Scuba Diving: The thrills and the perils

Matt Reed, one half of technical divers Evolution Diving, during the search and rescue operations for the crashed Piper Seneca plane carrying DILG Sec. Jesse Robredo off the coast of Masbate. Photo courtesy of the President Noynoy Aquino Facebook Page.

MANILA, Philippines—On August 19, a day after the private plane carrying Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Sec. Jesse Robredo crashed several hundred meters off of a Masbate airport, Transport Sec. Mar Roxas tweeted a plea for help.

“To scuba pipol,” his tweet started, “We r running low on trimix. Any ideas how we can access. Tgt depth is 250-300 ft.”

Trimix is a gas mixture composed of oxygen, nitrogen, and helium used by deep-sea divers to breathe underwater at depths of more than 140 feet, where inhaling purely oxygen or nitrogen can be toxic for divers.

It had been almost 24 hours since reports of the private Piper Seneca plane’s crash first broke, and authorities had to deal with the depth and strong currents in Masbate Sea, where the plane plunged after undershooting the runway at Masbate airport while attempting an emergency landing on August 18.

The Philippine Coast Guard, with its limited budget, was not only running out of time but of resources as well. The gases used for deep-sea divingare quite expensive at about P3,000 per set of twin tanks, and it is money that the agency did not have.

Enter volunteers
James Omac, a diving instructor whose base of operations is in Anilao, Batangas, was one of the first to respond to the call after being contacted by an official from Malacanang.

Omac belongs to the Philippine Coast Guard Auxiliary (PCGA) corps, the volunteer arm of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) composed of private-sector individuals who were on call should the PCG need help in rescue operations, such as the one in Masbate.

Together with PCGA 116 Capt. Matthew Caldwell, Omac flew to Masbate on Monday to assist the PCG with their rescue diving operations, specifically in mixing gases that will be used by the navy divers in looking for the plane wreck underwater.

Diving for rescue
The PCGA is composed of about 7,000 volunteer personnel whose expertise ranges from the very complicated technical diving to the most basic application of first-aid techniques.

Many of them have day jobs and respond only when called on for help by the PCG. The divers on the volunteer corps do not conduct the retrieval of the sunken bodies themselves, as that is the task of coast guard personnel.

“In the [rescue diving operations] for the MV Princess of the Stars in 2009, for example, I was stationed outside the entrance of the ship,” recalled Vanessa Garon, a member of the PCGA squadron based in the NCR, in an interview with InterAksyon.

PCGA members, Garon said, are commissioned mainly to pad the manpower of the coast guard. “When they find bodies, for example, they pass it on to us and we are the ones who bring them to the hospital,” said Omac, who was recruited by Garon to her PCGA squadron.

But the coast guard could count on members of the PCGA as well in terms of acquiring technical equipment which could be too expensive for the agency to procure.

In the rescue efforts for the MV Princess of the Stars, for example, the PCG used Garon’s underwater camera to provide a footage of the sunken ship underwater.

“They used my videos then, because we wanted to give the families of the victims some sort of picture of the dive operations, na hindi siya basta-basta,” Garon said.

In the rescue operations for the ill-fated MV Catalyn B, which sank off the coast of Cavite after colliding with a fishing vessel during Christmas Eve of 2009, Omac said the SONAR equipment of Caldwell became instrumental in locating the shipwreck underwater.

“What the coast guard had then were coordinates, so they had a hard time searching for the ship,” he recalled. “Fortunately, Matt had a SONAR equipment, which made the job easier. He was very instrumental in finding the MV Catalyn B.”

Diving for conservation
Not all certified divers, however, are equipped and trained to join the rescue efforts of the Philippine Coast Guard like Garon and Omac. But that doesn’t stop most from giving positive contribution to the country even through recreational diving.

Anna Oposa, a 24-year-old marine conservationist, is one of those people. She is considered the “chief mermaid” of the group Save Philippine Seas, a collective of young people brought together by social media and the common thrust of protecting the Philippine seas from harm and degradation.

“Diving is actually a useful skill to have especially if you live in a country like the Philippines, where we are completely surrounded by water,” Oposa told via a phone interview.

Since half of the world’s animal species are underwater, Oposa is of the opinion that you “double your world” whenever you go diving, since so much of these species exist underwater.

“It really feels like a different world,” she added.

The daughter of environmental lawyer and Ramon Magsaysay awardee Antonio Oposa, Jr., the younger Oposa literally had her feet wet on divingeven at a very young age, since her father and older brothers were already into diving.

Since beginning diving at the age of 16, she has logged more than 200dives already, including in one of the most sought-after dive sites in the world, Tubbataha Reef in Southern Philippines.

“You can only go there via ship, so we had to live on a ship for five days,” she explained. “There was no Internet, no cellphone signals, practically no contact with the world.”

Despite having been isolated for several days, Oposa said the Tubbatahadive was particularly memorable because the experience provided her a baseline of what PH reefs look like before being destroyed by mankind.

“It’s what I aspire for, really. It made me realize that when we leave the sea alone, it can and will heal on its own,” she said.

Next month, Oposa will be flying off to the northern tip of Cebu to Malapascua Island and live there for eight months to establish a shark sanctuary in the area famous for its thresher sharks, which are quickly dwindling in numbers.

She said they are also in talks with the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) to offer a cheaper introductory program for prospective scuba divers and fisher folk in fishing communities along the coasts of Philippine islands.

“We want to establish a reef ranger program, so that the fisherfolk themselves can monitor the sanctuaries and protected areas in their localities,” she explained.

Diving for recreation
Aside from rescue and conservation, diving is actually a pretty exciting hobby taken up by most people looking to get a different experience of nature and its wonders.

Jayvee Fernandez, an underwater photographer, with his macro photography gear. Photo courtesy of Jayvee Fernandez.

The Philippines, being one of the world’s biodiversity hub, attracts a lot of scuba divers from both in and out of the country.

“In the same way that you go to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower and China to see the Great Wall, you go to the Philippines to go Scuba diving,” reiterates Jayvee Fernandez, a local blogger and a certified advanced open water diver.

Fernandez has only been diving for three years, but already he has experienced what many other divers could only read on his blog in envy—such as being carried by strong currents at the San Agapito Reef in Verde Island, and a “chance encounter” with a whale shark during a sardine run in Moalboal, Cebu.

With his underwater camera gears in tow, Fernandez and his co-divers in a group called the Network of Underwater Digital Imagers (NUDI) ( take unique and spectacular views of life underwater and share them for the world to see.

A close-up of a clown fish, one of the photos taken underwater by Jayvee Fernandez.

Some of his underwater photography work have been featured in publications in other countries, such as in CNN iReport’s “The Best of the Philippines,” where his macro shot of a pygmy seahorse taken at the Anilao waters was featured. (

Though diving has been perceived as a very expensive hobby, Fernandez suggests that Filipinos try it out if only for gaining a new experience.

“If you are able to spend P2,500 for a weekend, you absolutely must try it at least once in your life,” he stressed.

It’s All Up To The Air
Diving in the Philippines is unarguably fun, but the risks involved in scubadiving are as real as any outdoor activity on land or in the air.

With a different physiological make-up, humans are highly vulnerable to physical harm while undersea, which is why divers have to go a thorough instructional training about equipment, gases, and underwater pressure before plunging into the deep abyss.

Generally, three types of scuba divers exist in the world: recreationaldivers, who are only allowed to go up to 100 feet below the surface; commercial divers, who can go as deep as 135 feet below the surface; and technical divers, who can go more than 134 feet below the surface.

In the case of the plane crash that involved DILG Sec. Jesse Robredo, technical divers had to be called for reinforcement since the wreck was discovered to be located about 180 feet below the surface.

Philippine Coast Guard Auxiliary (PCGA) corps member James Omac explained that under these depths, three kinds of gases are needed in order for divers to breathe properly: oxygen, nitrogen, and helium, which are typically called as a trimix solution.

Three gases are essential in deep-sea dives because of a factor called the partial pressure of gases, high concentrations of which could lead to fatal accidents such as oxygen toxicity, narcosis, or even death.

Partial pressure is computed by the concentration of a certain gas in the mix and the depth at which those gases are inhaled. Because high partial pressure of oxygen and nitrogen can be fatal, a third gas is added into a trimix solution—helium.

“Because helium has small molecules, the dive will remain safe even if the partial pressure is high. It’s like you’re just diving at 90 feet even if you’re already 160 feet below the sea surface,” explained Omac.

There are other instruments available for deep-sea divers, such as what is called as a closed-circuit rebreather, which was used by Matt Reed, a Malapascua-based British technical diver and co-founder of a divinghouse called Evolution Diving.

A rebreather works by recycling or re-using exhaled air after replacing the depleted amount of oxygen and ridding it of carbon dioxide, allowingdivers to go deeper into the water at longer spans of time.

For recreational divers, underwater photographer Jayvee Fernandez emphasizes that some dangers are still present even at lower depths.

He cited nitrogen narcosis, which tends to occur when a diver descends into the water too fast, as one of the examples. “The feeling is supposedly very similar to being intoxicated with alcohol. It makes you do crazy things—like remove your regulator or even panic,” he explained.

Another risk is a phenomenon called decompression sickness, which happened to Danny Brumbach, one of the foreign divers during the rescue operations of the crashed Piper Seneca plane carrying DILG Sec. Robredo.

“If you surface too fast, the air bubbles expand inside your body causing what is known as ‘the bends’ which can cause joint pains, paralysis and even death,” he said.

There is also what is called as oxygen toxicity, wherein the oxygen on adiver’s tank becomes poisonous for breathing after reaching a particular depth.

Anna Oposa (right), "chief mermaid" of marine conservation group Save Philippine Seas, during one of the dives with her brother at Anilao, Batangas. Photo courtesy of Anna Oposa.

And still, there are also those dangers which could occur around you once you’re already underwater. Anna Oposa, a marine conservationist who dives an average of 30 times a year, had to contend with rashes on her arms after bumping into a fire coral, which is venomous, due to strong current.

Oposa, however, stressed that these “accidents” often happen due to thediver’s fault. “They happen because either you’re not careful or you’re too confident of yourself,” she said.

“You always respect the sea. If the current is strong, huwag ka nang mag-feeling. You just have to ride it para hindi ka mapagod,” she added.