Thursday, October 30, 2003

Manila to Subic Bay

I shared a chartered van (2700 PHP) with John Bennett, Mark Cox and Steve Bates. The long ride through congested traffic took about 3½ hours, including a short lunch stop, at, of all places, a roadside McDonalds.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Manila

Manila is a huge sprawling city, with over 10 million people living in it. It's got a chaotic traffic situation resulting in pretty mad driving habits and the accompanying pollution problem. Most of the public transport still seems to be handled by the typical jeepneys, together with loads of taxis, motorized tricycles, pedicabs and even the odd horse cart.

It's not a nice city, and though actually surprisingly clean when you think about it, it doesn't look that way, giving a faded, drab, dusty impression, except for some of the towering glass buildings in the better districts. There's no real side walks to speak of, but then, anybody with some means wouldn't think about walking anywhere. Besides, it's just too hot to do that.

Manila is a city of great social contrasts. Shiny tall buildings look out over corroded metal shacks. A rich inner world of clean airconned malls versus the sweaty hot outer world of the poor. Where one person carelessly spends in one hour what another barely scrapes together in a month, or even a year.

Where on one side of a window a fat kid stuffs himself with a burger, while on the other side a starving kid is sifting through some garbage for a scrap of discarded food. It's a tough world we live in indeed. Armed guards are everywhere, some of them with heavy shotguns, to protect these fairy innerworlds from the harsh reality of the outside.

Ignorance is bliss. Better not to think about it too much. After all, I'm here on holidays, not to change the world. It's just that, well, I guess it bothers me when directly confronted with it like this...

I feel relatively safe walking around here, but I am cautious, trying not to display too much wealth. Most Philippinos strolling around in the mall are better dressed than me by the way. Nevertheless, with the amount of money I'm carrying, albeit in traveler cheques, the equivalent of several years salary for lots of people here, I feel like a walking talking winning lottery ticket.

The other day I'm pretty sure there was a guy following me through the department store. Maybe I'm being just a bit paranoid, but it would be quite a lot of coincidence that he happened to be interested in all the same random things as I was. As I slipped out, I saw him come out a couple of seconds later too, looking around, but by then I was already around the corner.

Monday, October 27, 2003

Small La Laguna to Manila

As I could get a private ride directly from Small La Laguna to Manila today, I got here a bit earlier than planned. I shared a big outrigger from Asia Divers with an american expat who'd chartered it, a 50' sail to some gravel beach near the Batangas harbour (1800 PHP for the boat, being only 2 that came to 900 PHP per person, but you could get a lot more people in that boat).

From there I got a free two hour ride to the Makati area of Manila in his chauffeured company car. From where I took a taxi to get to the Malate part of town (about 40' in the heavy city traffic, 90 PHP meter price).

Bug report

I've been indulgent with the mini-ants colony living in the kitchenette, thinking we had somekind of an understanding that they would restrict themselves to the garbage bag. Everything remotely looking like food being safely secured in the fridge, the only place out of their reach. However, I was barely gone for two days on a small exploration trip, and they already assumed they could just take over the place.

First I found a new nest in my logbook, which rather offended me, but still, I remained fairly polite, only shaking them into a frenzy and lecturing them about private property. Then I found another nest in a fold of my backpack, which quite annoyed me, but again I just sent them packing to a new location somewhere down the kitchen drain. And then my self-control just blew when I found a third nest in the lining of my jacket, which really pissed me off. No more mercy this time. The bug hunter in me took over and just wiped them all out.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Exploring the sunken past

Being a newly initiated normoxic trimix diver I got the chance to participate in a short two days exploration trip to Marinduque island to search for two Japanese WWII ship wrecks, estimated to be lying between 30 and 60m.

Trip organisers were Dave Ross, manager of Tech Asia, and Frank, a sympathetic ozzie owning "Rags", the very basic live-aboard for the weekend. Frank's also the manager of La Laguna Beach Club and Dive Center on Big La Laguna. They didn't need to ask me twice.

Friday around midnight we, four wannabe tekkies, Dave, Frank and three crew members boarded Rags. Rags is basically just a sturdy outrigger with a roof and four bunks, but you don't need more to go on a quest. Four tech divers means a lot of gear, each of us having a set of doubles and three stages (just in case), plus a compressor, and a couple of large oxygen and helium tanks.


The sea being a bit rough that night we only arrived at Marinduque the next morning around 9 am. We started by checking out the coastline, to compare the current shore's outline and background landscape with 60 year old aerial photographs from a battle report.

Dave and Frank kind of knew where to start looking, thanks to some written references in the report. A good thing cause I must say that every bay just looks the same to me. In the end however, it was an elderly local fisherman who helped us out, pinpointing the exact locations of both wrecks.


All excited we quickly geared up, eager to check out those forgotten wrecks. We jumped in as two buddy teams, and started our descend into the unknown and very murky waters. With a visibility of less than 2m, we had to stay close together indeed. The bottom appeared around 34m, a thick layer of very easily disturbed fine silt, full of worm holes. The anchor completely lost in it.

Slowly we started swimming around, not really knowing where exactly we were going. Being rather impatient I was already wondering whether to call the dive after 10', in order to avoid long decompression times, when Tex, my Korean buddy, suddenly signalled to me with his light. He'd found the first wreck.

At least what's left of it. It being a mine layer of some sort, it must have gone down with a nasty big bang. All what's left of it is some hull, strangely covered in what seems to be fist sized rocks. I picked one up, but gently put it back, just in case it was somekind of grenade...

Though there wasn't very much recognizable structure left, it's still quite fascinating to explore such a lost wreck. The other team, of older and more experienced tech divers, missed the wreck on their first dive, and tried very hard not to let their annoyance show. Even though we found it on our first dive, we almost missed it again on our second dive.


The next day we moved to the second wreck's location, hoping for better visibility, as we could see the anchor line going down a fair bit and the sun rays clearly visible in the dark water. Alas, 15m deep the visibility quickly dropped to about 1m.

Again we ventured out slowly in the misty green water, again I was wondering whether to call the dive, as suddenly a dark shape loomed up to my left, barely a meter away. If I'd looked to the other side at that moment, we would have missed it. This time there were some structural elements recognizable in the wreckage, making it a bit more interesting, but no artifacts. Either they've been taken away already or they've sunk in the silt.

This wreck had a bit more life on it too, coral bushes and a couple of fish seeking refuge in the many blast holes. Again the other team missed the wreck on the first dive, now seriously damaging their reputation. But they made up for it later on by drinking loads of beer. Sometimes blurred memories help soften reality I guess.

All in all a great trip, with Frank being an excellent host, cooking up great food for hungry divers. The return trip to Sabang only took six hours thanks to a gentler sea on the way back.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

A little beyond recreational depth

To go just a little bit deeper (in the 40 to 60m range), for a little bit longer comes at a high price. For a bottom time of about 20' we usually had twice as much decompression to do - and that on trimix with special deco-gasses, on air I don't even want to think about it. The decompression time would also increase dramatically if the bottom time was to be extended.

The actual price tag per trimix dive varies according to the amount of Helium in the bottom mix - which is in function of the target depth and the equivalent nitrogen depth - but averages at about 100 USD for shallow deep dives (in the above mentioned depth range), Helium not coming cheap (about 0.04 USD/liter) and having to pay for the instructor's or guide's as well!


As preparation to deeper dives, I did several dives with 3 stage tanks (one 10l bottom-gas and two 5.5l deco-gasses), all clipped to my left side, besides the twin set (2x12l) on my back. Quite a load on the surface and a bit of a hassle to get them all clipped onto the harness on a rocking boat, but surprisingly alright once in the water, except for some clanking tanks noise when frogkicking.

You need to be very careful when switching gasses. Breathing the wrong one at the wrong depth could be fatal. But so is crossing the street at the wrong moment. After those practice dives, having only one stage tank seems like a breeze.

Sunday, October 19, 2003

IANTD Normoxic Trimix Diver

InstructorsDave Ross (academics)
Sam Collett (skills + training dives)
Dive centerTech Asia, Small La Laguna, Puerto Galera, Mindoro, Philippines
Duration5-7 days
Dives2 confined water sessions
2 training dives on air or nitrox
3-4 trimix dives to max 60m
Price675 USD + about 180 USD for Helium (incl. the instructor's)
RequirementsIANTD
CommentsI might not be diving like a duck yet, but I sure can talk like one now.

It took me a couple of dives to get used to diving with twin 12l tanks and two 5.5l deco-gas stages, while having to demonstrate all kinds of skills: total buoyancy control being the crucial one. But by the end of the course I kind of got most of it under control.

A great course indeed, where I gained a lot of insight in decompression theory, thanks to Dave's ability to explain complex theoretical models in a very clear and simple way. Sam then put all the theory in practice, showing me how to safely plan and execute deeper dives. His very detailed de-breefings always to the point and crucial in improving my performances. Thanks to his good advice, I have indeed become a safer and more knowledgeable diver.

I haven't been deep enough to notice that trimix breaths easier at depth than air, but then, I barely have any reference to compare with. Deep air diving definitely isn't my thing. Even with trimix I could still feel some narcosis, mainly because of the task loading I guess, and maybe also CO2 build-up, everything being new and me still having to actually think a lot instead of just doing it.

Small La Laguna

It's pretty quiet here at the moment in Small La Laguna. The atmosphere kind of subdued. Though there's a bit more people now compared to when I arrived. Sabang is a bit more busy.

Having a kitchenette in my studio, I'm able to have self-made breakfasts and lunches, as I can find most of what I need in the local supermarkets: instant coffee and milk, sugar, drinking water (I have to drink at least 3l of water a-day to keep hydrated at 70 PHP for a 20l jerrycan), softdrinks and juices (about 1l a-day at 15 PHP for a CocaCola can), Nestle cereals (80-135 PHP), peanut butter (95 PHP), canned tuna or sardines, tomatoes and cucumbers, etc. There's also a Swiss deli where you can get decent European style bread (80 PHP for a large one), some pastry, ham and Kraft processed cheese (95 PHP/8slices) - perfect for sandwishes (given the local conditions).

You can buy all kinds of exotic fruit from women strolling along the beach, e.g. small bananas, green oranges, mangos, mangosteen, papaya and some kind of lychees with a potato-skin. I usually buy it from an old woman who probably charges 3 or 4 times too much, but I just can't bring myself to haggle about a couple of cents, when paying big dollars a little later for my diving.

Just to give you an idea, a dive boat captain or dive shop assistant earns about 100 USD per month. And that's probably a well paid job here.

Sunday, October 12, 2003

At night they come out to feed

Another 6 recreational dives, this time with other tourists, just to attract some attention with all my tech gear. One of these dives was a night dive in Sabang bay. Except for the current being a bit too strong for a night dive it was pretty nice. My Green Force light was a pleasure and my 2 TekTite backup lights just great. I saw lots of small crabs and shrimps, beautiful anemones and a long slender pipefish.


During the day dives I swam around twice with a big green turtle; lay face to face with a white tip shark; admired some pretty fancy nudibranchs; a pair of anemone crabs; an egg cowry enveloped in its pitch black mantle; a couple of scorpion fish and a baby frogfish almost undistinguishable from the coral rubble it was lying upon.

I also did a short decompression dive, just for practice. According to Sam, my skill level is what he would expect from an advanced nitrox diver. And they can teach me a lot. Somehow I kind of slightly felt insulted by the way he said that. But then, I'm a sensitive person :o)

Wednesday, October 8, 2003

In a coral fan lives a happy pygmy seahorse family

I've done half a dozen recreational dives with twin tanks, just to get used to the feeling again. And except for my SuperWings being indeed a bit too much for this type of diving, it's going alright. I've been diving with a personal guide, Sam the first day, Alli the other two.

The water is a comfortable 28°C, so my 7mm wetsuit is more than enough, though not too much for me. Visibility could be better, I'd say about 10-15m.

I've used my Green Force Tristar Diamond primary light on 2 occasions now. Once in the shark cave, an overhang where whitetip reef sharks come to rest. And indeed, there was one, tucked away as deep as it could. I wasn't too impressed by my Green Force light though. Mainly due to the beam being too wide and diffuse under the circumstances, there being too much sunlight and too many small particles and fish in the water causing a lot of reflection. My TekTite Expedition Star backup light (at 1/5 the price) with its more focussed beam actually did a much better job. The second time I was a bit more satisfied, as I swam inside the Alma Jane wreck, where the Green Force's soft white light was quite pleasing, though lacking in power.

The coral reef itself is quite nice actually, and they've got plenty of critters in the shallower parts: praying mantis shrimp scurrying around or peeking out of their holes; cute little pygmy seahorses (smaller then my finger tip) holding on to their host fan by their tiny tails while looking at me with big round eyes; bully frogfish; shy electric blue ribbon eels; beautiful nudibranchs and amazing pin-cushion seaurchins. Even a sleeping extremely venomous seasnake lying motionless on the bottom. Untill I came too close and it lazyly took a peek at me through half-closed lids. After which I slowly backed away.

Sunday, October 5, 2003

Tech Asia

I've met Dave Ross and Sam Collett, the two technical diving instructors of Tech Asia. And I've set up my gear. Of course they had their own opinion about it. Which was, of course, different from the way the instructors wanted me to do things in Egypt.

I guess I'll just have to find out what works best for me depending on the local circumstances. For example, they don't like my double bladder SuperWings here. As these are not DIR. Tech Asia by the way regularly organises GUE courses, advocating the Doing It Right philosophy. In the Red Sea however they wouldn't dive without double bladder wings, but then, they also use heavy steel tanks there.

Tech Asia's dive shop is well equipped, and they've got lots of stuff from Halcyon for sale: wings, backplates, harnesses, cam bands & reels; APEKS regulators & hoses; really nice Oxycheck spools; SMBs, wetnotes, stainless steel and brass bolts, etc.

Asia Divers is the recreational branch, whereas Tech Asia takes care of people like me who need special attention.

Manila to Small La Laguna

I took a short taxi ride from the Malate pension to the Citystate Tower hotel for 30 PHP. I could have negotiated the price down to 25 PHP, but at 7:30am, I didn't really feel like bothering. The lite-AC bus departed at 8am sharp, and arrived in Batangas at 10:15. There we had to hurry to catch the next ferry, which left at 10:30, arriving in Puerto Galera at 11:40. I had to pay 10 PHP passenger tax to walk through the harbour building in Batangas. Stepping from the ferry in Puerto Galera I pretty much folded myself into a motorized tricycle, for a short bumpy ride to Sabang. Price for the 20' uneventful experience: 100 PHP. From there it took me just a slow 10' walk along the beach to Asia Divers. Which is just around the corner from Sabang beach, on Small La Laguna beach.

Dave Ross, the manager of Tech Asia, brought me to Sha Che inn, where I got a whole studio with fan, coldwater shower, toilet, kitchen sink, gas stove, fridge, TV and even a double bed for only 500 PHP per night. Because I'll be staying 3 weeks, I get a beter price, otherwise the price would be 700 PHP. That's a much better deal than I'd expected. Food though is a bit more expensive than in Manila, meals in the El Galleon tourist restaurant right next to Asia Divers cost from 150 to 250 PHP. A coke is 30 PHP, a shake 70 PHP. Right now I can access the internet for 1 PHP per minute. In the FrogFish cafe, they've got slightly faster internet, for 2 PHP per minute, and you get 30' free access if you order a sandwich (costing 100 PHP).

Saturday, October 4, 2003

Manila

Transfer from Manila airport to Malate pension, arranged by the hotel for 350 PHP. It took a while in the chaotic evening rushhour traffic, at least half an hour, but I don't quite remember.

Malate pension costs 550 PHP per night for a clean economy room with fan. Common shower and bathroom. Internet access from the pension at 60-90 PHP per hour depending on the time of day. The pension is about 5' walking from the Citystate Tower hotel and the Robinson shopping mall. From Manila to Puerto Galera by AC bus and ferry at 8am costs 400 PHP. Tickets and departure from the Citystate Tower hotel. ETA noon.

The Robinson shopping mall is the place to get stranded while in Manila. You can find almost everything there: fashion and sports clothes, all kinds of shoes, cool glasses, mobile phones, cameras and film, all kinds of electronical equipment, backpacks, toys, second-hand books (50-100 PHP), bric-a-brac, movie theaters, hardware shop, pharmacy, supermarket & department store and even a shop selling guns for "the good guys". I guess the bad guys have to go elsewhere? There's also an office from WGA super-ferries and a good internet cafe (1 PHP/minute) near the food mall and restaurants. I had lunch for 70 PHP in the food court. And dinner for 80 PHP in ChowKing - an asian fastfood chain.