Freediving part II – going deeper…

‘Enjoy your dive. You’re a very strong diver.’ Lisa’s words lingered in my mind as I headed into the deep. From the surface, you could only see the first 20 metres of line, beyond that, it melted away into the blue, as I soon would too. Relax, equalise, you have the oxygen, don’t be afraid, stay calm… Heading for a new maximum depth is always a bit nerve wracking; I remember it from trying to hit 16 meters months earlier in the Philippines, but this was going to be at least double that depth. Not possible, surely? As I descended, the pressure in my ears increased, but the equalisation wasn’t difficult; I was in control. The thing is, you don’t look where you’re going; you keep your chin tucked in, you keep soft focus on the line in front of you, and just … keep … going.

And then it happens. That voice speaks to you from somewhere deep inside, ‘You need to breathe, my friend. You need to breathe … now!’

Tempted to grab the rope and turn back I took a little glimpse ahead of me; the bottom weight is right there! You can’t quit now! But then, every second spent going deeper increases the risk.  Maybe it’s too much, too far, too deep.

With a rather inelegant lurch, I headed down the last metre, grabbed the weight in my hands, spared a moment to glance at the ocean floor a metre or so below me, and then, pulled down hard to begin my ascent. Don’t panic, panicking only burns oxygen, you’ll be ok, it won’t be long, there’s not that far to go…

Sometimes, the ascent can feel like an eternity.
Sometimes, the ascent can feel like an eternity.

Fifteen metres down and rising fast, Lisa appeared in front of me, looking calm, happy, exuding confidence – I am desperately trying to show that I’m ok but my stomach is contracting heavily as my body gives me the signal that it needs to dump carbon dioxide. Hold on, hold on, just a few more seconds….

‘Breathe, breathe, strong inhale, breathe.’ These are Lisa’s words; I’m on the surface, I’m ok. I look at her with clear eyes as the oxygen floods back into my system. ‘You made it to the bottom?’ she asks, gently. I nod my head. ‘How deep was it?’ I check the dive computer on my wrist; it reads 34.7 metres.

34.7m – near enough five metres deeper than I’d been before – would have seemed impossible before we started this adventure back in the Philippines in May with Wolfgang, but now, here in Utila, we were learning that we had the capacity to do far more than we ever realised. Let me spin the clock back a few days…

Welcome to Freedive Utila!
Welcome to Freedive Utila!

We were in Honduras, it was the end of August. We’d been in Central America for almost an entire month and bar one snorkelling trip in Belize, we’d literally hardly stepped foot in the ocean; we were desperate to get back into diving! And that’s when Helena found Freedive Utila.

Utila is the smaller of the three Bay Islands. A mecca for scuba divers, it also has a dedicated freedive school mainly focusing on running the Apnea Total courses. When we arrived, we made a beeline for the school and were greeted by the owner, ‘My name’s Mark but everyone calls me Tex … because I’m from Texas,’ he added by way of explanation. We chatted about our freediving experience so far and Tex invited us out on the boat the following morning to fun dive. Perfect!

‘Fun’ diving, as far as free diving is concerned, is still effectively a training session. Unlike scuba divers who go down for 40 minutes or so and check out all of the fish and coral they can find, free divers get a kick from hanging on to a floating buoy for a few hours, seeing how deep they can go and for how long. Freedive Utila’s fun dives however actually have the added bonus of often being run at a site above a sunken wreck, that of the Halliburton 211, which offers depths up to 30 metres. I was very happy to find that having not dived since the Gili Isles, I was still comfortably capable of hitting around 25 metres.

Tex and Helena ascending back to the buoy.
Tex and Helena ascending back to the buoy.

The second day was even more fun! The lines were running slightly deeper; I made a dive to at least 30 metres (which equalled my pb) and then we played around by making videos of swimming through the wheelhouse of the wreck. I have yet to figure out how to upload videos to this blog, but as soon as I find a way, I’ll get it on here! Helena, although still struggling a little with equalisation, was also gaining depth in the feet down position.

Exploring the shipwreck wheelhouse at 21 metres down.
Exploring the shipwreck wheelhouse at 21 metres down.

And so, after two great days, we were supposed to leave. We had a lot of ground to cover and increasingly less time in which to cover it. ‘We need to go really,’ said Hels. ‘Yeah,’ came my reply. ‘We’ll end up with no time for Nicaragua and Costa Rica if we’re not careful,’ she continued. ‘You’re right there,’ I concurred. And then, after a short pause, she said what we were both thinking, ‘Maybe we should do the advanced free diver course…’

And that’s when the real fun began.

First of all, we moved into a room at Freedive Utila and were immediately welcomed into the family. It was a great atmosphere in the group, with a huge focus on eating Baleadas (Honduran national dish, look it up!) that was second only to the time spent diving.

Just a part of the Freedive Utila family.
Just a part of the Freedive Utila family.

Then we were introduced to our instructor, Lisa, who is not only an exceptional diver, she is also an inspirational coach. Her gentle and reassuring manner put us at ease from the outset, and her genuine sense of energy and enthusiasm for all things free diving was infectious. Lisa gets a real kick from diving, going into an almost hypnotic trance during her preparation and focusing on all the positive aspects of every dive, no matter what the depth.

Day one of the advanced course begins with static apnea training – very simply, the art of holding your breath for as long as possible without moving. This can either be done ‘dry’, (i.e. on land) by putting on a nose clip and keeping your mouth closed, or face down in the water. We were to do both.

Helena went first. We had wandered out to the wooden dock and she was lying face up on a yoga mat with Lisa sitting cross legged near her head, speaking gently, counting inhales and exhales as she prepared Hels for her first attempt. The breathing preparation takes at least five minutes and focuses mainly on calming you down, reducing your heart rate, and clearing your mind. ‘When you’re ready, take a big breath,’ said Lisa softly. It was time.

I watched as Hels filled her lungs from the bottom upwards and then closed her mouth. Lying still, she seemed entirely at peace. There was no interruption from Lisa; she just sat, calmly observing, stop watch in hand. I had also sneakily started a timer on my watch and was looking on with interest …

Two minutes passed and Helena looked comfortable. Lisa was now looking closely at Hels’ stomach, searching for the tell-tale muscle contractions that signal increased levels of carbon dioxide in the blood stream.

By three minutes, Helena’s stomach muscles were visibly crunching, and Lisa was talking now, telling her she was doing well, asking her to signal she was ok, and counting contractions with her, ‘Ok, five more…’

When Helena breathed again, Lisa went through recovery breaths with her and then asked, ‘How was it?’ Helena described listening to the Caribbean accents of the guys nearby drifting across the water and watching colourful patterns swirling behind her eyes. Then the question came, ‘How long do you think you did?’ After much thought Helena ventured a guess of, ‘Two minutes? Maybe two and a half?’

She had hit three minutes thirty one seconds. Sixteen seconds better than her previous best, 3:15, and this was just her first try…

We didn't take pictures during the course - sorry - but hopefully this shot of Hels chilling on the dock will enhance the story at this point!
We didn’t take pictures during the course – sorry – but hopefully this shot of Hels chilling on the dock will enhance the story at this point!

Then it was my turn. I was feeling a bit nervous – the last time I’d tried static on Gili Trawangan, I hadn’t even managed to hit the same time I’d done on the first day with Wolfgang – 3mins 30secs. I was worried I may be in for another disappointment.

I started the breathe up with my eyes closed and Lisa’s voice in my ears. All too soon, the five minutes were gone and she was telling me to take my big breath. As soon as I did, I felt like I needed to exhale, to keep breathing. I felt uncomfortable on the mat, constantly had the urge to swallow, and my brain was spinning with the distractions around us. I tried to shut it all out, to relax, to focus but there was a voice in my head saying, ‘This is no good, you can’t do this, you need to breathe, breathe … breathe!’

I’m not sure whether it’s harder to fight the urge to breathe when you’re at depth or when you’re on the surface. At depth, you pretty much have no choice; if you open your mouth, you’re breathing in water! In static apnea on the surface though, all you have to do is lift your head and it’s right there, sweet, refreshing, oxygen-rich air, ripe for the breathing! In dry static, it’s even worse. You just need to open your mouth.

But somehow, I managed to fight the urge. When my contractions started, I heard Lisa’s voice in my ear, coaching me through it, checking I was safe. The thing is, once they start, they just keep coming, getting stronger and stronger all of the time. Soon, the entire front of my torso, from my abdomen right up to my throat, was pumping in and out. ‘That’s good, that’s very good, you’re going to be very happy,’ Lisa’s voice still helping me through, but then she changed tack,’OK and now breathe. Breathe Chris, breathe.’ Breathe? Really? Does she mean it? I had a nanosecond of doubt before I took up the offer and opened my mouth to begin recovery breaths.

After discussing my ordeal (because it had pretty much been a fight from the start), and venturing a guess of three minutes, she showed me the watch. It read four minutes and three seconds. I was stunned.

We moved into the water. Helena went first again, and after the same preparation, was looking comfortable, lying perfectly still with Lisa watching closely. Then, all of a sudden, she popped up. It had only been two minutes and 45 seconds. ‘Sorry, I just felt like I had to come up,’ she said wiping the water from her eyes. Sometimes it goes that way; like anything, you get good ones and bad ones.

So, a bit sooner than anticipated, it was back to me. Nose clip and goggles in place, breathing through a snorkel, I was floating face down to prepare. This time I felt much calmer than I had on the dock. After all, I’d just done a 4 minute breath hold, I had nothing to lose. We went through the full preparation, I took my final breath, and put my face down.

With your face in the water, things are different. Your senses are numbed from the outer world, especially your hearing. It’s easier to enter your own headspace and remain enclosed within it. Although I went through my initial discomfort, a phase I’m beginning to get used to with breath holding, I suddenly found myself in an extended moment of complete calm. It felt so relaxed, so easy. Spiritual, even?

Inevitably, the contractions came, and soon Lisa was talking to me, asking for ok signals, pushing me on but keeping me safe. Eventually, she told me to breathe and when I surfaced, I was amazed to read 4:37 on the watch. Four minutes, thirty seven seconds. I had not only equalled the dry static, I’d surpassed it by over thirty seconds. And I felt like I could have done more.

Neither of us would have guessed that we could do this kind of length breath hold!
Neither of us would have guessed that we could do this kind of length breath hold!

Helena was keen to have another go in the water, and this one went much better. With Lisa’s coaching through the second half, she not only smashed through three and a half minutes, she broke the four minute barrier and kept going … Face in the water, continually signalling ok, the time kept counting and Hels pushed on and on. Incredibly, when she did finally surface, Lisa stopped the clock. ‘You’ll never believe this,’ she said, showing Hels the stop watch, ‘You just got exactly the same time as Chris. 4:37!’ ‘Oh damn!’ came the reply, ‘Just one more second would have done it!’

Buoyed by our static performances, we were keen to get back into deep water. Day two was focused on ‘exhale diving’. I won’t go into too much theoretical detail, but there are an unexpected set of bonuses that occur when you let the air out of your lungs before you dive; it’s also the best way to train your lungs to cope with deeper pressures. You’d think that you would need as much air as possible, but the main benefit of exhaling is that it is actually much easier to dive. It makes sense, really: with full lungs, you’re incredibly buoyant, so it’s hard to descend. Diving with empty lungs alleviates the buoyancy issue and incredibly, doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t dive for as deep or as long … But to go into that would to be getting super technical.

I do clearly remember one of my early attempts though; I’d followed Lisa’s instructions: taken my last big breath, then relaxed and let it out, before heading down the line. It was certainly different – I was dropping like a stone! Then all of a sudden, I had this desperate urge to breath; it wasn’t a contraction, it was just a very strong deep sensation, sent from somewhere in my nervous system that had me heading for the surface at speed. Hanging on to the buoy, I described what had happened. ‘That sounds like your vagus nerve,’ said Lisa, ‘It’s a survival response triggered by pressure on your abdomen.’ The most important thing was that it could be trained. ‘If you give in to it each time,’ Lisa explained, ‘it will get stronger. You need to relax, thank your body for trying to keep you alive, but have confidence in the fact that you have the air. It will fade.’ And it did. I still get the sensation at depth, but I’m learning how to manage it. Day two then was another huge leap in our understanding of free diving and the way the body manages the effects of pressure and depth.

Helena and Lisa on deep diving day.
Helena and Lisa on deep diving day.

Speaking of depth … Day three was deep dive training. We are now back to where I started this post, with my dive to 35 metres. Helena too, despite still not fully solving her equalising issues, was diving to greater depths feet first, hitting 20 metres on day three. So we came back from our final session satisfied, happy, stunned, grateful and inspired.

And now, it was time to go.

Well, I thought it was, but Helena was keen to get in another session. ‘You want to go out again?’ I questioned, feeling tired after completing the course but knowing that if the boat went out again the following morning I’d definitely be on it. We spoke to Tex. ‘Well, we don’t have any courses going tomorrow, but if you both want to dive, that’s enough for me to take the boat out. There won’t be any students so we can go to the deep site if you like?’ It took us all of two seconds thought to accept the offer!

The dive boat in Utila's calm water.
The dive boat in Utila’s calm water.

So, it was the true final day. We were anchored in deep water with two dive bouys set up. Both lines were running to well in excess of forty metre depths. Tex was on one, with Jon, the other instructor, and Louis, one of the masters students. On our buoy we had myself, Helena, Lisa and Zach – the other masters student. All experienced divers, all focused on doing our own dives, all acting as safety divers in rotation for each other.

Having thought I may have been too tired, I was now feeling pretty good and keen to recreate (and beat) some of the depths from the day before. I was slightly niggled by the 34.7 – I wanted a true 35. The first couple of warm up dives, however, didn’t go particularly well. I couldn’t seem to find proper focus, couldn’t clear my head. I’d made comfortable dives, but it just wasn’t feeling that good.

Soon it was time to make a decision – go for a maximum dive, or use this as a practice session. The thing about deep diving is that you can’t do it repeatedly; you can’t push your limits and then expect to do another and another and another dive to the same depth. It takes a lot out of you, so if you want to do it, you have to do it early on in the session and fully commit.

On my fourth dive then, I let them know I was going for maximum depth (It’s an important part of the safety protocol to let your safety diver know what dive you’re doing). I went through the full breathe up, got myself calm and focused, took a final breath of full lungs, and headed down the line.

Initially, things seemed to be going ok. I’d got past the first ten metres, I was beginning to feel my body getting drawn into the ocean as it became more negatively buoyant, it was going well. The vagus sensation came and went, and then … I turned. Something inside clicked, my hand clasped tight onto the rope, and I sent myself upwards without knowing what depth I had reached.

Back on the buoy, I took recovery breaths, signalled to Zach that I was ok, and then looked at the watch – 33.2 metres. I hadn’t even matched the dive from the day before, let alone beaten it. Frustrated, I considered calling it a day there, and for a few minutes I just watched the other divers and performed my safety role in turn.

Lisa was amazing to watch. Diving for herself now, not acting as an instructor, she was only wearing a nose clip. The final breaths of her breathe up saw her with head out of the water, sucking air in through pursed lips to control the flow, head tilted slightly to the left, eyes closed and … smiling! Each time she went down the line it seemed so serene, so graceful. She did have one final word for me as coach though – after recovering from a dive, she slipped around the buoy, looked me in the eye and said, ‘Hey. Yesterday, that 33 metre dive would have been a pb.’

She had a point. You can’t always expect to go deeper every time; there will be better days than others.

Zach drifts down easily to the Halliburton wheelhouse.
Zach drifts down easily to the Halliburton wheelhouse.

With this thought in my mind, I decided to go for one more dive. This time, my main focus was on enjoying the dive, staying calm, relaxing, being grateful for where I was, for who I was with, for just having the opportunity to learn and perform in this sport.

Strangely, the preparation for this dive was perhaps even worse than the one before; there was a slight swell on the ocean and I was beginning to feel nauseous. But, as the water splashed into the snorkel, and then onto my face as I was taking my final breaths, I began to feel a strong desire to be under the surface. I’d never known that sensation before – I guess my subconscious knew it was still down there!

My subconscious was right. As soon as I was fully submerged, the nausea instantly disappeared. Heading down the line I felt calmer than I ever had on any previous dive – I think I may even have had my eyes closed. I began to feel the rope trailing faster through my fingers as the ocean welcomed me to its depths, and then … I stopped, and did nothing.

We’d spoken about this part of deep dives on the course, the freefall – when your body is no longer buoyant due to the pressure of the water on your lungs and so you simply drop deeper into ocean. You’re weightless, flying. It felt a bit like when the static had become really easy three days earlier. Thank you body. Thank you for being so amazing. Everything was positive, my mind was almost completely empty, the only sensation being the continual trickle of line through the fingers on my right hand, metre after metre. I was going deeper, I had no idea how deep, but I didn’t really mind; something would tell me when it was time to turn – a contraction maybe, possibly even the weights at the end of the line.

That something actually turned out to be an inability to equalise any more. I just went to relieve the pressure in my ears and it didn’t work. I tried a second time, still nothing. Oh well, it must be time to go. Grasping the line, I turned and began to ascend. Although it seemed to be taking a long time, I felt comfortable, in control, aware of my body and its reactions to both the depth and the lack of air.

Very soon, Lisa was in front of me, checking I was ok in the last part of my ascent, and then guiding me back to the buoy safely where I took my recovery breaths, and marvelled at the amazing feelings I’d just experienced. ‘I got to freefall,’ I said with a smile, ‘I’ve never felt it properly before. It was incredible.’

Only then did I check the dive watch. It read 41.0 – forty one metres.

image

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With our super special coach, Lisa.

***

If anyone reading this is interested in freediving, Apnea Total Utila is a world class place to learn the art.  Helena and I have to say a huge thank you to Tex, Marie and their instructors Lisa and Jon; their experience and professionalism is exceptional. Thanks too to Zach and Louis, the masters students, who are both incredible divers. 

One last thing, I have purposely written repeatedly about safety procedures in this account. It maybe detracts from the writing slightly, but it is of utmost importance that everyone understand two things: 1 – Helena and I have been diving with some very experienced divers whose number one priority is always the safety of everyone in the water and 2 – this priority on safety begins in the class room. You cannot and must not attempt to free dive alone, nor should you attempt static breath holds without qualified supervision. We would hate to think that we put anyone in danger by writing an account such as this. Get yourself to a freediving school – you’ll love it!

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Freediving – an adventure into the deep

I felt a gentle squeeze on my arm and flicked my finger in reply to signal that I was ok. ‘That’s 2:40.’ It was Helena’s voice – distant but near, muffled but clear, muted somewhat by my being face down in the water. Two minutes forty… taking a glance at the bottom of the pool, I took a check of how I was doing. Calm, focused, in control, not struggling, not yet. ‘Make it to three minutes.’ This was a voice in my head urging me on, gently but with determination. So I stayed put, face down, floating, holding my breath, knowing I’d already passed the two minute requirement for this course, realising that I’d far surpassed what I thought possible a few hours earlier, and keen to find out where the limit actually lay.

‘Three minutes.’ Another squeeze of the arm, another signal in reply – but by now, my diaphragm was twitching, sending the signals to my brain that I needed to breath. Wolfgang had explained these ‘contractions’ to us, taught us that it is increased carbon dioxide levels that trigger them, not a lack of oxygen – well, not yet. So I tried to ignore them – clear mind, calm, still, quiet, letting the seconds tick on.

‘Three fifteen,’ and I was having to work hard now, my stomach crunching in its desire to make me want to breathe. Can I make it to 3:30, I wondered, and held on. Another squeeze, ‘3:30’, and I came up. Looking around I saw Helena, stopwatch in hand, looking excited and Wolfgang, who had been observing, looking calm but pleased. ‘How was it?’ he asked, softly. ‘It was, it was … good,’ I replied, trying to grasp the moment and hold on to whatever feeling it was that was flooding my senses. He simply smiled.

Wolfgang and Helena keep an eye on me as I attempt a static breath hold.
Wolfgang and Helena keep an eye on me as I attempt a static breath hold.

Freediving – the sport (or art?) of diving underwater while holding your breath. Unlike scuba diving, there is no heavy breathing apparatus involved, so the free diver relies solely on their ability to move under the surface as efficiently as possible to conserve oxygen while staving off the urge to breath through a combination of training and mental preparation. After being told I couldn’t scuba due to my asthma, Freediving seemed like not only the best way to be able to enjoy the ocean, but also a good chance to get back to thinking ‘I can’ after being told so categorically, ‘You can’t’.

This blog then, is the bit that was missing from the last Philippines blog – the bit from Cebu, or Moalboal to be more precise. Having decided on Freediving as an option, Helena was looking through the Philippines guide book and came across a section about Wolfgang Dafert, free diver extraordinaire who runs courses from his Moalboal base. We got in touch, and booked two slots.

On day one, we got a trike to the beautiful Serena Bay Resort where we were to begin our training. We met Wolfgang and were immediately struck by his calm demeanour and his down to earth, absorbingly welcoming manner. As we were a course of seven people, we were also introduced to two more instructors, Gadie and Rinate. In addition to myself and Helena there was: Matias, a Norwegian, Sarah from Switzerland, the American Peter and two Aussies, Brendan and Robert. Wolfgang asked why each of us had come to the course, and we all had our various reasons, (mine to prove something to myself and the scuba instructors on Ko Tao I guess) but I remember Brendan and Robert’s replies most clearly. Brendan was into spear fishing in Australia, and so was keen to learn a bit of technique to allow him to stay down longer (and spear larger fish perhaps). ‘And you?’ asked Wolfgang of Robert, ‘I’m just here with him,’ he replied casually, indicating Brendan. This response became more significant as the days went on as Robert proved to be a particularly capable free diver, having no issues swimming at depth and performing a static breath hold of four and a half minutes on the first morning.

Freediving Philippines course participants -with Wolfgang in the background!
Freediving Philippines course participants -with Wolfgang in the background!

You know, if you’re reading this, just have a little go now. Take a couple of deep breaths, relax, and then hold your breath. Look at the clock, see how far you get. Then, when you feel the need to breath, do two things: 1 – breath!! But 2 – see how much longer away four and a half minutes is. Staggering, isn’t it!

Wolfgang began by explaining a lot of the theory and safety to do with Freediving, particularly focusing on the physiological effects of the activity on the body. I won’t go into detail here but safe to say the body is incredible in its ability to adapt under pressure – literally. We learned about oxygen consumption, Boyle’s law of pressure and the consequent need to ‘equalise’ – I’ll explain a little more of this later. He also told us about the requirements to pass the course: we had to do a two minute static breath hold in the pool, swim 40m horizontally under the surface of the pool with fins, and complete a dive to 16m depth.

The two minute breath hold seemed crazy at first. It’s safe to say that we were all more than a little nervous (and pretty doubtful) that we could manage it – perhaps with the exception of Robert who happened to mention he had done three and a half minutes before ‘just for fun’ as part of his competitive swim training.

Soon, we were in the pool – a beautiful, warm little outdoor pool, just up from the beach and the clear waters beyond. Wolfgang uses Serena Bay for its quiet location, absolutely key to getting a good start, making it easier to relax and focus. Kitted out with wetsuits, masks and snorkels, he talked us through some breathing and relaxation techniques. With our heads rested on the side of the pool, he explained ‘belly breathing’ to us – utilising the diaphragm rather than the intercostals to fill the lungs from the bottom which also has the effect of slowing the heart rate. We closed our eyes, closed our minds, and focused.

Before long, after a demonstration from Gadie, it was time to have a go. ‘Are we going to have to do the two minutes today do you think?’ I asked Hels quietly. ‘Looks that way,’ she replied. I had thought all of the testing/assessing would be done on the final day – seems not! ‘Do you want to go first?’ she asked. So after preparing, I took a deep breath, here goes…

And there I was, face down in the pool, holding my breath. Not really knowing what to expect, all sorts of things happened. Firstly, I started drifting around in the water. What if I bump into someone else? Then I felt like I was spinning, but a look at the bottom of the pool confirmed I definitely wasn’t. That’s weird, I thought. Then Hels squeezed my arm to signal a minute had passed. Wow, a minute! Damn, I need to breath… No you don’t, relax. For a few seconds then, I began to feel the incomparable peace and stillness of breath holding – when there isn’t even the the sound of air passing in and out of your lungs to disturb the tranquility. It was only momentary that first time though as I could sense that the others were still under the water too so then a bit of (utterly pointless) competitiveness crept in – just stay down until you notice someone else come up, don’t be the first, just … hold … on … a … little … longer… And then the urge to breath was too much, so I came up. As the air flooded back into my lungs, Helena said, ‘1:53’. ‘Wow, really?’ was my initial reply, and then immediately – ‘Seven more seconds, damn!’ Looking over, I saw that Sarah had come up but Matias was still face down, being watched over by Peter. (He stayed down for over three minutes on his first attempt!).

This session went on to last about 90 minutes, and by the end of it, not only had every single one of us held out breath for over two minutes, we were all also stunned by the intoxication of the experience. ‘It’s so…. I don’t know!’ was about the best I could come up with at the time to describe it – and I’m clearly doing no better now! All we did know, however, was that we all wanted more.

The afternoon session was more theory, ‘How to avoid a blackout while free diving’ – pretty critical stuff really, before going back to the pool for dynamic training. This time, we had to swim 40m underwater with fins. Having done the static in the morning, I was super confident, thinking ’40m really isn’t that far now I know I can hold my breath for over three minutes.’ Unfortunately, there is a vast difference between holding your breath while staying still, and holding your breath while swimming – the latter being vastly more demanding on the body’s oxygen supply. So although we all passed, each one of us getting to 48m (three lengths of the 16m pool) it was nowhere near as simple as I had momentarily thought.

Helena turns at the end of the pool during the dynamic session.
Helena turns at the end of the pool during the dynamic session.

At the end of day one, we all had two out of three requirements passed, with only one to go – the deep dive. The next morning – after having met up for a meal and drinks with a few of the guys the night before – we all regrouped and climbed aboard the St. Vincent – I had to take a picture for my Dad! It was only a short boat ride out to the dive site which Wolfgang explained was to be a dive into ‘the blue’, meaning simply that the water would be deep. Very deep.

We checked our equipment: wetsuit, mask, snorkel, long fins, weight belt. The last piece of kit (the weight belt) is the thing that can be a little unnerving – diving down into the ocean with two kilos strapped around your waist could be perceived as foolhardy, I suppose. It is very necessary however as, with lungs full of air, the body is a very buoyant object. It’s just best to make sure the lungs stay full and you don’t inadvertently breath out 20m below the surface!

The St. Vincent and the crystal waters of Moalboal.
The St. Vincent and the crystal waters of Moalboal.

So, a little bit about ‘equalising’ – the head has air spaces inside of it, namely the inner ear and the sinuses. As the pressure of the water increased with depth (Boyle’s Law), it pushes your ear drums in so that they look like these parentheses: ) ( Without equalising, the eardrums would eventually burst – not nice! Also, as the air squeezes in the sinuses, it can cause pain across the front of your face – very unpleasant. To counteract this then, divers learn to ‘equalise’ by closing their mouth, holding their nose and ‘blowing’ air into the inner ear and sinuses – it’s the same as what you have to do on an aeroplane sometimes.

Equalising causes the most problems to divers, especially when trying to descend head first. At the beginning of our deep dive day then, Wolfgang started us off by descending feet first to get used to equalising under the surface. He and Rinate set up three training lines for us – ropes with weights at the bottom, lowered into the water off the outriggers of the St Vincent. We each took it in turns to descend the ropes, equalising as we go.

‘The lines are set to ten metres,’ he said, and looking down into the blue below me, I could see the concrete weight dangling in the distance. ‘There is a black tape every five metres,’ he continued, ‘so take it easy, don’t push it, just go a little bit and come back up.’ After another demonstration from Gadie, I wrapped my feet around the rope, took my last preparatory breath, and started to descend. Immediately, I could feel the pressure on my ears, but equalising regularly, I descended pretty comfortably down to the five metre mark and stopped.

I stayed for a few seconds holding the rope and pretty much fell in love with Freediving right there, under the water. A huge sense of calm rushed over me, as I slowly took in the scene, the big blue, the stillness, the quiet, the strange security of the sea, the permanence and power of it, the vastness of it, the subtle simplicity of not breathing.

Helena was the same although she remembers looking around and noticing the sunlight, streaking into the water around her. There is a point down below you at which all of the light converges, and it was – and continues to be – this that intoxicated her the most. She describes it as the epicentre of calm, the representation of all of the euphoric feelings you get under the water.

After reaching ten metres feet-down, we then tried to go head first instead – this was an entirely different ball game. The equalising becomes much more difficult as the air is now trying to stay in your lungs rather than being forced into your head (as you are now upside down, the air is ‘floating’ towards your diaphragm. The first time I tried, I got sudden, sharp pains right across my forehead, like someone was hammering nails into the bridge of my nose. Even at five metres, it was too much, I had to come up.

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First attempt at going head down …

So, these were my sinuses, giving me grief. I was worried that I may not be able to dive after all. I mentioned it to Wolfgang and he told me to, ‘Stay on top of the equalising,’ basically, to stay in front of the pain. Luckily, after a few more attempts taking it slowly, I learned how to keep putting pressure into my ears and sinuses which allowed me to dive to ten metres without a problem. But that was ten metres, only ten metres, nowhere near sixteen!

We had a lunch break, and a chance to practise our skills snorkelling and diving over the coral near the shore and amongst the huge shoals of sardines for which Moalboal is famous. We also said farewell to Brendan and Robert who were doing a shorter introductory course.

Diving with the shoal of sardines.
Diving with the shoal of sardines.

In the afternoon, we went back into open water, but this time the lines went deeper…

One of the lines went to 18 metres, to give us the opportunity to make the required depth for the course. Matias was doing well, swimming seemingly comfortably off into the deep and coming back safely. I began to push the depth a bit, 12 metres, 13, gradually feeling more confident but I’d be lying if I said the nerves weren’t creeping in steadily too. Wolfgang was encouraging me to dive deeper so I resolved to give it my best shot to make the 16 metres. On my first concerted attempt, I forgot to equalise properly and my sinuses were giving off the drilling pain by about 8 metres, so I turned and came back.

On my second attempt, I was about 12 metres down and then I spotted a turtle swimming in the distance. I was so excited that I grabbed the line and stopped to watch it. I didn’t feel so bad about aborting the dive, but I knew I’d have to go again.

The final attempt. I prepared on the surface, cool, calm belly breathing, staying relaxed. Then I came to the line and looked down, breathing through the snorkel with my face in the water. The weight was at 18 metres, and just beginning to dissolve into the blue. I took my final breath, and dived down.

I swam in front of the rope, using it to guide me straight down. The five metre mark went past my eyes – keep kicking. Equalising constantly, my ears and sinuses were keeping up, and I was going deeper still. Ten metres – keep going. Fifteen metres – just a little more… I looked up and could see the weight a little way in front of me. I was feeling a mix of excitement, panic and fear – what am I doing? I’m almost 18 metres under the surface and I already feel like I need to breath. Just a little more…

And then the urge to breath overcame me, I turned on the rope just short of the weight and started to ascend. The markers came back past – 15 metres, 10 metres. Wolfgang had come down to meet me as a safety diver and was ascending with me, making eye contact to check I was ok. 5 metres … You’re going to make it. And then my head broke the surface. Taking in big gulps of air, I looked at Wolfgang, ‘Did I make it?’ ‘Yep,’ he replied, ‘17.5’.

I was over the moon.

Descending, following the rope...
Descending, following the rope…
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…turning…
...and going back to the surface.
…and going back to the surface.

On the final day, we went to Wolfgang’s apartment on the coast – there was the small matter of the final exam to take. We worked our way through it. It was a bit odd actually. Although I’ve prepared students for all sorts of exams for the last 8 years, I haven’t sat one myself for ages! Matias and myself were bottom of the class on the exam front, while Helena aced it! And then we walked into the sea off the beach, gazing at the coral and sea life before the sea bed dropped off sharply allowing a good depth for diving.

This was the final day – Matias and I had made the 16 metres the day before, so spent our time practising and developing our skills. Peter and Helena were struggling to equalise head down so worked on getting more comfortable with that, and Sarah made her deep dive to pass the course.

Happy divers in Moalboal - Sarah, Matias, Helena and myself.
Happy divers in Moalboal – Sarah, Matias, Helena and myself.

So it was an incredible few days. The static breath hold and the deep dives in particular were fantastic experiences. Having been doing sports for the last fifteen years where you basically have to push harder, go faster and further than you thought possible, the mindful, calm, focused approach that Freediving requires was a refreshing change.

So what next?

Well, we went to Boracay and immediately found Freedive Boracay – a great group of divers coached by Cat. We went out with them for a fun diving session where I worked on getting more comfortable at depth, and Cat gave Helena some more tips for equalising to work on. He also introduced me to the concept of ‘bottom time’. We were diving on a line that was 18 metres deep, and rather than it be a struggle, the aim now was to dive calmly down, hang there on the bottom for a short while, before coming back up. Which I did!

Helena getting ready to dive in Boracay.
Helena getting ready to dive in Boracay.

Following on, keen to keep practising, we found another school on Gili Trawangan where we could ‘fun dive’ for a whole week. ‘Have we got enough time to stay a week, do you think?’ I asked Helena. ‘I don’t see why not…’ And so, for a week on Gili T, we went out diving each day in the morning with a large group of divers: students, fun divers and instructors. It was so good to be able to chat to all the guys and girls there and glean tips and advice as we went along.

The other thing to mention about Freedive Gili is that a lot of these guys are currently competing. Outside the shop, they have a ‘Hall of Fame’ board where some of the numbers are truly staggering. Some of these guys are diving well in excess of 70, 80, 90 metres. An incredible set of athletes.

During this week, Hels and I both made great progress. Helena’s equalising is getting much better, and she made a dive to ten metres head down on the final day. Still a little way to get the 16m for the certificate but it’s within reach. She also improved her static time to 3:15. As for me, I dived to 24 metres on the first day (wow!) and then gradually added depth each day until the final day where, with good conditions, I reached 30 metres.

Helena made great progress with equalising on Gili Trawangan.
Helena made great progress with equalising on Gili Trawangan.
Hels calmly cruising back to the surface.
Hels calmly cruising back to the surface.

So to end, we just want to say a little thank you to everyone who has helped us on our journey into Freediving so far: at Freedive Gili, Gary, Irene, Per, Viktor, Akim and Denis; Cat and all the guys at Freedive Boracay; and of course, the exceptional Wolfgang Dafert, Gadie and Rinate from Freediving Philippines. Thanks guys 🙂

Helena chilling out at the fabulous facilities at Freedive Gili.
Helena chilling out at the fabulous facilities at Freedive Gili.
Underwater photography is a lot of fun when you can free dive!
Underwater photography is a lot of fun when you can free dive!
At the end of the course - Peter, Helena, Wolfgang, Matias, Sarah and Gadie.
At the end of the course – Peter, Helena, Wolfgang, Matias, Sarah and Gadie.
Wolfgang Dafert - legend!
Wolfgang Dafert – legend!