Barely 10 minutes after we had arrived at Planet Dive Resort, and we had sat down for a pre-dive briefing, my group of bleary-eyed first-timers were already jumping at the sight of a pod of about ten dolphins, swimming just a few meters away from where we were standing. It isn’t easy to get anyone excited at 6:30 AM. Especially those who’ve been on the road for three-and-a-half hours with barely any sleep. And during a lecture, no less. You’d be lucky to get the bare minimum of their attention. But, there we were: ecstatic and our blood rushing, watching dolphins swim in the same water we were about to get into.
We were brought to Anilao, in Mabini, Batangas — diving haven, and one of the lucky provinces that surrounds the Verde Island Passage, which has been named by experts to be the “center of the center of marine shorefish biodiversity” in the world.
Needless to say, the sighting was completely unexpected. I joined Reef Nomads and their merry school of fish-wannabes because I wanted to explore other forms of diving. Snorkelling has been fun, but I wanted more. I’m convinced of my personal need for a SCUBA diving certification, but if we are being realistic, it is an expensive sport.
I found skindiving to be the happy hybrid between the two. It requires a certain skill set, none of which can’t be learned. However, a certain comfortability with open water must be acquired. With the mastery of some simple (but crucial and very effective) breathing and swimming techniques, it enables you to dive to great depths (eventually) with minimal equipment.
Initially, I had imagined that SCUBA diving would be more demanding: Physically, with all the equipment you’d have to lug around; and mentally, because you would need to so mindful of all of them. Also, you would need a dive instructor to look after you.
With skindiving, I found that physical and mental preparedness that it takes for you to be able to hold your breath while you are deep underwater is astounding. On the one hand, it is a relatively mobile sport, which can be done with neither oxygen tank nor instructor. On the other hand, you and your dive partner (the buddy system is absolutely crucial; never skindive alone!) are left to your own devices, with only the strength of your lungs, and the mettle of your spirit.
The challenge with skindiving (or “apnea,” to hold one’s breath) is to dive to the deepest depth and and holding your breath to the extent of your limitations, and fully appreciating marine life, while being safe about it. Or, at least as safe as you can make it to be, because, unless you’re a dare-devil thrill-chaser, none of that sounds safe at all. And it isn’t; it is absolutely, 100% risky.
It makes perfect sense that some people try skindiving to overcome their fear of open water. According to Reef Nomads, two other reasons are 1) for the physical and mental challenge, to see what their bodies can do; and 2) marine life fascination. From a personal standpoint, because I grew up swimming, my reasons are the latter two. Being in the water was never a problem for me. But I can imagine why one would, literally, dive off the deep end to overcome their fear of swimming in open water by skindiving.
But then the payoff is amazing. It is exhilarating in so many ways, if you can imagine!
First of all, the prescribed breathing techniques entails you to breathing so slow to lower your heart rate, and enter into almost a zen, trance-like state.
“You know that place between sleep and awake, that place where you still remember dreaming? That’s where I’ll always love you. That’s where I’ll be waiting.”
(J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan)
That is also the best time to start telling your dive buddy to watch, because that is the ideal physical and mental state for you to go deep.
Secondly, although I have spent most of my life in the water, it is only recently that I’ve begun to explore marine life. Especially if you are a novice like I am — an easily-excitable one with a penchant for mermaid lore, at that — it is a wonderland!
And every time you set the bar higher, so to speak — whether it’s diving deeper, or staying down longer — it is a feeling of accomplishment like you won’t believe, and a testament to the abilities of a body that you never thought capable of doing what you just did.
And I’ve barely scratched the surface — I hadn’t even gotten into the water yet, and I was already watching dolphins.
SKINDIVING IN THE PHILIPPINES and REEF NOMADS
In many coastal cultures the world over, skindiving served an anthropological need and was historically practiced to gather food and other marine resources. In the Filipino context, it is the indigenous Badjao people from Sulu and the most southern parts of Mindanao — where pearl farming and fishing are rampant — that are most renown for the practice. They continue this tradition until today.
Since then, it has been adapted for less functional reasons, and for purely recreational purposes. Which is why regular people like me can learn to do it now. And just as well, because, there is so much to see in the Philippines. And while there is an incredibly high concentration of marine species in Verde Island Passage, it is also one of the most highly threatened, thanks to human activity.
This is where Reef Nomads comes in. At their very heart, their goals are simple: propagate skindiving as a means to appreciate and protect what’s under the sea.
This means giving people a reason to care by familiarizing them with marine life. How do you care about something that you don’t see? The first-hand dive experience that they offer gives a “face” to the idea; while the “classroom education” that they use to supplement this gives names to the faces.
Starting with fisherfolk. The health of marine life directly correlates to their livelihood. Proverbially, they don’t just give the men fish, but teach them how to fish instead. Literally, they are advised which species can be caught, and how to properly catch them with minimal environmental effects. Alternatively, locals are taught how to skindive, so that they, and the generations that proceed them, may eventually be hired as skindive guides.
Clearly, the problem does not wriggle only in the fishermen’s nets. To appreciate underwater beauty and the responsibility of protecting it lies on the hands of private citizens as well. Many members of its originating campus organization, ISDA, have left their former lives as corporate workers, and taken the plunge to work in marine conservation and research, or have setup their own marine-oriented social enterprises. Clearly, skindiving has made a profound effect on the lives of many people, in more ways than one. Reef Nomads did not want to limit that experience merely to people on campus.
Now, this is where you come in. See it all for yourself: the fish, the corals, the delicate nudibranchs, and if you’re lucky, the dolphins. See all the wondrous things that we could lose if marine life, and the oceans aren’t preserved. Now that the Philippines has been proclaimed as the “center of the center” or marine biodiversity in the world, don’t you think that would be a lot?
Day trip tours are P2,800.00, inclusive of transportation, resort fees, and food, and are scheduled based on the season, and availability. For schedules and booking with Reef Nomads Skin Diving Tours, you can visit http://www.reefnomads.com, or e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org.