Diving trip disasters: Part one

As I write this, I have just come back from a long weekend trip to Cebu. Had everything gone smoothly I’d be compiling my fabulous underwater adventures right now, but things didn’t quite go as planned. I’ll come to the unfortunate events of the last few days in due course, but they got me thinking about how this wasn’t the first time my diving escapades had gone a bit pear-shaped. Therefore, I thought I’d write about my worst diving trips in a three-post series (my latest disaster is number three). Here’s hoping that none of this ever happens to you!

First off, a weekend getaway that wasn’t a total wash-out, but came very close to it — in more ways than one.

Disaster trip no. 1: Malapascua (Cebu, Philippines), September 2013

The plan: A cheeky solo Malapascua mini-break on a long weekend — two days of diving, eight dives planned at a destination I’d heard a lot about. I was very excited about seeing the famous thresher sharks too, which, I’d been told, made an appearance every morning at dawn. (This was my first trip to Malapascua. I had a much more successful one this year.)

DSC01729 (533x800)

What actually happened: A typhoon in the South China Sea, although neither a major one nor particularly close, was causing bad weather and rough seas in the region. I discovered what this meant soon enough when the rickety bangka which made the 45-minute journey from the northern tip Cebu to Malapascua on my outbound journey was effectively skiing off the crests of the swells. Passengers were shrieking and my luggage threatened to become flotsam. When we reached Malapascua, the boat crew didn’t head back — the weather had become too bad to make the return crossing!

Once at the island, unsurprisingly, a lot of the popular divesites were not diveable. I ended up doing mostly muck dives in the seagrass shallows on the more sheltered side of the island, in brisk currents and less-than-crystalline vis. What’s more, the typhoon, which was edging closer and closer to Hong Kong, was causing flights leaving Hong Kong to be cancelled. This was my first trip to the Philippines on my own and I started to get anxious about whether I would get stuck in Cebu city as I attempted to return.

The worst part: Making it all the way here despite the bad weather, getting up each day at 4.30 am for the for the thresher shark dives (these were not cancelled) and yet not seeing so much as a predatory fintip! I was pretty downhearted at the end of my second (and last planned) day of diving. I looked set to be the only diver who goes to Malapascua and manages to not see the thresher sharks!

The upside: Deciding to squeeze in one final early morning thresher dive on the morning I was due to leave. My flight was late at night and there would be 14 hours of surface interval before I boarded. (I must add that the official recommendation before flying is at least 18 hours’ surface interval after repetitive dives.) I reasoned that it would be the first and only dive of the day after a good sleep, and I’d be using nitrox, so I decided to give the long-tailed beasts one last try. And … it paid off. My guide led me to a spot away from the other divers, we lay low, and the sharks just kept coming, gliding like jet planes over our heads, almost at fingertip reach, making up for their absence over the last two days. It was one of the best dives of my life, and it saved the trip from being a complete failure!

As for my flight, in the end it was running and I was able to board, though any passengers with connecting onward flights from Hong Kong had to stay in Cebu. Phew.

Thresher shark Malapascua

It could have been worse: A month later that same year, the destructive Typhoon Haiyan (or Yolanda) hit the Philippines and the little island of Malapascua was directly in its path. It was one of the most deadly storms the country has ever experienced. The island has since bounced back though and when I revisited this year, the only traces of the place having been flattened 18 months before was that there were slightly fewer trees.

Lessons learned: Travelling to the Philippines during typhoon / rainy season is always a gamble. The best time to visit is from December to May, when the likelihood of a storm is much lower. And as for Malapascua, the sharks at Monad Shoal are not guaranteed on every single dive, so plan more than a couple of days there to be sure of a decent sighting!

Next: Part two — a spot of bother in Brunei…

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