Chaos in the Canyons – The Philippines

Close to Manila there are a number of dive sites convenient for weekend escapes from the smog and noise. The most common escapes are Batangas, Puerto Galera, Coron, and Boracay.

Batangas is a stretch of rocky coastline south of Manila on Luzon Island, cheap and easy to get to, but devoid of any fish of edible size (bigger than 5cm). Those with less financial concerns drive to Batangas and meet up with a Banca on the beach, then take the extra hour sea journey across to Puerto Galera in the north of Mindoro Island.

Puerto Galera, and the resorts on Little La Laguna Beach and Big La Laguna Beach are more aimed at foreign divers who are generally prepared to pay extra in travel and accommodation for the better coral and fish life. I spent 4 or 5 weekends there during my 6 months in the Philippines, diving and partying with friends. There are 20 or 30 dive sites along the coast frequented by the local dive boats, but the most interesting for me was The Canyons. I did this dive about 6 times in all tides and currents, but the last time I did it was my best dive ever.

There is a rocky point about 10 minutes boat ride from the dive resorts in Little La Laguna Beach, with 30 meter cliffs that drop vertically down to the sea, topped with coconut trees and a small concrete lighthouse. The water at the bottom of the cliffs slopes down into the depths at about a 45-degree angle, and is covered with an impressive variety of soft and hard corals, along with an amazing range of fish species, moray eels, and mantis shrimp. Stretching out from the point is an underwater rock ridge, swept clean of growth in many places, and sloping down out into the 20km wide channel between Luzon and Mindoro.

When the tide changes the current sweeps around both sides of Mindoro at incredible speed, and the two streams meet at the point, surging and boiling over the rocky ridge as the waters meet and then head out into the channel. At about 30 meters depth, the deepest a SCUBA diver can safely hang around at for 15 or 20 minutes, are a number of depressions or holes in the rock ridge, about 3 meters deep, and maybe 4 meters across. These are the “canyons”. Due to the speed of the current, and the boiling over the ridge most divers drop off their boats about 70 or 80 meters up current from the canyons, head to the bottom, and allow themselves to be swept into the canyons.

Nobody could swim against the current, not even the fish, sharks, or turtles that live in the area, and so every tide change all of the sea life for hundreds of meters around too big to hide under a rock heads to the canyons to escape the current. Being the only refuge from the maelstrom outside the sea creatures forget their differences, put their hunger on hold, and pack into the depressions like sardines.

Divers drifting into the canyons also use them as a refuge from the current, and make the most of the crowded environment to rub shoulders with fish that in any other situation would not go within 10 meters of a diver. Being packed in so small a space with many hundreds of fish up to 1 meter long is an amazing experience, and the 20 minutes goes very quickly. The divers clinging to a rock on the bottom of the depression are surrounded by enough colorful sushi to make a person seriously rich in the Tokyo fish market.

Having done the dive about 5 times in a variety of currents I thought I had seen it all… until the last dive. It was full moon, and the tides were huge, and the dive master warned that the current would be strong, but I couldn’t believe how strong. Dropping into the water maybe 100 meters upstream it took only about 20 seconds being swept over the rocky bottom in a panic before we reached the relative safety of the canyons, all the way grabbing rocks, my whole body flapping in the current until I lost my grip and was swept to the next rock to try again to slow my drift.

You can always tell when someone is stressed underwater, because their breathing rate is obvious in the pulses of bubbles coming out of their regulator. We passed over the first two canyons too fast to drop into them, and swam down as fast as we could to drop down through almost solid fish into the third canyon and both grabbed at rocks on the bottom. We looked into each other’s masks to see the panicked eyes of a diver pumping out bubbles faster than you would think possible.

The third canyon has been worn into a round bowl shape by the strong currents over the ages, and although it offered protection from the full blast of the water above it also had the effect of catching some of the flow and forcing it around the inside of the bowl, forming quite a strong vortex. With the stronger current than usual there were far more fish sheltering from the tidal current than I had ever seen, and the fish were literally packed into the bowl head to tail. Sitting in the middle of the bowl, clinging to my rock and looking up I found I was in the eye of a fish tornado. The dense schools of large fish in the bowl all pointing into the current in the vortex, swimming as fast as they could to just hold their position so they didn’t get swept out of control and bounce around the rocky walls.

The visibility in the bowl was getting worse, and I finally realized why – it wasn’t sand or mud – it was bubbles. The current swirling around the bowl was catching the bubbles we breathed out, smashing them into a fine mist, and stopping them from rising out of the bowl. The longer we stayed in the tornado, the more of our air got trapped, and the less we could see until after about 15 minutes we could barely see each other half a meter apart. Our air was running out, but being in this chaos we were both uncertainly looking up wondering how we would get out of the bowl.

The divemaster and I grabbed each other by both arms, nodded to each other, and kicked off the bottom up into the swirling fish and bubbles. We managed to stay in the eye of the tornado, avoiding bouncing off the rocky walls, until almost out of the bowl. Then the full blast of the tidal current hit us and, clinging to each other with all our strength, we swirled and tumbled in our cloud of bubbles out of the bowl and into the boiling current. There was no way to work out what way was up and what way was down, so we ignored the world and focused on our dive computers, watching to see if we were rising or sinking. With a sinking feeling I watched my computer as we were sucked away from the rocky ridge at 30 meters depth, both of us kicking uselessly upwards while we were went down to 45 meters in a matter of seconds. We both inflated our Buoyancy Vests to maximum and ignored the burning leg muscles and cramps and kicked upwards hard as we could. The current that dragged us down now changed direction, and before we could dump the air from our vests and kick downwards we were rocketed up to 5 meters, computers beeping madly to warn of dangerous ascent rates, before we could stop our ascent.

We descended back down to 20 meters and now out of the worst of the boiling we slowly ascended to avoid decompression illness. We surfaced to find we were about 2km from where we had descended, and inflated our orange balloon to attract the attention of our boat driver. What a wild ride – I didn’t stop smiling for hours – but we were lucky, and if we had not been so well equipped and experienced we could have gotten in serious trouble. About two months earlier an inexperienced diver in the canyons lost a fin, lost his grip on his rock, and before his dive buddy knew what had happened had been sucked down into the depths, never to be seen again.

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