Wrecks are the main lure for me when it comes to diving and, after spending time in Truk Lagoon with H, I'm probably even more focused on them. I've been happy working on the wrecks in Coron, and to see Truk in only my second year underwater was amazing. I have Scapa Flow, Scotland, in my sights...but H mentioned a couple of others: HMS Repulse, and HMS Prince Of Wales. Both lie off the coasts of Malaysia and Singapore. The only trouble with these wrecks is the depth...Repulse's maximum is 55 metres, POW's is 69m. Both are diveable on air, to a maximum of 66m; after that, the dangers of oxygen toxicity loom. We'd dived the San Francisco in Truk, which has a maximum depth of 63m, and because of these depths, you do not get long down there, especially on a single tank; your body loads nitrogen so quickly that you are looking at a 15 minute bottom time at around 45m. And the narcosis hit me pretty hard on that dive, I was off it. The visibilty on the SF is stunning, the wreck visible as soon as you drop below 15m on the vertical shotline. The dive not being anywhere near long enough, it was time to consider technical diving and trimix if I wanted more time with these sunken hulks.
I won't bore you with too many details. Basically, in technical diving, we replace nitrogen with inert gases such as helium to reduce the effects of nitrogen narcosis at depth, making a deep dive much safer. At depths below 60m, the percentage of oxygen is also reduced to prevent oxygen toxicity. Twin tanks are used for a longer dive, and a higher mix of oxygen-rich air is slung beneath the diver in another tank to aid faster decompression at a certain safe depth on the way up from the dive. This type of diving is safer in some ways, and more dangerous in others...if you overstay beyond your plan on the dive, or lose the decompression gas. Planning is essential, and contingency plans just as important. It's certainly more disciplined than standard diving.
I decided to head for Puerto Galera on Mindoro, for a few days of diving. I knew they had a reputable tec diving shop there, and after a brief chat with the two English fellas running it, signed up for the Advanced Recreational Trimix course. My knowledge of diving physics is OK, but this course was something else...my brain was inside-out by the end of the second session. Getting used to the new equipment was even harder: twin tanks take some getting used to, and on the first dive I was all over the place It was like learning to dive again: rolling around desperately trying to stay neutrally buoyant and stable in the water, while having my head between two tank valves felt a little unnatural. Dave, the owner, had said this was like the Open Water course for tec diving, and he wasn't kidding. After 20 minutes I felt like giving up and sticking to recreational diving, thinking Maybe this isn't for me? But I don't like defeat, and so stuck it out; things got easier.
The hardest drills were on the first couple of dives. You are trained to dive as part of a team, but to be self-sufficient if anything goes wrong. So there are drills for checking your air-supply should a piece of equipment malfunction. The main valve drill involves turning off one of two valves, waiting for the air to stop before switching to your reserve supply and regulator, then repeating the procedure for the opposite side. It's a lot to take in, and on my first attempt I closed a valve without re-opening it, and did likewise with the reserve. Suddenly I had no air, and quickly switched to the reserve, which I'd unknowingly closed off. Oops: nothing to breathe. Sam sat in front of me, frowning through his mask, arms folded, letting me frantically try and open up something to breathe for a few seconds before helping me out. Tough love, as the Yanks call it. I did better the second time, obviously.
The worst part was the out-of-air drills, especially the one where I had to swim along a line on one breath for 13 metres, without a mask. When you get the urge to breathe while breath-holding, it is the body telling you the brain has too much carbon dioxide present, not that it needs more oxygen. Sam had told me to fight this urge and concentrate on swimming to my buddy for the drill, making a sawing motion across my throat to indicate I was out of air. It's not easy, and your chest convulses as your body tries to overpower your will, and breathe. It's deeply unpleasant, the blood pounding in your skull, screaming white noise: you feel as if you're going to black out. Twice I almost reached the other diver, a blurred figure a few metres away, and twice I stopped and had to take a breath from my regulator and put my mask back on. Sam pulled out his underwater slate, and I thought he would write that we'd do this on another dive and leave it for today. I watched the letters form Are you going to stop fucking around and do this? He raised his eyebrows and I laughed to myself. Indeed, it was third time lucky. I knew from then on that Sam Collett does not give away certifications easily, I'd have to work for this. But I prefer things that way.
The diving went pretty well, so well on one later dive that Sam laughed as we got back on the boat and asked if I had an evil twin? I was getting more confident. There was one moment of bad ju-ju though, and I indicated I wanted to abort the dive as my breathing increased and I felt strange sensations again. We came up, and Sam made me continue the exercises: a gas-switch at 21 metres, deploying a surface marker, and controlling both our ascents. I thought I'd fail on it, but Sam told me he'd rather a diver in a bad way told him to abort, rather than continue on and put us both in a potentially hazardous situation: common sense.
A tough course, but rewarding...I've taken my diving on to another level. There are two more courses to complete before I can reach 70m+ and penetrate the wrecks I'd like to see, and there is plenty of practice to come, but I'll get there. Sam was off to dive the HMS Hermes, a British aircraft carrier sunk off the coast of Sri Lanka. Sounds great. It's been added to my list.
Sam was diving another wreck pretty soon after I left him, this one less pleasant. The MV Princess Of The Stars sank in the path of Typhoon Frank in June 2008. 700 people lost their lives off the coast of Romblon. I've met residents of these islands who told me some heart-rending stories: a pregnant woman dead on a beach and found by children; two boys around 7 years old caught up in fishermens' nets weeks after the sinking. Horrific. Along with several other divers, Sam has volunteered to perform the grim task of retrieving the human remains still inside. Diving a wreck is eerie and frightening enough, but entering one full of decomposing bodies is a daunting prospect. Sam told me they will have to avoid the ceilings of compartments, as it is likely the first 6-10 inches of liquid in these areas will be mainly human fat. The grimness of this task is difficult to comprehend. Rather him than me.