Monday, September 20, 2010

Crazy things I do, part 3

Read Part 1
Read Part 2

We scheduled our dive weekend eight days after our last classroom session at Diver's Network. Our instructor, Luis Nazareno, said we had to confirm by Wednesday so he could make reservations at the dive resort.

It was knotty for us that week because Em and Eleanor both had colds, and we were not sure they would be in shape for the dive that weekend. We were worried about congestion because that could hurt underwater, and we didn't know how to equalize yet.

I also had a salon appointment that Wednesday that I intended to keep because of the 70% discount. I was aware of the hair science law that forbade hair washing for 3 days after a major treatment, and the crime I was premeditating was to be committed in salt water, which made it a capital offense.

But if we didn't do it that weekend, it would have been at least a month before we could get a weekend with Luis. And he did say there were new drugs out there that could take care of congestion, and our issue was more cough than congestion. So even if Eleanor's cough made a horrible echo in her chest, we gave Luis the green light that Wednesday. My hair would just have to be collateral damage.

Things in my bag
Friday night, right after we came home from the UP screening of the 'The Cove' (the docu about dolphins, which was perfect for the night before my first dive), I packed my bag. There were only three important items in my list: sleepwear, extra pair of contacts, and a swimsuit. The rest were my usual travel things (bathroom kit, sunblock, iPod).

All Luis said to bring was something to wear under the wetsuit. To me that meant only a basic swimsuit because that's all I had. I asked how many to bring, and Luis said that would depend on how hygienic I am. So I brought only one :)

The extra pair of contacts was reserve, in case I lost my current pair. I was warned we would be taking off our masks underwater, and there was a huge chance I'd lose my contacts.

It was past midnight when I finally felt okay about my preparations. So with my outfit for the next day and my backpack by my bedside, I set the alarm on my phone to 5:00am. Our arrangement was for Em and Eleanor to meet up with Luis at Diver's Network at 5:30, and the three of them will take Luis' truck and pick me up at the Buendia Shell station. And so I went to bed happy and excited.

And the next thing I knew, I was looking at the wall clock and it was 5:28. The alarm didn't go off! I forgot to set it to a weekend. I reached out for my phone and texted Em that I was on my way, which was technically a lie. But I figured that if I could change and step out of my front door in 3mins flat, I could turn it into truth. And I did. To keep the long story short, I got to the meeting point all of 7mins before they did.

The road south
The drive to Diver's Sanctuary in Batangas was an easy 3hrs, counting in the breakfast stop at the SLEX McDo. We went via Tagaytay, which turned out to be a scenic route.

Em, who was seated shotgun, was asleep most of the way. Eleanor, who was still nursing a cough, also took short naps. I felt somewhat drowsy, too, but I didn't fall asleep because of the McDo coffee.

Also, I didn't want our driver to be the only one awake, partly because I thought that was rude, and also because I sensed he was probably as drowsy as we were. And so to keep myself awake, I watched the view go by--gates to tech parks, pineapple farms, the Taal lake and volcano, and people going about their business. I also tried to make conversation with Luis to make sure he was alert. He was chugging C2 green all the way, and I didn't know if that was a good sign.

And finally we got to the town of Bauan (I didn't know that was its name until Luis had us write it on our dive logs). We stopped at a parking lot. Luis said the resort was just around the corner. But--surprise, surprise--we had to ride a motorboat to get there. I was suddenly thankful that we rode with Luis. We would have gotten lost if we were on our own, even with detailed directions.

We unloaded our stuff and waited for our boat. It was midmorning and the sun was nice and warm. Luis mentioned something about us being lucky because his class just the day before had to dive in gloomy weather. I agreed.

The boat ride to the resort was short. The resort itself was unremarkable. I thought it had the look and feel of a spacious garage. But I soon found out it was perfect that way. Divers spend a lot of their time underwater, not lounging around the resort grounds. And they tend to make a mess when they're on the surface--wet stuff, dripping gear, tanks that need refilling, etc.

The Diver's Sanctuary's cafeteria looked out to a not-so-breathtaking view, but you knew there's a busy traffic of divers just beneath the sleepy surface.

View from the cafeteria: Our rooms were in that structure to the left of the blue building. The rooms were basic and clean, but we barely spent time there.

How I felt
I wanted this blog entry to be about the actual dive lessons, but right now I don't remember the details of those. I only recall how I felt--like I was in a fat camp. At least that was how I imagined being in a fat camp would feel like.

The challenge for me was two-fold: I had to overcome my physical limitations--tiredness, slow reflexes, and excess poundage; and my psychological issues--fear and lack of confidence.

I already mentioned in a previous entry my tendency to be overcautious, which I attribute to age. Ironically, it was Luis, who didn't really know me apart from my name, age, and contact details, who made me realize I had that issue. At one point, perhaps tired of all my questions, he told me to stop overthinking and overanalyzing, and to just relax and enjoy the experience. From then on I had a name for my problem: overthinking and overanalyzing.

Thankfully, by our last dive that weekend, I actually stopped thinking about what I was doing, and just did it. The physical part was easy once the mind part got sorted out. And that's how diving started to grow on me.

Dive drills
But back to the lessons, here's what I remember...

The first thing we did was try on and pick the equipment we needed--masks, BCDs, regulators, fins and wet suits. But we didn't put them on yet. Luis asked us to get into the pool first and show him that we could float for--was it 20mins? I don't remember now. He explained that it would be irresponsible if he didn't make sure we could handle ourselves in water before he let us dive.

And so we showed him we could float. When Luis went to get something, a diver nearby remarked that our instructor sounded strict. I thought it was better that way. Still I was relieved it was just a floating drill. I was afraid he'd ask us to do laps.

After the floating part, we got out of the pool, and Luis showed us how to attach the regulator to the BCD and the air tank, how to check our air tanks and the air quality, how to read the gauges, how to balance weights, and how to put on our wet suits. These may sound easy but they weren't. There was a lot to remember, and some steps actually required physical strength--a full dive setup can weigh up to 25kgs on the surface!

'Lefty-loosy, righty-tighty': Once the regulator was attached to the tank, we opened the valve by turning it leftward (counterclockwise) all the way, and then half-a-turn rightward (clockwise).

Luis said that in the Philippines, a lot of the pre-dive checks and preparations are done by the dive resort staff. But if we dive abroad, we have to do everything ourselves. Even if I didn't plan to dive ever without a knowledgeable dive master, I'm still glad we did the pre-dive preparations. It made me understand the whole process, and understanding helped calm my nerves.

So after we put on our wet suits and BCDs, the lessons started. Basically, we did drills in the pool first, and we repeated these in open water. Here's what I remember we did (not listed in the order we actually did them--everything was a blur, and I remember only bits now):
  • Remove our regulator, retrieve it, put it back in our mouth and purge it
  • Remove our mask, put it back on, and clear it of water (this was particularly challenging for me because I had my contacts on, so I had to close my eyes all the way)
  • Remove our BCD and put it back on (we did one version on the surface, which to me was harder because we had to balance ourselves on top of the floating BCD, before we could put it back on)
  • Remove our weight belt and put it back on
  • Switch from regulator to snorkel (on the surface)
  • Swim without a mask
  • Swim without a regulator (I think we only did this in the pool)
  • Simulate a quick solution for leg cramps (this, too)
  • Retrieve an object from the pool floor (and this)
  • Simulate an emergency ascent (No Air Can Be Bad?)
  • Hover (where I failed horribly)
  • Find our way using a compass
  • Check one another's equipment--BWRAF
  • Simulate emergency measures (on the surface--we had to push our 'injured' buddy to the shore)
  • Experience how it felt to run out of air (not pleasant!)
I may have missed other drills we did, but my list pretty much covers the memorable parts. Everything was done underwater, both in the pool and in open water, except where I indicated otherwise.

Sea critters
But the most amazing thing about that weekend was seeing underwater creatures up close. I've snorkeled in nice places before, and I know what the underwater world looks like, but only from the top view. This time I actually sat on the seabed and examined a sea cucumber. Luis picked it up and had me touch it. It looked like a huge caterpillar, and was as soft, too.

We also saw a pair of lovely sea moths. Luis said they were rare, and we were lucky to have chanced upon them. They looked like they had wings and were actually 'flying' underwater. Here's a video of these cute creatures on YouTube (NOTE: I don't own this video. I linked to it just so we'll have an idea of how the sea moths look).

We also saw what Luis IDed as a Flying Gurnard, another sea creature that had wing-link body parts. This one's not so rare, but it was no less amazing. I wish I had an underwater camera (and knew how to wield it while hovering) to document everything.

Other creatures we saw were a lion fish, schools of clown fish, and other colorful species I didn't bother to ask Luis to ID. There were lots of corals and marine fauna I was dying to examine, but I thought I'd read about them first. Luis himself saw some juvenile White-tipped Sharks that weekend. Good thing they didn't come out when we were diving around the ravine where they were hiding.

Packing up
After our last lesson on the 2nd day, we rinsed our wet suits and dive gear, the way Luis had shown us the day before. We showered, packed our personal stuff, and settled the resort bills. By the time we were done and ready to go, it was after sundown.

We rinsed and put away our dive gear at the end of the day.

The boat picked us up and took us to the parking lot where we left Luis' truck. After loading up all the dive equipment, we were off. We stopped for dinner at a pizza place in Tagaytay called Carlo's. There Luis showed us how to log our dives in a tiny red logbook. He also showed us his dive computer and what it could do.

By the time we left the pizza place, we were too full and tired to talk, so everyone was mostly quiet on the way to Manila. I felt sorry for Luis who had to drive. But I was too wrecked to make any more conversation. That weekend felt longer than 2 days, and we still had to go to work the next day.

Our class: Em, myself, Shifu (Luis), and Eleanor

But looking back now, that weekend was really fun. The diving drills were actually easy. I've been swimming since I was kid (I grew up just 10mins from the beach), and I'm generally comfortable in water. I don't understand why I felt so edgy at first. The rest of that week I couldn't stop thinking about the next dive. And I did dive again two weeks after--at The Pearl Farm in Samal, Davao. But that's for another entry.

All photos here are by Eleanor Joy Tan.

Read Part 1
Read Part 2

1st Asian Bird Fair/6th Philippine Bird Festival

I will be in Davao City for the 1st Asian Bird Fair/6th Philippine Bird Festival this weekend. The event will run from September 24 to 25 at the Insular Waterfront Hotel. There will be interesting lectures on birds, birdwatching, ecotourism and more. Perfect for students and educators. FREE ADMISSION!

Those of you reading this who are from Davao, or have friends and relatives in Davao, please spread the word.

Here's the video teaser for the event.

This is organized by the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, of which I have been a member since 2004, and the Davao City government.

I will leave with the bird club folks on Thursday noon but will come back alone early on Tuesday. I'll be heading straight to work by then, as per my usual MO. I'm hoping to catch some diving Monday morning, but I'm still waiting for a callback from the dive resort.

Those of you waiting for the 3rd installment of the 'Crazy things I do' series that chronicled my dive lessons, I beg for your indulgence. I so want to write it but I have a long-overdue commitment that I have yet to fulfill, and I swore to myself that until I get that out of the way, I won't do anything fun. Please bear with me.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Crazy things I do, part 2

So we decided to give diving a go. Luis, the instructor, said we could pay for our books first--that's P3K each--and the rest before the weekend dive. Em, the sweetheart that he is, volunteered to deliver our payment and pick up the books from Diver's Network. When I got back from a long weekend, my PADI Open Water Diver Manual was already on my desk. And there was no turning back.

That evening, I gingerly unwrapped my book of the clear plastic packaging. Browsing the contents, my impression was, wow, there’s so much to learn! Do I still have space in my brain for this? Am I fit enough? Are my reflexes still up to the challenge?

The book
The book cover was blue with pictures of beautiful people in diving gear, smiling and looking like they were enjoying themselves. There was a table and a dive planning guide enclosed, but at that time I had no idea what they were for. But the table had numbers on it, and I thought, dang, there's math involved.

Here's the PADI dive manual, with the Dive Planner and the table. Our instructor had a jumbo version of the table that was easier to read. BTW, I filched this image from the Net. If it's yours and it bothers you that it's here, let me know and I'll take it down.

Inside, the lessons were presented simply and logically. As a content specialist working in the learning and development industry, I was impressed by how the content was designed. The language was accessible and the layout was easy on the eyes. It was optimized for self-study. Every few pages, there were self tests. At the end of each section--there were five--was an assessment, which the student had to complete, sign, and submit to the instructor.

So on to the lessons. Wednesday, August 25, I tried to come to work an hour earlier, as we have agreed. I failed, of course. So leaving early felt awkward. But Em, Eleanor and I are ninjas, and so we were at Diver's Network before 5:30pm.

Our classroom was a cozy office with a table and a whiteboard. I thought our class of three was just perfect. If there were more of us, plus the instructor, our cubbyhole would have been too crowded.

The lessons
And so the lessons began. If I wondered at first how we could go through all the lessons in 5-6hrs, I soon found out. We went straight to the assessment pages and went through each question. The questions became the instructor's talking points, which did save a lot of time. It was assumed that the students have read, or at least scanned, the lesson pages. We had a short assessment at the end of each section. The items we missed became takeoff points for further discussion.

Because I didn't do much pre-reading, I was dependent on the instructor's lecture. I was the annoying orange who asked all questions from the top of her head, even before she thought them out. I figured that the more questions I asked, the more I would know. And that the more I knew, the less scared I would be. But it didn't really work that way. I was still uneasy about the whole thing, even after the questions. And asking questions just led to more questions.

The instructor
Thankfully, our instructor was up to the challenge. Luis Nazareno fielded my half-baked questions like a sport. His manner was courteous, composed, and confident, and he always ended his answers with encouragement. Let me explain why this is important, especially to people like me who are of a certain age, and are therefore overcautious.

Learning to dive, at least to me, is like learning to drive. If I didn't do it right, I could potentially maim or kill myself, or other people. Plus, I am aware that at my age, my reflexes are not as quick anymore, and I don't heal as quickly when injured. In other words, I'm not very confident about diving. So if you gave me an instructor who sounded unsure of himself, or someone who didn't exude or inspire confidence, I'd just walk all over him--on my way to the door.

That that didn't happen says a lot about Luis. The instructor matters not just in the overall learning experience, but in the student's psychological preparation as well. And Luis has delivered on both, even if he had to chug mugfuls of warm Coke Zero in between.

And so our first classroom session ended. We got three out of five sections out of the way. We only had to do two more.

The next day, I came to work late again. And leaving early was more awkward now because I did it two days in a row. And this time it was raining really hard. But we still managed to slip out smoothly, and Em was able to maneuver through Edsa despite the low visibility. That was his first time to drive in the rain without supervision. To his credit, he was also able to park in front of Diver's Network unassisted, and didn't run over a garbage bin or a pole. If anything, this diving adventure forced us to get out of our comfort zones and take on normal-people responsibilities.

The dive table
On to the second classroom session. We did the same thing: went through the questions in the assessment page and discussed the concepts. For some, there were instructional videos. The challenging part was about dive planning, where we computed the needed surface interval for multiple dives. This was where the table with numbers figured. There was no math, but there was a formula we had to apply. The tricky part was understanding the backbone of the concept--why we needed to do it and how each step related to the next. Once I got that out of the way, working the formula was easy.

When we were done with the 5th section, Luis gave us time to get some refreshments, because we were to take a real assessment afterward. By real I mean we had to do it without our instructor's coaching, and there was a passing score. That scared me a bit. Luis tried to assure us that no one ever failed the assessment. Still I had that lingering concern that I might be the first.

We went to a nearby Kopi Roti. Their dumplings were surprisingly good. I felt my brain going jelly so I also ordered coffee for takeout. The coffee turned out to be stronger than I'm used to, so when I got back I felt my hands were shaky and my heart was palpitating. But that could have been my nerves.

The assessment
It was a 50-item test with a passing score of 38. I was the last one to finish because it took me a while to recall some things. I knew the information I needed was filed somewhere in my brain, but my retrieval was slow. It clearly wasn't a quad-core moment for me. But I waited, and thankfully the answers came. I scored 44. The six items I missed were either not discussed during the lectures (they were in the book, but I didn't go very far reading it), or they felt like trick questions. But the score didn't really matter to me. The important thing was I passed.

We discussed the items we missed. Then Luis cut out the assessment pages from our books. These were the ones he helped us answer during the lecture. My assessment pages were messy because I wrote notes all over them. Too bad Luis had to take them.

And so ended our classroom sessions. We scheduled our confined and open water dive weekend with Luis, and we were done. I'll write about the weekend in my next entry.

Read Part 1
Read Part 3

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Crazy things I do, part 1

Read Part 2
Read Part 3

Sometimes it pays to give in to compulsion. Because I didn't think too much about my choices, now I'm a certified open water diver.

It started with talk of going skydiving. But after a number of dead-end queries, we put that one off. The next accessible option was to go scuba diving. And for that Em found a lot of resources.

After looking over the choices of dive instructors online, he picked a dude named Tomas Morato, who runs a dive shop called Diver's Network at--and this is uncanny--Tomas Morato Ave. in QC. The shop is just 15mins away from the office, so we decided to drop a visit one lunchtime. Tom wasn't there, and instead we met another instructor, Luis Nazareno, who answered all our queries like a seasoned interviewee.

Once we had the information we needed--basically the costs (PhP11.5K each for our group of three, plus the resort fee of PhP3.9K each for a weekend) and the schedule (5-6hrs of classroom session and one weekend of confined and open water dives)--there was only one decision left to make: to dive or not to dive.

So over lunch at Brothers Burger across Diver's Network, Em, Eleanor and I mulled it over. I had known all along I wanted to do it. I've been birdwatching for 6yrs now and many of the birding sites I visit are also dive sites, or have dive sites nearby. In fact, there have always been more divers than birders around, and it was a pity that for all the resources I spent to get to those places, I could do only one thing.

I also realized that in the delicate web of life, avian biodiversity is somehow connected to marine biodiversity. And if birds have managed to awe me, I expect marine wildlife to be amazing as well. I've seen enough David Attenborough documentaries to doubt that.

So the decision was made for me. And I didn't even stop to consider my budget, or my schedule, or my physical fitness, or the fact that I was about to make a salon appointment for my hair treatment. I just gave a yes. As did Em and Eleanor, thankfully.

The next thing we had to decide on was when we wanted to do it. It was tricky because classroom sessions all had to be done on weekdays because the instructors were all diving on weekends. Luis did say we could arrange for an after-hours schedule or do the classroom part in one go. But at that time we had to consider the schedule of Ryan, supposedly the 4th group member, who had to come from Makati. But in the end Ryan had to skip, so only the three of us had to sync our schedules.

For me, that meant coming to work at least an hour earlier so we can go early and be at Diver's Network by 5:30pm. That would give us until 8:30pm or 9pm. And we planned to distribute the classroom sessions over 2 consecutive days. We picked August 25 and 26, Wednesday and Thursday. And for our weekend dive, we picked September 4 and 5, the weekend of the next payday, and also the only weekend in September that Luis was free.

And so everything was set. All we had to do was show up for our lessons. I will write about that in my next entry.

Read Part 2
Read Part 3