“You are getting good at this!” Florent Bevalot, my instructor declares as soon as I hit the surface. After two days instruction, I have descended to 18 meters under water without air, somewhere around the back of Entalula Island in Bacuit Bay. I am a long way from anywhere should something go wrong, yet I feel surprisingly safe in Florent’s hands. Freediving is gaining worldwide popularity among people from all walks. This form of diving relies on the person’s ability to hold their breath underwater instead of using air tanks. It’s also one of the least intrusive and most sustainable ways to explore marine life, which is much needed in Bacuit Bay.
Accessible from El Nido, Bacuit Bay is a UNESCO protected marine reserve at the northern point of Palawan Island in the Philippines. As tourism rapidly expands, the bay, an area of over 460 square kilometers, faces huge challenges to protect the 800 species of fish and hundreds of unique corals found beneath its waters. Palawan Divers have ignited local action to clean up the reef and recently added freediving to their suite of activities.
I’ll admit that this would not usually be my first choice of activity. I never felt at ease during my brief fling with scuba. I find the whole thing rather uncomfortable. I suck the air down and flail around like a drowning dugong trying to balance and swim. But if I were going to freedive anywhere in the world, it would be in Bacuit Bay. On a good day the visibility can be 30 meters down. You also have a high chance of running into a turtle. This all sounds appealing, and after a long conversation with Jerome Pesnel, Palawan Divers manager, I am convinced. We start day one by practicing pranayama breathing. This technique is used by freedivers to control their breath, by inhaling and exhaling in equal efforts. This brings the body and mind to a relaxed state. It’s no surprise that yoga and freediving are often taught hand in hand. I tell Florent I feel more like going to sleep at the end of this, rather than descending to the bottom of the sea. Florent assures me that this is the feeling I should experience before freediving, to slow my heart rate and relax.
We practice ‘breathing up’ on the surface, to again relax once in the water and expel stale air from the lungs. After making a dive plan with Florent, I take one last breath and descend down the rope headfirst, with the assistance of weights around my hips. Immediately my ears hurt. I panic, and with large fins I kick quickly to the surface in a fluster. Florent calmly reminds me that I have to equalise.“Go down slowly” he advises, adding that I should “chill out for a bit” when my ears hurt. (I’m not convinced about ‘chilling’ under the sea with no air, but Florent asks me ever so nicely, that I am willing to give it a try.) My ears start to ease over the next two days and before I know it, I’ve made it to five then 10, then 18 meters, surprising myself with each dive. Once I shut my mind off I learn to enjoy the silence. The eeriness of descending into the cold dark water with nothing but a rope, feels (surprisingly) so natural.
I have a long way to go to reach the world record of 128 meters but one thing is certain – I am hooked.
On return from El Nido I find myself longing to return to the depths of the sea.
No air. No tanks. Just me.
It takes a bit of planning to reach Bacuit Bay. Here are some things you should consider;
Air Asia X has flights from Manila to Puerto Princesa in Palawan
Palawan daytripper has daily transfers to El Nido town
Palawan Divers offers freediving, sailing and scuba courses in Bacuit Bay to suit all abilities, under qualified instructors
You don’t have to be a daredevil to learn to freedive, just bring an open mind and the willingness to learn!
(As with starting any new sport, check before travelling with your doctor if freediving is safe for you.)
* This is a repost of my article for The Australia Times August Travel Magazine
*Images are by James Mills
*We travelled as guests of Palawan Divers