As I write this, I’m flying home from an epic two-week adventure in the Philippines, my first trip back to the homeland in more than 15 years. The impetus for this trip was to participate in the 2015 Philippines Verde Island Passage Marine Biodiversity Expedition sponsored by the California Academy of Sciences. You can read all about my experiences over on our youth community blog: Academy Adventures. This blog will fill in the personal details of what I didn’t mention on my posts for work.
Snorkeling in the Philippines meant a lot more to me than just getting to swim in a tropical paradise.
First off, I’m afraid of the ocean. Lakes, too. Really any body of water that isn’t a pool. I’m not a great swimmer, which doesn’t help. But more than just my swimming ability, in the ocean I get an overwhelming sense of unease about what's beneath the surface, a fear of the impenetrable darkness of the water. It's just something that I have always had, like poor lungs and bad vision.
On my last trip to the Philippines in 1998, I have a vivid memory of being on Polillio island, where my father is from, and splashing around in the local waters with him and some locals. He called me over to where he was swimming to show me something. He handed me a swimming mask and said, “Look at all the fish!"
I put on the mask and put my head in the water. But my unassisted vision was so poor at that time that all I could see were some tantalizingly colorful blurs darting about. I knew there was much more there, but it was frustratingly lost to me.
A few years later, I had the opportunity to get lasik surgery to correct my horrible vision. I thought of that moment in Polillio and vowed to myself that when my eyes were fixed that I would go overcome my fear of the ocean and go snorkeling in the Philippines, to experience what I had missed.
Two years ago, I had an ill-fated attempt at scuba diving that brought back up all those old fears of the ocean. In short, I panicked in the water and couldn't do it, despite my best efforts.
Now more than ten years later, I finally got the opportunity to go to the Philippines, and on a scientific diving expedition to the Verde Island Passage – what is called “the center of the center of marine biodiversity”! In other words, a chance to dive in the most diverse coral reef in the world. It was the perfect offer that would not likely come again.
In the weeks running up to the trip, I had prepared myself as best I could. I got my snorkeling gear from our dive shop, practiced putting it on, and tried it out in the pool in my building a couple of times. It felt really good to wear and to swim in, but of course I knew that it didn’t really compare to the experience of being in a real ocean environment.
On my first day on the expedition, in the seaside town of Sabang, my colleague Lindzy offered to take me out for a test snorkel in the bay right outside of our dive resort. I put on all of the snorkel gear — wet suit, booties, fins, mask and snorkel — and felt silly just walking out into the shallows right outside our hotel, right besides some local kids playing in the surf. I felt even sillier when I realized that I had my wetsuit on backwards.
The sandy bottom became denser with eel grass as we waded further out. After a few minutes, it got deep enough to swim, so we started snorkeling out, being careful to keep an eye out for approaching boats. I put my face in the water….
… and I saw my first coral reef!
In retrospect, it probably wasn’t that fantastic of a coral colony. But to me it was a riot of color and life! There were many varieties of hard and soft coral, anemone, sponges, fish, and more life than I could identify. And it was just below the surface! I lifted my head and looked back at the beach, only a short distance away, and marveled at the contrast.
Over the next few days, I went on several more snorkel outings with my colleagues. It was not easy-going at first. I had a hard time with everything: putting on my gear, clearing my mask, diving below the surface, keeping my bearings. I swallowed and inhaled many draughts of burning ocean water.
But slowly I figured it out, grew calmer and more confident in the water. I could go out for a couple of hours snorkeling and emerge feeling energized. I took out the GoPro cameras and shot some decent footage while snorkeling.
Shooting underwater is really tough! Everything is moving, including you. You are constantly worried about losing or breaking your gear underwater. Nevertheless, I got some pretty nice shots. And I have newfound respect for the amazing photographers and videographers on our expedition.
And then after a few days in Sabang, Lindzy, our colleague Meg, and I left for four days of educational outreach in neighboring communities to teach them about marine biodiversity in their own backyards. It was a great experience. But part of me longed to back in the water.
We returned for one final day in Sabang before Lindzy and I were to leave the expedition. Lindzy suggested we go out for one final late afternoon swim, just out in the bay in front of the Sabang beach. We took just our booties, mask and snorkel, since we had no idea what the tide or water condition would be.
This time we ventured out a little further from the beach and saw an even more fantastic variety of marine life: schools of tiny silver fish that seemed to encircle and follow us; beautiful lion fish waving their long, frilly fins; cute puffer fish lazily floating around; clown fish playing amidst the coral; and many more we couldn’t identify. Every meter it seemed we would discover something new and even more fantastical. A part of me wished that I had my camera with me. But I was also glad to be able to savor and enjoy the experience without feeling the need to document it.
It was blissful, swimming, without fear, with the fishes and my friend. It was a perfect moment. It took longer than I imagined, but I’m glad it finally came.