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.
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.
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.
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
and so on.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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
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,
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…
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.
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…
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.