I’ve wanted to learn freediving for a long time and finally got properly trained last weekend! It was such a positive experience so I highly recommend anyone who loves to swim in the ocean to try it. I learned with my friend Carlo, an AIDA International accredited freediving instructor. Carlo and I met through scuba diving few years ago.
I don’t actually care about the certification. I just wanted to be able to hold my breath for as long as I possibly can, to enjoy swimming through shallow reefs and caves. Or there are occasions when scuba diving is prohibited on animal encounters, like the whale sharks in Donsol or swimming with humpback whales in Tonga.
Concept of Freediving
I’m a relatively confident swimmer but didn’t realise that all this time, I didn’t understand the full concept of freediving. I knew that freediving is the ability to hold your breath for a time to allow you to dive underwater without the aid of any apparatus like scuba gear.
In scuba diving, you have to release all your air (lungs and BCD) in order to descent underwater. This is also what I’ve been doing to sink to the bottom of swimming pool since I was a kid. No wonder I could not hold my breath for very long. Bottomline: the idea is to hold the air in so your body has oxygen.
Last year while sailing with Infinity Expedition in Tonga, we took the tender to the Mariner’s Cave. The opening of Mariner’s Cave is about 1 meter below the surface and have to swim through a tunnel for about 4 meters. This should take 10 seconds to do but it was such and effort for me because my body was deprived of oxygen and I had to fin super duper hard as the water is swelling so bad on the surface. I survived it, but swore I’ll learn freediving!
Learn Freediving – AIDA International
AIDA International is an organization of freedivers who came together to set an international standard for safe and joyful freediving. There are 2 levels to freediving certifications: AIDA 1 is an introduction to learn freediving and AIDA 2 is a more complete freediving course.
I decided to go straight to AIDA 2 because I’m comfortable underwater and with breath holding. I’ve also started to learn freediving (informally) with Matty while aboard Infinity Expedition in Tonga. Matty is a freediving instructor and an excellent spearfisher who’s responsible for us having protein in our diet while on the boat. Within the first session, my experience freediving improved dramatically!
Getting Certified – AIDA 2
The AIDA 2 course takes 2 full days while AIDA 1 takes half a day. Prior to the water sessions, there’s a lecture session where you learn the science, safety, and technics of effectively holding breath. You will be surprised that by just learning about these, you can easily double you breath hold time!
When I attended Carlo’s lecture session, I was already familiar with contractions. Contractions or the “urge to breathe” is the experience you get in your stomach when you hold your breath for a long time. Basically, it is your body telling you to start breathing, or to be more technical, your body is asking you to get rid of its CO2 and replace it with O2.
Day 1 – Pool Session
The most dreadful part for me was to wake up at 4 a.m. drive to Batangas! So I invited Sage and the kids to spend the weekend in Anilao which made the drive more bearable.
9 a.m. at Vistamar Mabini, the class met up with Carlo and Oca who was going to assist him. I also met my classmates Vina, Ramon, and Lorenzo for the first time. They’re relatives but were friendly and fun and I got along with them easily. Later I discovered that they’re cousins of Jayvee.
First we did the breath hold exercise on dry land, on the beach bed. My maximum breath hold time was 3:10 min again. I may have to challenge myself more because I don’t seem to be improving. I just checked my old record on Infinity and found that I had the same (3:10), Zach did 4 minutes and Menno did 5 minutes!
Next we moved to the pool and did breath hold like the “deadman” float (face down). This is called Static Apnea and is a good for practicing breath hold when you don’t have access to the ocean. I find this more relaxing than lying down on the floor (or beach chair) as your body is completely free, no strain at the back or neck. However, I just held my breath for 3 minutes!
Actually, the biggest obstacle in holding your breath is your mind. You’ll find that even if you feel that you can still hold for a few more seconds, your mind is telling you, you can’t anymore, especially in the beginning. I would give up even before the contractions kick in. But very soon, as you learn freediving, you will be more comfortable with the breath hold… and learned that breath hold is not the biggest challenge in freediving!
After lunch, we moved to open water; shore entry from Vistamar. This time we will descend with a line while holding our breath (of course). There were 2 bouys; 2 students on each bouy with Carlo assisting on 1 and Oca on another.
The ultimate goal in this course is to be able to go to 16m head first (duck dive). We did this slowly starting with 5 meters, then 7m, then 10, on the first day. We practiced going down with our feet first and everyone had no problem with equalizing. I like this step by step process.
When Matty taught us last year, we went directly to duck diving and it was very confusing to remember all those steps (fin-duck-scoop-fin-equalize). I’m not criticising Matty, we were very pirate style as Infinity is. He was really nice to teach us for free, and I learned a lot from him. I’m sure I wouldn’t learn this course so fast if it wasn’t for my previous learning with Matty.
But as I was saying, it was very good to break it down like that. To start feet first so we can concentrate on learning to equalise while descending. And this time, I also remember to take out the snorkel every time. I kept forgetting that before. We all aced day one with no problem to go down to 10 meters.
Biggest Hurdle of Learning to Freedive
So after being such excellent students, and it still being very early, we thought we’d try duck diving. And what a bummer it was for me! that n0t even reaching 5m, my ears were in extreme pain. I came up, very disappointed! I rested and tried again in a few minutes. I tried equalising while on the surface and went down again, slower, but it was not much better. I only got to 5m when my ears experienced extreme pain! It felt like my brain is going to explode. I came up and the pain in my ear did not even go away. Sad. Sad. Sad!
I can’t believe it because I’m pretty good at equalising during scuba diving. In diving the Maldives, we descended to 40m in 1 minute. I know, I know it’s different with bottomless air supply in scuba diving, but still I can’t believe I can’t do it! Finally we decided to call it a day and rest my ears. We still have dive session the next day. My buddy Renzo were able to do a better job at equalising and was able to descent farther than 5m.
Dive Session – Day 2
The second day, we went back to the sea. I was very anxious of my ears and hoped that I can go down deeper, preferably to 16m. Today, I was paired with Vina, for as it turned out, she also had problem with equalising the day before. The boys were paired together for they were apparently doing a better job. Imagine how shitty it felt to contribute to the gender generalisation of men being better than women. Ha ha.
We did a couple of feet first descent for practice and as the day before, I had no problem going down. On average, it takes me 1 minute. And the time came for me to try duck diving again. Much to my dismay, not only did my ears hurt, but this time, my eyes felt like they were going to pop out. What the??? What is that??? It felt like my mask squeezing into my face, I lifted it to let the air out, but it did no good. I can only go down to 5m and my whole head felt like it was going to explode to a thousand pieces. This is why I said that holding breath is not hardest part of learning freedving.
Carlo said it’s sinusitis. I could’ve taken Decolgen.
We took a lunch break and then did a written exam which we aced. Then we went to the pool to do our apnea exam. We just had to swim 40m in one breath. It was very easy for everyone. I did not even get to the point of contraction. We did a bit of rescue exercises. And then went back to the sea for the 3rd and last open water dive session.
In order to pass AIDA 2, the requirements are:
- 2 minutes static apnea – check
- 40m dynamic apnea – check
- pass a written exam – check
- 16m dive – sigh!
I know I said that certification is not important to me. But who doesn’t prefer fulfillments over non fulfillments? Anyway, bottomline is I was not able to go down to 16m at the end of the session. Vina was the same, and seemed to be in worse pain than I was. So because we can’t duck dive, we decided to practice our breath hold by going deeper with feet first. We also tried going down 45deg head down. This is semi-tolerable for me. I got to 12.2m this way. I didn’t wanna push it and hurt my ears. It would be unthinkable if I ended up damaging my ears and not be able to scuba dive forever.
Like scuba diving, freediving should be done with a buddy. I didn’t know that although it make sense, especially learning about black out and lost of motor skills. We were taught safety precautions and protocols.
At the end of our weekend course, only Ramon successfully passed the course with his duck diving to 18m. Renzo got vertigo and couldn’t dive more. Vina and I got ear problems. I got sinus problem. I still can’t believe that I wasn’t able to pass the course in 1 go. I have one year to go back and complete my course. I promise I will do it. But in the meantime, I’m really happy with my new learned skill.
Where to Learn Freediving?
There are many places in the Philippines to learn Freediving. Moalboal is a popular destination to learn freediving because of the school of sardines that’s near the shore (video below of me freediving last August 2015). It is also the home base of Freediving Philippines. Bohol is also a popular destination who just held a Freediving Competition and the home of Freedive Panglao. There is also Palawan Freedivers.
If you’re in Manila and interested to learn Freediving, you can contact:
AIDA INTERNATIONAL FREEDIVING
AIDA Master Instructor and Judge