Diving & Death

Pondering questions about what it truly means to drown.

9-min read

A Discourse on Inequality

After a cathartic boxing experience with my vertically challenged friends, I was back to business. I was consulting in the Philippines for a local company, calculating last-mile delivery logistics and pricing estimates for the neighboring isles. After pushing the last line of code I requested a few days off to recover from my carpal tunnel, both from the ring and from the hours spent on my IDE. My advanced diving certification was still a work-in-progress and what better place to become a certified diver than the Pearl of the Orient Seas, known for its beautiful beaches, atrocious golf courses, and a number of five-star villas which would really be four-star villas in a more developed country. But the service was much better here, so I couldn’t complain much.

I’d blocked the entire weekend for this quick getaway, but taking into consideration travel times many of the more exquisite islands were out of my reach. The more pressing questions were: did I want ...

(To go) cave or muck diving?
(To see) reefs or shipwrecks?
(To play with) thresher sharks or sardines?

I made an informed (read: impulsive) decision after a quick Reddit search and an enlightening discussion with my employers.

‘Topside, Puerto Galera is a social place, with easily walkable restaurants, picturesque happy hours on piers overlooking the water, and small shops. Underwater, it offers diverse diving including great macro within a 10-minute boat ride and incredible wide-angle including nice corals and huge sea fans at nearby Verde Island.’ — Bluewater Dive Travel Founder, Scott Gietler

The sun hadn’t risen yet but I set off, hoping to catch the early bus from Manila to the closest pier. I almost missed the bus by a hair. I jumped on and managed to snag a seat at the back, but my success was short-lived. The konduktor emerged behind me, asking for my ticket, and when one couldn’t be produced, he charged me and told me to stand. Seating was for ticketed riders only. Penance for not waiting patiently in line at the terminal. For the entirety of the four-hour bus ride, I was stuck between a fat man and a hard place. It wasn’t the worst experience — I perfected the art of sleeping upright. As the number of passengers dwindled, the conductor stopped caring about the lone-standing Indian, and I was able to grab a seat. We arrived a half-hour later. I walked towards the Batangas pier to wait for the first ferry that would finally take me to Puerto Galera.

And of course, my phone was in a state of perpetual death. I blame the conductor for making me stand and read Taleb and not my incessant need to pictographically document my trip.

Two hours later, the water was crystal clear.

Swimming with the Fishes

I met the divemaster on the first day arriving at Tamaraw Beach Resort. Australian by accent but sunburnt like a native Filipino, the man stood six feet tall and offered only two diving spots at the same location, one for beginners which stopped at twelve feet, and the other which took you towards the famous Midoro Canyons, which featured a current, making it a highly sought out drift dive.

Schooling reef fish, including jacks, snappers, fairy basslets, triggerfish, groupers, trevally, drummers, and barracuda set the scene against vibrant coral reefs that burst with color and teemed with marine life. Turtles, moray eels, cephalopods, and macro crustaceans are all found in abundance.

Like an inquisitive teacher’s pet, I feigned interest and prodded him for the other sites I’d come across on my brief bus google searches, and he warily mentioned the resting turtles, the Kilima steps, and the main attraction. the Shark Cave. Some figures:

Dive depth: 22 - 30m (72 - 98ft)
Visibility: 10 - 30m (33 - 98ft)
Water temperature: 27 - 30℃ (81 - 86℉)
Current: none - slight
Dive type: cave and shark
Difficulty: experienced/advance divers
Boat dive

I couldn’t hold my excitement potentially swimming with nature’s top predators that occupy the blue. He then prompted me on my previous dives. Are you certified? I didn’t answer... I knew if I gave away this vital piece of information he would limit my depth. And I wanted to go deep.

Don’t worry, I’m a Sagittarius, this is in my blood. Co-Star coming in clutch.

After all, I was the buyer and no one else was in the shop, so why would he care? While I dreamt of my sun signs I paused for another second. The hesitation was all he needed. He went around the desk and searched my name on the PADI database. A Hail Mary: I asked if it would be possible to get certified, but he said he didn’t have the time to prep me. I gave up. I’d have to try convincing him underwater via hand signals.

I placed my valuables — wallet and glasses (pre-LASIK) — in the locker and donned the wetsuit. We exited the dilapidated shed and into an outside pit area to wash our equipment. I watched the sediment slide off the neoprene material and drain into the shore. The other tourists looked at us, intrigued, from a nearby infinity pool, and in order to escape their boring gaze, we surrendered to the sea which was on the verge of pulling us in, with its wave after tempestuous wave. We strapped on the chest and ankle weights and slipped on the heavy tank. I almost tipped over and William laughed half-heartedly. No gloves for this expedition and the fins and masks aren’t worn till you’re in the water. We were all set. I regretted not swiping my father’s diving watch. We walked across the powdery white sands and waded in. The lukewarm water hit immediately and I prayed for a riptide to carry me to the boat. I put the regulator in my mouth as an initial test and continued to swim towards the boat. My heart rate did the exact opposite. But it wasn’t panic. What was it?

Fear is a Survival Mechanism

Do you remember the primary school game we played where a student would go around poking everyone with a pointy object? And if you flinched you were ‘it’? I could never really understand the rationale behind this activity — why should one lose because of a functioning central nervous system?

I wasn’t in my mind when I entered the sea. Until then, I had been dealing with a breakup in the only way I knew how: by aggressively trading cryptocurrencies. Ernest Cambell wrote, in his ‘Psychological Issues in Diving’:

Little research exists to characterize the relationship between mental conditions and scuba diving. Other than the obvious reasons people shouldn't dive -- i.e., they are out of touch with reality, severely depressed and suicidal or paranoid with delusions and hallucinations — many people with everyday anxieties, fears and neuroses can dive and do so safely.

Successful divers have psychological profiles that are positively correlated to intelligence and characterized by an average or below-average level of neuroticism. These divers generally score well on studies of self-sufficiency and emotional stability, according to diving physiologist Dr. Glen Egstrom.

Some actual psychological disturbances are well known, but, as for the risks of scuba diving, documented and studied cases are few in number. These include the depressions, bipolar disorder, anxiety and phobias, panic disorders, narcolepsy and schizophrenia.

All said and done, one probably shouldn’t subject their body to 0.445 psi of pressure per foot of seawater if one’s a psychological flight risk. Diving combines three of humanity’s greatest fears — aquaphobia, claustrophobia, and thalassophobia. So why would any sane person engage in this activity? Pushing one’s body to its absolute limits releases a trove of chemicals which are synonymous with an increased appetite for sex, pain relief, and love. By diving (or venturing into the unknown), I would either be attempting to recreate these memories or at least trying to relive them till my oxygen runs out. After not caring for so long (whether manifested by my egregious trades or by me not pulling my weight in my relationship), I just wanted to nurture the pit in my stomach. I wanted a feeling of belonging, happiness, and warmth in the cold depths of the sea. But this would come at a cost. A trove of neurological issues can cloud the diver’s judgment and compromise the safety of those around him. I never reached that point. I never compromised my instructor’s safety. But underlying my descent into the sea, there were other sinking feelings cropping up.

A Big Boy

We dropped anchor. Some people might feel constricted tens of feet underwater, but I feel fucking alive. Because fear is, by definition, exciting. Senses are sharpened, pain is dulled, and all the gears in your body work seamlessly to prepare you to fight. As we descended deeper into the ocean, I could feel numbness around my head. It might have been the tightness of the mask and I adjusted the silicone rubber skirt accordingly but broke the top seal. Seawater filled the mask pocket and I methodically repeated the steps to clear the water so I could see better. Press in on the top of the windows with two index fingers, lifting with the thumbs, and exhaling out the collected water. I could finally see the sea life around me and it was breathtaking. I motioned that I wanted to go deeper by pointing my thumb down with a closed fist. Imagine an inverted Facebook like button. My instructor was skeptical but relented. I cast a quick look at my gauge and noticed we had almost reached 20-feet. I guess my instructor wanted to explore, too.

Once we achieved neutral buoyancy the sea floor opened up in front of us. I settled on the seabed, releasing a mushroom cloud of soil in the process. The nearby demersal fish scattered frantically, and the previous long stretch of beautiful white sand beach was replaced with the current long stretch of beautiful white sand floor. Everything was at a standstill. I motioned the OK ring gesture👌 and we pushed off to the coral reefs on the right. Big mistake. My sudden finning over the reef ignited a cramp and I vividly remembering lashing out to increase blood circulation. I ignored the striking pain to not draw attention to my inexperience. Fortunately, he didn’t see my agitated movements. We glided over and watched the sharks sleep. Hydrodynamic and greyscale, with raw power to spare, I’d never laid my eyes on an animal more divine. One of his eyes flutteringly opened and he bared his rows of teeth. Frisson flooded my body from my toes through to my head. I’d never felt more alive.

Fear is a Social Construct

How can you aptly explain the phenomenon of getting off to a shark sighting? Type-A’s usually float around these personality traits. Marvin Zuckerman of the University of Delaware aptly coined the term ‘Sensation Seeking’:

the search for experiences and feelings, that are ‘varied, novel, complex and intense’, and by the readiness to ‘take physical, social, legal, and financial risks for the sake of such experiences.’ Risk is not an essential part of the trait, as many activities associated with it are not risky. However, risk may be ignored, tolerated, or minimized and may even be considered to add to the excitement of the activity.

Maybe I should stick to other kinds of risk that don’t cause bodily harm, like trading. Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux at New York University discovered the amygdala’s role in the unconscious learning of fears in the 1990s:

‘Under acute stress, the brain releases endocannabinoids and opioids – natural pain-relievers that create the pleasant sensation runners enjoy and users seek with recreational drugs.’

Diving, to me, was the vessel (or syringe) to force myself in an aquatic environment where I was at the mercy of the current. Swimming with sharks was the drug, the intense rush which would wash over me like waves. I just needed to descend and press down on the plunger. I was at Puerto Galera for three days, and for three days I beat the sunrise to go diving. The only feeling I can remember vividly is the sense of deep tranquility.

To balance these emotions, I rented a bike, and drove from one side of the island to the other, bumping into a father and son at Pebble Beach who were spending their last few days together before summer stood still.

The local family instead called this place Virgin Beach. Not because it is unexploited but because of the statue of the Virgin Mary. I bought the first round of drinks.

I also managed to create a playlist with some of the songs I was listening to on repeat while traveling.

Captioned: ‘The Divers Alert Network (DAN) recommends a 12-hour minimum surface interval before flying.’