What you need to know about: Learning to dive in the Philippines

Clown Fish in the reef, Moalboal

We’ve always said that on our backpacking trip we would learn to scuba dive. We just didn’t know where. Australia could have been a good choice… imagine learning to dive on the great barrier reef! Or maybe Thailand, as it’s meant to be one of the cheapest places in the world to learn.

Australia was really expensive, and we’re not going to Thailand until the end of the year, so we needed somewhere in between. In the end, we settled on the Philippines because the coral was meant to be good, and the prices really cheap. It’s also got a better reputation for reputable dive shops than some other places on our travels, so it was perfect.

To PADI or not to PADI

We picked Cebu Dive Centre in Moalboal for our Open Water course… and then our Advanced course… and then our Computer Nitrox course. It didn’t take too much research to realise this dive shop had a good reputation, attracted international instructors, and had great dive sites.

Exploring the reef wall, Moalboal

First of all we requested to do our PADI course, as that seems to be lodged in most people’s brains as the path to scuba diving. However, the dive shop owner, Cameron, suggested we do the SDI (Scuba Diving International) course, which is more flexible, gives the same qualification, and costs less. All of that sounded good to us, so after a bit more research, that’s what we did.

The instructors at the dive shop all seemed to have the same opinion – PADI was fine, but expensive and less progressive… whereas SDI shortened the book-learning side the course but still taught you what you needed to know, and keeps up to date with the most recent equipment and diving advances better than PADI.

To be honest, they both give you the same qualification. If you pick PADI for Open Water, you can still switch to SDI for Advanced etc. All international certifying bodies have to provide a course with the same basic content to count as an Open Water course anyway, it’s just that PADI have more expensive marketing, so ‘getting your PADI’ became synonymous with ‘learning to dive’.

First time in the water

Blakey was amazing from the first lesson, so annoying!

In all honesty, I was nervous about learning to dive. I’m not too sure why, except that I’d not really been too in love with snorkelling – I always manage to end up filling the snorkel with water and fogging up the mask. It just seemed like a hassle more than anything. I expected scuba diving to be much the same.

Our diving instructor was a 60 year old German guy called Michael, who’d been diving for 30 years and taught his students in the typical German manner – straight to the point, nice and efficient, just with lots of extra swearing. He was brown as a berry from teaching diving in exotic locations for most of his adult life and had more than 10,000 dives under his belt. We were in good hands.

So proud! With our dive master, Mike, after completing our last dive (hence the mad hair!)

We started by learning how to put together the equipment, which was actually much easier than I expected it to be. There’s the stuff we were most familiar with – mask, snorkel and fins, all things we’d used before. Then there’s your BCD, which is a jacket that you can fill with air to help you float, and deflate to help you sink; the air tank and regulator (important, need to breathe); and then your weight belt to make sure you can sink and stay down.

After going through the equipment, it was time to struggle into the wetsuits, which I reckon is the hardest and most tiring part of diving. Blakey, of course, made it all look super easy while I spent ages struggling into the horrible neoprene which I swear was actively shrinking as I tried to pull it over my bum.

Once we’d double checked our equipment and put it all on, Michael led us into the water. It’s pretty difficult to wade into the sea with a heavy air tank on your back, 4-6kg of weights on your hips (I’m super floaty so needed to lug around more than Blakey) and slippery rocks underfoot. Luckily, we went in from the boat on a few dives, which was much easier – just a quick back roll over the side and you’re in.

Getting kitted up and ready to go (GoPro pic, so the horizon looks messed up!)

All the sweating and swearing involved in putting on the equipment and getting into the water faded away as we took our first breaths underwater. Suddenly, we were in a different world. As I slowly sank down, I felt weightless (great for me as I’m used to feeling pretty damn weighty) and really calm. I expected my heart to be racing and my anxiety to increase but as I heard my breath flowing steadily through the regulator, I totally relaxed.

Floating about in the big blue

That’s how every dive has been for me so far, and Blakey says the same. As soon as we’re underwater, the chaos of the surface world fades and we’re floating in this empty blue cocoon, the coral wall to one side of us and the big blue to the other – and that’s it. That’s all there is. The coral is of course teaming with life – fish, eels, turtles… but it’s all moving in that slow motion underwater way, and so are we. There’s no rushing in diving – it’s all about keeping your breathing regular, relaxing, and doing the minimum amount possible in order to conserve air and stay down longer.

Learning Underwater Skills

Of course, it wasn’t all floating about looking at turtles and having a nice time. We had to actually learn how to be in control and not go crashing about into corals or shooting to the surface without warning. The most important thing we’ve been learning is to get our buoyancy right so we can hover motionless underwater as a specific depth without moving up or down. You do this using your breath, which is pretty cool once you’ve mastered it. If you fill your lungs with more air, you rise – less, you sink. You’re meant to use this to ascend and descend in the water, rather than kicking as if you’re swimming, which uses lots of air and looks way less cool.

In the first few dives, Mike made us kneel on the bottom of the sea and not move, which was quite hard. I kept bobbing about all over. Then we had to fill our masks with water and get rid of it, before completely taking our masks off and putting them back on, all while maintaining proper buoyancy and staying calm. After that we had to hold our breath, take out of regulator and throw it over our shoulder, then retrieve it and start breathing again (without choking down loads of water). We also had to take off our BCD jackets and put them back on, re-secure our buddy’s air tank, and take off our weight belts and put them back. All underwater, all while maintaining the same depth.

Nailed it!

As part of our SDI Advanced course we spent a very frustrating dive learning to navigate with a compass underwater and use landmarks to clock where you need to surface in order to get back to your start point. It’s really comforting and easy when you’re just going in a straight line along the coral wall, but as soon as you swim out into the big blue, it’s pretty scary – there’s no points of reference and you could easily get lost without the compass.

The advanced course also had us going down to 30m for a deep dive, drifting along in a current to a new location, completing an advanced buoyancy dive and finally a night dive. The night dive was my least favourite, although it is really cool to be down underwater with only the light of your torch to see by. The corals and fish are different at night, so you can see some brilliant stuff, and it’s haunting and beautiful to be in the darkness like that. I felt like I’d forgotten how to dive though – I was always correcting my depth, waving my legs and arms around as I felt like I was about to fall over (underwater, wtf?), and generally feeling like I was rubbish at diving. Blakey, of course, was brilliant at it.

Pretty purple fish, Moalboal

The final course we did at Cebu Dive Centre was the Computer Nitrox course, where you learn to dive with a different mixture of air. Usually, you dive with the same composition as the surface air – 21% oxygen, 79% nitrogen. If you dive with nitrox (‘voodoo gas’ as it used to be called), you have a higher % of oxygen and therefore can stay down longer while avoiding decompression stops, or getting sick from a build up of nitrogen in your body. It won’t help us too much at the minute to be honest, as our air consumption is still high, so we’ll run out of air long before we’ll need to surface due to nitrogen levels. However, it’ll be useful in the future and it’s always good to learn new stuff, so we went diving this afternoon with 32% oxygen, just for funsies. We didn’t get to practice conserving our air though as we spotted a whale shark and madly swam after it but it was too fast for us and with a flick of it’s tail, disappeared into the blue.

Looking up and seeing this above you is a bit crazy! Luckily it’s a whale shark, a gentle giant

Is learning to dive worth the cost?

If you’re worried about learning, or not sure if it’s for you, a lot of dive centres will fully refund you if you change your mind after the first dive. It’s an expensive qualification, so check with the instructor first to see what happens if you change your mind after dive number one.

In the UK, it can cost £400-500 just for the PADI or SDI Open Water Course. The Advanced could set you back another £300, and the Nitrox £100 – £150. That’s a total of £800-900 per person.

There are worse places to complete your diving coursework!

Here on Cebu Island, we paid £200 each for the SDI Open Water, £150 for Advanced, and £100 for the Nitrox. That includes all equipment, log books, course materials etc. That’s a total of £450 per person, saving us loads of monies. Plus, we got to learn in tropical water, which is toasty warm at 30 C.

Diving is wonderful – it opens up a whole new world to explore, more activities to do on holidays or backpacking trips, a new community of people to be a part of, and also burns mega calories for doing nothing more strenuous than just floating about looking at fish. What’s not to love?

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