It was the start of 2020, which as we all know was the year when Covid-19 loomed out of the abyss to mess with everyone’s lives and toss our mental sanity to the curb.
I was in the Philippines, a Southeast Asian nation of seven thousand, six hundred and forty one islands ranging in size from tiny islets to vast plateaus of rice paddy land painted grey with bustling cities that sit amidst a backdrop of jungle covered mountains and volcanoes. But the tropical waters surrounding these islands were my main objective. Being less developed than the rest of Southeast Asia, the Philippines is more rarely visited, making it perfect for pushing the boundaries of scuba exploration.
Flying out of the UK and into Manila half way through March, I was vaguely aware of the novel coronavirus threat brewing in China; but back then it still seemed like a distant shadow that couldn’t possibly affect the entire world as it came to. Landing on the Philippine’s largest island: Luzon, I planned to spend a week there making final preparations before catching a ferry to the next big island down: Mindoro. Here I would train to become a divemaster in Mindoro’s Puerto Galera. After that, I was going to head down south to the mysterious southern region of the Philippines where untouched beaches and undiscovered dive sites await. I’d film the entire thing and turn it into a movie!
Little did I know that my first diving destination would also be my last for the next 12 months.
For half a year, I got stuck on a 2km long island peninsular as one of only two guests at a dive resort, refusing to leave until I was able to complete my divemaster certification! (I couldn’t leave empty handed). I remember it like this: It was the 12th of March, 2020 and I was sat in a skyscraper apartment, Manila, working on my scuba diving blog, Diving Squad, when I heard the news: in 48 hours, the entire country would go into lockdown with no one allowed in or out of whichever city, town or village they happened to find themselves stuck in.
Like any big city, Manila would be a bad place to get holed up in during a sudden pandemic; with its endless crowds, masses of poverty and limited food, it would be difficult to survive in, if coronavirus did indeed turn people into zombies. I wrote off the extra time I’d planned to spend in Manila, packed my bags and jumped on a night bus to Batangas from where I could catch a ferry to Puerto Galera, Mindoro.
A five-hour bus ride and six-hour wait at the docks later, I found myself standing on a ferry, staring up at the lush green mountains of Mindoro, where vibrant jungle tore up behind the sand like a wave of neon fire ripping backwards deep into the island. Tropical bird song filled the air and the clear waters slurped against the sides of the boat as we pulled into Puerto Galera port. Next, I caught a tricycle to the tiny Sabang Peninsular which juts out from the central northern tip of the rest of Mindoro island and is the central hub for scuba diving centres.
After a ride that was shaky, loud and hot as only a tricycle journey can be, along a winding road that cut through steaming hillside jungle, I was stepping out of the rickety motorcycle side-mount and into the concrete heart of Sabang Barangay; once a small and sleepy fishing village, now very much the central hub of tourist infrastructure for the entire island.
From there, it was only a ten minute walk to the far western side of the Sabang Peninsular, where nestled in the centre of Big Lalaguna Beach lay my final destination: Scandi Divers Resort. One Mr. Luke Spence, a Yorkshire man who had been living in Puerto Galera as the resident staff instructor at Scandi Divers, greeted me. I was the last guest to make it to Puerto Galera in time before all non-essential ferry transport ended and at the moment there was an air of uncertainty in the dive shops and other tourist facilities as people awaited the official set of lockdown guidelines. No one knew for sure what would and wouldn’t be allowed.
First I was shown around the tranquil downstairs restaurant which fused into the dive camera room and gear space overlooking the beach from which it was just ten meters away.
Out the back was a pool catacomb within a small labyrinth of guest rooms spanning several floors. Like the ground floor, both the second and third floors had their own respective bar and open dining space that looked out across the still ocean waters back towards Luzon island with a smattering of smaller islands strung out between including Verde island. Later that evening I found myself
at the bar with a couple of dozen or so other guests. The main thing people who didn’t live in Puerto Galera were now mulling over was what to do next. Although the lockdown had officially commenced we imagined that rules would become stricter in the coming days. A few, myself included, were hopeful that this would all somehow conveniently blow away in the coming weeks; whereas others leaned more towards the notion that now may be the last window to get out of the Philippines and return home to stock up on food biscuits before all flights were suspended forever and global civilization collapsed.
Over the next few days the number of guests at Scandi Resort dwindled until the staff outnumbered us guests who now numbered only half a dozen.
That morning, I was eagerly following Luke around as he strolled through the dive shop in his casual, easy-going manner; explaining to me the various duties of a divemaster. Much of my training would be to act as an assistant or “tank bitch” as Luke called it, to the other dive staff; someone who could carry guests’ gear and help them into it, give dive briefings, assist underwater and so forth.
These elements of the Divemaster training came alongside helping new students to pass their open water course, unlimited fun dives and various other skills including underwater mapping, search and recovery, fun dive leading and much theory with training videos and written exams. Luke also showed me the rentable scuba gear from which I was allowed to assemble my own personal kit. Into my name-tagged crate went my neoprene dive boots, fins, mask, BCD, regulator and dive belt.
And just like that, almost as soon as the final item entered my box, we heard the crackle of a megaphone as a government official standing outside announced something in a language I didn’t understand (Tagalog).“That doesn’t sound too good” said Luke and briefly wandered off to find out what was afoot.
“It’s not great” he said, upon returning several minutes later before explaining to me that basically things were now to be like this: Puerto Galera and indeed the entire Philippines, were to join Manila by going into an “enhanced community quarantine”, which meant the strictest lockdown possible. What this meant was the closing of all restaurants, bars, recreational areas, public areas and most work spaces, people weren’t supposed to leave their homes other than to buy food and only with a quarantine card, no trekking, no swimming and no scuba diving. Also, alcohol was banned.
After the news had broken, people traipsed back to their rooms, everyone feeling a little crushed. To my surprise, Luke reappeared at mine thirty minutes later. Around his shoulder was slung a waterproof blue backpack from which he produced a small pile of rather thick looking books tucked under one arm which moments later lay scattered unceremoniously across my room. I had now become the proud owner of the PADI “Rescue Diver Manual” “Divemaster Manual”, “Instructor Manual” and “Encyclopaedia of Recreational Diving”, as well as the “Emergency First Response Primary & Secondary Care Manual” and an illustrated guide to identifying marine species within the Indo-Pacific region.
Luke chuckled. “Yeah there’s a lot of reading involved. You’ll need to read the manuals, complete the knowledge assessments and reviews after each chapter as well as take some marked exams at the end. Might as well get cracking on it now, so that when we can dive again there’s no distractions right”? He also lent me his spare Playstation 3 and a horde of games; these came to serve me well in the long dull months of waiting that ensued!
As I stood alone on my ocean facing balcony that evening, I saw the first armed patrol march past to make sure everyone was staying inside, assault rifles slung over their shoulders and bouncing slightly as the tough as nails looking soldiers beamed and waved hello at me. Over the next few days, all of the other guests all left for their home countries, leaving me as the soul surviving – I mean remaining guest of Scandi Divers resort.
My main source of company was Luke.
Although the bars were closed and alcohol supplies grew scarce, you could still buy something or other if you asked at the right store and on the very first day after lockdown, some forward planning individuals such as myself and Luke bought hundreds of beers and dozens of bottles of rum, meaning we were never thirsty but often hungover on those many long, hot and uneventful days, weeks and months.
Luke also sat through the PADI training videos with me – there was one to accompany each chapter in my giant Divemaster training manual. The chapters covered everything from the role of a Divemaster to currents, tide and waves, gear maintenance and even the business of scuba diving. It was strange to be training as a Divemaster but only by watching movies and reading books and without a single actual dive and whenever I remembered this, it was hard not to feel frustrated but I and Luke also were pleased to have a productive way to fill the time of which there was so much to fill.
About 6 weeks in, Luke appeared on my patio with a titan mug of coffee and smoking a fag as he told me to get my diving gear on. Not to dive in the sea – this was still banned but to get in the pool. And so, as I finally stood fully clad in scuba gear and entered the water, the tirade of bubbles around my entry did not part way to reveal dazzling coral, mighty schools of fish or an eerie wreck, but instead the blue square tiles of the two meter deep Scandi swimming pool, which was devoid of inhabitants save for me. The reason we were jumping in the pool was to practice a big part of the Divemaster course which is to go back through the same skill circuit that student divers learn when taking their open water dive course.
There are twenty scuba skills that a student must learn to pass their open water test. These include giant stride entry, neutral buoyancy test, switching between breathing from a regulator to a snorkel at the surface, the five point descent, five point ascent, removing and recovering a regulator, the same again with the scuba mask, clearing the mask afterward, sharing air with a dive buddy, removal and recovery of your BCD and weight belt, a controlled emergency ascent to name a few!
Whereas student divers need only perform the skills to adequate level to complete their open water certification, when re-running this skill circuit as a Divemaster, you have to perfect each skill to demonstrable level, including being able to break down and mime the numbered steps towards completing each one and also the things to remember not to do. Eventually you move onto helping real life student divers master these skills in order to pass their open water.
As six weeks of enhanced community lockdown on Puerto Galera rolled into a couple of months and then ten weeks, I continued to learn about the theoretical side of becoming a divemaster, play videogames and drink beers with Luke, stare at the dive shop gear and out to the ocean mournfully and not much else.
I took to walking the Sabang Peninsular loop several times a day, which was a very beautiful walk even though it took less than an hour. In places, the sprawling mass of trees and dense shrubbery peeled back to give keyhole views of the mountainous jungles that rose ever higher further into Mindoro island and glimpses of beautiful Puerto Galera Bay below. In the other direction, you could stare out across the glistening blue ocean which stretched off into the horizon and beyond, broken up only by the lush and sprawling Verde island to the right and further away; some fifteen kilometres off, the jagged and mountainous outline of Batangas’ southern coast on the mighty Luzon island.
Short though the loop was, I tried to stretch it out as long as possible, standing at different viewpoints and gazing off into the distance, wandering what lay beneath the ocean’s surface or further back inland to Mindoro’s mountainous jungles where indigenous tribes still lived. There was no denying that it was a very beautiful and mysterious place I had become stranded in.
Then, after ten weeks of not being allowed to dive, news suddenly broke out that the status of Puerto Galera was to be moved from an enhanced community quarantine to a modified general one which meant:
Scuba diving would be allowed to resume once more!
In the early morning of June the third, Luke and I waded out to sea directly in front of Scandi Resort in our scuba gear, equipped our fins and masks, snorkeled a little further out, swapped our snorkels for our regulators and deflated our BCDs as we sunk below the sea’s surface. The water visibility was superb and there was a dazzling variety of colours from the healthy reefs of corals and sponges and sea anemones and the huge numbers of brightly coloured reef fish swimming among them. A banded sea slithered through the ocean barely a few feet away from my head.
Puerto Galera was a breathtakingly beautiful place to dive, with incredible coral reefs and a rich ecosystem of quirky and colourful macro critters. It had been well worth waiting for.
And so commenced the practical aspect of my Divemaster course as over the following weeks Luke taught me many of the skills that I was required to master, in order to actually become a Divemaster. Some, like treading water for fifteen minutes whilst holding my arms above the surface, or carrying someone out of the sea onto the beach, or creating an emergency assistance plan were easily busted out often several at a time in a single afternoon.
Others took longer; with the very nature of how they were meant to be learnt requiring them to be repeated many times, under different circumstances. Remember the twenty scuba skills I’d been practicing in the Scandi swimming pool over the past couple of months? Now that we could, Luke and I repeated these skills many times in the open ocean, where they were a little trickier on account of the waves at the surface and the occasional currents beneath it. Whereas in the pool, we’d only focused on a handful of skills per session; which Luke dictated the pace and structure of, now that we were in open water it was down to me to organize each session; making sure to remember all twenty of the skills as I demonstrated them to Luke who then attempted to repeat each one, before I gave him feedback.
There were other skills to master besides just teaching someone their open water course. For one thing, I still had to learn to inflate a surface marker buoy underwater. A surface marker buoy is an inflatable, fluorescent orange tube that scuba divers let up via a reel, usually towards the end of a dive. It’s used to signal to boat traffic where you will be surfacing in order to avoid being hit. I’ll be honest with you. The first few times I deployed a surface marker buoy were not very smooth. The next few goes were a little better.
Another fun skill that took multiple days to learn was dive site mapping. This is where you use a slate, pencil, compass and dive computer to map out an underwater area’s geography and landmarks whilst also recording distances, proximities, depths and which marine animals can be found within the site. The dive site I mapped was Sabang Wrecks; three deliberately scuttled ships colourfully adorned with hard coral and home to a variety of reef fish, crustaceans and mollusks as well as a huge school of very friendly pinnate batfish. As you’re about to see, I’m no artist, but I’ll share with you my first dive site map all the same:
Yet another big part of the Divemaster course was to broaden overall diving experience and this meant going on a lot of fun dives! As I got to explore the many dive sites around Puerto Galera; it became obvious why the people who’d dived in this part of the Philippines, ranted and raved about how incredible it was.
I saw mighty coral reefs of red, pink, blue, green, orange and yellow sloping up and spreading out before me to form living walls and gardens of colour amidst deep underwater canyons and long stretching plateaus strewn with volcanic rock formations. There were many small shipwrecks that had become home to more reefs and critters. The largest wreck was the thirty meter long Alma Jane – with her collapsing deck yet a mast that still stretched up towards the ocean’s surface like a giant middle finger of defiance and twin cabins that you could barely even squeeze your shoulders through, she was always accompanied by a resident school of pinnate batfish, a motionless tower of shimmering silver of which several bolder members would often break away from to follow you in hopes of food.
In the stretching seabed grasses that lay between the various coral reefs and wrecks, many green sea turtles came to feed with their sleepy gazes, dark green mottled flippers and sleek grey shells; it was not uncommon to see two or three at a time. We dived the giant clam sanctuary and witnessed clams with shells that were a meter across and which opened and closed slowly to reveal the enormous mollusks fiery coloured mantles within.
In between the gigantic creatures, tiny flamboyant cuttlefish and blue ringed octopus drifted by stealthily.At almost every dive site, there were huge schools of reef fish of every shape and pattern and colour you can imagine and many other critters to such as seahorses, pipefish, scorpionfish, giant frogfish, stonefish, mantis shrimp, pufferfish, boxfish, cuttlefish, and jellyfish. There were countless kinds of brightly coloured nudibranch, giant groupers, venomous banded sea kraits (banded sea snakes) and sea snake eels which had evolved to resemble the banded sea kraits, to name just a few. A couple of times, I convinced passing expats to sign up for a fun dive with Scandi Resort and on these occasions I was assigned to them as their dive guide, where I got to make sure they had a safe and enjoyable dive that they didn’t have to focus on too much, whilst also ensuring they got to see some cool things.
Half way through my divemaster training; as Luke and I stood on my balcony one golden evening gazing out across the calm ocean at the rugged silhouette of distant Batangas’ mountainous, each of us with an icy beer hand, Luke told me that to pay the bills, he had to take a temporary IT job elsewhere in Puerto Galera which came with accommodation meaning he’d be moving there next week. So I’d complete the rest of my training with Rex Medina, the dive shop manager.
“Well” said Luke, as he gulped down the last of his beer and cracked open another that had appeared in his hand out of nowhere “you’ll be a better divemaster at the end of this course if you’ve been taught it by different divers. Everyone has their own way of doing things”. “You learn best by putting different experiences and teachings together to form your own style. So be glad. This is going to make you level up as a diver”.
Rex was born on the nearby, tiny Verde island and moved to Puerto Galera at a young age some time ago: now he carried a considerable degree of respect among the locals.
Like Luke, Rex was a great teacher and he taught me a lot. Over the following weeks, he showed me how to descend more rapidly on a dive and how to master my buoyancy; having me remove one weight from my belt at a time until I no longer dived with any weights at all. To this day, I still don’t. We worked on new divemaster skills such as underwater knot tying and underwater search and recovery. Now I know what to do if I ever find a sunken treasure chest on the seabed!
By this point, it was nearing the end of June and I had only a few more fun dives left to go before I’d reached the sixty minimum threshold to become a divemaster.
Then came the final two days of my dive master course.
On the first, I had to lead a fun dive in which I guided seven of the Scandi Resort lads gleefully pretending to be the most incompetent divers in the world as we visited Sabang wrecks and a chaotic shit show erupted in which everyone deliberately had some kind of catastrophe, whether it be incorrectly assembling gear, having a loose cylinder band, not being able to equalize, getting masks flooded, swimming off and getting lost, reaching out to touch marine life or panicking at the surface. I had to race from one person to the next and when we finished the dive, I had passed the test of keeping everyone alive but was ruined for the rest of the day, unable to do anything besides lie on my bed in a dazed state.
There was only one thing left for me to do: “The Stress Test”. You and a partner have to share air from one regulator as you exchange your fins, masks and BCDs underwater.
And with that, I’d become a divemaster.
Many drinks were drunk that night with me, Rex, Luke and the Scandi lads and the stars seemed to shine all the brighter that night as the waves gently lapped against the beach just below us. This was far from the manner in which I’d expected to become a divemaster and pretty much the entire world was still in lockdown.
It was now clear that I wouldn’t be able to travel around any other parts of the Philippines due to restrictions on movement between provinces and islands. With the travel industry at an all time low, there was actually no work available for me anywhere as a divemaster and Diving Squad was barely making any money either.
Over five and a half months, I’d stayed for what I said I would do before I left but now it was time to leave. I couldn’t justify continuing to spend money living at the resort, whilst I wasn’t making any. So just a few days after that I found myself departing from Puerto Galera and back to the UK, where I would lay low for a while and plan the next Diving Squad mission.
I learned a lot from the experience – both about how to be a better diver and how to always try and stay positive about the future because nothing ever stays the same, even the stuff that sucks. Met inspiring individuals, witnessed beautiful marine ecosystems and got to be part of real life in an extremely remote yet hauntingly beautiful part of the world. One day, I will return to the Philippines!
One Year Later:
I’m in Costa Rica! Big plans for this place. Big Diving Squad missions. You’ll see it all on the Diving Squad homepage so keep checking. Something’s coming real soon now!
See more of Alex’s work in the Diving Squad website.
Want to know more about getting into this profession? Here’s 10 Things You Must Know Before Starting a Career as an Underwater Photographer.
- Getting a Divemaster Certification during a COVID-19 Lockdown – August 6, 2021