Sorry for the delay in blogging but I've recently decided to put down the backpack for a while. Within days of finishing my Masters, I decided to start my next journey in learning, this time on Malapascua Island in the Philippines. I've exchanged my laptop for scuba gear and I'm learning to become a Divemaster. Essentially, this means that I will be able to work as a dive guide (haven't decided yet if I want to). First, however, I had to complete the Emergency First Response course and Rescue Diver course. Since finishing them, I've taken a deep dive on scuba theory including the physiology of the body under pressure. I've also learned my way around a dive shop, how to show someone else key scuba skills, and how to give a dive briefing. This is just the beginning, however. I have about three more weeks of learning plus some anxiety-inducing swim tests ahead. Of course, I never do just one thing at a time so while I'm doing my course, I'm also working on the dive shop's website and social media platforms. Payment for this work? Free dives, of course!! Ok - here's my latest blog..
As you descend, the light dims. Meter by meter, you fall into the blue. By the time you reach a depth of 40 meters / 130 feet, the familiar crackling of fish and coral disappears. The darkness swallows you. Then, in the beam of your flashlight, it appears. The hull, the mast, the deck. You’re instantly transported back to 1944 when people, not fish, occupied the ship. The Irako, once a refrigerated provision ship, sits upright with little visible destruction. It’s as if the Captain parked it here at 40 meters. You swim into the wheelhouse and see where he likely stood when his ship was fatally hit. As you swim through the cargo holds, various decks, the galley, and crew bunk rooms you can almost hear the panicked screams of the large crew that died that day. While some like the Irako rest very deep and others sit on shallow shoals, they are all relatively shallow to more famous wrecks such as the RMS Titanic which lies at 3, 800 metres.
The Irako is just one of many ships that rest on the sea floor around the island of Coron. The Japanese supply fleet fled to Coron hoping to hide amongst the islands after they were attacked in Manila Bay just days earlier. They were quickly proven wrong. Having dropped anchor only the night before, they suffered a surprise air raid by US dive bombers at dawn. The attack took out 24 supply ships in less than 15 minutes. Today, the wrecks preserve the point in history when the tide turned against the Japanese. With the loss of their supply ships, the Japanese military became increasingly vulnerable to all other ground and air attacks.
Today, tourists head to Coron for one thing and one thing only. To dive these wrecks. Divers explore these mostly intact ships as they squeeze their way through the port holes, glide between the boilers, and explore the decks. While many of the ships were scavenged for equipment, scrap metal and memorabilia over the years, personal items such as a boot, iron, and gas mask remain and remind me that these are more than just dive sites. A tractor, rolls of fencing and bags of cement can be found in one while a jail cell is part of another. Over three days, I dove eight wrecks and a month later, I am contemplating going back to do it again.
For the moment, I’m on Malapascua Island north of Cebu City. People come here for one thing and one thing only - the Thresher Sharks. These prehistoric looking creatures with their big eyes and long tails come up to a natural cleaning station at 30 metres where divers can catch a glimpse of them at dawn swimming majestically through the blue. While there are also a few wrecks in the area, the real treasures are the small things found here. From Frog Fish to the Pygmy Seahorse, the aquatic life is unique, oftentimes rare and wonderful. The waters around Gato Island make you feel as though you're Alice in Wonderland with it’s vivid pink and purple corals. Exploring the sandy bottom around Chocolate Island is a sweet treat as the name would imply.
That is, at least, until a hiss fills your ears. Without time to assess what the sound is, a large bang shakes your body and the water around you. Fins stop and every diver looks startled. My guide finds me wide-eyed with my hands splayed asking through the most obvious underwater sign language “What the fuck was that??!!” After the dive, he explains that the explosion was dynamite fishing. Although it sounded (and felt) like it was just metres from us, the Captain assures us that it was actually a kilometre and a half away. It's not often that you feel the large bang that we did that day but on every dive you are sure to hear a snapping sound followed by the hiss of the detonation.
I later learn that blast fishing or dynamite fishing is an all too common practice in the Philippines and across Southeast Asia. Explosions are used to kill fish and make them float to the surface. However, the reality is much different. The bomb causes a shock wave that stuns the fish ruptures their swim bladder. This causes an abrupt loss of buoyancy and while a small number of fish float to the surface, most sink to the sea floor.
As you can expect, dynamite is indiscriminate when it comes to the kind of fish it kills. Whether it’s tuna or clown fish (think Nemo!), dynamite is equally lethal. It’s also extremely destructive of the coral and organisms that support the greater ecosystem. Many of the sites here in the Philippines are littered with dead and broken coral. Until now, I did not understand why. Given the bombs are often homemade, this frequently leads to injuries and death above sea level as well.
With a bit of research, I discovered a study that found over 70, 000 fishermen in the Philippines engage in dynamite fishing. One diver asked curiously, “Isn’t dynamite fishing illegal?” Well, yes, but making something illegal isn’t enough to stop it. There has to be enforcement. Specifically, enforcement that can’t be bribed. This is, of course, rare in the Philippines. So we dive on; enjoying the explosions of 1944 that brought us marvellous wrecks to explore deep below and trying not to get too discouraged with each hiss and bang that fills our ears today.