The Rainbow Under the Ocean

• Dispatch #6 •

Random notes from my first dives.

Perhaps the best thing about the Philippines is, beyond the beaches, is seeing what is under them: underwater life. I will never forget the first time I went scuba diving. In Batangas, a few hours away from congested Manila is Anilao, a protected marine sanctuary that is perfect for beginners and expert divers alike.

A rainbow! Hurray!
A rainbow! Hurray!

My first day was for my checkout dives—the final dives in my beginner’s course that would certify me for open water diving. As we sailed to the diving site, we saw a rainbow over the island. It was going to be a taste of the cornucopia of color we would see down there.

Anilao is a beautiful place, even at sea level. On my right I saw Sombrero Island, which reminded me of the island in South Korea that I nicknamed The Little Prince Island.

My first few dives underwater followed a similar story:

There was The Beginning, when I saw little fish surprised as our sudden appearance. It was pleasant, like looking through an aquarium was pleasant. I passed by schools of anchovies that automatically darted away when the water was agitated and I started playing with them like a conductor would with a troop of musicians. Each time I saw a plastic bottle or piece of garbage, I drew breath with outrage—one of the reasons why I ran out of oxygen early—and grabbed it.

There was The Buildup, when things got a bit bigger and, yeah I guess I get it, why people went through all the trouble. Some highlights:

There were huge coral, some just in the sand by themselves, with nothing but a starfish nearby. There were beautiful and strange coral that retracted when you passed them by. There were coral of every conceivable color and size.

There were a lot of fish I’ve never seen before, especially the small ones that look too small to be dinner. They seem familiar, as though I’ve seen them in animated movies.

I saw a sea turtle for the first time outside an aquarium. It swam lazily beside us, then continued on. I can’t believe people would want to eat them (meaningful glance at these idiots who stole and blinded five hundred of these poor turtles). They are way too majestic for anything else, other than to let them be.

My favorite creatures are the nudibranchs, these colorful, almost static (but not) critters that looked as though evolution threw up on them.

Then there was The Climax, when the darkness of the ocean gave way and boom, I saw a huge coral reef. It was like a mountain under the ocean, but each part was teeming with different members of the ocean.

And there was The End, when we would stop at different depths to get rid of the nitrogen in our bodies and avoid the dreaded bends. At this point, we would just kill time, but it allowed me to observe my surroundings better. At one dive, we were near these little sulfuric vents on the ocean floor that released bubbles in the sand. They were hot to touch and fun to poke into. At another, I would stroke the tiny hapless nudibranchs and if they toppled from their coral post, I would sheepishly put them back. Oops.

Diving is hard work, especially since I could only be down there in about one hour before I run out of oxygen. I now understand why meals in the resort are rarely served a la carte and people get in there buffet-style. There is a lot of prep work to be done, and taking off the suit is unwieldy and cumbersome. There is a lot of investment to be made, especially with equipment. Why is it that the best hobbies are often the most expensive ones? I grumbled as I removed my suit.

One way being underwater changed me as an artist is how I see color, pattern, and light. These properties just took on a whole different range in the ocean. The brilliant purple, orange, and green, the combinations thereof, can make one rethink the color palette, as well as the patterns that are begging to be interpreted into art. Light went through the ocean and disappeared with depth. At first it danced on our bodies like sunlight through trees, and slowly reduced in intensity, until one moment I saw myself staring down at the continuous abyss of the ocean floor and the dive master told us to stop. I now realize why Jacques Cousteau felt the way he did when he wrote Silent World, which was bursting with the joy and excitement of a true explorer.

Perhaps the most irritating part of my first time is having to get shut down by my instructor, when he must have felt I asked a lot of questions. Just what the hell is it with the guys here, I think to myself for the umpteenth time since coming back, rolling my eyes. Mansplaining on this side of the world takes on a whole different level, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t end with this guy. Remind me to go learn with a marine scientist when I go for my advanced license.

Diving becomes an interesting anthropological exercise. Most divers come in packs, largely because the greater the number of people, the less each one has to pay for the boat and the dive master. It’s a great way to meet new people and in the few times I’ve been, I’ve met bankers, a local government official, computer programmers, and some retirees. I’ve observed that a lot of diving instructors started out in the corporate world, and turned into dive instructors to make a career out of something they love. One can find a good community of people who are looking out for each other, and whose sense of wonder for the ocean is enhanced.

I think everyone who can do it should dive, if not to expand their horizons, but also to wake up to the reality of the oceans being under threat. Being present in the water made me realize how connected we all are; a person living a congested city is still affected by the state of a coral reef miles away. The amount of garbage I found in the few times I was in a protected marine sanctuary was already appalling, not to mention the island of garbage floating on the Pacific.

The rides home were my most silent. My ears would still sometimes feel stuffed, and, like underwater, I had to equalize the pressure by holding my nose and blowing through it. Going back to the city after seeing the ocean would be a sad journey. I can’t wait to go back under the ocean again.


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