6am in Manila. The sky is black, the roads are glowing orange. Alex, my diving instructor, is rubbing his eyes at the wheel. He reminds me of The Rock. “Too early, man,” he murmurs, his Fijian accent thick with sleepiness, as I clamber into the front seat. “Definitely need a coffee.” We weave through Makati’s maze and veer onto the highway, headed towards our dive destination: the teeming coral reefs of Anilao.
Alex is calm, witty. He’s easy to talk to, with the kind of approachability, trustworthiness, and reassuring Zen that you’d want in someone who’ll be keeping you alive underwater. Alex tells me about growing up in Fiji, his work in marine conservation, about his wife. We sleepily discuss anything, everything, until the dark sky turns orange, pink, sky blue, and then light grey, when it begins to rain.
We reach Batangas by 7am, though we pause for a customary latte en route. Hopping onto a bangka boat with backpacks and crates of scuba gear, we zoom over choppy blue waves towards Dive and Trek Resort. Our shirts are soaked with rain and sea spray when we arrive at the resort, which is quiet for a Saturday.
After checking into the rooms, our first priority is breakfast, Filipino-style: eggs, rice, spam. I can’t tell if it’s the caffeine or a surge in blood sugar, but as we eat there by the sea, I’m jittery. Excited, but still nervous, knowing that I’ll be beneath the surface, breathing amongst the reef and the fish for the very first time.
If you’d told me I’d be diving even one month ago, I wouldn’t have believed you.
We head to our cabana. All our dive gear has been laid out: the PADI Open Water course commences. Alex is a fun instructor. “Remember, the gauge might explode in your face when you turn on the air,” he tells me earnestly as we check our gear, “So face it away from you, or towards someone you don’t like.”
Locked and loaded, we pull on our wetsuits and booties. The Manta Ray totem inked across Alex’s back – a story you should ask him about, if ever – disappears behind a layer of black neoprene as he pulls up the zip.
Time to dive.
We walk down the pier, put on our fins, and get into the water. I will myself to be calm, and it works. I don’t feel nervous, mainly because Alex is keeping a careful eye out, continually gauging my comfort level. On the surface, he teaches me how to defog my mask, put my gear on, and establish buoyancy on the surface.
“You’re gonna get close and personal with your mask,” says Alex, spitting casually into each lens. “Rub it well into both sides, splash a little water in there, and you’re done.” After defogging my mask, I am well beyond any point of pretense or attempting to remain ladylike in front of Alex. He will, after all, bear witness to many glorious visions of mucus dribbling down my face throughout the weekend.
All basics covered on the surface, Alex assesses me: “Ready to descend?” I nod, despite my racing heartbeat. It’s happening. I’m about to dive for the very first time! Dude. I copy Alex: regulator in mouth, arm above head, deflate BCD in small bursts. Slowly we sink down, and suddenly, we’re underwater.
Fish swim around us, beautiful, electric, inquisitive. What a strange, incredible feeling it is to be breathing beneath water beside them. I stay conscious of my breathing, keep it slow and deep. In, 2, 3, 4. Out, 2, 3, 4. It’s a weird thing, to breathe from (and be dependent on) a mechanical apparatus, metres below land. But the deeper we dive, the safer I feel. It’s another galaxy down there, feels like we’re floating in outer space.
With each new dive, the rest of that day and the next, I grow more and more comfortable beneath the water. Bubbles of laughter escape my regulator whenever I mess up during the skill demonstrations.
On Saturday evening, I pass the theory exam. Alex shakes my hand. By Sunday midday, I have passed the Open Water course. Before we descend for our final dive, Alex congratulates me again. I’m giddy with joy.
Diving in Anilao finished, we take one last lunch. Conversation lapses into comfortable silence. The sun is out in full force, hot golden light falling on my arm, on the balcony, across our table. My thoughts turn introspective.
I can barely fathom that I’ve blossomed from an anxious, landlocked little bookworm that once dreamed about swimming in the sea with dolphins to a fully-grown woman, one step closer towards achieving that dream. One step closer towards exploring all that this gorgeous world has to offer.
Little me would be proud, I think.
“Why are you smiling so much, Melissa?” Alex asks from across the table, curious and suspicious. “Are you up to something?” I look up, dazed from my reverie, and register the cheesy grin on my lips.
“Nothing,” I tell him with a chuckle. “No reason.” Alex lets it slide. We sip our coffees quietly by the sea in the Sunday light. With the soft breeze and still waters, we’re in no rush whatsoever to get back to the city.
In my mind, I can see seven-year-old me. She’s wearing a mask and a snorkel, and she looks happy.
If you’re in the Philippines and want to learn how to dive, go with Manila Dive Academy. Their communication, hospitality and knowledge are second to none. Can’t recommend them enough. Thanks, Alex, for filming my first dive!