The Philippines

22 Nov 2000
Fly to Manila.

Whoa, Manila? Isn't that in the wrong direction? Aren't you supposed to be headed for South America? Isn't there an awful lot of hostage taking going on in the Philippines? Didn't they just impeach their president?

Well, I've always wanted to see a government fall...

Really, after significant musings on a number of topics, not the least of which being the state of the NASDAQ, Tuk and I have decided to head back to Southern Thailand for the high season there. We'll save a fortune just be virtue of not being in the South Pacific, and I'll be able to get experience working as a dive instructor.

I've always been told that it's not possible to really know a place when you are just traveling through, so I'm looking forward to living in Thailand with a Thai person and experiencing it in a different way.

The current plan is to head back into the South Pacific around Aug 2001, and to be in Chile by Dec 2001 for the climbing season on Aconcogua.

23 Nov 2000
Since I'll be in Thailand for a few months we went to the Royal Thai embassy to get me a two-month visa instead of the one month version they issue on arrival.

After our American bureaucratic debacle I was almost hoping the Thailand would deny my visa, but instead, they cheerfully rushed it through even after I told them I was hoping to (illegally) find employment there. Oh well.

24 Nov 2000
Explore a bit of Manila, catch a movie, and then head out for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. It was Tuk's first experience with stuffing and cranberry sauce, but successful nonetheless. I tried to explain how a celebration of raping, pillaging, and the eating of humble pie got elevated to a national holiday involving animal sacrifice, but it must be too long that I've been away, because I couldn't quite remember the plot.

25 Nov 2000
Away from Manila, and off to Sabang, Puerto Galera which has been recommended to us as the most accessible good diving in the Philippines.

26 Nov 2000
Two dives in Sabang. Pleasant enough, with a few sharks and a large (1.5m, 5ft) marble ray, but the weather was a bit stormy and the visibility wasn't great.

Sabang turns out to be a bit of a surprise though. We had been told there was nightlife, but didn't quite read between the lines to realize that meant rampant prostitution.

By all accounts, the diving here is good, but not great. Even so, it seems there are only three types of businesses, restaurants, go-go bars, and dive shops, far more of each than it would seem this tiny beach town could support.

Even odder, almost all the shops of a technical instructor on staff, so between my dives I made a tour of the operations to check out the course offerings...

27 Nov - 2 Dec 2000
 
At 66m (215ft) it is cold and dark with an unexpected current running. At this depth, too much physical exertion could lead to carbon dioxide build up, convulsions and death, so instead of swimming, we crawl along the bottom.

Inching across the ocean floor I control my breathing by reviewing the long list of things that could go wrong on this dive, and then mentally rehearse the required responses. Once more checking all the valve positions, my thoughts drift to all the other times in my life I've been crawling along in the cold, dark, and wet.

John and I go over a dive plan.
This grim reverie is interrupted when my instructor taps my shoulder, he's found a sea horse he wants to show me. Kneeling on the bottom far beyond the recreational diving limits, and watching this surreal little creature, the world seems to suddenly come into a little bit better focus.

Down here, it seems self-evident the road less traveled is always the more interesting, and that's really what technical diving is about. In our ever shrinking and more traveled world it's another way of seeking out stones still to be turned.

I've long wanted to take a course in trimix diving, but it just isn't taught in many places. Since we'd done little research, it was a surprise to find that not only does Sabang have a trimix instructor, but a famous one. John Bennett currently holds the world record for the deepest open water dive (254m, 833ft) video.

update:
On March 15, 2004, John was reported missing presumed dead after a commercial diving job in Korea. Obviously nothing I can say here will make a difference in that, but, I would like to note, that over the years I dove with a lot of people, some of the incredibly skilled. John really stood out to me, not just for his talents in the water, but for his willingess and ability to teach and share what he knew. The short bit of time I got to study with him was precious, and the world is definitely a little smaller without him in it.

We obviously won't be setting any records on my course, but it's reassuring to learn these arcane skills from such an experienced diver.

Deep diving is a delicate, and not entirely understood, balance between the effects of breathing different gasses under pressure.

The air we normally breath is 21% oxygen, 79% nitrogen, and small quantities of trace elements. In recreational diving, nitrogen is the primary concern. As divers breath compressed air at depth, the pressure forces extra nitrogen to dissolve into their bodies. This excess nitrogen must be off-gassed as the diver ascends.

Practicing with a surface marker buoy.

If the ascent is slow enough, there are no problems, but if the diver comes up too quickly the nitrogen can form bubbles that wreak havoc as they lodge in joints or sensitive nerve tissue. This is decompression sickness (DCS), or "the bends," and pain, paralysis, and death are all possible consequences.

To extend the time they can remain at depth without unreasonably increasing the risk of DCS, some divers reduce the amount of nitrogen they breath by adding extra oxygen to their tanks making nitrox.

But, breathing even normal air at 40m (130ft), the pressure makes the body respond as if it was breathing 100% oxygen, and going deeper oxygen toxicity becomes a significant threat.

Unlike DCS which often manifests subtly and only on the surface, oxygen toxicity causes immediate and dramatic symptoms at depth. Most common and worrying are convulsions, which cause the diver to uncontrollably spit out his or her regulator and most likely drown.

An oxygen partial pressure of 1.6 atmospheres is the generally accepted limit for technical diving and with air this partial pressure is reached at 66m (215ft). To safely go deeper you need to breath a gas mix containing less oxygen than normal air.

You could replace the oxygen with more nitrogen, but breathed at high pressures nitrogen has a narcotic affect, and as tempting as it might seem, deep dives are not best attempted with dull wits.

An inert gas is needed, and helium has become the most common choice. With trimix, a blend of oxygen, nitrogen, and helium, the diver is able to control his or her exposure to oxygen and reduce the narcotic affect of nitrogen.

Helium doesn't have adverse affects until about 122m (400ft) where high pressure neurological syndrome (HPNS) becomes a worry. HPNS gives sudden personality changes, muscle tremors, and convulsions, but 120m is deeper than I'm planning on going anytime soon, so I'll worry about it later.

The final dive of my course is planned for 18 minutes at 80m (260ft). The twin tanks on my back are filled with a mix of 14% oxygen, 40% helium, and 46% nitrogen. In addition to the twins I carry a small stage bottle under each arm. The left, lean mix, is 50% oxygen and 50% nitrogen, and then right, rich mix, is 100% oxygen.

Geared up for trimix.
The mix of gasses in the main tanks is hypoxic, it does not contain enough oxygen to breath on the surface, so I roll off the boat breathing from the left stage bottle. At 15m (50ft) there is enough pressure to breath from our main tanks so we pause our descent to switch gasses and do a quick check for leaks.

The leak check is important because on our previous dives we have meticulously measured my breathing rate and this dive has been carefully planned to match my consumption. Despite the excitement of going deeper than I ever have ever been before, I must breath slowly and deeply, or we will have to turn the dive early to stay within our safety margin.

Resuming our descent we quickly pass through the depths where the lean mix, and even air would have been dangerous to breath. Even if it weren't toxic, at our maximum depth of 80m (260ft), normal air would have to be sucked from my regulator like syrup and the nitrogen would be dangerously narcotic. The trimix though comes easily, and my head is clear.

Despite the darkness and the cold, it's easy to imagine that we are far shallower, but it's a dangerous illusion. At these pressures huge amounts of nitrogen and helium are rapidly dissolving into my body. In an uncontrolled ascent the bubbles formed by these gasses would almost assuredly cripple, if not kill me. There is a hard ceiling above me, just as assuredly as if we were in a wreck or cave.

Under these circumstances any problem is potentially catastrophic and we train to deal with them instinctively. The equipment is reliable and fully redundant, the diver is almost always the weakest link in the system.

With time and gas checks, simulated equipment failures, and gawking the occasional fish our 18 minutes of bottom time pass quickly.

Our first decompression stop is at 45m (146ft). On our way there from the bottom, we are careful to maintain an ascent rate of 10m (33ft) per minute. Helium is a fast gas and will quickly form dangerous bubbles if we ascend too rapidly.

From here to the surface we'll do a decompression stop every 3m (10ft). Drifting in open water as we are, it's difficult to maintain such precise control of our buoyancy, so we deploy surface marker buoys (balloons) to the surface, and hang off them by attached lines.

The first several stops are short, most of them just a minute, but there is a lot to do. In addition to controlling our ascent rate and getting the SMBs up we need to prepare for the gas switch at 21m (69ft). I retrieve the regulator from where it's been stowed and turn on the gas. The switch point is chosen to be just above the danger level for the 50% mix. Breathing such a high partial pressure of oxygen helps to flush the dissolved gasses out of my system and the cumulative oxygen exposure is part of our dive plan.

The partial pressure of the 50% mix drops as we ascend through longer and longer stops until at 6m (20ft), for our longest (27 minute) stop, we switch to 100% oxygen at the maximum partial pressure of 1.6.

Hanging from my buoy, drifting through the seas with only plankton for entertainment, I've got plenty of time to ponder the sense of this kind of diving.

It's difficult, uncomfortable, hazardous, and intensive in gear and training. All my favorite things, and they make for an inexorable pull into depths ever less traveled.

 

3 Dec 2000
Time to leave Sabang, we catch a boat to Batangas, and then a bus to Manila.

Bad news on arrival in Manila though. While we napped on the bus, someone made off with my camera bag. The bag contained my digital camera as well as a 35mm, making them cameras number 5 and 6 that I've had stolen since I started out on the road.

I should write a tirade here about what a shit-hole the Philippines is, but I just don't have the energy. A samaritan realized what happened and walked us through the reporting process with the apathetic police, but it was obvious they couldn't care less.

Our samaritan let us know that we could buy a then motivated officer who might actually be able to track down the cameras, but our flight was that night and it seemed like we had little choice but to write off the cameras as a lesson in where not to travel.

Our final impression of the Philippines is of a bizarre dichotomy. It claims to be an overtly catholic nation, but is rife with corruption and vice. Thieves and prostitutes abound, armed guards are posted outside all businesses, and shoppers are body searched on entry to the mall.

A good diving experience for me, but we were not at all impressed with the country. In the current Philippine press there is a lot of talk about the "rule of law" in the Philippines. I'm not sure who they think they're kidding.

Fly back home to Bangkok.


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