygen content higher than the standard 21%). Finally, I completed my certification as an Emergency First Response Instructor, which includes Primary and Secondary Care for both adults and children. In short, I’m certified to teach CPR to others.
Kai and I were both not expecting much out the diving here in Puerto Galera. Spending five months diving at one of the best dive sites in the world tends to spoil you that way. Fortunately, we’ve been pleasantly surprised. While Puerto Galera isn’t as good for big pelagics like sharks and turtles, the macro-diving is fantastic here and at least as good as Borneo. Kai has been happy to find several ornate ghost pipefish—a specie he was hunting for in Borneo but never found. Thorny seahorses are quite common here as well, and I’ve added a whole new list of nudibranchs to my collection (Sorry that we don’t have any underwater pictures but unfortunately our little camera has finally died). Most of the clientele here are experienced divers who come with expectations to see the rare species that the area is famous for. Tech diving is popular here as well, as the reefs off the island offer ample opportunity for dives deeper than is possible on plain air, as well as wrecks and caves for those who like overhead environments.
Puerto Galera is also known for getting very strong currents. I didn’t give too much thought to this as diving in Sipadan you’re exposed to currents constantly, but here it’s different. Whereas Sipadan is a lateral current that simply sweeps you along the reef in a given direction, Puerto Galera has erratic currents that at any moment can push you shooting to the surface or suck you back down deep again. The currents here are much more like a washing machine than a nice relaxing escalator ride. I had one dive here which I refer to as the Swirling Vortex of Death. Three of us went out to a site called Canyons that is known to have strong current, but also lots of big fish. After about 20 minutes of crawling along the bottom (current was to strong to kick against) and tucking ourselves in coves away from the current, the reef ended in about 32 meters of water and it was time to ascend. We let go of the floor and began ascending slowly to the surface but we were met by an intense down current that was so strong it prevented us and our bubbles from ascending. We were surrounded by our own bubbles and soon we realized they were actually being pulled down below us. I inflated my BCD held on to my buddies and kicked like hell. We fought the current for what seemed like forever, but in-fact was only a few minutes. Needless to say the diving here can be intense. The ocean can be humbling. Don’t worry Mom I wont do that dive again!
The Philippines is lovely, although I have seen only a very small portion due to the busy schedule of all of my training. Having a large Christian population means the food is packed with pork and other non-Halal foods that we were sorely missing in Semporna. I also love the Spanish influence on the culture. However the prices in the Philippines are significantly more than another places we have been in Asia. I think part of this is because Puerto Galera is by all accounts a resort area and partly because the Philippines, being an archipelago, is more isolated than other parts of Asia.
Puerto Galera is an established weekend getaway for many Manila residents and expats. In all honesty, there isn’t much to do here besides eat, sleep, dive, and enjoy some of the most stunning sunsets I’ve seen yet. Sabang—the beach that we stay at—has a small downtown area with a few grocery stores selling Western food, as well as a few bakeries with fresh bread and decent coffee. Ironically, there isn’t an ATM anywhere to be found in Puerto Galera—despite it being primarily a resort destination—so Kai has had to make several trips back to the mainland to bring more cash to cover our daily expenses. The one thing that is in abundance here is bars—many feature salty divers who have clearly stayed several decades too long, while still others feature underage girls dancing late into the nights—the most popular bars feature both.
I have erased a long feminist rant on these bars, but I do feel a short one is necessary. Throughout our travels in Asia I’ve seen too many young Asian women draped along the side of middle-age, overweight western men. Clearly, the men the get a rush out of the fact that, here in Asia, they can be big fish, and enjoy the power that comes with the territory. The truth is, young women—and boys—are exploited here, and nowhere have I see this more than in the Philippines (though Thailand is certainly close). What is tough for me is the fact that this simply seems to be accepted. If anything, you get the impression that many young women are hoping for this to happen; if they fulfill some carnal desire, they’ll be taken care of, and possibly even their families. I know at some level this is just the way it is—and always has been—but it’s still a sad reality to witness first-hand. It would be one thing if these girls had chosen this lifestyle, but they are far too young to fully realize the choices they are making, and it’s sad to see so much unrealized potential—like a caterpillar that never quite became a butterfly.
On that note I do have to mention what is hands down my favorite thing about the Philippines: Jeepneys. At the end of WWII a giant surplus of US military jeeps were left in the Philippines. WWII had completely destroyed the public transportation infrastructure in the Philippines, so enterprising locals stripped down the old jeeps and converted them into public transportation vehicles. Today, Jeepney’s are one of the most common modes of public transport in the country. Of course, few are made from original military jeeps anymore, but all of them begin with a jeep or similar front-end, and then have as much chrome bolted on as is possible and finally outfitted with ridiculous horns, loud paint jobs, and blaring speakers. Jeepney owners take a lot of pride in the look of their vehicle and it’s little surprise that the most outrageous ones are often the most popular on any given route. It’s safe to say that Jeepneys are worth a trip to the Philippines alone.