Freediving in the Philippines. Day 3

The next day, having arrived at Club Serena at 8 am, I discovered that the yoga had already started. I asked, and it turned out it started at 6:15. Oops! We agreed that I would come at 10 and I went “home” for breakfast.

Sea view from Blue Orchid

Sea view from Blue Orchid

On that day we had a boat trip planned. Since I got cold on the previous day without a wetsuit, I finally decided to suit up. However, I reasoned that my open cell wetsuit would be too thick for the tropical water. I asked Mark, the manager of my hotel, if there was an appropriate wetsuit I could borrow. He nodded and answered that I could choose from the suits for hire in the dive shop. I chose the ordinary 3mm steamer that seemed just right.

Freedivers, as well as scuba divers, wear light wetsuits when diving in warm waters. These suits are made of neoprene – spongy rubber covered with fabric on both sides. Water gets under a wetsuit and, because the suit fits very tightly, cannot get out, hence creating a thin layer of water between the rubber and the skin. That layer of water is warmed by the body, and the spongy rubber helps to retain that warmth. Thus, strictly speaking, a wetsuit does not warm – it prevents the loss of body heat. Open cell wetsuits are a bit different. They have no inner fabric lining - spongy rubber adheres directly to the skin. That leads to a double effect. Firstly, a layer of water between the skin and the rubber is much thinner, since there is no fabric that sucks in the water. And secondly, the pores of rubber retain tiny air bubbles, which conduct heat worse than water. Consequently, open cell wetsuits are warmer than ordinary ones. A 3mm open cell wetsuit is as warm as ordinary 5mm, yet thinner.

Boarding the boats

When I arrived at Club Serena at 10, I saw two boats already waiting for us offshore. In the meantime all our folk had crowded around a tall stranger. The man’s name was Wolfgang, and he was a local freediving instructor. He himself was from Austria but now lived permanently in the Philippines. He was a business partner at Club Serena resort and was responsible for its dive shop. Wolfgang was going to show us the best dive sites and help with the diving equipment. After a short discussion we all boarded the boats, and after just half an hour arrived at our first destination.

The first item on the agenda for the day was, again, deep diving. We dropped the ropes to the bottom, and then Julia divided us into groups. She herself led the team of the advanced divers, while our group of four beginners was assigned to another instructor - Oksana. The tasks were still the same as on the previous day: to do a correct dive-in, then pull ourselves down the rope by hands. The guys explained to me that they started with that every time - it helped to switch on the “diving reflexes”. After a few dives Oksana told me that I could start finning. I began to dive and I felt that I did it better than on the previous day. And I wasn’t the only one - we all did better. As for me, the rope was giving me a lot of trouble. I have never dived along the line, as freedivers do. As I said, a freediver doesn’t look down while diving, so it necessary to begin the dive so that the rope is in front of your eyes, and then follow it straight down, without losing sight of it. I just couldn’t do that. I had to spin underwater and look for a rope, expending precious energy, and then I was still losing it and was carried away somewhere to the side. The snorkel was giving me problems too. I used to dive with a snorkel fastened to the side of the mask and not release the mouthpiece. That allowed me to breathe comfortably on the surface before diving, and upon surfacing I would just blow water from the snorkel by exhaling sharply. But the snorkel sticking out on the side of the head creates additional drag in the water and, thus, consumes energy. In addition, if a diver holds the mouthpiece in his mouth, he instinctively squeezes the jaw, creating an unnecessary muscle tension. And finally, a sharp exhalation after a deep dive may lead to a blackout. Therefore, a freediver going for a deep dive does not attach the snorkel to the mask. He breathes at the surface holding it in his hand, then hands it over to a partner and dives without it. So, my snorkel was giving me troubles: it had a pivot joint, and when it wasn’t attached to the mask, the upper end tended to twist and submerge into the water, making it impossible to breathe. Moreover, it had an annoying valve, which was getting flooded pretty often, and I had to lift my head from the water to blow the water out of the snorkel. In theory, this valve was there to allow easily purging the water, but in practice it only created more problems. After a few dives, Oksana asked me how deeply I dived. I said that I had no idea, since I had no means of measuring it. Then she took off her wrist computer and gave it to me. It turned out I was diving pretty comfortably to 15 meters, despite all my problems. Moreover, my results were gradually getting better. And the last time I dived to 24 meters. That was a surprise even for me. When I came to the Philippines, I thought I could dive to 20 meters. And on the second day I already exceeded my expectations…

Pescador Island

Pescador Island

That concluded our training for that day. Those who were tired got over to the second boat and went back to the hotel, while all the others went on with the journey. Our second destination was Pescador Island. This is a tiny uninhabited island about 50 meters in diameter. Around the island is a beautiful coral reef, rich in marine life, and many divers come to dive there. The guys said they saw sea turtles there. We jumped into the water and the boat moved away to anchor on the opposite side of the island. And we swam towards her, exploring the reef on the way. That place was beautiful. Unfortunately, words are not enough to describe it. But the underwater photos I took turned out to be of very poor quality. I bought a cheap underwater camera for $60 and took a lot of photos with it. The camera was definitely underwater - I took it down to 15 meters and it has not leaked. However, as was expected from a cheap camera, the lens was poor, and in low light conditions underwater did not work well, and all the pictures were blurry. Julia had a large camera with underwater housing, but she was busy filming her TV project. We swam for about an hour around the island, then returned to the boat and went back to the hotel. That was the end of our diving for that day. But we still had to study some theory. That was because we hadn’t come there just to dive. There is an organisation which governs all that is associated with freediving – AIDA. That is a French acronym, meaning “International Association for the Development of Freediving”. The association operates throughout the world. And anyone who wants to rightfully call himself a freediver has to complete a course and pass certain tests, including the theoretical part. In accordance with the rules of AIDA, freediving courses are conducted for multiple skill levels - from one to four stars. One star is practically just the ability to simply dive. The two-star level is more serious, which requires a contender to pass some tests; three and four stars are the advanced levels. And above those are the instructor levels. A few folks of our group were already going for three stars.

On the boat

On the boat

There are books written on freediving, and it’s not my goal to reproduce such a book here. I’ll just give a brief overview of what freediving is. Freediving, as a breath hold diving, is not something new. People dived since ancient times to hunt for food or earn a living. The most famous cases are the Greek sponge-gatherers and the Japanese Ama divers. They dove in such ways and to such depths that it makes us wonder how they managed to stay alive. For example the Greeks dived for a particularly valuable species of sponges as deep as 80 meters. Yet the modern record of freediving began in the twentieth century. In 1949 Italian Raimondo Bucher set the first official record, submerging to 30 meters on a single breath of air. In the 60s Frenchman Jacques Mayol dived to 50 meters. At that time, the phenomenon of freediving attracted the attention of medics and scientists. Having studied the physiology of freediving, they stated that diving deeper than 50 meters was impossible - that would lead to an imminent death. As they claimed, the lungs would not stand the pressure at that depth and collapse. Human lungs are composed of very thin membranes, permeated by capillary blood vessels - the alveoli. Theoretically, under great pressure lung membranes would compress, and lungs would stop functioning. However, the doctors were wrong. The modern record for freediving is already more than 200 meters. I already talked about the reflexes sleeping in us. The freedivers’ lungs are saved by yet another reflex - so-called “blood shift”. Under high pressure the human brain redistributes the blood flow to internal organs. Less blood is pumped to the limbs, and a kind of separate blood cycle is formed in the chest area. Capillary blood vessels of the lungs get filled with blood, and because blood is a liquid, it is not compressible. As a result, the walls of the lung membranes become rigid and  that prevents the lungs from collapsing.

Soon our first theoretical lesson was finished and we went home.

That night I could not fall asleep for a long time. The realisation of my own results didn’t let me calm down. Twenty-four  meters… When I came there, I knew that water was a native element for me and that I could dive, but I did not expect that I would achieve such things. Moreover, it was practically without any formal training. I was wondering what would happen next…

The end of the third day.

The text, the photos and the video ©2010 Sergey Stadnik
The music composition used in the video is Doroga V Nebo by Mashina Vremeni