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Monthly Archives: March 2018

After a dive vacation I like to write about my experiences. Here goes my story…….

My long awaited, very expensive, luxury scuba vacation was one adventure after another. As my scuba buddy in St. Augestine
always says, “Adventure is rarely fun while it’s happening.”
Nonetheless, it makes for great stories later.

The trip started with an Airbus ride to SFO followed by a nearly 15 hour scheduled economy flight aboard Philippine Airlines. I hate to spend the money for Business Class, but as I get older I find that I hate being uncomfortable even more. At the last minute I opted to bid for an upgrade. I’m so glad I did. Many Business class lounges are really nice around the world. The Philippine Air business class lounge at SFO was really run down with old looking, unhealthy food choices though. They have overly bright, no wait, “painfully” bright illumination throughout the lounge. It was not a relaxing atmosphere at all.
A long-time friend and dive buddy of mine from Scottsdale won’t fly Philippine Air since the Business class seats only recline to a 78 degree angle. I was pretty comfy at only 78 degrees and the service was exceptional. Even the airline food was good and relatively healthy.
Of note, my Scottsdale friend bugged me repeatedly at our 40th high school reunion last summer to go on this trip until I finally caved and said ok. “It will be REALLY fun & safe”, he said. I have traveled with him before on scuba trips and just to be fair, you could not ask for a better, more competent dive buddy or travel companion.
About 11 hours into the flight I was awakened by flight attendants pulling medical gear out of the compartments above me and scurrying to the cabin behind mine. The flight crew knew I was an RN since we had been chatting previously, and of course, I keep my CPR & ACLS certifications current and active.
I always offer to help if needed, but luckily the well trained flight crew performed high quality CPR and utilized the AED successfully to bring the man back from cardiac arrest. I was happy that the flight had not been diverted and I could get some rest and continue with my trip. This was day #1 of vacation.
Day #2 & 3 were spent on my own in Manila. I caught up on sleep, ate great food, and did a spa treatment to recoup after a long flight. I booked a river paddle trip to see the waterfalls at Pasanjan for a fun day trip. The lush scenery was beautiful outside the big city. Stopping for Buko pie and seeing all the colorfully painted Jeepnees driving around was delightful.
On trip day #4 My buddy Ron caught up with me at the gym and then later in the morning I joined Ron & his lady at the Belmont breakfast buffet. After that it was off to the airport to fly to Palawan and to jump onboard the Atlantis Azores dive yacht. I liked that Atlantis had representatives to greet us at the airport and expedite our travel at each leg of the trip.
I was delighted to discover that I actually had a cabin to myself once onboard ship. There was one bed for me, and one bed for my underwater camera & computer!
I was equally delighted to discover that I got the cabin adjacent to the engine room. I think most folks prefer to be far away from the engines, but the whirring hum of ship engines actually helps me to sleep soundly.
The overnight passage on the ship to our final destination was about 90 miles off the coast of the island of Palawan in the middle of the Sulu Sea. We had crew introductions, diving, ship, & safety info explained, and waaaaaay too many info videos to watch, ugh. My brain was tired & full of ship info.
March 18th was the first day of scuba diving for us. I usually groan when having to do a check-out dive, but in this case I was glad to reorient myself to my scuba gear underwater as I had not been on a dive since July 2016. To my dismay, my newly serviced regulator, or breathing apparatus for the lay person reading this story, would make a loud wheezing, or whistling sound upon each breath I drew. The upside was that my dive buddies always knew I was ok since they could hear every breath. If I held my breath to get close to a fish for a photo op, the divers would look around in concern since they could no longer hear the regulator noise. Once my psi was below a pressure of 2000, the whistle stopped. Aquarius Dive Shop owes me a free regulator service!
I enjoyed the diving, but I have to admit that I was expecting larger, more abundant pelagic encounters. I found that my wide angle lens was not going to work on the reef life in Tubbataha. The fish were extremely skittish, and made themselves scarce when anyone got within about 15 feet away. I figured that a protected area like this would have more sea life that did not fear divers like the Borneo and Papua New Guinea trips that I have done in the past. I also found that my macro lens was not going to bring me the results I wanted since most of the dive sites were in a drift current. Almost every dive was a quick shot from the camera as you fly by the reef like a feather in the wind.
On occasion the dive master would point out something in the distant, murky, deep blue water. The visibility waxed and waned between 30-50 feet in the nutrient rich waters of the coral triangle making it difficult for me to make out what the faint, shadowy figure was supposed to be. Sometimes it was a huge tuna or a reef shark.
On dive day #2 I woke up late and missed my morning coffee. I did not miss the dive though. The dive master pointed out a really BIG shadow in the inky distance. I could see by the tell-tale shadow that it was a whale shark. I could not see any markings, but I could at least say that I had seen the shadow of a whale shark now. The current was swift and unpredictable on this day. I decided to leave the camera on board on my second dive so I could just dive without hauling heavy cameras in the whip currents. Im glad Ron was shooting with his GoPro video when a whale shark came close enough for us to catch a good glimpse. I would have been too far for a photo, but I got to watch this magnificent creature swim by. My 1st Whale Shark!
We had 2 dive groups consisting of about 14-16 divers all hunkered on the reef during one of the dives I took. We were blown one way, then suddenly we were blown to the other direction. It was wicked strong and ever changing. My dive buddy Steve crossed his arms to indicate to me that it was time to stop fighting the current, abort the dive, and head for the surface. The surface waves made it hard to see the zodiac, but our boatmen found us and got us back to the ship. I was tired after that and I opted to sit out on the afternoon dive since I wanted to have enough energy for the night dive and attempt some macro shooting.
This was the day of “The Dive into the Abyss of the Washing Machine”. I am so glad I missed this dive. The divers in the group had a terrifying tale to tell. The current was so swift that one diver almost had her mask blown off of her face underwater. It was explained to me that the divers tried to come up out of the dive as a group while holding onto a broken mooring rope that only reached up to about 21 feet below the surface. They held on to the rope as the current whipped them around like rag dolls. They were literally at the end of their rope. When it was time to surface, they let go of the rope as a group to try to stay somewhat together and meet on the surface. Once off the rope, the divers were caught in a down current that sucked them down far enough for them to say that their ears felt like they were bursting. Then, boom! They were blown back up suddenly to the surface. I may not have the details exact, but oxygen was delivered urgently to those involved. One diver had some uncomfortable rapid ascent symptoms that lasted until the next day. His computer dive profile told the story. It’s unsure if it was sinus squeeze, dehydration, or DCS, but I encouraged him to drink 2 liters of water (no IV fluids on board). He had already been given oxygen previously. This is just the beginning of our adventure.
The night dive I had been looking forward to had to be cancelled due to unsafe conditions. I think it was a good call.
Dive day #3. I set my alarm for 5 am so that I could have a relaxing hot latte and not have to rush around before our first dive of the day. I was just finishing brushing my teeth when I heard a loud scraping sound from below. The cabin floor was rumbling.
I was standing at the sink of the lower aft port-side cabin. The ship stopped moving abruptly and lurched to the starboard side. All countertop items flew by me and onto the floor as I clutched the sink rim for balance. A very clear, loud voice in my head said, “This cannot be good.” “Get the hell topside STAT.”
I bolted out from my cabin to run up the stairwell as water flowed onto my head from I don’t know where. I just know that water flowing inside a boat listing to the side=very wrong.
The minute my feet landed on the dive deck, the crewman rang the alarm bell to call all passengers to the muster station. This was NOT a drill. We were 100 miles from any substantial land mass in the middle of the Sulu Sea just after 5 am, in the dark on a listing ship jammed onto a shallow reef. I saw Ron grabbing life jackets as I put mine on.
I heard him say, “Where is Chris?” “She is not in the room!” I called to one of the crew members to go find Chris since we could not see her yet on the deck. She came around the corner a few moments later and I breathed a sigh of relief. Ron had to go through 3 life vests to find one that was useable. Other passengers had life vests missing the whistle and/or the water activated vest light.
We waited while the crew worked hard to ready the zodiacs. The engine on the port side zodiac was not starting. I watched the crewman pull the engine cord repeatedly before the engine finally turned over. It felt like a living nightmare at this point, but I knew we could survive in the water for a while if we absolutely had to jump ship since A, we all could swim, and B, the water was warm. Luckily it did not come to that. I heard them call for the women to board the lifeboats first. I could not believe this was really happening at this point. Our lifeboat motored away from the ship into the surging sea and into the darkness. I watched the lights of the crippled Azores from the distance wondering if the ship would stay afloat. I imagined the absolute horror of what the Titanic survivors must have witnessed on that night in April 1912. Our zodiac boat was tossed up & down with the surge as the waves splashed over us, soaking our pajamas. We watched the lights of the ship while we bobbed in the water. I somehow had had the wherewithal to grab my Sobe dive light that was on the camera table at the muster station prior to abandoning ship. I had only a bottle of water, a light, and for some reason a speedo with me. All of our dive gear, camera equipment, computers, phones, plane tickets, money, documents, and spare underwear were left behind in our cabins.
A nearby dive boat offered to take us all on board their ship while our crew assessed the damage to the Azores. Dry towels, hot coffee, fruit & toast was offered. We were grateful for their hospitality with all of the unexpected guests they had accommodated.
The crew got the Azores out of the shallows and divers assessed that no hull breach had occurred and that it was safe to continue the charter and start diving by 10 am. This meant that we would miss only one dive on this day.
The captain apologized wholeheartedly for the rude wake up call we received. I can’t imagine how bad he must have felt. We all had questions and voiced our concerns individually. For me, I had lost my confidence in the operation to just go dive right away. The adrenaline had worn off and I was a bit ticked off at this juncture actually. Having to abandon ship in the dark, in a wet, bouncing dinghy BEFORE my coffee, and having to wait on a rescue boat for 4 hours, then motor over to re-board the recently shipwrecked vessel to continue on as if all was okie dokie was not working for me.
A Philippine Navy crew was on the way to assess the ship, so I felt it safer to wait until we got a second opinion on seaworthiness before I jumped back into the water.
Dive day #4. I was determined to catch up on dives since we had to cancel a night dive, and I missed 2 dives due to our shipwreck misadventure. I did dives #1 and #2 and got a few half-way decent shots even though I had to use the cheapo kit lens on my Olympus EM-5 for mid-range shots on the fly in the drift. I tried a bit of underwater video for kicks, but it did not come out even marginally viewable in my opinion.
While preparing my gear for the next dive I saw another diver walk past me to go change in the deck restroom. Fran is in her 70’s, still diving, still traveling the world. She was a hard-core diver in her youth braving the chill of the Great Lakes and even breaking through the ice to go diving. She is a tougher diver than I for sure.
The next thing I see is Fran down on the dive deck. Two crewmen were trying to help her up, but she was not getting up all too quickly. The main dive master, Marian who was otherwise known as Divemaster McDreamy to all the ladies, asked for my assistance to assess Fran. She had slipped and landed squarely on her left knee. The crew got Fran to her back so we could better see what was going on. She was very pale and thought that she might throw up. Her left patella was in a concave presentation and I suspected that it was shattered. Meanwhile the crew had brought the backboard, a splint, and some Ace wraps. After the crew placed Fran carefully on the backboard I assisted Marian with stabilizing the fracture, but in actuality, this crew really needed no assistance, they knew exactly what to do.
Fran was carried inside the main cabin lounge where we could keep her warm & get her out of the wet swim clothing. We carefully elevated and placed support under her leg. Her left foot CSMs (color, circulation, sensation, and movement) were WNL. (within normal limits). I marked the pulse sites for quick reference for the next medical person that took over. I also charted all of the pertinent info & Frannie health stats on paper for the next person. I hoped they could read my writing. We needed to cut Fran out of the bathing suit since we did not want to have to manipulate her leg positioning. Her long time dive buddy Kit was by her side and was able to get a “go bag” ready for her to take to the hospital. The crew had put up a curtain to create some privacy. It was like being in PACU again, only everyone was in swimsuits. Fellow passengers offered anti-nausea meds and pain meds to help. Since Fran was worried about nausea with pain meds she only took the anti-nausea med. Help was on the way so we waited for Navy medics to come on board to help. The Diver Alert Network had already been contacted to assist with arranging transportation to the nearest hospital. The Navy medics got our tough little Frannie onto their vessel and sped away to Palawan to the hospital there.
Dive day #5. I got to go on all the dives that I desired. I did not want to sit out on a dive since life is so uncertain and you never know what may happen if you sit things out. If you sit out, you could miss out. Life & circumstances can turn on a dime, or as in our case, turn on a “dive”. The night dive was fun with my Sola video light. I could see half of the Sulu Sea with that mega torch!
I want a second one so I can do more video clips for more fish behavior footage. Honestly though, I absolutely hate video editing. I may have to hire someone with more patience for that tedious chore.
Dive Day #6 was a 2 dive day since Ron, Chris, and I had to fly out from Palawan on the 24th and we like to have a 24 hour decompression window for flying. I got to finish the dive trip underwater with Ron, Chris, and my dive buddy was Divemaster McDreamy for the last 2 dives, yay.
The long passage back to Palawan was rough and the ship tossed and swayed about while our top-notch Chef continued to prepare our exquisite meals in spite of the impossibility to stand or walk. I collapsed into the giant bean bag on the floor of the lounge so I could stay in place while editing photos. I became enveloped into the bean bag like an Anemone fish in the Carpet Coral as the waves tossed the ship about. This swaying, tossing, and the sound of breaking dishes in the kitchen went on for at least 4 hours or more. I started timing the crashing sounds in the kitchen. They were about 20 minutes apart like the beginning of contractions. I never heard one complaint out of that kitchen. I guarantee that if I was the one trying to cook on that rocking horse cruise, the passengers would have heard, “Screw this, y’all are getting peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, so deal with it.”
A note about the chef. This was by far the best cuisine I have had on a dive trip. I’m talking 5 star, from scratch baked goods, perfectly prepared entrees, and abundance of healthy choices and variety, and knock-your-socks-off desserts that I challenge anyone to beat. All meals were exquisitely and professionally presented to each passenger.
I felt sorry for the seasick folks. For whatever reason I was only chummy to the tummy at the onset of the trip. I did not apply my Scopolamine patch since I hate dry mouth and the reduced alertness I feel on that med.
I have to stop here and mention how professional, polite and accommodating the entire crew of the Atlantis Azores was during this entire trip. We had various diving incidences, wicked currents, barotrauma, ship emergencies, medical emergencies, gear problems, along with other minor injuries and illnesses that could have been much worse if not for everyone’s cooperation, and willingness to work as a team to help one another.
I am grateful that I managed to have some fun and snap a few decent photos in spite of all the challenges we had on board the Azores. I am completely exhausted after this trip and need to rest when I return home. My next dive destination may need to be land based.