Saturday, March 1, 2008

Into The Dragon's Throat

Into The Dragon’s Throat
By Bob Manas

I woke up to the obnoxious buzzing of my alarm clock at 4:00 am, that 26th day of January 2000. Serge Javellana was already at my gate yelling, “Tito Bob!, Tito Bob!”, waking up the neighborhood in the process. I scrambled into my clothes and picked up the gears on the way out. We were on our way to this cave system in Montalban that Mike Duran always talked about ever since I started taking up training in “technical climbing” with him about a year ago. He said he knew of a sump inside this cave but never got to see what lay beyond underneath. The plan was just to do a reconnaissance dive into the sump. But what a dive it turned out to be!
It was around 6:30 am when the three of us arrived at a sleepy village, alongside a rocky river, nestled between the steep hills of Montalban. This was rock-climbing country and a center for sport climbers from the city. We found a food stall and had ‘Bread & Lugao’ for breakfast.
“Isn’t this the place where this legendary Bernardo Carpio pushed those mountains apart?” I asked as I slurped the hot porridge.
“Yes”, answered an old woman in the stall, “And now a river runs through it!”
“What about the caves? Are there stories about them?” I asked, trying to get more info.
“Old people say that Bonifacio and some ‘Katipuneros’ used them for hiding and performed blood compacts. During the war the Japanese soldiers fortified themselves inside the caves and dug more tunnels. The Americans had to use flame-throwers to flush them out. Many who refused to surrender committed suicide by stabbing themselves or jumping off cliffs.”
“Huh, very interesting”, I commented, between gulps of 7-Up. “Now, it’s a center for climbers.”
“Yes, but treasure hunters also come around and do digs inside the caves. In fact there had also been murders and accidents through the years.” , added the old woman.
I found myself quiet in thought, “What the hell have I got myself into this time?”
Mike found Frank, a fellow caver and long time friend from the village. He enthusiastically agreed to come along and help haul gears into the cave. Inside Frank’s hut by the riverbank, we started gearing up and discussed details on procedures. Bonifacio’s Cave was located on a 500-ft. slope along a mountainside across a gushing river that was dotted by huge boulders. Wearing our wetsuits, we swam across the cold river currents and hiked up the 500 ft. slope hauling two AL40cuft. tanks, a crate of scuba gears, ropes & climbing equipment, and cameras to document this insane endeavor. We finally reached the cave’s mouth but found the entrance barred by a locked steel gate! What a good excuse to turn back, go home, and watch National Geographic or Discovery Channel instead! But we found one of the steel bars sawed off , probably by a radical descendant still acting with impunity against bureaucratic control. We were able to slide ourselves and our gears through. After a brief respite, we started walking into the darkness of the cave. With lights from our helmets, we illuminated the way through winding tunnels and chambers, lighting up different rock formations with variances in color and texture. As we hiked on, the path began to get muddy and our booties sank into the muck, emitting a smacking sound at each lift of a foot. We passed a tunnel where its walls formed a triangular shape, much like passages of a pyramid. Ignore recent graffiti, and old writings in Spanish could still be discerned along its walls. A guy could get lost in here! We must have walked a good 300 meters inside the cave before we stopped at what looked like to be a fork in the tunnel. Veering to the right, a huge hole appeared and seemed to drop into nowhere.
“Let us rest here a bit while I rig up the anchor line”, said Mike.
“Are we going to rappel down there?”, asked Serge, aghast. “Shit, man, I don’t know how!”
“Don’t worry, I’ll belay you down.”, answered Mike with confidence.
The tunnel to the right was actually a water path and Serge found a small pool upstream to squat in. “Hey, this is fun guys, and the water is cool!”, shouted Serge, wading like a kid.
“Don’t you dare take a leak cuz’ its gonna trickle where were at!”, I snorted. Everyone laughed including Frank so I knew we were in good spirits. Frank rappelled down 60 ft. and landed in a pool of water. All the other gears followed after him. Serge had his baptism – rappelling down a wet and twisting tunnel into the darkness!
“This is really wild, man!”, Serge called out. I followed and rigged my ‘Stop’ Petzl to the rope. Going down was a cinch and I personally like landing in water! After Mike landed we all moved on as the tunnel twisted downwards. Another anchor line was needed and I handed my 200 ft. static rope. Mike had to hammer down pitons to secure the rope redundantly. Rappelling down 150 ft. we finally reached bottom and found a pool of crystal clear waters. From the start of the fork in the main cave, we must have gone down at least 300 ft. to the sump. We sat by the water’s edge in silence, regaining our strength, visualizing our next move. Mike and I started gearing up. Serge and Frank will stay above water and wait. I donned a 40 cuft tank side-mounted to my left, mounted my MLS to my right, and had two Q-40s tie-wrapped on either side of my Petzl helmet. Mike had Q-40s too on his helmet and we both had Poseidons for regulators.
“I’ve been dreaming about this for years”, said Mike, “I’ve always wondered what lies underneath”.
“Well, let’s do it and find out!”, I said
I turned on the MLS and its powerful lights illuminated the pool. Finding a protruding rock above water and making a primary tie-off with my line, I yanked my reel forward towards a narrow tunnel and into the unknown! A constriction came into view but easily widened as we moved along an underwater corridor. The viz was great! I saw this rock sticking up on the right and decided to do a wrap. As I wrapped my line around, silt flew off from its resting-place. I proceeded to swim with caution, slow and easy! Looking up, a narrow air pocket appeared above but I ignored it and concentrated with the corridor. There was another larger opening, down and up ahead! I needed to do another wrap. As I tried to coil the line around a rock, the line kept slipping , turning the clear water into mucky soup! I decided to abandon that wrap and pushed on into a wide chamber with really clear visibility. A tonsil-like rock formation hung from its ceiling. I could hear Mike shrieking with delight through his regulator. We were inside a chamber of a cave at 30 ft of freshwater, 300 ft. below the main tunnel which was 500 ft above the river. I noticed a passageway going to the right and swam along it. It led to another chamber but what caught my attention was another constriction leading to another opening. I paused, looked at Mike, but he just stared back. I tried to signal that the constriction might be tight, but again only got blank stares. I checked my pressure gauge. My air supply was fine. I took a second look at Mike and signaled if he was OK. I got an ‘OK’ sign back. Pulling my reel forward, I pushed into the constriction and found ourselves in chamber # 3 at 40 ft. of the clearest freshwater we ever saw! The bottom was composed of white pebbles but laced here and there with sediment. We didn’t notice any visible aquatic life inside nor did we see any clues or signs of ‘Japanese Treasure’. Frank was hoping we would find something valuable.
I checked my pressure once again and it read 2000 psi. Following the ‘rule of thirds’, I gave Mike the ‘thumbs up’ signal indicating ‘to turn’ the dive. Mike proceeded to turn around and grabbed the line, while I started reeling in. “Here we go!”, I thought as I reeled along. The visibility turned a serious zero as we swam back inch by inch through the constrictions, tunnels, and chambers of the cave. There were times when Mike’s fin would hit my face because I couldn’t see in front except for my reel and light! I didn’t care! “Just get me out of here!”, my thoughts screamed. Exiting the sump seemed like an eternity. I would occasionally bang myself on a wall or hear my helmet scrape the ceiling, but I continued to reel in line. After what seemed to be forever in trying to be ‘super-cool’, I finally saw a glimmer of light above! It was Serge and Frank! We were out!
Mike and I stood in waist water in the sump and for a moment, there was utter silence. We took our helmets and masks off and stared at each other. Suddenly he just blew off with laughter and shouted with delight! “Hayop, Pare!”, talking loud now, laughing insanely, and dancing around the pool, Mike was in seventh heaven! He had indeed been dreaming about this for years. And it turned out to be an ‘extreme bitch’ of a dive!
“What was it like down there?”, Frank finally asked.
“What was it like?”, I repeated, “It was like going through the throat of a dragon”. He laughed and I knew that he understood. We rested a bit and remained in a joyful mood. It was now around 2 pm and we were still by the sump. I remember crossing the river around 9:30 that morning. We were starving! I used my Petzl ‘Ascender’ to go up with the rope and was glad that I get to use these expensive climbing equipment Mike conned me into buying. I was surprise that I still had extra strength left for the climb back. But the walk out of the main tunnel just about killed me! Carrying a coiled 200 ft., wet, static rope across my shoulder and a scuba tank, after an extreme dive in a sump, was too much for my poor muscles. I was exhausted! After much huffing and puffing, I finally made it to the riverbank. As I swam with the equipment, the swift current swept me towards a boulder fall. Mike just happened to be sitting next to the boulder and leisurely extended his arm. I grabbed it as I sped along and found myself safe behind the boulder, just like that! It was 3:30 pm and we were famished!
After much needed rest, lunch, and idle talk, we all agreed that future trips will just be limited to dry caving and help map the caves of Montalban. But I knew that the Dragon’s Throat shall beckon us once more!

A Coron Adventure

A Coron Adventure
By: Bob Manas
May 8, 1999

It was 7 am on April 26 when Randy and I checked-in at the Pacific "Scare" airline
terminal. Our dive gears alone weighed 50 kgs. each. We knew we were allowed 10 kgs. but excess baggage would cost P50/kg. Damn! There goes four thousand bucks - the cost of our return flight. We weren’t wet yet and "old Murphy" was already behind our backs! Bahala Na! We'll just take the Ferry back sometime, someday! The plane was an 8-seater Piper Cub which looked like a relic from some bygone era, and Randy mistook the pilot for the hangar janitor! Yep, we were flying into the horizons of adventure, alright! After an hour and a half of day dreamy island skies, our small plane shuddered along a dusty runway in the middle of nowhere, known as King's Ranch Airfield, nestled in the middle of Busuanga Island, Northern Palawan. I couldn't help but notice the lush greenery and how fresh everything was (including the cow dung). No pollution, No traffic! Then it started to rain cats & dogs! Shit! Its still rainy season out here! I noticed the pilots moving our gears to a bigger plane.
"Hey, we're going to Coron, not back to Manila!", I yelled. "Ya, we bring you to Coron, no jeep come to fetch you!", shouted the pilot.
So we skidded up into the mountain pass that would lead us to the town of Coron. Three minutes up and three minutes down!
"Hey Randy, do you see the runway yet?" I hollered as we sat by the tail seat.
"Nope, just a mountain!" Randy casually replied.
Suddenly, the plane veered down to the right into a narrow pass and this Japanese
lady, seated near the front, threw her arms up in the air, and screamed her guts out like she was riding a rollercoaster! We were cracking up! After that frightful pass was the airfield. We were down at last! If
this was flying in Coron, I wondered what our diving would be like.
After tinkering with twin-tank configurations for several hours, with tourist divers and divemasters gaping and giving you that "you're nuts" look, we finally got wet. It struck me to do the skill/exercise dive in this lagoon near "Cayangan" Lake in Coron Island. I also wanted to show Randy this cave that I last visited 2 years ago. The entrance started by the cliffwall and widened as you went in to about 20ft. Following the path to the right, it led us to a magnificent dry cave with colorful stalactite formations. We were in awe! With the line we traced our way back to the entrance and decided to explore some more. Down to only 30 ft. but turning like a maze, we ended up on another air dome which was a different part of the cave. More stalactites! Fantastic!
"Hey, let's do this again!" said Randy, as we surfaced into the lagoon. I said, "maybe, but after the wrecks".
"Fuck the Wrecks, this is great!" said Randy. This was dive # 1.
The following days were spent diving wrecks specifically the Tangat Wreck, Kogyu Maru, Olympia Maru, Irako, and the Akitsushima. They have various lengths of about 100 ft to about 500 ft. Most of them are diveable to depths of a shallow 60 ft/ 18 m. to max of 150 ft./ 45m. Composed of Gunboats, Freighters, Auxiliary Ships, and Refrigerator Supply Ship, they were bombed during that fateful day, nearly 55 years ago during WW2, which set Coron Bay ablaze for 3 days. One of my favorites is the "Irako", a refrigerator ship with its intricate mazes and intriguing compartments, still keeping secrets in its dark silty chambers for more than half a century. Brass portholes, porcelain bowls, old wine bottles, and ammunition can still be found inside but souvenir hunting is strongly discouraged and not allowed by dive operators. Schools of big Jacks play around the ship and swim straight to your face! We attacked the wreck from a gaping hole by its stern at 120 ft. A huge, black grouper swam away, startled by our presence. Inside we went down to the engine room at 135 ft. then worked our way to the bow from the inside. More than 500 ft. of penetration! What a beautiful wreck! Inside the Akitsushima, a huge freighter, my primary lights conked out at 125ft. while laying line inside a corridor. Both of Randy's Bulb Tubes leaked and exploded on ascent. He also lost an exhaust to his 2nd Stg. Reg. Aside from such equipment wear and tear, all our 8 wreck dives
turned out great!
After 4 days of diving, we decided to take a break and Randy had this wild idea of renting dirt bikes and riding all day. So that's what we did! For P600 each we both got 125cc Suzuki’s and followed the
mountain roads north just wearing caps, T-shirts, and shorts. We must'a rode 170 km. all the way beyond New Busuanga and back, then went beyond Coron and straight into the Hot Springs! My stiff aching muscles succumbed to the delightful touch of the pool's warm waters! We were going nuts! Already a week in a town that knows no nightlife, what do you expect? I'm glad we had separate rooms!
So what do you do when insanity creeps in? We go cave diving! The island of Coron, looming across the channel from the town that carries the same name, looks like a setting straight from "Paleoworld". All along its coast, jagged limestone fangs seem to snarl at would-be invaders, mocking their presence with impunity. It’s sheer cliff walls would plunge into numerous lagoons of "fairy-like" wonder. This island of pristine beauty is ancestral land to the
"Tagbanua" people, a semi-nomadic tribe that live on fishing and collecting bird's nest. They consider the caves & lakes of Coron to be sacred and treated with respect. With Gunter Bernert of Discovery Divers, a long time friend & buddy and a team of Japanese photo and videographers, we set out for what is known as "Gunter's Cathedral". Pass
Calis Pt. and along the
northeast side of the island, we entered a hole just beneath a wall where it led to a passage which opened up to a cavern inside the mountain. Sunlight penetrated the cavern through a big gaping hole on its ceiling
where once a tree stood but collapsed many, many years ago. It gave the cavern a magical effect! The tree can still be found underwater, decorating the very clear waters of the pool. I found another cave entrance, which Gunter mentioned beforehand, on the dark side of the cavern. Securing a tie-off with my reel, I proceeded to penetrate cautiously with Gunter following right behind. It opened up into a dome-like cave that had clearer visibility. It was fantastic! We saw seasnakes, pincher shrimps, and a fish with "Felix-the-Cat Eyes" that glowed blue in the dark! The dome had weird stalactite formations on some its sides and small cubicles of air pockets on top sections. I definitely give this site definitely a 5 star rating.
We circumnavigated Coron Island with a slow steady pace while beautiful white beaches are set like pearls against a very rugged limestone backdrop. We headed for "Barracuda Lake", one of the only two
accessible lakes on the island. During the dive planning and briefing, I expressed my desire to sit this dive out. I wasn't keen at all with the idea of carrying twin tanks up and down the limestone barrier that
separate the lake from the ocean. I told them I was serious and refuse to carry tanks.
"You're just fuckin' gettin old, Bob!", snorted Randy gleefully.
"Yeh, you can also be a nice old buddy and bring some cameras, too!", said Gunter, quick on the adlib.
"Oh no!", I said, "As the senior diver on this boat, it is my privilege to refuse to carry any of this shit!"
Finally, the issue was resolved when our good boatman, Diosdado, volunteered porter service. The day was saved! Diving in Barracuda Lake is difficult to describe because the terrain is different. It's like going to another planet! You have to dive it, to believe it!
"We should have listened to you, Bob. That's the first and last time I'll carry tanks here!", commented Randy, back on the boat.

"I think I should re-evaluate my limitations", said Gunter, still smiling with bruises and gash wounds on his arms and legs, after a nasty spill. I gave them my old "I told you so" look and just grinned.

Randy and I had aircon cabin tickets on the ferry back to Manila. We were sharing this 4-berth aircon cabin with two other Pinoys. One of them had a box with a Rooster! And this stupid rooster would go Cock-a-doodle-doo every hour. I frequently thought of my "gator" knife in my toolbox lying close beside me.

"Only in the Philippines, Randy, only in the Philippines!" I said.

The End

Monday, January 29, 2007

Something Fishy at Verde

Something Fishy at Verde
by: Bob Manas

The skies were hazy and it was getting late when we back flipped into the shadows of "Agapito Wall" by the eastern side of Verde Island.The bottom was dull gray yet the water crisp as our team focused on finding three creatures that started with the letter "S" - Stone fish, Sea Snake, and Scorpion Fish. It was all part of the "Fish ID Competition" promoted by "Unlimited Diving" TV producer Rolly Baron forVerde Isl. Resort. Joining me were Melo Hamada, Derrick Hamada, and JR Gallardo while Rolly handled the video cam to record our finds if we got lucky! A good northeast current blew as we hit 30 ft. I swam upsidedown so I could see where I was being drifted and did frog kicks to slow me down while scanning the wall. Scorpions were taking shelter by the lee side of coral mounds. That was easy enough! "Here fishy, fishy,fishy" we all screamed. Pelagics were all over the place! "No, we don'twant you. Get out of there!" Focus, focus! It was already 20 min. intothe dive and I was getting impatient. For some reason I started looking for a frog fish, "Here frogee, frogee, frogee!, What the hell do you want a frog fish for? I dunno, I just thought it would be neat to see one. Focus, you idiot!" And then right there, clinging by a small crevice, was the indistinguishable shape of a Stone fish! "Uh, uh, uh,uh", I exclaimed while waving frantically to Rolly who was way up somewhere tripping by himself. I looked at Derrick but he had his head turned away. "Hey dude, look at me, man!" I didn't bring a tank banger with me (real smart!). So I had to use some ESP, "Yohoo, Yohoo!" And sure enough he turned his head towards me. "Get Rolly, Get Rolly" I screamed. As Derrick scooted I tried to spot the stone fish again. "Oh No, the fucker's gone!" We were all huddled by a spot of a cliff as Rolly descended on us while I pointed my finger like a scanner and pretended to see something. "There he is!, there, there!" I saw him again! "Where", asked Rolly. "There, in front of your lens!, Shoot, shoot, shoooot!" my bubbles screamed. "Maybe I should just touch the damn thing", I thought. "Hey, you wana get hospitalized, you idiot!" a voice in me replied. Rolly finally got to shoot the fish and I was going"Yes, Yes, two S-fish, eh, eh, eh" imitating the "Count" of Sesame Street. Forty-five minutes of slow drift along the shadows of Agapito wall yielded no snakes. We passed the canyon that descended to the deepsbut veered westwards towards the "coral gardens". Here the current subsided as we swan leisurely taking our time, seriously scanning the surroundings. The last rays of the setting sun still bestowed enough light to mesmerize ourselves with the beauty that abound. Soft, pink corals that almost carpet the bottom induce us into tranquil and sublime feelings. Huge puffers swim about like little pigs on the run. Black, blue, and neon green damsels together with bright orange antheists hide in unison among staghorns then resume their ritual dance with the current. Schools of Jacks, Snappers, and Barracuda make this spot look like a "fishmall", maybe on their last food run for the day. I picked up a round, gray, sponge from the bottom and showed it to Rolly. He started shooting. He signaled, "What is it?" I started spelling with my fingers, S-H-I-T! then positioned the round sponge from my rear and let in drift away! I was getting bored. Maybe that last "S" had some points! Then suddenly, right there among the corals were the unmistaken banded patterns of a huge Sea Snake! JR saw it too and started hollering. Derrick and Melo were quick on the approach. We had it surrounded (not agood idea)! But Rolly was on his way up! We were all frantically waving at him when he saw the snake from above. It was trying to get away from us. This guy was huge! About as fat as a man's wrist in diameter! I was afraid that Rolly would miss him so I did the unthinkable for many divers - I caressed his belly with a very slight grabbing motion. TheSnake turned around and abruptly faced me about a foot away from my mask. It was like staring at the face of Rameses' pet. I went "Yikes!"and instinctively backed away. The rest of the team went scampering off. Then the snake just went back to its own playful swim, zigzagging among the corals, as if to say, "You don't wanna mess around with me, boys!". Nitrogen and Adrenaline rushed intertwined in our bloodstream as we climbed back into the speedboat. After some cocktails aboard the yacht "Sarangani", courtesy of Roy and Malou Chiongbian, we headed back for Verde Resort. We were in high spirits and found our three "S"creatures from the deep! Our team ended up winning free accommodations at Plantation Bay in Boracay. Not bad for a fun dive! But I would not go to that extent again of grabbing a Sea snake next time just to get some points for a competition. Maybe if it's a date with Anna Kourikova -I'll even grab a shark! (yeah, right! Dream on, Bob!)
-the end-