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[Outbound]: Getting Scuba Certified in the Philippines

Can you cry underwater? Swimming with the fishes in Puerto Galera.
Last updated: 2018-12-11
Photos: Nicolas de Rougé
Outbound is SmartShanghai's travel features series dedicated to fascinating and wonderful places, nearby and far-flung, around China and sometimes not.
The wooden boat or bangka that will take us from Batangas Bay to the dive resort in Puerto Galera is delayed. I landed in Manila two hours earlier and Dave Asmussen arranged a car to drive us directly to a private boat leaving at 5.30pm. Now two hours later, we wait as the sky turns purple-pink and the woman in charge of the boats dallies with her boyfriend. Asmussen, an OB/GYN whose career took him from Seattle to United Family in Shanghai, shakes his head. “That’s the Philippines!”

Known on the island as “Sir Dave”, he has taken on new life in a retirement project, Scandi Divers, a resort and dive center which has been his home away from home for eight years.

When we reach Scandi’s stretch of island, stars have overtaken the sky. We are greeted by Tin Tin, a petite Filipino girl with bright eyes. She shows me to my room, just a few steps away from the beach, the sound of crashing waves audible through closed windows. Tomorrow I start what I came for: my PADI Open Water Certification.

“Please take this seriously. It’s not a joke,” Rey Magsino tells me as I thrash about in the deep end of the resort’s pool. Magsino, who grew up on the island, will be my dive instructor for the next three days. I am trying to stay buoyant in just 3 meters of water and laughing nervously. This is a simulation: what to do when you’re out of air but have reached the surface. I calm myself and do as Magsino taught me, pressing hard on my low-pressure inflator and using the breath I have left to blow into it fiercely. To my surprise, my buoyancy vest begins to take air and I float. Magsino’s face breaks into a wide smile.


We start at 8am each day, meeting at the dive center just outside my room. I will complete my open water certification with PADI in three days, with time in the classroom, sessions in confined water, four open water dives, and a written test.

Before we touch water, I am given a review book in Scandi’s third-floor classroom and watch three monotonous 30-minute videos provided by PADI. Following the classroom, the ‘confined water’ sessions take place in the resort’s rectangular pool where I learn about the equipment, pick up underwater sign language, and drill the skills introduced in the classroom.


On day one, we move from the pool to shallow ocean water, ten meters deep. We walk gingerly around rocks and duck under a bangka docked close to shore, until we are up to our shoulders. An electric thrill surges through me as I place the regulator in my mouth, decrease the air in my buoyancy vest and submerge my entire body underwater.

Everything seems to slow down. To communicate we use our signals. Okay? Okay. Controlled breathing. Relax. We mirror the skills we learned in the pool. Controlled descent and ascent, sharing air, letting our masks fill with water then clearing them out. After skills, we practice floating and begin to move, hovering just above the ocean’s bottom. I stay glued to Magsino’s side as I get used to my weightlessness, familiarizing myself with the terms of this strange new planet.


The next morning, salt water whips my hair on the short boat ride over to our dive site, small bangka wrecks in Sabang Bay. With my gear strapped on I move to the edge of the boat and fall into the ocean, salt water sucking me in while my buoyancy vest works in the opposite direction.

I swim past the front of the boat to reunite with Magsino in the water. Together we let the air out of our vests and after a quick skills check, swim through the clear blue water. Little fish that look plucked out of a Pixar movie scatter around us. Magsino tugs on my arm. He’s pointing to a large sea turtle gliding next to us nonchalantly.


I feel like I’m swimming into an old Macintosh screensaver as we approach our first wreck; what was once a wooden bangka is now home to various schools of fish. We stop swimming, legs crossed and floating in space as large fish swarm in circles around us, a parade of color and dilated pupils. Is it possible to laugh underwater? Is it possible to cry? Completely overcome, I want to do both at the same time.


How To Get Certified

Scandi offers both PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) and NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors) certification. Both are popular among divers and accepted practically everywhere.

Companies like Big Blue can start your course and confined water dives in Shanghai, then finish your open water in the Philippines in two days. But these can get more expensive. If you have the time, it’s more cost effective to take 3-4 days to do your certification on site.


What It Costs

At Scandi, a PADI Open Water Certification costs 2,825rmb. NAUI is about the same. Or, you can bundle it together with room and board for about 5,640rmb, including all dives and equipment rental. Flights from Shanghai to Manila can be as low as 1,700rmb but are more realistically about 2,000rmb. Including a suggested 10% tip for the staff, that makes a grand total of about 8,200rmb all-in for flights, certification, a place to stay and all your food.

Getting There

Keep in mind when booking, it’s recommended to wait 12 hours after a single dive and 18 hours after multiple dives to fly.

From the airport you can take a 10 minute taxi (25rmb) to the bus terminal in Buendia. The bus (25rmb) will take you to the Batangas port where you can arrange for a private boat that can fit up to six people (550rmb) or a public boat (40rmb).

If you’re fancy, you can arrange for a six-person van to pick you up from the airport to take you to the port (550rmb). Or you can arrange for a seaplane to take you to the island for about 850rmb, but it can only take one person.

On the way back, just reverse the order but you will have to also take a small private boat (40rmb) from Scandi to the Puerto Galera port if you want to catch the public ferry.