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Yes, even with bad knees, you can still dive Raja Ampat

Or, how liveaboard diving off a posh boat can be the perfect arrangement for a scuba ‘tita’

Four ‘titas’ and some coral (clockwise from top left) Rina Loy, Angelique Songco, Christine Enrile Chua, and the author at Arborek Jetty (Photo: Yvette Lee)

Three ‘titas’ and one ‘tito,’ David Huang, and divemaster Brian on the dinghy. The boat operator got camera shy! (Photo: Carol Young)

“HA? Buti you can still dive!”

After I overcame the urge to drown the speaker in a rinsing tub full of salty dive booties, the answer is, yes—you can scuba-dive until you’re old and creaky. But yes, you do need enough strength to swim against a current, enough presence of mind to relax and stay buoyant, and enough alertness to monitor your depth, air consumption, and movements so you don’t end up wrecking corals or dying. And wrecking corals is a bad thing, regardless of your age. So yes, a tita can still dive—but you have to be a tita in passable physical shape.

It’s a question many of us in my dive gang, informally known as the TubbaTitas + Tito (because we all met and bonded on a trip to the renowned Philippine dive site, and yes, we have a regular guy who tags along), have to consider. A number of us are above 60, although you could never tell from the way Tubbataha Protected Area superintendent Angelique Songco (a former dive instructor) and underwater photographer Yvette Lee swim like fish, and hardly seem to consume any air. I will be 60 in a few months, but already, stuff I could do when I was younger—mainly, climbing onto boats carrying all my gear—has gotten challenging, even if the weight disappears when I hit the water.

So, when a pre-pandemic scheduled dive trip to Raja Ampat—the wild archipelago in West Papua, Indonesia, that is a tentative nominee for a Unesco World Heritage site, bursting with rich marine life—finally pushed through last March, I was excited, but raised a number of concerns. So if you’re a diving tita, or are already a tita and still want to learn to scuba-dive, don’t hesitate—here’s why a liveaboard dive trip might just be your best bet.

1.You don’t do much else but dive. There are two kinds of diving: land-based and liveaboard. Land-based means you take off by small boat from a resort, and come back for meals and sleep. Some people think you have to be hard-core to “rough it up” on a liveaboard, but that’s no longer true. On a liveaboard, everything happens on the boat, and today’s vessels have come a long way from the days when I started diving, when you could shower, sit on the toilet, and brush your teeth at the same time—that’s how small the bathrooms were. Today, they range from basic to posh, and when you’re older, comfort becomes important. That being said…

Home sweet home: The ‘Solitude Adventurer’

Our twin room with a gorgeous view

The spacious dive deck, where gearing up was a breeze

2. Boats can be super comfortable. You get seasick, you say? Pop some anti-seasickness pills for the first couple of days, and you’re home free. I always get the best sleep of my life on boats, because I get lulled to sleep, the whole vessel is airconditioned, and we’re often in our ultra-comfy beds by 9 pm. Our home for eight diving days was the gorgeous 36-m catamaran, the Solitude Adventurer, perfect for a not-so-big group of 18 divers. The best part is, everything is a few steps away—your gear, your comfortable bedroom and bathroom, showers. My buddy Christine and I shared a twin room with floor-to-ceiling windows, giving us a gorgeous view of the sea. There was a spacious dining area, a lounge where we hung out to watch movies, a balcony to dry stuff, a sun deck, a huge dive deck for gearing up (very important), and—dig this—an Ogawa full-body massage chair.

Caveat: You get what you pay for when it comes to liveaboard boats, and some operators are more professional than others. The Solitude group has a stellar reputation (note: I paid for my trip); just check out their Solitude Acacia resort in Anilao, which, in my book, has the best food in the area. On the Adventurer, the excellent staff knew which stuff was yours by day 2, helped you gear up, and even helped you pull off your wetsuit and booties when they got stuck—how’s that for service? And don’t get me started on Frenkie and his hot towels and warm ginger or green tea shots after every dive.

3. You can make tita requests. Although the online video about the boat (https://youtu.be/rV466wGwIPE?si=BoDejWOHJuIMsSVB) showed people walking down stairs in full gear before getting into the smaller boats that would transport divers to the actual site, we asked to gear up right in the dinghies, which meant our stuff was loaded into the smaller boat without us having to carry it—thus, no serious weightlifting. Others who could manage did get into the dinghies in full gear, but with only four people for every trip, there was more than enough room to maneuver. Besides, the dive sites were only about five minutes from the mother ship. After each dive, the boat operator and dive master divested us of our gear before we climbed up the dinghy—but, dear tita, I still hauled my ass up a ladder and into the boat by myself. Of course, the staff is immensely helpful if you falter.

4. You eat well. Liveaboards generally serve two breakfasts—a small one so you can put something in your stomach before you hit the water (perfect for hyperacidic titas like me), and another big one after the day’s first dive. (Frenkie: “How do you want your eggs for big breakfast?”) Lunch and dinner on the Solitude was a small buffet, with unli sodas and other drinks, although beer means an extra charge. There’s great coffee, an abundance of fruit, and jars of snacks like chips and chocolate bars, gasp. Again, this depends on your boat, and some Philippine liveaboards are right up there with the best of them in terms of feeding hungry divers.

5. You have time to nap between dives. This is essential if you’re a tita, as you need your rest. Also, after over 30 years of diving, I finally listened to my friends and changed out of my wet bathing suit into dry clothes or a cover-up, because staying in a wet swimsuit can really zap your energy—at least, when you’re a tita. In Angelique’s words, “I never used to care about that when I was younger, but now…!” Thus, that Ogawa massage chair was well used.

Dinah Cardines and a wobbegong shark that couldn’t be bothered (Photo: Hidehiro Sakurai, anilao_kumicho @instagram)

That being said, if you’re going on your first liveaboard, you may consider other shorter trips, especially around the Philippines. Raja Ampat is not easy to get to; you take a four-hour red-eye flight to Bali or Jakarta, followed by an early morning three-hour flight to Sorong, the capital of Southwest Papua. There, we were picked up by the crew of the Adventurer, got some rest, and did our check-out dive at Pulau Matan the same day—that’s literally the dive when the divemasters assess you, and you check if your gear survived the journey. A portent of things to come: On dive 1, day 1, we spotted the fascinating wobbegong shark, normally shy but this time, sitting on a rock like a furry mop for all to see.

Rina Loy hooked on to some rocks in a current (Photo: Yvette Lee)

Raja Ampat may not also be for beginner divers, as the currents can get crazy, surging and stopping, pulling you up or down—all good fun, though, if you’re used to it. Thank goodness for reef hooks, literal hooks on thick strings that you use to hang on to rocks, so you float like a kite in the current instead of holding on to things that can sting you; as with every protected marine area, wearing gloves is not allowed in Rajah Ampat.

Thus followed several days of spectacular dives where the sheer abundance of marine life made our eyes pop. Because Raja Ampat (literally, Four Kings) is protected, the fish are literally in your face; I thought some basketball-sized batfish would seriously plant a kiss on my mask. There were enormous schools of fish, thousands of tiny ones and big chunky ones like sweetlips groupers. There were more wobbegongs and gray reef sharks, turtles, eels, countless barracuda, Napoleon and bumphead wrasse, and encounters with probably the most famous resident of Raja Ampat, the manta ray.

Ironically, we parked ourselves on the ocean floor at around 15 m for half an hour at Manta Sandy, a manta cleaning station, but the creatures didn’t show; they did on the next dive, winding slowly past us, as if to say “Selamat pagi! (good morning in Bahasa Indonesia)—more evidence that really, nature doesn’t adjust to your schedule. On one early evening, a representative of the UK-based marine NGO Barefoot Conservation, working on Arborek Island, spoke to us about how they are collaborating with Indonesian conservationists, doing research for the large population of Raja Ampat manta rays. That same day, we also dove under the island’s jetty to find more fish hanging out under the pier.

The author stays shallow this time, snorkeling amidst the mangroves. (Photo: Yvette Lee)

To the credit of the boat crew, led by Belgian manager Pieter van den Abeele, the titas (and titos) were also taken on little excursions above water: a beach visit to the pristine Pulau Yulliet, a swim amidst the limestone cliffs of Balbulol Lagoon, a climb up the Piaynemo lookout to see the most famous view of Raja Ampat’s islands, and my favorite, a snorkeling trip to the stunning Yangeffo Mangroves.

We flew in and out via Bali and grabbed the opportunity for some temple-hopping, shopping (batik! Javanese coffee!), gorging on nasi goreng or Indonesian fried rice (the nasi goreng udang or shrimp fried rice at Warung Little Bird in Sanur is the bomb), and even a quick, inexpensive Balinese massage. Still, we were hungover on the diving for days—and yes, this almost-senior tita survived beautifully, and is already counting the days until she’s underwater again.

About author

Articles

She is a writer, editor, breast cancer and depression survivor, environmental advocate, dog mother to three asPins, Iyengar yoga instructor and BTS Army Tita. She edits part-time for a broadsheet, but is headed towards a full-time vocation as an online English writing coach and grammar nazi.

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