2nd of Six Parts
By Janet B. Villa
Our Mothering Heights writer Janet B. Villa takes us to an underwater adventure in the gardens of the Tubbataha Reefs, a coral paradise in southern Philippines. Tubbataha is a UNESCO world heritage site and the Philippines’ first marine park. This is a six-part series with Janet as a daring scuba diver braving the terrifying beauty of the deep in the summer of 2012.
Day 2: Amos Rock dive site
Amos Rock obliges us with a mild drift. The site lies on the south side of the North Atoll and shares the same rugged and robust topography as Wall Street: a gentle slope teeming with hard and soft corals and a kaleidoscope of marine life.
Down by only 18 meters, we encounter a fusion of fish: sharks, bumphead parrotfish, wrasse, trevally, tuna, angelfish, and a mammoth batfish. A big moray eel rises from a crack and circles back into another fissure, its mottled length undulating.
Everything in Tubbataha is supersized. A gigantic jackfish glides past, and I remember the cheeky boatman in one of my Apo Island dives (a tiny paradise off the southeastern tip of Negros Island). We had seen a shoal of big jackfish at the Napoleon site. “How big was the jackfish?” I asked the boatman when we surfaced. “Oh,” he said, perhaps thinking of lunch ahead. “About a kilo of mayonnaise.”
The craggy drop-off in Amos Rock is covered in copious coral and visited by gray reef sharks, triggerfish, emperor fish, fusiliers, bigeyes, unicorn fish, pufferfish, and damselfish in neon shades. The sun at its strongest brings out the colors: the whip corals turn from red to purple to blue. Lasse takes the time to photograph invertebrates such as nudibranchs and flatworms.
A hawksbill sea turtle, scarred but regal, rests on a ridge, unperturbed by our presence. It would not move, not for a
group of landlubbers with cameras. I wonder how old it is, at how much it has seen. I wave to apologize to it, for having made it and its kin endangered. We do not deserve such beauty if we do not know how to nurture it.
We meet our eighth shark while we do our safety stop. Large yellow sweetlips circle a rock, and a white-tip nestles on the sand. I think, ‘Oh, Tubbataha, now you’re just showing off.’
Back on the boat, Camille, who has done only five dives so far, talks about her anxieties about diving. I have logged over a hundred dives, and still I share the same fears. Sometimes what unites divers is our fear of being submerged.
I never feel more helpless than when I lose myself to the sea. My body is weightless, flailing to find equilibrium in the freefall. The seawater rushes into my suit, bringing in the cold. It seeps into my mask and assaults my nostrils, and I tell myself, Breathe through your mouth, not through your nose, breathe through your mouth, not through your nose, and it curbs the panic somewhat. Fear is my constant companion. My dives are often half a battle, a struggle to survive and end with my life and limbs intact. Perhaps therein lies the beauty: this exquisite tug o’ war between fear and reverential awe. Beauty can be terrifying.
That night as we gather for dinner, my fears are stilled by food and by tales of what we had seen below. We marvel at each other’s photos and videos, and we tag names to the marine life.
Yet mealtimes are also when the lines between the different nationalities were drawn. Complaints, jokes and wisecracks about each other’s racial quirks and caprices flourish. Even the tables in the dining room are earmarked. I call the surface interval times The Great Divide.
But down there, where the sea shames us into submission, we lose our hubris. The call of the deep unites us, breaks down barriers that humans had long created, for what reason no one now knows. The sea strips us of language, strips us down to the elemental—fish, coral, human, just another creature in a world we can only pretend to conquer.