SCUBA Diving in Tubbataha Reef for the First Time

I ventured to SCUBA dive in Tubbataha Reefs (in 1993 declared a World Heritage Site) for the first time last April 12, 2015 after a hiatus of almost seven years because of a health condition. My last reef dive was in Middle Rock, a site where the waves meet and cause seasickness among our companions left in the boat in Port Barton, San Vicente on August 8, 2008.

The recent dive in Tubbataha is my 71st and 72nd SCUBA dive sessions. But during the 71st dive, I almost became another victim of a strong undercurrent. Here is my story and some lessons learned.

It was a Sunday, about 9 o’clock in the morning when we started out to Black Rock, a dive spot located northeast of South Atoll of Tubbataha Reef. I attempted to dive the day before but had trouble equalizing so I tried again that day. I had a sinus operation three years back due to a bad case of nose bleeding which could impact on my diving performance. This worries me, but I’d rather try than just guess if I’m fit to dive.

The original plan was for me to hold on to the anchor’s rope of a nearby motor yacht and gradually descend into the bottom while equalizing. While on the dive boat I contemplated the 100 or so meter swim to the rope. Shall I swim and hold on to the rope then gradually descend or descend right there and then in the clear waters?

coral wall diving
Diving next to a wall of corals is unlike diving in a reef flat.
I donned my SCUBA gear a bit anxious of my ears not equalizing underwater. My dive master companion assured me that a protected area ranger will watch me as I descend. That may be comforting but that did not relieve me of my worries.

I held the top portion of my mask and made sure air comes through easily in the second stage of the SCUBA diving regulator. The air flow seems okay. I also made sure that my snorkel is attached firmly to the mask. I tilted my body towards the water and fell backwards at the side of the dive boat, down into the water with a big splash because of the heavy tank.

Seeing my two dive master companions underwater gave me second thought on swimming towards the motor yacht to hang on. I decided to descend directly as time is of the essence.

I have done this before, why not now? I thought.

The beautiful coral reefs and marine life in Tubbataha are just irresistible. It is a rare chance to be in a World Heritage Site known worldwide as one of the best dive spots.

And so, after a few minutes, with occasional pain in my ears as I descend and ascend a little to ease the pain, I landed on the bottom of the sea at a depth of about 65 feet. It seemed my weights have been too heavy as I added two more 2 pound lead weights on my belt aside from the metal integrated in my buoyancy control device (BCD). My buddies came over to check on my gears and I made an OK sign with my thumb and index finger.

Sharks and Strong Undercurrent

We toured the area awhile before I signaled my male buddy (the other one’s a young lady dive master) to take a video of my instant refresher dive. I couldn’t understand his reaction as he motioned to his camera and signaled he is going to ascend. I learned later that he has to set his camera.

My lady buddy placed her two index fingers together, meaning, I will follow or accompany her. She has a GoPro camera around her wrist and I understood as she swam away.

I followed her as she swam towards the edge of the reef. She’s going deeper looking for interesting creatures to document. I followed suit until we encountered a group of sharks, probably white tips, swimming in the opposite direction.

reef shark
A white tip reef shark.

I was just a few meters away from her when suddenly, I felt a sudden tug of current pulling me away from her. I realized that a streaming current is lifting me up towards the surface. I can hear my dive computer emit rapid bursts of beeps indicating I was ascending too fast and I could hear my ear pop. I thought to myself that this could be the end of me. I may be in the news that day as a diver casualty.

Instinctively, knowing that the sudden ascent can cause Nitrogen bubbles in my body and cause decompression sickness or bends and probably unconsciousness, I kicked upwards while pushing the water up a few times in a desperate move to go deep again and prevent disaster. I also have to avoid jerky movements as I know sharks are nearby and I might catch their attention. I don’t want to be mistaken for a struggling fish.

I succeeded as I found myself back underwater so rapidly that my eardrum was so painful. My eardrum would have burst had I dove deeper. I tried to calm myself by breathing slowly to establish neutral buoyancy.

Reunited Divers and Snorkelers

After my successful attempt to swim back to the depths, I saw my lady buddy staring at me about fifty meters away. I was glad to see she was alright.

I motioned with my hand for her to come and join me as the strong current carries us to another spot. I held on to a projecting rock and held on to it until she came right next to me.

Upon closing in, my buddy gave me her camera as she spooled back the string that connects to a surface marker buoy (SMB) oriented parallel to the surface indicating the current is quite strong. She wrapped her arm around mine to prevent us from drifting apart as she gradually released the balloon towards the surface for the dive boat skipper to see. I was breathing so heavily I thought I’d finish off the air in the tank before we reach the surface.

I feel relieved being back to the dive boat after several minutes and seeing our worried team leader get a sigh of relief. I survived!

Our snorkeling companions had likewise troubling stories because of that sudden current sweep underwater. One snorkeler drank seawater and panicked. Luckily, everyone made it to the boat safely.

While on the boat, I halfheartedly resolved not to dive again. But upon my dive buddy’s invitation to dive in the afternoon that day, I could not resist but join the two master divers once again.

The second dive that day released me from my traumatic experience as I dove, also for the first time, along a wall of colorful, thriving corals and reef fishes without the swift current. My health worry is gone and I am able to SCUBA dive again.

Postscript

I learned later that my lady buddy thought I was just behind her while she takes a video of a group of white tip sharks, probably a dozen of them. She was rattled when she saw I was gone but was relieved upon my re-submergence at a distance.

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