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Coron 2023: Part 5 - Free Diving Stories

A calm sea with a large rock in the middle.

2nd April 

This has to be the longest gap between the event and the recording of the event; I’ve got to catch up, let’s see when I left off. 

I was dragged back to the oat by the same means I was dragged out, and Nicole’s life vest was as much of a drag the second time. From there, we sped off to the next destination; a rocky outcropping in the middle of the sea we had spied on our way out to the sea grass. It was a crumbling pillar of unfriendly, solid sea rock. With a thousand hooked points on every surface, weathered by the salt water. 

But whilst on the surface it was the natural allegory of a ‘Do Not Enter’ sign, underneath the surface it was a completely different world., at least from what I could see from the boat. The current was stronger now that we were further away from the shore, so the water was harder to see through, but it was a much deeper blue and glistened brightly in the late morning sun.  

Finally, it was time to plunge back in the lukewarm bath and sprint for the manta ray. It was swimming around the rock, right into the current, which made it impossible for Nicole and I to catch up with, especially without any flippers. In the end, I switched my focus to the island. 

Swimming up to the side was easy. But with the waves pulling me in and out and no foothold lower than sea level, it was hard to hoist myself up. The rocks were indeed as punishing as they looked. 

“Be careful,” said the manta ray spotter, who seemingly appeared out of nowhere, standing a little further up the rock. As I navigated the small outcroppings, I found some very pretty pools of shorthand reef reminiscent of an aquarium, complete with anemones, urchins, multicoloured fish, and crabs. There were so many crabs on the island, and it was fun to watch them scatter and jump from rock to rock, disappearing out of sight one by one. The manta spotter guided me to a sleeping sea snake too, which I could barely see in the shade of the salt-shaped towers, save for the bright stripes. When I was called back, it was because the manta ray had completed its lap and was much easier to follow now. I cut my foot as I flung myself as far from the rocks as possible and moved my way across the sponges and bleached limpets to open ocean. 

I didn’t see much of the ray at first, on account of the lack of goggles. Even if the sea wasn’t too salty, I could only see three fuzzy circles gliding about. And yet again, the crewmate came to the rescue with his snorkel, and yet again I spent a good deal of time trying to get it to fit properly. Eventually it did, and everything after that was a magical experience. 

We were already lucky to see one at all, but this ray seemed almost playful. It didn’t rush off anywhere. In fact, it seemed happy to have the attention of so many divers. It dithered about the reef and did slow somersaults as people dipped in and away from its vicinity. It was larger than all of us.  The coral formed a huge bowl for it to play around in, as if were taking place on a stage. When the manta ray was away circling the rock, the more confident free divers explored an undersea cave, and followed it out to the other side. I imagine it was beautiful inside, though I could never experience it. An undersea forest of flora and fauna, with the ray as a cherry on top. Eventually it had to end though, and as the ray disappeared into the depths, it was time for us to leave. I was one of the last to make it back to the boat because I was enjoying looking at everything too much. 

“You look a bit pink on your shoulders, Alex,” an older Hawaiian diver said commented as I got back on. We had a lunch of rice, chicken, and vegetables (which I mostly ate, but soe of which I just couldn’t stomach).  

As we ate, people began to swap stories about their diving experiences. One man, a lifeguard, talked about his qualification, having to stay under the water for six minutes straight. 

“Those first four minutes are the hardest part. After your body accepts that, you mind calms down. Still hard as hell the first time.” 

I asked the Hawaiian man how long he’d been diving for. 

“Oh, since forever? Growing up by the coast I spent practically my whole childhood in the water. I’ve been surfing since I was seven and basically never stopped. I’ve free dived all over the world but there’s something special about the Philippines.” 

A large rock in the ocean, seen from a small boat.

Nicole had a few free diving stories to share from her time away from Coron town the day before. As I had spent my time in Coron, she had gone scuba diving around some large shipwrecks further out at sea. The diving assistant, usually an instructor, had shared some less upbeat stories of his own. Apparently, this man spent time regularly fishing the corpses of divers out of the water. It had never occurred to me that, yes, people do die when diving, and of course people would have to retrieve their bodies posthumously. The way she described his stories in such detail showed me how much of an impression they must have made on her, even after as many dives as she’d done. 

First, she talked about the people who commit suicide. The assistant said that on dives, some people just...leave. Vanish into open water. Swim until they run out of oxygen, he’d supposed. Sometimes they would be couples, imagining it as some kind of tragic love story, Romeo and Juliet submerged. They were almost all Japanese or Korean. 

But the saddest story was about an American family the assistant had taken to explore a large World War II Japanese wreck. It had been a family of four, including a son in his late teens. He had planned to fly back home early so he could prepare for moving to university but was convinced to stay for one last dive. The assistant (the instructor for that dive) cautioned against it, but they were adamant. 

So, they all went out together, down to the seabed to watch the rusty remains of the warship. They spent some time swimming about, and the instructor was doing his best to keep track of them all. Then he noticed one of them was missing from the group. It was the son. 

He couldn’t search for him with the rest of the group there, so he led them back to the boat and dove back down. Now, something you’re taught to be careful of around shipwrecks is that inside they are very dark and can easily become confusing to navigate. Experienced, professional divers will attach lifelines as they go, so they can always find their way back out. But if you can’t see it, you can’t use it. And if you swam away from it, you lose it. The instructor spent the rest of his oxygen tank searching for the missing son, with no luck. He raced back to the surface, ignored the worried family members, changed tanks and went back again. 

Keep in mind how important it is to ascend and descend in stages when diving too. If you rush, you don’t equalise, and it can damage your ears. The nitrogen bubbles that form due to decompression can affect your joints too, making it incredibly painful to bend your arms and legs. It was necessary for him to risk it though. He searched for another half hour, looking in each room of the ship before he found him. 

The son had drowned. The room his body was in was still thick with disturbed silt, making it hard to see the exit. Whether it had been disturbed because the son panicked, or it had caused the son to panic, we will never know. But the instructor's tank was empty, and he had lost his mouthpiece. He recovered the body and returned to the ship for the last time. Nicole said that particular event had disturbed him more than any other, and he still had nightmares about a body lying on the floor of a cloudy room at the bottom of the sea, and a boy who shouldn’t have even been there. The darkest example of “I told you so” I’ve ever heard. 

After that chilling interlude, the mood returned to normal, and we headed home again. The ride back was much faster, or it felt so to me. The bumps in the road still made it impossible to get comfortable for long, and I was the last one to get off. I was back at the hostel for early afternoon. I was told the power was out, so there was no chance of a sweatless sleep. My back was so tender from sunburn that I could barely lie down. 

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