Freediving in the Philippines. Day 8

There isn’t much to write about that day – we didn’t dive. Our team divided into two groups: the majority went to watch cockfights, while the four of us, including myself, returned to the waterfall. Cockfighting is one of the main attractions in the Philippines. It is a horrible, bloody spectacle; and I will let somebody else tell about it. I didn’t even want to look at it.

At the waterfalls Julia wanted to shoot a scene for her TV project. The original plan was to take two rafts: one for Julia and Tanya to go under the waterfall and the other one to film them from. But unfortunately, the place was packed with tourists. The only two rafts were full and many more people were waiting for their turn. So we had to be content with just one raft. While Julia and Tania were dressing up, I and another girl, Oksana, went under the fall to experience its hard shower once more. I took a camera with me and filmed the entire process, thanks to the fact that my little Sanyo could shoot in the water.

Under the waterfall

Then Julia and Tania took the raft, and Oksana filmed them from the shore. After the filming was over, we set off to climb higher into the mountains to reach the second and third waterfalls. They are much smaller, but the third waterfall adjoins a small lake. We took note of its unspoiled natural beauty during our canyoning adventure three days earlier and wanted to come back since then. Julia thought that the lake scene would make an excellent addition to her show. Unfortunately, that place was full of people too. The serene beauty of the Philippine’s nature was disturbed; the spell was broken; and filming made no sense. We made a stop at a small restaurant beside the lake to taste local coconuts.

The dam

The dam

Coconuts grow right there on the trees. They are offered to tourists on the spot: torn off a tree, then the top is chopped off with a huge knife, and a straw is inserted into the hole. Fresh coconut milk has a different taste than canned. For some reason, canned coconut milk is very sweet and sugary. In fact, too sweet for me. On the contrary, fresh coconut milk is only mildly sweet, and I quite enjoyed it. Once the milk is drunk, the coconut is cut in half. Then with a spoon or just a scraper made of the shell of the same coconut, you can rake out the inner white layer of coconut pulp, which is also very tasty.

It was getting late so we made for the hotel. On our way back we passed a small hydroelectric power plant, which supplied electricity to the village near the waterfall. Just above the falls there is the dam, which entraps part of the river’s flow and directs the water to the turbines through pipes. Our guide told us that when the turbines are turned off, the waterfall becomes larger.

When we returned to the hotel, it was already dark. And we were surprised to find that the others hadn’t returned yet. Obviously the cockfights dragged on. But finally all gathered together and we had a dinner. And after dinner, in conclusion of the day, we had another freediving theory lesson.

The end of the eighth day.

The text, the photos and the video © 2010 Sergey Stadnik
The music compositions used in the video are: “Twin Peaks Theme” by DJ Dado, “Straight Lines” by Silverchair, “Too Much Rain” by ATB.

Freediving in the Philippines. Day 7

On that day Julia planned filming her TV project. On the reef near Pescador Island, where we dived a few days earlier, was an arch in the reef under the water – “The Cathedral”. The arch’s entry was at 18 meters depth, and the exit at 28. Julia wanted to film herself and few other freedivers swimming through the arch.

View from the roof of “Blue Orchid”

View from the roof of “Blue Orchid”

Therefore, in the morning we boarded the boat and went to the island. The plan was to do some depth diving first. We arrived at the island, cast an anchor and dropped the diving line down directly along the wall of the reef. However, we were unlucky. There was a strong current, and instead of going down vertically into the depth, the rope was hanging at a 60-degree angle. Diving like that was pointless. We pulled the weights out and tried to find a better place. Having sailed around the island, we dropped an anchor a few hundred meters away from the reef. There it was a little better, but the ropes were still out of plumb. However, there was nothing we could do, and we started diving. As always, we started with pulling ourselves down the rope by hands. I descended to about 10 meters, and then felt that the rope I was holding to was moving. Caught by surprise, I clung to it and was brought to the surface. It turned out that the guys decided to re-drop the weights and pulled  me out with them. Then the current appeared again, and the diving became even funnier than on the previous day. While diving down the line was still OK, on ascent you had a choice of going up holding to the rope, which meant not directly up, or releasing the rope and swimming straight up, surfacing wherever the current took you. A couple of times I was carried to another side of the boat and surfaced a dozen meters away from the place I dived. Also when ascending, I had to continually look up to avoid bumping my head against the boat. The last time I went on the rope down to 21 meters. Tania, who was on a stand-by that day, told me that since I swam up and down at an angle, I could safely assume that I dived to 25. On that the depth diving was over. We weighed the anchor, sailed to the reef and dropped the lines in front of the place where, at a depth of 18 meters, the entrance to “The Cathedral” was located.

Filming underwater scenes on breath-holding is difficult – the cameraman simply does not have enough time at the depth. Therefore, for flexibility Julia decided to send one of our team members down with a scuba. Andrew, himself an experienced freediving instructor, donned scuba, took the camera and positioned himself at a depth of 24 meters inside the arch near the entrance. Julia and Tania were diving into the arch, and Andrew was filming them. In the meantime the others spread out along the reef.

Fishermen near Pescador Island

Fishermen near Pescador Island

I floated on the surface above the arch and watched our girls diving down. I was curious what was down there. I took a deep breath and dived. Of course I didn’t go into the arch – I’m not crazy – and have a very strong sense of self-preservation. Moreover, I didn’t want to dive deeply without somebody watching me. But nevertheless, I very comfortably dove down to a depth where I could see the edge of the hole in the reef and Andrew sitting there with a scuba a few meters below me. I did not have a computer, which shows the depth and time intervals, so I did not know how deep that was, but I reckon about 15 meters. At this depth, my buoyancy was already neutral; I could hang there for some time looking around without moving a muscle. It was very beautiful there. I was hanging in the water column, and right in front of me the reef wall was stretched from surface into the depths. Underwater coral forests played all shades of emerald green in the sun rays penetrating from the surface. Julia and Tania swam past me along the rope and disappeared inside the arch. I hung there for a few more seconds and rose to the surface. I dived a few more times and found that such a depth was quite comfortable to me. It is a pity that I did not have a dive computer. When I depart on such a journey once again, I will certainly buy one.

On that the filming was over and we returned to the hotel. It was about five o’clock in the evening and everyone was hungry, because shooting dragged on, and we were left without a lunch. While we waited for dinner, Vasily suggested that I try to swim in his monofin – we had the same foot size. As I said, monofin is a blade in the form of a mermaid’s tail, with attached pockets for both feet. The foot pockets themselves are of unusual shape and the foot inside them is bent in a special way, which is very uncomfortable but provides better performance.

Cameraman

Cameraman

A monofin was invented in the 70s in the Soviet Union by fin-swimming athletes. They became popular in the rest of the world thanks to Jacques Mayol, who received one during his visit to the Soviet Union from the inventor himself, fin-swimmer coach Boris Porotov. These days monofins are not something extraordinary. They are manufactured in a number of countries. But the best ones are still Russian and they are made individually to order. A monofin is much more efficient than traditional fins; however, it has its disadvantages. It does not offer the same manoeuvrability as traditional fins. And it’s not the best choice if it needs to be used for a few hours in a row: foot pockets are so uncomfortable that after some time swimming they start to hurt.

Swimming in a monofin was a pretty interesting experience. The small pool did not allow us to develop great speed, but still the power was amazing: three strokes with a “tail”, and 10 meters were behind. Even with my practically nonexistent dolphin-style swimming technique. I certainly liked that. I probably would have bought one for myself, but I clearly understood that I didn’t need one yet. I didn’t know where I could use it. I wouldn’t buy it to swim just in a pool, and I would freeze in Port Phillip Bay. With our water temperature, we need to choose the fins in such a way that they could be put on a 3mm neoprene sock.

After dinner, Julia continued to read us freediving theory.

Modern freediving competitions are held in several disciplines: diving to a depth, lengthwise in the pool (dynamic apnoea) with fins and without fins, and the static breath-hold. Currently, man has learned to hold his breath for more than 11 minutes and swim with fins underwater for 250 meters in a pool. But the most interesting competitions are on diving into the depths. They are divided into several types: Free Immersion – where an athlete dives without fins and pulls himself up and down the line with his hands. Constant Weight with or without fins – an athlete swims down and up without touching the rope. Variable Weight – an athlete dives down with extra weight, and at a depth releases it and uses his fins to ascend. No Limits. Here an athlete holds on to a special weighted platform – a sled – as it carries him along to the depths. At the moment the deepest dive in this category is 214 meters. Coming up to the surface from such depths just by using a muscular force is unthinkable, and that’s why special aids are used. At the deepest point a freediver unleashes a gas-filled float, which then pulls him up. Such an extreme is not for everyone, and not just because of the enormous depth.

Club Serena’s pool

Club Serena’s pool

In this kind of competition an athlete’s life depends on technical aids, which can fail. In the history of the competitions, there were several deaths and near-death cases occurred because of equipment: a jammed sled, or a valve of a gas tank not opening. And yet, there are still people who beat those records.

Constant weight with fins is considered the most classical discipline and a highlight of any competition. Here an athlete dives into the depth, counting only on himself. He is one-on-one with the abyss. According to current competition rules, an athlete must declare the depth at which he is going to dive in advance. At that depth a plate with the corresponding number is fixed. The athlete has to grab the plate and show it to the judges upon surfacing. In addition, a depth gauge on the wrist registers the depth. But just reaching the depth isn’t sufficient. It is necessary to pass the surface protocol, which states that a freediver must be in full consciousness and behave adequately. If an athlete breaches any of these requirements, he is disqualified.

It’s not entirely clear to me why people take part in such competitions and beat records. Any “big” sport brings pain and traumas. As for me right now, I dive into depth, but not for depth. Yes, I am curious to know what I am capable of, but I would never dive to a depth that is uncomfortable to me. While diving, we submerge into ourselves, and that is the only thing that matters.

The end of the seventh day.

The text and the photos © 2010 Sergey Stadnik, Vasily Avseenko

Freediving in the Philippines. Day 6

Having arrived, as usual, at 10 a.m. after breakfast at Club Serena, I found that almost everyone was so exhausted after the previous day’s march, that even the morning yoga hadn’t happened. A bit later the people slowly began to crawl together to the pool area, complaining of pain in various limbs.

Breakfast at Blue Orchid

Breakfast at Blue Orchid

Our spearfishers, once again, went hunting early in the morning. And for the rest of us, at least for those who were able to, a static breath-holding session was planned. As always, it all started with breathing. We gathered at a gazebo on the beach and under Julia’s supervision did some breathing exercises for about half an hour. Then Julia told us to disperse, to sit somewhere in a more comfortable position and do a few breathing cycles on ourselves, then to make a single breath-hold on land. After that we suited up and got into the pool.

Just like the last time, we placed ourselves in the water near the side of the pool and started breathing up. Then Julia gave a command to make the last six deep breaths and begin when ready. Having lowered my face into the water, I mentally walked through the entire body to make sure that absolutely all the muscles were relaxed: from the toes up to the waist, up the spine, neck, up facial muscles and jaw, and arms to the tips of my fingers. Then tried to calm down my thoughts and just float still on the surface…

Many say that they do not like to do static. On the contrary, I enjoy it. The relaxation, which comes with it, is unlike anything else. I am suspended in the water completely relaxed. My body weighs nothing. Beneath me and above me – infinity. My thoughts are far away. I do not need to care about anything, don’t even need to breathe. My heart beat slows down.

When a sense of discomfort increased, I, as Julia taught, stretched out my whole body and pulled my diaphragm muscle up as much as I could to use the last air stuck in the bottom of the lungs. That gave me another 10 or 20 seconds. Then I raised my head from the water and took a breath. The first time I did 2:50. We started preparing for the second attempt by breathing up. As a rule of thumb, the time at the surface should be 2.5 to 3 times longer than the time spent under water. So after a three-minute breath-hold we breathe for at least 6 minutes. I did a 3:06 on the second attempt and 3:30 on the third. And that was the end of the static session for the day.

Judging by the fins, this is me

Judging by the fins, this is me

And after dinner we took a boat and went to a place where we were told sea turtles could be seen. But on the way we made a stop to have another depth diving training. We dropped two lines – one on each side of the boat. “Advanced” divers occupied one line – and we, the dummies, the other one. During the training freedivers dive one at a time. While one dives, the rest are waiting at the surface and breathing. And the one who is underwater is always watched by an instructor. The practice of freediving shows that all the troubles usually happen to freedivers on the ascent in the upper 10 meters of water. Therefore, a stand-by person dives to meet a rising freediver and ascends beside him, looking into his eyes. This is to ensure that he is conscious. At the first suspicion that something is wrong, a stand-by comes to help and pulls a freediver to the surface.

Unfortunately, we had a chance to make only a few dives. I dove a couple times, pulling myself down the rope. And then suddenly a strong current appeared. I dived, finning down, and upon ascent I drifted away from the rope. I looked up to see where I was going and saw the boat directly above me. I started paddling away to avoid bumping my head against the boat and suddenly found a rope. I continued my ascent along it and upon surfacing found that it wasn’t my rope, but rather the rope on the opposite side of the boat. Because of the current it was pointless to carry on diving; and we set off for the reef to look for turtles.

An underwater “flower”

An underwater “flower”

Usually the water in this area of the Philippines is very clean and visibility in the water is at least 15 meters. But on that day we were unlucky: Some kind of haze was suspended in the water; and we could see for no farther than five meters. We dispersed throughout the reef to look for turtles, having promised to shout if anyone saw them. And I soon spotted one. The turtle was about two feet in length. It slowly floated at a depth of several meters; and it was accompanied by a pair of small, needle-looking fish. I called the guys, dived, and swam after it. The turtle noticed me, gained speed, and started escaping into the depth. Who would have thought that that seemingly clumsy creature, slowly paddling with its flippers, could develop such a speed? Soon I needed to surface and had to say goodbye to the turtle. Then the guys came by, but the turtle had already been gone. And because of poor visibility we failed to find it again. We swam for a little longer, then returned to the boat, pulled the anchor, and headed back to the hotel.

Sometime later our spearfishers came back. When their boat came to shore, our entire team gathered there to greet them. The meeting was stormy. It looked as if the tribe was greeting their men returning from the hunt, and, in fact, that was so. It turned out that the hunters shot enough fish for us all. For dinner we had fried fish, fish soup, and sashimi. And another day ended.

The end of the sixth day.

The text and video © 2010 Sergey Stadnik
The photos ©2010 Sergey Stadnik, Vasily Avseenko
The music mix used in the video is Jabberwock (Alternative Afterhouse Version) by Scyscraper

Freediving in the Philippines. Day 5

The story of this day will not be as long as the previous ones. We didn’t dive on Day 5. Instead, we went canyoning.

At the beginning of the path

At the beginning of the path

Kawasan Falls are located about 20 minutes away by car from our hotels. It is a cascade of one large and two smaller waterfalls. We were told they looked quite spectacular. But just going sightseeing wasn’t our intent. Instead, we drove about half an hour higher into the mountains. From there, we were going to walk to the falls. Canyoning means descending down a river. Not on rafts, but on feet. That is, it is literally walking down the bed of a mountain river. Our team was led, once again, by local instructor Wolfgang, for whom organising such routes is a part of his business. He told us that the route was very simple, and even children who could not swim would walk through it. Wolfgang announced that in some places we’d have to jump from small ledges into the water and swim. It did not scare anybody. All present were freedivers, and therefore people of steel, capable of diving down tens of meters on a single breath. However, after just 10 minutes we came to the cliff, which ended with a five-meter drop with a rocky pool at the bottom. Wolfgang declared that we had to jump.

The first obstacle

The first obstacle

Most of us were brave enough, and after a few moments of hesitation, we one by one stepped over the ledge and plunged into the river below. However, a few girls were not inclined to jump. Those who already did it tried to cheer up the doubters and convince them that there wasn’t really anything scary. It took some, but finally they took a leap of faith, and we moved on. Fortunately for us, that was the largest challenge we faced. For the next three or four hours we hiked down the river. For most of the way the path led us along its banks, but in some places the path was blocked, and we had to march right upon the river bed. Besides, it was a hot day, and stomping upon the water was more fun. Several times we stopped to rest and wait for stragglers. For most of the way the river was about knee-deep or less. But in a few places along our way it formed pools which were quite deep. In such places we had to jump into the water and swim, as Wolfgang promised us, for there was no other way around.

Finally we reached the first waterfall just to discover that is was quite small, just a few meters high. I even thought in disappointment: “Is that all?” But it turned out that it was just the beginning. Ten minutes later we approached the second waterfall, which was a little bigger. And after yet another 10 minutes hiking down the path we saw the third one. And it was indeed a sight worth seeing. Water was thundering down from 20-meter height and like a white shower falling into the lake at the bottom.

We had to swim at some places

We had to swim at some places

However, the magnificent view was just a part of the attraction. At the edge of the lake a couple of rafts were parked. The rafts were made from thick stalks of bamboo bound together with ropes. Our team, accompanied by two local guides, boarded one of the rafts.

One of the guides instructed us to sit down, and then started to pull our raft to the waterfall by means of a clever system of ropes stretched over the lake. But instead of heading for the waterfall directly, the guides directed the rafts into a narrow cave a few meters away. They ordered us to lie down. Everyone obeyed, and soon we understood why that was necessary: as the rafts were moving farther into the cave, the ceiling began to decline and stayed as low as half a meter above the water. There was barely enough room for us to lie down.

The waterfall

The waterfall

The guide continued to pull our raft forward, and in another few meters we made a sharp turn. The cave suddenly ended and we saw a white wall of water in front of us – we emerged beyond the waterfall. The guide gave us permission to get up, everybody jumped to his feet, and soon we entered the waterfall.

The stream of water falling on my shoulders from 20-meter height was an unforgettable sensation. That was like a very hard shower, which burned and cooled at the same time. The raft stopped so that the water curtain divided it exactly in half. We were jumping back and forth through the stream, shouting in wild voices and laughing. Then our guide pulled the raft out from under the waterfall and asked whether we wanted more. All shouted that they did, and the raft once again was directed to the entrance to the cave, and we went through the waterfall over again. And when it was over, we rested at the local restaurant located next to the waterfall, had a delicious lunch, and drank rum. Everyone was tired but happy.

Upon returning to Club Serena, I headed directly to my hotel, because all of us were very tired and I knew that that was all for that day.

The end of the fifth day.

The text and the photos © 2010 Sergey Stadnik, Vasily Avseenko

Freediving in the Philippines. Day 4, part 2

After the “static” we all went fin-swimming. The proper swimming technique is very important for a freediver because it allows him to push himself through the water column most optimally. I decided to try to swim in long freediving fins and borrowed a pair from a guy who had the same foot size as I have.

This is what I saw waking up every morning

This is what I saw waking up every morning

He was learning to swim in a monofin at that time and didn’t need them. The fins were too large for me and felt loose on my feet, so I attached them to my feet with rubber bands. That helped and I was not afraid to lose the fins, but the friction of the loose rubber foot pockets on my feet was still pretty uncomfortable. Of our group of beginners, nobody could swim properly in fins because nobody had ever been taught. So, instructor Oksana set off on a task of teaching us.

The easiest way of fin-swimming looks like this: legs must be stretched out in a straight line, and the fins must be one line with the legs. Then slow and very wide leg strokes are done, without bending the knees. The legs work like scissors. This method is used in vertical dives and underwater swimming. For swimming on the surface the technique is similar, but the sweeps are made in only one direction – from the water surface under the water and back to the horizontal line. Fins should not breach the surface of the water – slamming fins on the surface does nothing. At the same time the hands should be stretched in front of the head to reduce the resistance of the water or, alternatively, to move like in front crawl swimming style. The freediving fins had larger surfaces than my own and swimming in them was harder, but they allowed me to develop a greater speed. I didn’t notice any other fundamental difference.

The beach of Club Serena hotel

The beach of Club Serena hotel

After about half an hour of swimming back and forth, Oksana showed us how to swim dolphin style. Dolphin is a more optimal fin-swimming style – it allows propelling oneself through the water using less force. Therefore, it is used in freediving more widely than traditional style. Moreover, it is the only possible way to swim in a monofin. In dolphin style, a swimmer’s legs do not move relative to each other. Instead, the body performs a “wave” that starts from the chest and rolls to the tips of the feet. Of course, it goes without saying that perfecting a technique takes time, but no matter how hard we tried, the result was still uninspiring. After another half hour of our clumsy attempts, we went back to the hotel – to swim in the hotel’s pool without fins.

I’ve been swimming for as long as I can remember, but nobody has ever taught me a correct swimming technique. All that I know I learned from watching others do and applying it to myself. Needless to say, I swim – to put it mildly – not entirely correctly. I swim crawl ok. I found that my breaststroke is satisfactory, too, but for some reason I was spreading my fingers during the stroke and the water was literally slipping between them. But I had absolutely no idea how to swim dolphin style. I just did not understand what I needed to do with my hands and legs to move forward. Having looked at my suffering, Oksana told me to try to swim a “two-stroke” dolphin: this is when the legs move as in dolphin and the hands as in crawl. But again – nothing good came out of it. There was absolutely no coordination of movements between my hands and legs; the legs were doing something on their own, and the hands were also by themselves. However, after half an hour of swimming back and forth, something started to come together. By that time everybody was very tired, and a lunch was declared. After the lunch we were going to do deep-diving without fins.

I am relaxing after the hard day

I am relaxing after the hard day

That time a wetsuit was not necessary. So instead of it I put on my stinger suit – a full-body Lycra suit. It does not warm, but it protects from the sun and jellyfish stings. Getting into water just in swimming trunks with unprotected skin is not a very good idea in the Philippines at that time of the year – the water is full of plankton and jellyfish that sting. Most stings resemble mosquito bites, but one of our guys was stung by something pretty badly: highly visible burns on his legs took a few days to heal.

Divers use weights to compensate for the wetsuit’s buoyancy. For example, I attached 2 kg of weight to my belt when diving in a 3mm suit, which I borrowed at the hotel. That time the weights were not needed, since we dived without the wetsuits. Led by Julia, our team swam to the buoy, which was already set for us beyond the reef. The technique of depth diving without fins is effectively a breaststroke with minor modifications. It begins with a stroke with the hands, and it is much longer than in normal breaststroke: the arms are stretched down almost to the knees rather than stopping at the chest level. The human body has a positive buoyancy, and shoving ourselves down through the water column without the aid of fins is very difficult, hence powerful and long hand strokes are necessary. After the stroke, arms are returned back and stretched above the head. A leg stroke follows, then the whole body is stretched into a straight line and for a few moments glides through the water. Then the arms do their strokes again, and so on.

The caught fish

The caught fish

We started trying, and I resumed my fight with the rope. A freediver needs to “dive in”, i.e., to begin the dive, so that the rope is directly in front his eyes. Otherwise, since we do not look down, seeing where we swim is nearly impossible. In my case, I had a rope appearing anywhere but in front of me. In addition, my arm strokes weren’t powerful enough and couldn’t push me through the water. Equalising pressure in the ears was also a problem.When we dive in fins, one hand is stretched over the head, and the other one immediately goes to the nose. Therefore, we can equalise at any time. When diving without fins, however, both hands do strokes, and that makes pinching the nose and equalising harder. All in all, I did not do very well and did not dive deep, which is understandably due to my lack of technique. Our diving session didn’t last long, because a few people were just in swimming trunks and bathing suits. Jellyfish and plankton made that an unpleasant experience for them, and they asked for a permission to go ashore. Upon returning to the hotel, I grabbed a can of beer, got into the pool, and enjoyed a well-deserved relaxation after a hard day.

A bit later our spearfishers came back and brought two big fish, which were immediately roasted and served for a dinner and turned out to be delicious. The dinner was followed by drinks. Somehow, Moscow freedivers prefer rum to all other drinks. A couple of hours later I went back to my hotel, as it was already too late and a high tide was approaching. Contrary to my concern, I was so tired after the hard day that I fell asleep immediately.

The end of the fourth day.

The text and the photos © 2010 Sergey Stadnik

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