Don't Be A Pussy: Come Diving

Always wanted to scuba dive but never made it past the shallow end of a swimming pool? Well grab your flippers, jump on a plane and experience a whole new kind of thriller in Manila.
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Always wanted to scuba dive but never made it past the shallow end of a swimming pool? Well grab your flippers, jump on a plane and experience a whole new kind of thriller in Manila.

According to marine biologists, there are more species living in the sea that surrounds the 1,701 islands that comprise the Philippines than in the Great Barrier Reef and, as I gently drifted along with its current some 20 metres underwater, it seemed that most had come out to greet us. A vast school of big mouth mackerels passed overhead, four huge bat fish, each of them at least three-foot long, sidled up to my face for a closer look, while a rather angry-looking moray eel hissed from below. It was hard to believe that just one week before, I had never dived.

Of course, I had always wanted to learn. I don’t believe I’ve ever been on holiday and not been badly sunburnt while perusing the seabed for marine life. Yet, for some reason I’d never fancied spending my exotic holidays in a swimming pool learning to dive with a bunch of strangers, all of whom seemed very uncomfortable. And so I never bothered.

But then I heard of a new initiative by the British Sub Aqua Club to train novices to the ‘ocean diver’ level that enables them to dive anywhere in the world to a 20m depth with a diving instructor in tow. I became even more interested when I discovered that the said training – three dives a day for four days – would take place in the Philippines; an exotic location, clear waters and mystifying marine life. Getting there though, no matter what class one travels, is never going to be a picnic as the flight from Heathrow to Manila invariably takes nearly 24 hours. By the time I arrived in Manila I was fit for zilch.

But I still managed to drag myself out to the central street market in Quiapo – a ridiculously bustling ragtag of stalls selling everything from dried fish to phone cards. Empowered by the pure soul of this quite wonderful market, I needed to see more of the real Manila and so, in the nicest possible terms, asked our Filipino tour guide where I’d find the underbelly of Manila, far removed from the sanitised western shopping malls. But he wouldn’t tell me. He suggested I drink at the hotel bar or casino.

Unperturbed, I walked out of the hotel to the Pasig River whose left bank, Mabini Street, is teeming with bars, one of which, Hobbit House, is entirely staffed by dwarves. As good a place to start as any.

"Three dives a day for four days – would take place in the Philippines; an exotic location, clear waters and mystifying marine life."

After a few beers and a couple of shorts, I exited with a list of recommended places and headed straight for P. Burgos Street, the location of many of Manila’s famed girlie bars. Walking down Burgos Street, I counted about two dozen bars, each one filled to the brim with girls who travel from all over the Philippines to work the tourist trade. As I entered the first bar, the Wild West, I was set upon by a bevy of scantily-clad ladies who told me how handsome I was and then demanded a drink – a custom that was repeated in most of the neighbouring bars such as Flamingo and Papillon. The ratio of women to men in each venue was about five to one and the average cost of a drink about £2, although by far the most common currency was sex. It was sleazy, it was outrageous and it was rather sad.

The next morning I was up by 7.30 and after an astonishing breakfast at the rather marvellous Hotel Sofitel (about 100m of buffet offering every imaginable breakfast, from Korean pickles to French pastries to plain old bacon and eggs) we were on the road to Batangas to catch our ferry to the Atlantis Beach Resort and Dive Centre at Sabang Point near Puerto Galera on the north side of the island of Mindoro. After a three-hour car journey – passing hundreds of crazy ‘jeepneys’ (the name given to local buses made from cannibalised jeeps that have been lengthened and customised) – and an hour’s boat ride, we finally arrived at 2pm. By this time, I was so exhausted I was unofficially deceased.

And it was in that same condition that I strapped on the gear and got into the water. At first, I was not at all keen as, even though I’d done a day of scuba-diving in a swimming pool in London, breathing through apparatus in the sea when one is physically banjaxed is tough going. But once I saw a few gaily coloured fish, I was soon full of beans again and raring to go. The first few dives were rather dull as we practised fin technique, taking one’s mask off underwater, changing air supply and rescuing a colleague. I didn’t care though, as once underwater, you soon realise how important such knowledge is. It really can make the difference between life and death.

But the great advantage of Sabang is that such tedium doesn’t last long. ‘Because of our proximity to excellent dive sites of every depth,’ explains Atlantis dive master Paul O’Toole, ‘we can accommodate three or four carefully planned dives in one day. In a lot of dive resorts you have to get in a boat for an hour to do 45 minutes of diving and then spend another hour coming back. Here, ten minutes out and you can be down to ten, 30 or even 50 metres and see the most amazing sea life. That’s why we get both beginners and hardened pros.’In effect this means that one can, with a modicum of prep, safely and quickly gain the expertise to pass one’s Ocean Divers Certificate in about three days, leaving the fourth day free to browse among the shipwrecks and coral reefs. In fact, that is exactly what we did, going out to visit our first wreck – a Japanese ship in Sabang Bay – just five minutes offshore.

"The ratio of women to men in each venue was about five to one and the average cost of a drink about £2, although by far the most common currency was sex."

As I made the nine-metre dive, gently hovering and slowly breathing in the smallest mouthfuls of air to avoid rising too fast, I realised I was finally getting the hang of it. And as each dive went deeper, so the marine species multiplied and got weirder. Our next dive at West Escarceo took us to a sloping reef teeming with fish. A vast throng of ridiculously coloured creatures, the likes of which the creators of Star Trek could never have imagined – frog fish, flamboyant cuttlefish and crazy looking nudibranch – popped out of every nook and cranny while scorpion fish, octopuses, huge pufferfish and oversized groupers just hung about smiling. I was gobsmacked, smitten and instantly addicted.

Next up was Sinandigan Wall, a huge coral surface covered with sponges, green tree coral, lion fish and various kinds of anemone hiding under rocky outcrops. Then it got even better.

The final excursion was the drift dive that began on Ernie’s Point and took us a mile or so downstream. As I was caught by the current, I effortlessly glided, curiously at peace, through the silent water like a weightless astronaut underneath a huge school of blue and yellow striped emperor fish, while a couple of slender white-tip reef sharks nonchalantly floated past. Exceedingly graceful and totally harmless, the mere presence of these magisterial creatures provided a fitting end to a truly wonderful experience.

I had always known that I would love scuba-diving but not quite as much as this.