Mandarin Fish

My last dive here in the Philippines was a mandarin fish dive, which is a very specific hunt for tiny, elusive, colourful fish that live in dead corals and only show themselves in little darting moments, at dusk.

mandarin 3

It was my last opportunity, and no one else felt like that particular dive — it’s a lot of staying steady in about 10m of water, as night is falling, so rather chilly and single-focused.


I have been using an old camera and housing that belonged to Finch for photos on this trip. For photos at depth, you have to have a camera that is decent at low light, with a really good housing. Most people who don’t use DSLRs (which are huge with the housing) use something like a Canon Powershot S series, because the housings and strobes are really good for those. The old Sony I’ve been using is a very basic camera, with no strobe, and a very delayed shutter speed. On this trip, something has also been revealed as amiss with the batteries, since I’ve found no set of batteries lasts longer than about 1.5 dives.

I didn’t replace the batteries before the mandarin fish dive, though it was the second round of diving on that set, and the camera was infuriating to use with the fast little fish. I’d set up a shot, just find the perfect moment, and I’d get the little battery indicator that shut down the camera. Over and over.

Mandarin fish wait for no one.

fish 2

I was frustrated with the camera, but I also had this moment of lying in this rubble of dead coral, at the bottom of the sea, at peace with the dive gear, with a kind, gentle divemaster who can find anything you request, and had a full wave of peace and privilege. I was on my own, with a very trustworthy guide, under the sea, photographing beautiful fish. One of the things I’ve learned from my time with Finch is how possible it is to have very special experiences, intimate ones, by finding the local people who know what’s underneath all of the layers. The world is full of utterly amazing things, above and below and in. Being with this man really showed me how to find those, how to delight in them, that there is an endless list of habitats to wander and encounter. And for that I’m deeply grateful.


Muck Dives

I did two dives this morning, me and the Finns, since Rachel continues to have an ear infection.

Muck dives are not pretty dives — they’re hunt and discover dives. Mostly they’re in sand or gravel, and there’s little coral and few plants, but what you look for are the few odd creatures that show themselves if you’re patient, if you’re lucky.

Like this almost buried manta shrimp.

manta shrimp

Or this snake eel.

snake eel 2

I found muck dives kind of interesting the first couple of times I did them, but I think I’m not really that kind of diver. I don’t like the ubiquitous, creepy little garden eels that wave at you, and it feels bleak. Another woman here agrees — “I’m risking my LIFE,” she said. “I want to see pretty things!”

Or maybe it just wasn’t the right day for me. After a couple of days of greater ease, everything felt tight and hard today. Christmas, PMS, nearing the time that I’m going to have to contend with my now ex on a fairly arduous journey home. Everything just felt… hard.

I’m trying to breathe through it, feel the complexity of all the stories at play here, know that really, both Finch and I are trying to find deep connection in our own, different ways, find compassion for myself and others, be very very conscious and aware that there are a lot of people in the world experiencing much greater sorrow and loss than I am right now. I’m in a bleeding dive resort in the Philippines with everything I could possibly want at my fingertips. I am blessed, and I know that. I’m just feeling a bit tattered, but I find that diving with it, like running with sadness or anger, can really fill the well with whatever emotion is most present.

Today that emotion was pretty eely.

white eyed moray 2
(white eyed moray, to be precise)

One of the things you learn early in diving training is that your regulator stays in your mouth at all times, and that you can do anything in a regulator — cough, burp, laugh, vomit. I have gradually got a lot more comfortable with the notion that using a reg isn’t like sucking air through a straw, which is how I imagined it — but really, it sort of creates a little pocket of air around your mouth. It’s comforting to cough and realized you’re not going to die. I learned today that you can *cry* in a regulator. The mask makes it a tad hard to wipe your nose, though.

Even as I type this, it feels like absurd self-dramatizing. It was a relationship that had an expiry date; people do their best; get over yourself. I hold all of that to be true, and the overlay of decades of Christmas expectations is hard not to engage with, the desire to feel cherished and to cherish most foregrounded then.

I got tired of being underwater at about the 40 minute point on both dives, was ready to be done. But the relational aspect of diving kicked in, and I realized there was no way I could propel the Finns out of the water early, just on my own restlessness, especially on the second dive, which was their last. So I sat with it, just observed how I was feeling, kept my eyes open.

In the last 5 minutes on the first dive, we were rewarded with a Flamboyant Cuttlefish.

(12.25 – 360)

They’re wee and cute and amazing.

On the second dive, one of the Finns requested an octopus. Sure enough, our divemaster Wing found us a wonderpus.


I didn’t realize how wondrous it was until Rachel exclaimed when I showed her the photo. It takes a lot to impress her, with her fancy camera and 333+ dives.

One flamboyant cuttlefish, one wonderpus, and one visit to the singapore airlines site to change my seat: I surface, breathe again.

Vernie, our divemaster, keeps looking at me with sad eyes. “You didn’t sleep, miss cate?” He thinks I am sad, but admirable, because I told him about the kids in Uganda, and he wants to ease my path. He dresses me like a waterlogged valet, slips my fins off for me so I can climb the ladder back into the boat. We talk about his impulses to immigrate somewhere, anywhere, maybe Bahrain.

I asked him the other day the deepest dive he’d done. “100 metres,” he said. “It was a bullshit dive.”

“A bullshit dive?”

“To retrieve the body of the course director.”

Using the computer of the buddy who survived, but who was brain damaged forever, they think he ran out of air.

We took a second day trip to Apo Island today, three sedate and peaceful dives. My camera packed in on the third dive again — it was Finch’s old camera and housing, and the battery connectors just seem tired. I’m still learning to breathe more smoothly and not suck up all my air too soon, and these calm, shallowish dives are good for practicing.

Until I start swimming with green turtles.

turtle face
(12.23 – 358)

This one was unbelievably unbothered by Rachel swimming with it and generally getting up in its business.

rachel turtle

We were anchored offshore, which meant that pedlars of sarongs and tshirts paddled out to us in a little kayak type of outrigger and hauled bundles onto the deck. When they appeared on the outrigger in our first trip, I couldn’t quite process where they’d come from. “Jeez, everytime I look up I see someone I didn’t notice was even on this boat,” I said to Watson, the Thai American who dives in a jaunty two piece red and black wetsuit.

“I don’t see anyone,” he said.

“Those women,” I laughed.

“Hallucinating gypsy women is the first sign of decompression sickness.”

The village was drumming and singing today, it being Sunday and just before Christmas. They have an enormous Christmas tree on the beach.

village tree

If you look closely, you can see that instead of a star on the top, there is a boat.

I thought it was charming and perfect for a village that makes its living from the sea. One of the Finnish women was perplexed by its non-stellar-ness.

Just before my camera pffted out, I found a particularly Christmassy nudibranch.

green nudi

Our ride home was rough, and the woman from Boise lolled nearly unconscious on the bench, limbless, felled first by seasickness while diving and then from the overdosing I gave her on seasickness meds. Her son’s Taiwanese girlfriend spent the ride back clinging to an empty cylinder, hunched over the side, apologizing to me with a small smile before she vomited politely. I found a well of relaxation in my stomach for the first time in days, rolling with the boat, not clenched against seasickness. I put on my raincoat and sat on the cooler in the middle, getting drenched, reading a sodden copy of Dark Star Safari, enjoying the ride.

Eely things

We did a different kind of wreck dive this morning — car wrecks. Bits of car jettisoned into the sea, now habitat.

Overstretched metaphor of the day: things growing in wrecks. Things poking out of unexpected places. Wounds beginning to be repaired. ETC.

There was an eely thing living in what used to be a gas tank.

eely thing
(12.22 – #357)

(Technically it’s a white-eyed moray, but I like “eely thing.”)

Fish coming out of some kind of pipe.

other eely thing

Lovely, destroyed oceanside patio being shored up after the destruction of the typhoon a few weeks ago.


It was a day for regrouping, after I stayed up too late booking travel for the end leg of this journey, trying to find something meaningful to do with the days that were supposed to be in England. It turned out to require a lot of decision making and multiple logistics and then it was midnight and I was talking to people in my homeland. (I can’t decide if being able to talk about this weird crazy breakup as it’s happening is a good thing or a bad thing. I’m going to vote for good meaning making, with gratitude to my long-suffering and endlessly supportive friends).

I wasn’t sure if I was going to dive or not, after not sleeping well, but hauled myself up to not dwell. And discovered that Diving While Anxious doesn’t always lead to relaxation — had an accidental inverted regulator while entering the water on the first dive so lost air, and sucked up all of my air way too quickly.

I did like the many many bubble coral shrimp.

shrimp bubble corral

The site was also lousy with lionfish, but I couldn’t capture them well.

lion fish

… and a few nudibranchs I hadn’t seen before.


Second dive I had buoyancy issues, and my camera battery died just as we saw remarkable things like a relatively cooperative harlequin shrimp that stopped and showed me its elusive face, and a tiny, stunning flamboyant cuttlefish.

But I dived twice, then felt kind of emptied out, and spent the rest of the afternoon doing something that probably no one in the history of dive resorts has ever done before: lying in a hammock, knitting, listening to Pema Chodron calm my cells.

feet hammock

More diving tomorrow. More affirmations.

Here I find myself (1?)

Here, I find myself in a dive resort in the southern Philippines, on the day the world was supposed to end, spending Christmas not with my boyfriend and his step-daughter, but with his step-daughter alone, said boyfriend now ex and gone off in some other direction of his own.

R and I looked at each other when we arrived here at the second resort of the trip yesterday: “who did you spend Christmas with?” “Some random woman from the internet.”

Diving is all about what’s underneath, what’s hidden, and then looking under THAT layer for what’s even more obscure, what’s hiding. Like this cuttlefish, that just looked like a shadow. Until Rachel pointed her pointing stick at it.

(12.21 #356)

When it swam out, I literally jumped back with astonishment at its size and shape and sheer presence.

And yes, that is a whack-in-the-head metaphor.

Coming on this trip, Finch and I had talked about our relationship having an expiration date, about the limits of long distance and the different needs we have around intimacy. That conversation was hard, but it made sense, and I thought we could have a sort of coda/ending time to our relationship where we could be together in a way to honour what we’d been to each other.

Turns out, it’s pretty hard to connect and disconnect at the same time. And well nigh impossible for two people whose faultlines already include different ways of expressing intimacy.

So as the mid-point of our trip hit, the faultline cracked, I got too close to the pretty, deeply poisonous banded sea crate that glides incredibly, unexpectedly quickly through water.

banded sea crate

And now, Christmas in a dive resort in the Philippines with a young woman I have deep respect for and affection but who, I will point out, I don’t ACTUALLY REALLY KNOW VERY WELL.

And she, who was supposed to be having a kind of family holiday, is now with her step-father’s ex-girlfriend.

I think I might have to start writing fiction again.

Diving is fundamentally a relational activity. There’s an enormous amount of technical stuff, and protocol to remember, and physical effort and control, and the ineffable connection and wonder with what’s under the sea. But it’s also a deeply communal activity, dependent on interdependence.

Every level of diving instruction includes a drumming in of practices about how to rescue or support other divers in trouble, and the basic frame of diving is collective. You know that you listen to the divemaster, you are always buddied with someone, if you lose your buddy you surface after a minute or so, and the whole group’s experience is based on the profiles of the most vulnerable diver. If one person is diving on air and the others on enriched air, if there is one DM, you all stay at depth within the limits of the person on air. You are always supposed to follow your buddy’s needs from a safety perspective — if he’s low on air, you ascend, if he’s a weaker diver, you dive conservatively.

cate underwater

In reality, of course, it’s more unstructured, and a lot of the time buddying is a rather loose keeping track of the other person, or a small group more or less diving together — but the notion that the safety of the group is in interdependence is core.

When we were in Indonesia diving last year, the owner of the lodge had an outburst at Finch at one point, accusing him of buddying me incorrectly. It was about my 8th or 9th dive in total, and there was some chop when we’d entered the water, and as I was fiddling with stuff on the surface, I had apparently ended up under the boat, perilously close to the engine’s turning blades. I was blissfully unaware of this, and descended and had a lovely dive, but both Finch and the owner had been holding onto this the whole dive, and the moment we came up, the owner started yelling.

There was a lot of bluster in his rant I didn’t appreciate, and a certain “your job is to look after the little lady” undertone, but somewhere in there, I knew he had a bit of a point. “She’s a new diver,” he yelled on the boat. “We could have lost her! And you are a terrible buddy! She shouldn’t have to swim down and hit your tank banger to get you to pay attention to her!”

I don’t agree that it was Finch’s job to snatch me out of the boat propeller, even if he could have, and there was a little too much grabbing me and doing stuff like putting air in my BCD by that guy’s divemasters for my liking anyway. But his bluster made me think about the nature of what it means to dive together, to buddy, to be together.

There was a couple at that resort who did every dive completely in tandem. Swam decorously side by side by the reef, looked at everything together, took turns with photos. Pointed things out to each other. Ths is the kind of buddying that shows up in PADI videos, and it’s the kind of diving that the owner of that lodge took it on himself to demonstrate to me. He took me on an escorted deep dive to a seamount, and then buddied with me on another dive Finch didn’t come on, moving in sync with me, fastening me with one finger to the side of a reef to quietly wait for a flood of fusilier fish to gently surround me.

Not everyone dives like that, by any means, especially people diving with cameras. It’s more of a scattered approach, with everyone staying at the same depth and in close sight of each other, but until some necessity shows up — someone running low on air, or at decompression limit for that depth — the group is more loosely coupled. You are supposed to monitor your own needs and let the divemaster know. They pay attention, and check, but you are accountable.

I’ve been paying attention to what it means to be in relationship underwater, as my relationship with Finch above water has been in transition over this time. We knew the long distance thing would have an expiration date, and had decided before this trip that this would likely be our last one, that we’d most likely part, with gratitude for each other. And, saying that and being with it, being present to what that brings, are two different things.

I’ve been watching myself underwater, noticing how easy it is to float around noticing things calmly, and getting totally focused on photographing or really looking at something and losing complete track of everyone else. There was a point in one of yesterday’s dive where I almost lost the whole group in low visibility because I was focused on trying to photograph a nudibranch. I noticed that my breathing slowed down in that concentration, I was focused and perfectly buoyant.

This kind of pattern, of hyper-focus, frame-of-connection and individual wanderings off has been a feature with me and Finch all along. In this raw, ending space, I’ve been pondering the edges of generative independence within interdependence, and what the mix is. I know that Finch’s hyperfocus has been an irritant to me in many contexts, underwater or not, when I’ve been in a space to try to connect, or to have more of a flow to what we are doing that reflects both of us. It’s infuriating to not even be heard when you speak, or to have the person you are in a darkening clearing with just fade off into the woods without any discussion because he heard guans.

And, I have asserted endlessly since I was about 12 my right to hold my own needs and obsessions close and tight, and feed them, often at the expense of my partner’s needs. I have never been an “in unison” sort of person. And, underwater, as I ponder what a next chapter might look like, I am paying attention to what it means to be fluidly connected, to share what you see, to be attuned without attached. Just noticing.