Destination Dive: Talima, Olango Island Fish Sanctuary, Cebu City

A textbook beautiful, sunny, aquarium dive until my heart-pumping Trigger fish attack…

Mactan, Cebu City – October 26, 2015
(All underwater photos by Naz Ladroma)

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(Me and the 2 clown fishes.)

Who would have thought that a person like me, a non-swimmer who always imagined that there was a shark in the swimming pool, could ever learn to dive?

I started in 2000 with just going with my diver friends on their dives, but remaining on the boat while they jumped to the blue depths. As soon as they were below the surface, I would wear my snorkeling mask and go down to the boat ladder to observe them in the water until I could no longer see them. I always felt a pang of sadness, then envy, that this was the farthest I could follow them. I would pull myself up again to the boat and chat with the boat men about dive stories and their adventures in the sea.

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(On the way to Talima, Olango Island, suited up and excited for my dive)

Looking back, what I had been doing all along was gathering my courage until one day in 2002, I threw all fears and cares to the wind and took up Discovery Scuba Dive in Malapascua Island, Cebu City. This is scuba diving composed of two dives where you can learn the basics of diving in a fun way and most importantly, assess yourself whether you are comfortable with scuba diving. When you have determined that you have the mindset to learn scuba, you can proceed to the next level dive called Open Water. This dive takes three days to complete and has three parts. First part is the knowledge development / theory where you learn the basic principles of scuba diving. I did mine in a classroom setting in the dive center and later I had a written exam to see if I understood the concepts taught. The second part is confined water diving to learn basic scuba skills. This is usually done in shallow water like a swimming pool or in my case, in the shallow part of Malapascua beach where if I stand up, the water only reaches my shoulders. The third part is open water dives to use and try out the scuba skills you have learned to explore your surroundings. In my case, I dove whenever I was free from 2002 to 2006 and was able to dive in beautiful dive sites in the Philippines. Malapascua Island was beautiful and the perfect place to see my first thresher sharks, huge manta rays, black tip sharks and my favorite yellow sea-horses. Another favourite dive site was Apo Island protected marine sanctuary near Dumaguete. This was one unforgettable place where I was encircled by a school of big jack fish, locally known as mamsa. What an amazing experience! Padre Burgos in Southern Leyte as well as Mactan Cebu islands are also amazing places to dive in. At one point, I have been able to dive in Koh Tao island in Thailand but after diving in the Philippines it paled in comparison. When you dive in Philippine waters, it gives you a bench mark of what beauty to expect wherever you dive.

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(Surveying soft corals and anemones on the sandy bottom.)

In 2006, my life took a different turn and this mermaid’s tail eventually took the shape of human legs for a long time, legs that led her to work in the kitchen and the city, farther and farther from the sea where she was once very happy. This mermaid’s tail has never returned to sea for a dive for nine years until an opportunity arrived in October 2015 to dive in Talima, Olango Island Fish Sanctuary. It was a sparkling, sunny day when I arrived at Queensland wharf in Mactan, Cebu to meet up with my long time dive master and friend, Naz Ladroma. He has been my dive master for my Malapascua and Apo Island dives for several years. That day, he organized and led my refresher dive at Talima, Olango and I was very excited. After 9 years of no diving, I felt I needed a refresher dive to remind me of my basic scuba diving skills because I wanted to incorporate diving in my travel blog. Certainly I was feeling a little bit nervous considering that it had been awhile since I last wet my mermaid’s tail but I found out that diving is very much like riding a bike. Once you learn it, it will be difficult to forget.

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The boat ride to Olango Island Fish Sanctuary took about 20 minutes from Mactan. We arrived there around nine in the morning and we were still the only dive boat present in the area which was good because this meant it was still peaceful down at the sea bottom. We were going to do 2 dives in the morning and the first dive was my refresher at the bottom. Before I jump into the water, I always spend a minute to myself to do breathing exercises to help calm the butterflies in my stomach. When I open my eyes I am calm and centered and ready to jump. I had already suited up and was instructed to sit at the edge of the boat where I had donned my fins, mask and bcd with tank and regulator. Key was to stay calm. When I jumped in the water I inflated my vest to stay afloat while I received last minute instructions from Naz before descending to 3 meters (about 10 ft) for my refresher skills. As soon as I slowly went down, I felt a pain in my ears which is relieved by equalizing my ears. Equalizing the ears is very much what you do when you are in an airplane and you blow your nose gently with two fingers pressing your nose together and you feel a slight popping sound in your ears that relieves the pressure. That is very much like what you do underwater when you feel pressure in your ears as you descend in your dive. You may need to equalize a few times before you reach bottom, so you take your time.

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Finally we reached bottom which by the way, looked like a giant aquarium with optimum visibility. Naz reviewed with me buoyancy control, hovering up and down in a horizontal position at the bottom just by breathing; regulator breathing and removing it from the mouth and how I shouldn’t hold my breath but slowly release small air bubbles from my mouth and how to return the regulator to my mouth the proper way to avoid drinking the water left in the regulator. Another skill which I was a bit nervous to review was mask clearing. An important skill to learn in case your mask fogs up down there. It involves allowing a little sea water to come into the mask while facing down, swirling the water inside to clear the fog and blowing out through your nose while you tilt your mask towards your forehead, looking up and allowing the sea water inside to be blown out. And that is how you clear fogged masks. A bit daunting at first but it’s an important skill to learn that gets easier with practice. After remembering how to do these skills again, I felt ready and more confident for the dive ahead. Naz signaled me to follow him to an area where there was a remnant of a sunken metal boat skeleton where corals, fish and other sea creatures had made their home. It was in this area where we spent almost 50 minutes investigating and looking at tame and colorful fishes. I had the pleasure of meeting eels, lion fish, parrot fish, huge rabbit fish (danggit), a bunch of shrimp fish swimming vertically and of course the curious and very friendly clown fish (otherwise know as Nemo) . Looking at this cerulean underwater vista, I suddenly remembered why I had grown to love scuba diving. Down there, when you are seeing so many beautiful fish and sea creatures, time passes by fast. After doing our safety stop at 5 meters for 3 minutes, Naz signalled it was time to go up to the boat waiting above us.

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(Practicing mask clearing.)

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(Busy oogling at two curious clown fishes as they oogled back at me.)

After being immersed underwater for almost an hour, it’s natural to feel three very urgent need in the following order as soon as I am back on the boat: toilet break to relieve the bladder, then thirst for water because my mouth and throat will feel very dry after the dive, then hunger. That’s why I was advised to bring a take out lunch, snacks and water because you can’t believe how hungry and thirsty you can feel after a dive. But if I have a second or third dive coming, it is best for me to just take small snacks in between to make sure my tummy doesn’t feel too full for the succeeding dives.

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(Selfie-ing with my dive master (DM) and long time friend, Nazing Ladroma during the one-hour break between dives.)

What followed was a much needed rest, about an hour of free time to nap, chat or sunbathe on the boat. Usually I get out of my wet suit but others just peel off the top half to avoid feeling cold during that 1 hour rest. Before I knew it, it was time to suit up again for my second dive. By this time, I was very relaxed and the butterflies that were fluttering in my tummy during the first dive were completely gone. I was in the zone.

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Our second dive was still in Talima, Olango fish sanctuary for a wall dive. A wall dive is one very interesting experience where you can dive on a sandy bottom floor and suddenly there is a drop off where you descend a few feet. There I noticed a slight current so it was very nice to just ride it while I examined the wall for little and big sea creatures. It was there that I saw the transparent cleaner shrimp hiding on an anemone… then Naz called my attention and pointed at this big brown rock… or so I thought until the “big brown rock” swam away. It was a huge stone fish showing off the art of camouflage just four feet away from me. Amazing!

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(A rare moment observing a huge stone fish at 4 feet distance.)

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(The stonefish is big on camouflage and very lethal and one of the most venomous fish known to kill a man with its deadly spines. Just don’t make the mistake of stepping on it.)

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(Oogling a beautiful yet another venomous fish… the lion fish. Mostly fatal to both children and elderly.)

Here in the wall I saw more snappers, sweet lips, eels in nook and crannies and lots of fusiliers. We rode the current until we arrived to a flat sandy area with few rocky patches where there were many fishes. Suddenly I felt something hit my fins twice, or was that my fins hitting some corals while I swam? I am always very careful to do gentle flutter kicks to avoid hitting something. Suddenly Naz was grabbing both my wrists, swimming fast and dragging me away from the area. All I could see was that his eyes were as big as saucers… they were not looking at me but at something behind me. Omg!!! Was it a shark? That was the worst I could think of. I forced myself to not look behind me and just went with him where he dragged me a few meters away. Safe from a distance, he pointed back at the area to show me a huge trigger fish that was still trying to follow us while Naz kept throwing this bubble shield to scare it away.

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(Menacing trigger fish. (photo courtesy of en.academic.ru)

My huge triggerfish attacker looked like this mean dude. Trigger fish are infamous for attacking divers, to protect its eggs and territory. We didn’t know it but its nest and eggs were most likely in that patch of rocks and the fish felt threatened by our presence. Instinctively, it was protecting its nest because we had invaded its home. Good thing Naz was quick to see the threat and was able to drag me out of harms way. My right fin wasn’t as lucky. On the boat we examined it closely and indeed it had some bite marks on it. That was how big and dangerous the trigger fish was.

No matter how the experience was dangerous for me, I learn to take things in stride and learn from it. It didn’t scare me away, instead it added an edge to this beautiful, relaxed dive that gave me a taste of an adrenaline-pumping dive. This dive taught me to be more observant of my surroundings next time, to be always aware so that I can steer away from danger.

Life moves fast in my life as a travel blogger. It’s just another day at work.

[Video]

Boatride back to Mactan.

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(Calm and clear blue waters waiting for me as we arrived back in Mactan from the dive.)

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(Disheveled, happy and sun-kissed from Olango dive.)

An underwater slideshow of my dive:

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