Cracked Under Pressure: what not to do when you’re learning to SCUBA

scuba! (this is not me)

On the plane ride from New Zealand, I  perused a Philippines guide book. I came to the “Diving” chapter and automatically thumbed past it. I’ve never traveled longer than three months at a stretch, and I’ve always traveled on a tight budget – never spending more than $1,000 a month. Learning to SCUBA dive runs $400 at best, making it an activity that could never be part of my reality.

As I read entry after entry about “world class diving,” I started to re-think my position. Unlike before, this time I wouldn’t be returning to the U.S. after just a few short weeks – destined to re-take a pricey refresher course every time I wanted to dive again. And reportedly some of the best scenery in the Philippines is underwater. As luck would have it, my couchsurfing host is a diver, and his friend is an instructor. I met the instructor at the fight on Sunday, did my pool session on Monday, and arranged to spend the weekend diving with Japs (CS host), Albert (instructor) and a group of their friends.

Our seaside rooms at Vistamar

We headed out to Albert’s resort – Vistamar- in Anilao nice and early. We jumped in the water almost immediately, and I practiced descending, steady breathing, buoyancy control, and clearing the pressure from my ears (like what you experience on an airplane, but can be really intense if you don’t clear often). After ascending and killing time on the surface (nitrogen builds up in your blood when breathing compressed air out of a SCUBA tank and needs time to clear so you don’t get sick), I was excited for my skills test dive!

lion fish!

We descended and cruised around a bit seeing all sorts of awesome sea creatures. A lion fish was my favorite sight and swimming through a narrow spot under a boat wreck was cool. Then I practiced removing and reassembling my weight belt, clearing my mask, removing and replacing my BCD (vest with tank attached), “losing” and finding my regulator, and ascending. Bring on the boat dives! Our meals for the weekend were turned out by the restaurant, and so I got to try lots of different Filipino dishes. Yum, yum, yum! Nothing too out of the ordinary save for the squid that was reportedly done up in squid ink. Totally yum!

small but crucial piece of diving equipment - weight belt!

Our second day, we loaded up the boat and cruised out to an underwater pinnacle. I learned a hard lesson when another diver took my weight belt. The assistant instructor stuffed a few weights in my pockets instead. I should have checked his work. I had to abort the dive after three attempts to descend followed by floating back up to the surface. When I got back on the boat, I discovered I was only carrying 60% of the weight I needed. Boo! I got the appropriate weight for the second dive, though, and was rewarded with seeing giant clams! They looked straight out of The Little Mermaid. I was totally enchanted. Snorkeling afterward, I also saw a photo shoot for an underwater wedding. How cool!

hopefully seeing this firsthand is in my future

That afternoon, all the city kids on the trip headed back for work on Monday. Albert and I stayed on so I could start on the advanced portion of my training. My CS host from Manila, Japs, hadn’t made it on the trip because he son fell seriously ill (pneumonia) the day before our departure. However, he and his friends had an extra ticket to Palawan – an amazing destination with incredible diving for the following weekend. If I could complete my advanced course, I’d be able to do some of the best “wreck” diving in the world!

tons of these nocturnal, spiny urchins on the night dive

After the sun set, Albert and I headed out for my first night dive. The incredible parts were due to the huge abundance of sea life at night. I saw tons of enormous sea urchins, an octopus-like sea star, a puffer fish, a stone fish, more enormous sea urchins, a lion fish, and a TURTLE! (And did I mention enormous sea urchins!?) The not-so-incredible parts were due to the night factor and my impatience. My mask kept fogging over, and I’m new enough that I still have to think through clearing it each time. The signals my instructor and I had agreed on weren’t working for me and were killing my night vision, rendering me blind each time we tried to communicate. The major buzz kill, induced by my impatience, happened when we swam over to the boat wreck. I had gotten my left ear to equalize by plugging my nose and blowing slightly harder than “gently.” I was excited to go under the wreck. So instead of swimming up a bit where the pressure is less, I pointed my right ear toward the surface of the water, plugged my nose, and blew as hard as I could.

turtle at night!

Let me tell you, folks – an eardrum can only take so much. The noise and screaming pain that followed left me little doubt that I had just blasted a hole right through my eardrum. Oops. The pain subsided and I forced myself to finish the dive calmly so as not to run short on air. At the surface, I hoped my sudden lack of hearing was due to water in my ear canal. Albert told me the story of the only student before me to have popped his eardrum – blood on the pillow, etc. Albert can be cheeky, so as we sat side by side chatting about the dive, I thought he was joking when he suddenly said, “Oh my god!” and fixated on my ear. I touched my ear, and my fingers came away blood stained. A few hours of vertigo folllowed, and by 2 p.m. the next day I had been to two ear, nose, and throat specialists.

The first kept changing his diagnosis every time I asked a new question. The second, although radically unprofessional by U.S. standards, confirmed that I did have a hole in my eardrum, which was “covered in blood.” Upon entering his office, the first oddity was that I was seated facing another patient in front of the doctor’s desk. I listened to the other patient’s intake while examining the nearly floor to ceiling shelves festooned with the good doctor’s alcohol collection. I estimate he has over 80 bottle of alcohol, all at least 750ml or more. Once patient A was excused, it was my turn! Again, I had an ear examining device stuffed in my now infection-prone ear without any of the hygienic measures that are taken in the States. For good measure, the doc even stuck an instrument up my nose (also not cleaned since the last, possibly ill, person) before I was excused.

The couch where I accidentally slept most of my 19 hours...

At the end of the day, I had two sets of ear drops, a directive to take a decongestant, a five day course of oral antibiotics, and an invite to recoup back in Manila at Japs’ apartment (can you believe how incredibly generous this guy is?). Head back to Manila we did, where I crashed for 19 hours straight and started on the road to recovery! ♣

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