It’s been quite some time since I wrote these lines. And, perhaps, if I were writing this now, I wouldn’t write it in the same way - my views on many things changed. But re-reading it again, I decided to leave everything as it is. These are my impressions, captured in writing; they reflect what I thought and felt back then, and this is precisely why they are valuable. I learned a lot during those 12 days… But I will not jump ahead. Read on and you’ll see for yourself.
Before I went to my hotel, Julia invited me to come at 7 am the next day for yoga. I promised that I’d come if I woke up, not trusting in that myself. However, the local time played a joke on me. For me, the time on the Philippines “lagged”. That is, when it was noon there, it was 3 pm in Melbourne. So I woke up at 6 am and could not fall asleep any more. Since I didn’t have anything else to do, I got up and went to yoga. Upon arriving at Club Serena, however, I found no one. Half an hour later the people leisurely started to appear. Judging by the testimonial evidence, the night was a success. Whiskey was followed by rum, then by something else, and then, as in the movie Hangover, no one could remember. Fortunately, nobody found a tiger in his room.
When a sufficient number gathered, the yoga started. We began with breathing and went on to exercises. I myself am an aikido black belt. A few months ago one of my friends became a yoga instructor and invited me to his class. I went there and realised that, in fact, yoga was not that different from aikido. And I can see why: the human body is the same wherever in the world we are, and all the oriental gymnastics, such as yoga, tai-chi, aikido, wushu, have the same purpose – the cognition of one’s inner self via physical exercises. After yoga I went back to my hotel for breakfast and returned to Club Serena. There, our company had already started to unpack.
The life of a travelling freediver isn’t easy. And that is mostly because of fins. The freedivers’ fins aren’t ordinary. Each freediver’s fin is a three-foot-long flexible carbon fiber blade with an attached foot pocket. They don’t fit into a bag assembled; therefore they need to be taken apart for the transporting. Conversely, they need to be fastened together by screws before using. Monofins are even more inconvenient to carry around. A monofin is a large glass fiber blade, reminiscent of a mermaid’s tail, with attached pockets for both feet. A monofin is a piece of top class freediver’s equipment – they are very efficient and very powerful. However, special skills are required for monofin swimming, and not everyone can do that. When transporting, monofins are even more inconvenient than the “normal” freediving fins: they are fragile and require a special case. I don’t have freediving fins myself; hence I don’t have such problems.
Finally all unpacked and gathered on the beach. Julia allocated the roles for that day according to each person’s level. I and three other beginners Julia assigned to herself.
She began by telling us a little theory about why people can dive while holding their breath. Without going into details, it is due to our ancestry. All mammals, even terrestrial ones, including humans, have what we call “diving reflexes”. We’ve had them for millions of years -ever since our ancestors lived in the sea. In some mammals, as in dolphins and whales, they are more pronounced. In some, like people, they are weaker. If someone spends his entire life on land away from the sea, these reflexes never wake up. But if he starts to dive, they awaken. Freedivers have learned to awaken and develop the abilities inherent in us by nature, and that freediving records are constantly beaten only confirms that.
The theoretical part of Julia’s presentation was followed by the breathing exercises. Such exercises are one of the techniques freedivers use to develop the human abilities. Breathing is a reflex function. We don’t think about how we breathe. And in our everyday lives we do not use our full lung capacity. Most people breathe with the upper part of lungs, expanding and reducing the chest. The lower part of the lungs in the stomach area remains motionless, and the air doesn’t get into the lowest parts of the lungs at all.
The exercises that freedivers practice originate from yoga and are known as The Complete Breath. The Complete Breath helps utilise the entire volume of the lungs. That means more air in the lungs, hence the opportunity to dive deeper and farther.
After the breathing, everyone got suited up, i.e. put on wetsuits. As for me, on that day I was wearing not a wetsuit, but a stinger suit – a protective suit made of Lycra. A stinger suit doesn’t warm, but provides protection from jellyfish and plankton.
The local guys had already placed the buoys for us beyond the reef. The reef itself stretches along the beach about 15 meters from the shore. The top of the reef is at three meters depth, but a few yards farther a vertical wall drops into the depths. The buoys were right there. A buoy is actually a life buoy on the surface, to which a thick rope is tied. That line goes vertically into the depth and the other end is attached to the load on the bottom. The line allows freedivers to dive straight down without losing orientation.
Since it was only the first lesson, the beginners, including myself, had only a few objectives. Objective 1: Start dive as efficiently as possible and without unnecessary movements. When a person holds his breath, the volume of work that he can perform is limited. Every movement causes muscle tension, hence consumes oxygen stored in the lungs and blood. Therefore, freedivers must move as efficiently as possible underwater. The correct way to begin a dive is like this:
- Start lying relaxed on the water and breathing deeply through the snorkel.
- Take last breath, filling your lungs fully with air. Then bend over at 90 degrees at your waist and reach down with your hands.
- Raise your feet out of the water and bring your legs to the vertical position, straightening your body.
- The weight of your lower body will push you down and you’ll find yourself quietly sliding down.
- Once your feet are underwater, start finning.
It took us some time to learn the above technique, but in the end everyone was able to do that properly.
Objective 2: Pulling with your hands only along the rope, without finning, descend as deep as it will be comfortable, not forgetting to equalise the pressure as you go. Because I dived before, I was familiar with equalising pressure in the ears. And it came as a surprise to me that there were people who didn’t know how to do that. The human ear consists of the outer ear, middle ear and inner ear. Between the outer and middle ear is the eardrum. We hear sounds because the sound waves exert pressure on the eardrum; it fluctuates and these fluctuations are converted by the middle ear into electric signals, which are recognised by the brain. On the surface of the earth the pressure applied to the eardrum is 1 atm (for atmosphere). The pressure increases with the depth: by 1 atm every 10 meters. Respectively, the pressure applied to the eardrum grows. If a freediver does not equalise that pressure during the descent, severe damage may be done to the eardrum; it might even tear. Luckily for us there is a way to avoid it. The middle ear is connected to the sinuses in the nose by air channels, so-called Eustachian tubes. Normally these channels are closed. But if the pressure in the sinuses increases, they open, part of the air passes into the middle ear, and the pressure on the inner side of the eardrum is equalised with the outside. That is a complicated explanation of a simple process, which probably everyone is familiar with. For example, everybody knows that ears get blocked on a plane during a descent, or even during a downhill drive in a car. This happens because the air pressure from the outside of the eardrum grows.
To equalise the pressure it’s enough to block the nose with a hand and “blow” air “into the ears”. Doing this will direct air into the Eustachian tubes, they will open, and eardrums will pop with a click and clear. Sometimes it is enough to swallow or yawn - that also opens the Eustachian tubes. Freedivers do exactly the same thing to equalise pressure in their ears while diving. But because the water pressure increases much faster than in a plane during landing, the effect is more pronounced. Hence, they need to equalise far more often.
Some novice freedivers, especially ones who never did any diving before, find it hard to equalise. Without equalising, they start to feel discomfort, sometimes even pain, in the ears a few feet below the surface, and it gets worse the deeper they go. Nevertheless, the percentage of people who are genuinely not capable of equalising is very, very small. This may be due to clogged Eustachian tubes or sinuses, or other similar reasons. All the others can learn. Everything comes with patience and practice.
I was lucky: I grew up near the sea and have been diving as long as I can remember. Therefore, I could equalise, at least in the simplest way (there are better ways practised by more experienced freedivers, but they are more complex).
But I had problems too. I used to dive looking where I was going. If a person, diving head straight down, tries to watch where he is going, which is also down, he throws back his head, thus disturbing the streamlined shape of the body. Water is 800 times denser than air, and the hydrodynamics of a human body in the water is not less important than aerodynamics of an aircraft in the air. The worse hydrodynamics is, the more energy it takes to propel yourself through the water. That is why freedivers do not throw back their heads to see where they swim. They keep the head aligned with the body and look at the vertical rope in front of their eyes.
After a few dives pulling myself down the rope I became reasonably OK in that, and Julia told me that I could start using the fins. That wasn’t a problem for me. Well, except for not entirely correct finning technique, which consumed energy, hence I burned oxygen faster. I didn’t know how deep I was diving – I was told later that I went to approximately 12 meters. That depth was quite comfortable for me. I could stay down there for several seconds and then calmly swim to the surface.
In the meantime, I started freezing. In between the dives a freediver lies still on the surface of the water, holding onto the buoy, resting and breathing. For some reason I decided not to put on a wetsuit that day. Despite the fact that the water temperature was 27 degrees C, cold waves were rolling on me every few seconds. I was shivering and, as a result, couldn’t relax.
After the exercises we swam on the reef for a while, then I got out of the water and went to my hotel for a dinner. After dinner I decided that it would be good to write it all down while my impressions were fresh. I sat down and began to write the notes you are reading now.
The end of the second day.
© 2010 Sergey Stadnik
The photos © 2010 Sergey Stadnik, Vasily Avseenko