With a string of typhoons in the horizon, as the weather bureau reports, I found it timely that CMAS Dive Instructor Alfie Fernandez decided to have me and two others undergo his SARO training last Saturday.

SARO is short for Search and Recovery (interchangeable with Rescue and Retrieval, depending on context) Operation and is part of his rescue diver training module for two star-CMAS divers seeking dive leader credentials or higher. 

It quite literally means just that — to locate and retrieve or recover something (sometimes someone) that got lost. 

It is a very nifty skill to acquire for one who looks forward to planning and leading dives and, when needed or called upon, conducting “emergency procedures.”

Local disaster response units like the CDRRMO of cities and PDRRMO of the province, as well as military units like the 505th Search and Rescue, get a fair number of requests to do SARO each year. 

The latest I was aware of was the SARO facilitated by the Cebu City CDRRMO, led presently by my friend Ramil Ayuman, to locate a child that had been swept away by raging floodwaters in Gen. Maxilom Ave., last October 13, 2020.

The body was recovered after two days. 

Scuba diving private persons are also called upon for help from time to time and it should behoove all divers to acquire SARO skills to be able to perform a civic duty better. 

A case in point is Coach Alfie; he was the person tapped to establish the descending line — a small piece of rope that divers follow when going down to a particular depth in unfamiliar territory — during the SARO held following the August 16, 2013 sinking of the Cebu ship MV St. Thomas Aquinas, which sank after ramming a cargo ship that was maneuvering in the wrong lane.

Saturday’s SARO training took place at the beach outside Coach Alfie’s Talisay City home. 

It consisted of a brief lecture followed by a practical exercise that does not end until the trainees get it right.

The lecture covered what steps to complete when tasked to undertake a SARO operation as part of a dive team; and the different skillsets involved in a successful SARO — water entry, search patterns, lifting and safely ascending with large objects from underwater, etc.

The practical exercise, on the other hand, involved locating an object that was placed underwater while we were not looking. 

Using standard scuba gear, no gloves, no probes, no lights, and no cheating, our task was to individually find and recover the object aforementioned. 

It is necessary to reveal at this point that while the training began early morning, when the tide was slack and the water was still, the tide had changed by the time the practical exercise began.

The already turbid water in Talisay City’s intertidal and post-intertidal zones, by this time, had turned quite literally the color of mocaccino. Visibility was horrendous.

And since Talisay City’s coastal areas are densely populated, plastics and other household debris that is painfully secondary to human settlement added to the slew of things that we weren’t looking for but further obscured that which we were. 

We had to feel the muck for what we were supposed to find. Luckily, we were no more than two meters underwater. 

Water sports athlete Eduardo Pangatungan, who already had dive master credentials, was first to complete the task. He was followed by swimming coach Ulysses Fernandez, Coach Alfie’s elder brother. 

The greenest of the group, I was lucky I finished at all after exactly an hour of being at the bottom. Suffice to say it was the longest, most frustrating, but also the most fulfilling two-meter dive I have ever had. 

Key lessons derived from the experience: 1) diving is fun; 2) spatial awareness at the surface does not correlate to spatial awareness underwater; 3) Mr. Ramon Cabo, my high school physics teacher, wasn’t speaking in tongues when he said d = rt; and, 4) did I mention scuba diving is fun?