Freediving in the Philippines. Day 4, part 1

The day was long, so I broke it into 2 parts.

My room at Blue Orchid was in this cottage

My room at Blue Orchid was in this cottage

In the morning two experienced guys went spearfishing with local instructor Wolfgang. And for the rest of us a training on “static”, i.e., static breath-hold was scheduled. It is clear that the breath-hold abilities are of first-rate importance for freedivers: the longer you can hold your breath, the longer you can stay under water and the greater depth you can reach. Besides, the “static” in itself is one of the competitive disciplines in freediving.

That morning it all started with Julia’s lecture on how to properly hold your breath. Here, again, psychology is no less important than physiology. Nobody knows exactly how the human body works physiologically. But for a freediver it is important to understand that any muscle tension consumes oxygen. And we know even less about how our brain works. However, it is known that the brain is one of the most active consumers of oxygen in the body, especially when we are thinking hard. Therefore, during the “static” it is necessary to achieve two things: complete relaxation of all muscles of the body and the absence of thoughts. But due to the way the brain works, it’s unlikely that someone can stop thinking at will. Therefore, freedivers learn to purify their minds and seek the state of detachment, and yoga and meditation help in that.

After the lecture we did some breathing exercises. I’ve already talked about The Complete Breath. Furthermore, there is a muscle in the human body called the diaphragm. It is located under the lungs and controls the expansion and contraction of the lower section of the lungs. Because the average person breathes mostly with the chest, that is, the upper parts of the lungs, this muscle is not usually well developed. With the help of special breathing exercises originating from yoga, divers develop this muscle which allows them to breathe more efficiently and store more air in the lungs. After the breathing exercises we suited up and went to the pool. Static breath-hold is done in the pool rather than on land, because only immersing the body in the water switches on the diver’s reflexes. Each “static” session usually consists of three or four approaches with some recovery time between them. As a result, despite the fact that the water in the pool is quite warm – about 30 degrees – an athlete stays stationary for a long time in the water; hence he might freeze without a wetsuit.

Breathing up before the static breath holding

Breathing up before the static breath holding

Julia separated us into groups according to our experience – our beginner team had come together again. We took our positions at the edge of the pool and started to relax and breathe deeply. After a few minutes Julia instructed us to take the last six deep breaths, then put on the masks, and, once we were ready, take the last breath and lower our faces into the water. Holding our breath, we were completely relaxed in the water, face down, eyes closed, and lightly holding the edge of the pool with our hands. I relaxed all the muscles of my body as much as I could, yet still needed to distract my brain. Even though my eyes were closed, the sunlight was reaching through my eyelids to my retinas. The light patterns formed into images, and at one moment I clearly saw an image of a sandy bottom through the water column. I imagined I was suspended at 10 meters depth, holding the rope and looking at the bottom 15 meters below me. And that helped my mind to drift away.

The physiology of breath-holding is quite interesting. The air is a mixture of about a dozen gases of which three are the most important to us: nitrogen (N2) 78%, oxygen (O2) 20%, and carbon dioxide (CO2) 0.03%. When we breathe, these gases are dissolved in the blood. In fact, saturating the blood with these gases is what the function of the lungs is. Nitrogen is not involved in the process of respiration; it is excreted from the body in the same amount as it enters. As for oxygen and carbon dioxide, magical transformation happens to them. We all know from school that a person inhales oxygen and exhales carbon dioxide. That is a highly simplified view, but true. The role of the lungs is to saturate the blood with oxygen, which then is spread throughout the body in red blood cells (erythrocytes). This stored oxygen in the blood is the most important source of energy for all the internal organs and all body tissues. Oxygen is absorbed from the blood, and “slag” (CO2) is returned instead. Blood saturated with carbon dioxide then returns to the lungs. CO2 gets released into the air volume of the lungs through the alveoli and exhaled. This process is repeated with every breath and every beat of the heart. When a person holds his breath, it leads to the oxygen content in the blood falling, because there is no breathing. But the level of CO2 is still increasing, because the heart continues to pump the blood, and tissues of the body continue to suck out the remaining oxygen from the blood and return carbon dioxide. As a result, the level of O2 in the blood falls, and the level of CO2 grows.

Static breath holding

Static breath holding

The brain, being the chief regulator of everything in our body, reacts differently to each of these indicators. If the oxygen level in the blood drops below a certain level, a person loses consciousness. That is why there are oxygen masks in the cabins of planes, of which passengers are told during the pre-flight briefings. Aircraft’s depressurisation may lead to falling oxygen level in the air, and the crew really doesn’t want a lot of unconscious bodies on board. Yet in one movie this method was used to neutralise the terrorists: the captain lowered the oxygen content in the passenger’s cabin, and all the passengers, including the terrorists, lost consciousness. The brain reacts even more interestingly to increasing CO2 content in the blood: when the level of CO2 rises to a certain level, the brain gives the command to inhale.

Probably everyone at least once tried to hold his breath. If you did, it most likely was like this: at first you felt quite comfortable and there was no urge to breathe, then the discomfort increased, then more and more, and finally the urge to breathe became so strong that it could not be ignored any longer and you took a breath. That was the reaction to the saturation of the blood with carbon dioxide. Correct pre-breath-holding ventilation, relaxation, and the “detached” state of mind help to soften the uncomfortable sensations.

That is how it was for me on that day. The first phase of breath-holding brought the sensation of nirvana. My body was relaxed, my brain was clear of any thoughts, and I did not need to breathe at all. Then a feeling of discomfort and a creeping urge to breathe came. After that I no longer could “detach” my mind. At that point, Julia asked me to open my eyes and focus on something at the bottom to think about the negative sensations as little as possible. The first serious signal – involuntary contraction of the diaphragm. That means it’s time to breathe. Strictly speaking, one can go further, suppressing the urge to breathe by willpower. Experienced athletes do that, but I don’t think everyone should. Freediving should be filled with pleasant experiences, joy and serenity, rather than discomfort. Moreover, an athlete with a strong will can suppress the urge to breathe for too long, the oxygen level can drop below a critical point, and he can lose consciousness. That happens often in competitions where athletes go all out. And that is why you mustn’t ever do a static breath-holding in the water alone without the supervision of experienced instructors: if something goes wrong, there will be no one to save you.

Julia is timing our breath holding attempt

Julia is timing our breath holding attempt

When I raised my head from the water and took a breath, I saw Julia standing over me with a watch in her hand. She asked whether I did this before and what was my best result. I tried to remember and said that I did not remember exactly but I thought I would be able to do two and a half minutes, although not on the first attempt and not every time. Her answer stunned me: “You already did it.” My first result was 2:40. I did not even know what to think about it. Then we began to breathe again and prepare for the second attempt. The diving reflexes of the body do not kick in at once; hence the second breath-hold is usually longer than the first. The third is yet longer, but after that the breath-holding times do not usually increase. That’s why three to four attempts are made. The second time I did three minutes. On the third – a little less than three  – something went wrong for me. I realised that I could not fully relax my neck muscles and, besides, began freezing slightly. Julia said that I had done enough for that day, but if I wanted, I could make another attempt. I tried and did 3:20. When I was told about that, I was only able to say: “I think I won’t be able to sleep tonight again!” I surprised myself, oh yes. I did not know that I could achieve such results, moreover, to do it easily and without any tension. And it wasn’t just me – all the beginners surprised themselves. Everyone did more than 2:30. And Olga, a girl who never dived before, did 3:00.

I’ve always wondered how it happens that all the sport records are eventually beaten. Is indeed human potential increasing with every Olympic Games? But now I am even more interested how we, ordinary people with virtually no technique and no training, have shown such results. And I can see only one plausible answer: we humans have no idea what we are capable of.

The fourth day to be continued…

The text and the photos 2010 Sergey Stadnik

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

Freediving in the Philippines. Day 2

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.

Path on the beach from Blue Orchid to Club Serena

Path on the beach from Blue Orchid to Club Serena

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.

Unpacking the equipment

Unpacking the equipment

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.

A buoy on the water

A buoy on the water

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.

Down along the rope

Down along the rope

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

Freediving in the Philippines. Day 1

In March 2010 I went to Cebu Island of the Philippines with a group of Russian freedivers. This is my diary of what happened there. It is a long story; so, sit back, relax, and enjoy the reading.

Looking at the map, I find it hard to believe that the Philippines are so far from Australia. Indeed, if there were direct flights from Australia, it would not be so far away. But, unfortunately, none of the airlines have direct flights from Melbourne to Cebu Island of the Philippines where I was going. Therefore I had to fly to Singapore first (seven hours) and from Singapore to the Philippines (four more hours). That was certainly closer than from Moscow, but still a long way. However, I should not complain. By Australian standards it is practically around the corner. I bought the tickets so that I would meet the team of Russian freedivers midway – at the Singapore airport – and then we would fly to the Philippines on the same plane. The seven-hour flight from Melbourne to Singapore was quite easy, except for the flight being delayed for an hour, and I managed to sleep almost through. Interestingly, despite the night flight (the departure from Melbourne was at 1 a.m.), the Singaporeans offered a supper immediately after take-off and climb – at 3 o’clock in the morning. I wisely declined the “supper”.

At the Singapore Airport

At the Singapore Airport

Singapore was a double shock: the size of the airport and the climate. The Singapore International Airport consists of three terminals and the adjacent multi-storey shopping mall, with trains running between the terminals. If one were planning to explore each terminal in detail, he would probably need a few hours. All the terminals are air-conditioned, the trains too. But during a short period of time when the train’s doors are closing as it is leaving the station, the “outboard” air leaks through the gaps. At this point, one has an opportunity to fully evaluate Singapore’s climate. I knew that the air temperature at Singapore was about 30 degrees C all year round with nearly 100 percent humidity, but I didn’t really understand what it meant until I felt it.

In Singapore, I met Julia Petrik and the rest of the Russian freediving crowd, and together we boarded the plane to Cebu. However, the trip wasn’t without incident. The plane made a stop en route to another island of the Philippines to disembark some passengers. The transit passengers, including us, were asked to temporarily leave the plane. Not all of our Russian folks were able to understand from the captain’s announcement that we hadn’t arrived at Cebu yet, and they vigorously tried to break out into the city. As a result, the whole crowd was divided into two parts: those who could understand the captain’s statement (including me), and those who could not. The former were calmly relaxing in the airport lounge, while the administration of the airport was trying to catch the latter. Finally, all were recaptured, seated in the plane, and sent on the route. After another three-quarters of an hour we arrived in Cebu.

Customs and passport control at Cebu are mere formalities, and in no time we emerged from the airport’s gates where our next transport was already waiting for us. We had our hotels booked at the White Beach resort, which is on Moalboal peninsula, three hours away from the airport by car. The hotel, which the rest of the guys stayed in, provided the transfer, but it turned out they didn’t account for me. Everyone except me was going to “Club Serena”, while I – to “Blue Orchid”. These hotels are just 200 meters away from each other, but the minivan’s driver flatly refused to take me, explaining that it was the particular hotel’s transport and they didn’t take “strangers”, and besides there was no space left anyway. I didn’t argue. Instead, I caught a taxi, waved my hand to the other guys, and was off.

Just as Singapore before, the Philippines shocked me. I knew that it was neither Australia nor Europe. In fact, I didn’t know what I expected to see. But it shocked me anyway. According to the research I did before going there, Cebu was a large city. What can I say now? Large – yes, city – no. The landscape outside the taxi did not resemble a city at all. The best word to describe what I saw is “slums”, slums three times and in the third degree. I was so stunned, I did not even try to get out the camera and shoot. The only place I saw something like that before was in “This could happen only in China” photos. Here are some of the pictures imprinted in my memory:

  • Children on a bike, five on one. The driver is about ten years old.
  • Motor rickshas, everywhere and in enormous quantities. These are motorcycles with a passenger cabin hooked to one side. Motorcycles and the cabins are covered with headlights like Christmas trees.
  • Children, running down to the car and peering through the windows.
  • Everyone drives as if road markings are tentative, including driving on opposite direction lanes. Perhaps this is why everyone honks often – to avoid accidents.
Motor rickshas

Motor rickshas

If you think about it, as a matter of fact, there is nothing too shocking about it. However, after Melbourne and Singapore the contrast was simply overwhelming. It should be noted, however, that the majority of Filipinos are hospitable and sympathetic people and always willing to help. However, I still didn’t have any desire to get out to the “city” and get acquainted with the local attractions. It just wasn’t what I came here for.

At one point, the taxi came to a halt in a dense traffic jam. And after about twenty minutes of barely moving, we finally saw what was causing the problem. On the last day of winter the Philippines was celebrating the Mardi Gras. It was a great celebration. The grand fiesta stretched for several blocks. On both sides of the road were stalls with various kinds of food. “Everyone is invited to this celebration,” explained my driver, “regardless of who they are.”

By the way, I chatted to the driver. His name was Joey and he spoke English possibly better that I do.  He told me that he was driving a taxi to feed his family. He had a wife and four children. His wife recently finished studying and worked as a chemical engineer for the government. (The Philippine’s government subsidises the training of young professionals.)

On my way to Moal Boal

On my way to Moal Boal

The radio was on in the car and, to my amusement, the broadcast was in English, even advertising. Moreover, almost all the signs I saw during the trip were in English. I asked Joey and he explained that all Filipinos learn English at school, therefore almost all of them speak it, although not all fluently.

Eventually we reached the hotel. We drove for three and a half hours, but covered the distance of just over a hundred kilometres. That was due to the fairly dense traffic.

At the hotel I was greeted by a European-looking man, who introduced himself as Mark, the hotel’s manager. He showed me to my room, wished me a good stay, and asked me if I wanted to order dinner. But dinner at the hotel wasn’t in my plans for that evening – I was going to visit the rest of the guys at “Club Serena” and have dinner there with them. I asked Mark how to get there, and he said that I just had to follow the path along the beach. I unpacked my stuff, took a shower, and set off.

Blue Orchid

Blue Orchid

At half past six in the evening the sun was switched off in the Philippines. It was getting dark so fast that I did not have time to get around. I tried to find a path Mark told me about, but realised that under the moonlight the chance of success was slim. I returned to the hotel and complained to Mark. With a smile, he fetched a small flashlight and handed it over to me. Armed with it, I made a second attempt. It turned out that I just had to go down to the beach and walk along the water’s edge. After 10 minutes of stomping on the sand I arrived at “Club Serena”, where I immediately headed to the restaurant, not doubting that everyone was already sitting having their dinner. However, the restaurant was empty. Surprised, I ordered a dinner and went to try to figure out where everyone was. Approaching the hotel’s gate, I spotted a minivan from which our crowd was emerging. They were in a bad mood. It turned out that they had not travelled without incident either. Someone miscalculated, and they didn’t fit into the minivan that was sent after them to the airport. As a result, they had to wait for another one, and therefore arrived two hours later than I did. The act of arrival was followed by the mess of accommodating. All rooms in “Club Serena” are different and are located in houses of various configurations. And our freedivers simply could not decide who stayed where. At the same time the hotel’s staff tried to find when we were going to have dinner and collect orders. However, everybody was too busy to study the menu. I had to take the initiative myself. I chose a couple of dishes from the menu, which I reckoned would suit everyone, called the girl from the staff, and pointed at the lines I chose and said: “Eight of this and eight of that.” And the issue was resolved.

The dinner was served an hour and a half later in a gazebo on the beach. It was our first night there, and it started traditionally with the introduction of everyone to each other, and ended the same traditional way – drinking whiskey and rum. At around midnight I said goodbye to everyone and went back to my hotel.

Club Serena

Club Serena

More precisely, I tried to go. I walked a little bit down the beach and realised that the rising tide made my return impossible: the beach was completely flooded and I could get back only by swimming. I had to go back to Club Serena to ask what I could do. When I explained my problem to a bartender, a woman sitting next to me turned towards me. She introduced herself, and it turned out she was the owner of the hotel. Laughing, she announced that I was certainly in trouble. The hotels really are very close – just 10 minutes walk along the beach. And there is a road that links them. However, it is not straight, and walking along it from one hotel to another is not possible. However, she said she would help me and give me a lift. She called her driver, and while we waited, we chatted. I explained who I was and what I was doing there and asked her if she knew Michael, the owner of “Blue Orchid”. She replied that she knew Michael well. He was the godfather of her daughter, or maybe niece, or something like that, and she was godmother to one of his relatives. It proved too complex for poor me to grasp the difficult relationship of the owners of the Philippine hotels. Finally the driver arrived and we set off.

I find it difficult to understand how it was possible to pave the way between two points located 10 minutes walk from each other so that it takes 15 minutes to drive between them, but it is a fact. And I realised that the owner was right – I couldn’t walk there. Finally I returned to my hotel, collapsed on the bed, and immediately fell asleep.

The end of the first day.

© 2010 Sergey Stadnik
The photos © 2010 Sergey Stadnik, Vasily Avseenko

Coming revolution

Soon a small black box will enter our living rooms, and that will change the way we spend time in front of TVs forever.  It will happen on Nov. 4, 2010, and the name of this phenomenon is Kinect.

Microsoft Kinect

In my student days I was an avid gamer and has played virtually all “big” games that came out for  PC, luckily for me those days it wasn’t such a flood as now. And I remember well the events that changed the game industry as we knew it. Those milestones were:

  • Doom - the first popular first-person shooter, 1993;
  • 3dfx Voodoo - the first 3D accelerator, 1996;
  • Nvidia GeForce 256 - the first 3D accelerator with integrated geometry GPU, 1999.

After that, I stopped actively playing games did not follow the gaming news. And returning sporadically into the game world I was discovering that nothing actually has changed. Well, the resolution was higher, graphics better and explosions more colourful. But the gameplay still remained the same - defined by Doom at the beginning of 90s. Of the remarkable events only the release of Nintendo Wii in 2006 comes to mind, which changed our perception of computer games. They were no longer something available only to nerds. Now the whole family could play and, more importantly, while moving rather than sitting still.  Perhaps it was then, when Microsoft saw that and decided to take the idea to a new level.

Kinect is a small box connected to the Xbox 360. It has 2 cameras that watch the player, detect the position of his body and movement, and thereby enable you to control events on the screen. Motion Control in a pure form – simple and brilliant. No controllers, no wires. According to Microsoft’s statements, one Kinect can completely digitise movements of  two players and track the positions of four more. The players may be standing or sitting. In addition, Kinect has multi-array microphone through which it can recognise the voice of his “master” and obey his orders.

Microsoft presented Kinect a year ago at E3 exhibition, then it carried the working title “Project Natal”. And immediately it was clear that it would be a revolution, if only Microsoft would be able to deliver on promises. Now, when Kinect is very close to the release, Microsoft has distributed sample devices to leading gaming magazines. And now we can say firmly - Microsoft succeeded. According to the lucky ones who played with Kinect, watching first time the character on the screen waiving its hands in coordination with you movements is fascinating. Motion Control is not perfect, but still very good.

This is what a gameplay with Kinect looks like:

I predict that Kinect will be a huge hit. It along with the new Xbox 360 will take the market by storm. Potential customers will have to stand in a queue for hours to buy it. And for some time after launch it will not be possible just to walk into a store and buy one, as it is now impossible to buy an iPhone 4. Neither Sony, nor Nintendo has anything comparable.

So, we are on the eve of the revolution. Now it is the turn of gaming companies  to help us fully explore this bright new world.