I’ve never been one for competitive sport, or strenuous outdoors exercise. No fell or hill walking for me, nor rock climbing, potholing, or other like pursuits.
So it was rather out of character that I took to scuba diving in the Philippines with such enthusiasm. Although I’d lived in the Tropics before moving to the Philippines in 1991, in Peru, I only went occasionally to the beach south of Lima during the summer months from January to March; and when we lived in Costa Rica, the best beaches were hours away by road.
In the Philippines, on the other hand, quite a number of IRRI staff had learned to scuba dive, and spent weekends away, either in Anilao (about 90 km or so south of Los Baños) or at Puerto Galera on Mindoro, the next island south of Luzon.
In fact, when we did go to the beach in Puerto Galera for the first time, in February 1992 (just a few weeks after Steph, Hannah and Philippa had joined me from the UK), I’d never even snorkeled before! So the last thing on my mind was the idea of taking a scuba diving course. Snorkeling was fine – once I’d got the hang of it, and learned to relax and actually breathe with my face in the water. So we invested in masks, boots and fins, and started visiting Anilao about once a month. Our first resort was Arthur’s Place, established by local dive master and entrepreneur Arturo Abrigonda and his wife Lita. Arthur’s Place was quite modest in 1992, just a few rooms available. And since there was no telephone at that time, making a reservation was rather hit-and-miss. In fact, it was only possible to reach the resort from Anilao village by outrigger canoe or banca, which took about 30 minutes or so. Eventually, the road was opened up, the mobile phone network spread to include the Mabini peninsula, and Arthur’s Place even had email and a web presence. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My elder daughter Hannah took a NAUI dive course in 1992, not long after we first went to Puerto Galera (my one and only visit there). She’d have been about 14 or 15 at the time. There was a group of IRRI staff and children taking a course, and the dive instructors came down to the staff housing where we had a 20 m pool to conduct the theory classes and confined water exercises. The open water exercises and final certification were carried out at Anilao. Well, for a year I watched Hannah getting ready for one of her dives each time we went down to Anilao, and began to wonder what it would be like.
And my opportunity came in March 1993 when a group of us got together to arrange dive classes with two PADI instructors – Boy Siojo and Mario Elumba. I took to scuba diving like a duck to water, and I have to say it has been one of the best things I have ever done. Including my four open water exercises dives (just prior to receiving my Open Water Diver certification) I completed 356 dives, making my first on 13 March 1993, and my last (just before I retired from IRRI and returned to the UK) on 14 March 2010. I only dived in the Anilao area – there’s just so much to see, and in any case, as Steph did not dive but loved just to snorkel, there was no reason to go elsewhere. The reefs just in front of Arthur’s Place were ideal for this, and for about 18 years she kept quite detailed records of what she observed, some 100-150 m either side of Arthur’s Place.
I also kept a detailed log of all my dives, who I dived with, where we dived, the conditions, and how long each dive lasted. For the first few years, my main dive buddy was Arthur. Most weekends I would complete three dives (very occasionally four, and exceptionally five). But three dives was a comfortable number: a morning and afternoon dive on the Saturday, and an early morning dive (usually to Kirby’s Rock) on the Sunday morning (that was always followed by a great plate of bacon and eggs, toast and coffee).
We stayed at Arthur’s Place as often as we could but when full, we had to stay at other resorts along the coast. However, I guess we stayed at Arthur’s more than 95% of the time, and by the time we left the Philippines, we had become the longest term clients at the resort. So much so, that Lita’s younger daughter Joanne invited me to be one of the ‘godfathers’ or ninong at her wedding in January 2010. Steph and I were the only non-Filipinos at the wedding – a great honour.
There are many great dive sites around Anilao, but my two favorites have to be Kirby’s Rock and Twin Rocks. I think Arthur was one of the pioneers of the conservation strategy along the coast, and the development of many dive resorts led, quite quickly, to an overall increase in health of the many reefs, because the presence of divers (a considerable economic benefit to the local communities reduced the incidence of dynamite and cyanide fishing.
One or two sites were famous for their fierce currents, especially Beatrix and Bahura. Both Kirby’s Rock and Seepok Wall had impressive walls to explore. At Kirby’s it is possible to descend about 140 feet to the bottom of one of the walls – which I did many times. The feeling of the water pressure, the (general) clarity of the water (many times over 100 feet of visibility), and the wealth of marine life make this a special dive site for me.
There’s so much I could write about. We often saw white-tipped reef sharks, and my particular bugaboo was the giant triggerfish, a particular aggressive beastie that has chased us around the reef from time to time. The myriad of brightly coloured shoals of small fish, especially the butterfly fish in all their diversity, the jacks, and tuna, the occasional turtle, the soft corals and nudibranchs – what sights on a bright morning to make one’s heart sing. And the big advantage as far as I was concerned – no-one could phone me or send me an email, or bother me about work whatsoever, when I was diving.
Sadly Arthur died of cancer in 2002, but in any case once I had gained some diving experience I did not really need him to be my dive buddy. I used to take Hannah and Philippa diving (Philippa learned to dive in January 1995 when she was 12), and for many years I used to buddy with one of the International School Manila teachers, Judy Baker, or Clare O’Nolan, the wife of IRRI’s IT Services manager Paul. Lito Bonquin became the resident dive master at Arthur’s Place in the late 1990s, and he was the person I dived with most over my almost 18 years of diving. He was very experienced and a safe buddy to dive with – and we had great fun exploring familiar sites.
Do I miss scuba diving? From time-to-time, especially on a grey winter morning, or after someone at Arthur’s Place has posted a particularly nice photo on the Facebook page. I’m pleased I had the opportunity of taking up this great sport. I enjoyed diving with most folks I came into contact with, but there were one or two (including some of my IRRI colleagues – no name, no pack-drill who I was less than enthusiastic to dive with, because I just didn’t feel safe buddying with them And I was quite an experienced diver.
I remained an Open Water Diver – I had no interest in gaining further certification as an Advanced Diver, or rescue, wreck or whatever diver. I still have my mask (with its prescription lenses), my boots and fins, and my wet suit. Maybe I’ll get the chance to dive again some day, and if I do get back to the Philippines before I’m too old to enjoy diving again, I reckon there’ll be a welcome for me at Arthur’s Place, and marine friends at Kirby’s Rock and Twin Rocks might ‘realize’ their old ‘buddy’ is back in town.
Check out some of my Anilao and Arthur’s Place photos here.