Between Two Breaths

  • Jun
  • 13
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Stefan Randig, founder of Freedive Panglao.

Between Two Breaths

Fruhlein Econar meets with the freediving communities in Anilao, Cebu, and Panglao to explore the growing popularity of a sport that is as extreme as it is beautiful.

Photography by Francisco Guerrero
Special thanks to Ford.com.ph

Beside an unmissable bright blue house along the Mabini Circumferential Road in Anilao, Batangas, a pod of freedivers are wriggling into black wetsuits, like fish on the pavement. It’s become a weekend ritual: a parade of slick figures will walk out in the early morning with their fins tucked under one arm, bright buoys with ropes and other paraphernalia anchored in the other, masks slung around their necks, then they’ll disappear into a small alley beside the blue house. They will emerge wet from the sea before lunch time, repeat the ritual after the food has had time to settle in their stomachs, and then walk back to the house before sunset.

It’s a relatively new sight in Anilao, a town sitting right on the shoulder of “the center of the center of marine shore fish biodiversity,” according to an oft-cited 2005 paper by Kent Carpenter and Victor Springer. The former has described the Verde Island Passage as “the marine counterpart to the Amazon River Basin.” Droves of scuba divers and snorkelers have flocked to the area for decades, eager to soak in its wonders, but it’s only been a few years since this new breed of water people have been spotted around the neighborhood.

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JP François, co-founder of Freediving Planet in Moalboal, Cebu.

At its very core, freediving is about what you can do between two breaths; where you can go, what you can see, how long you can stay for. And it wasn’t until I went diving-flailing in the water, if I’m being honest-with this pod of freedivers, along Anilao’s west coast, a little further south of the blue house where fringing reefs are found in shallower waters, that I fully understood it. You’ll never empathize with the impulse to go deeper, longer, till you get to the bottom and what you see there fills you with such awe. And you realize your time there isn’t nearly enough. I’ve learned that, whether it’s chasing fish or chasing limits, one’s dalliance with it always starts with wonder.

As the founder of ManuMano Freedive, the first Filipino-operated freediving center, Carlo Navarro, the first Filipino freediving instructor, has been making the trip up to Anilao from Manila since his college days in the early aughts with the UP Diliman Marine Biological Society. Back then, they called it skin diving, when the intention was merely to weave in and out of the corals and study fishes on one breath; when that was all it took to satisfy one’s craving for the water. But there are no corals behind ManuMano’s rented blue house. There is nothing in the 40 meters between the surface and the bottom. There, the water is cold and the depths appeal only to those who dare push their limits underwater. Ropes dangle below the buoys floating on the surface and the singular figure of a freediver descending headfirst cuts a stark figure across the blue.

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JOHNN MENDOZA USED TO BE SO DESPERATE FOR UNDERWATER PHOTOS that he’d wrap his Blackberry in a see-through waterproof bag and shoot what he could from three feet deep. He stumbled on freediving while snorkeling on his trips and didn’t think much of it until he encountered a Youtube video much later on that told him he’d been freediving all this time. “I’ve probably been doing it for eight years, but for the first three years I didn’t even know it was freediving. I called it ‘extreme snorkeling’—snorkeling but also going down. At that time, I was only hitting depths of five meters because I didn’t know that you could go deeper,” he says.

In 2012, he called up two friends, Doi Domasian and Edwin Castillon, for a birthday outing at Tambuli Beach Resort to try freediving with him. Dive Ta Bai, now the largest freediving community in the Philippines, was born in Cebu that night after he set up a Facebook group inviting more people to join them. In those early days, it was all play and exploration. Little talk of gear, of “personal bests.” They didn’t wear the proper fins or even carry dive watches back then-they were just addicted. They’d spend an entire day in the water, experimenting, testing their limits; playing games like pass-the-GoPro, where one diver would go down with the camera, wait a bit, then pass it on to the next diver on the way down, until the whole length of the video is just a chain of people passing the camera around underwater, like one long breath. These were the nascent days.

Before 2012, there was only one school in the Philippines that catered to freedivers. An Austrian called Wolfgang Dafert, widely considered to be the godfather of freediving in the country, set up Freediving Philippines all the way back in 2008 in Moalboal. But while the sport was barely on its feet here, it was already a global phenomenon.

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The act of holding your breath (referred to as apnea) and going for depth underwater, whether for recreation or for livelihood, did not need to be introduced to our archipelagic nation. But doing so for sport really only gained traction, in Europe especially, in the early 90s after the film Big Blue (1988) inspired an entire generation of divers to test their limits. Competitive apnea is a tightrope performance played in tandem by the mind and body; the body must train to withstand the pressures of the water, the shifts that occur the deeper you go and the longer you go without taking a breath, while the mind must train to remain still through it all. Those early enthusiasts in the country, like Johnn, found themselves attracted to the challenge, gradually crossing the bridge that connected freediving as a recreational activity and freediving as a discipline and as a craft.

That period between 2012 and 2015 was an incredibly active time for the fledgling community, as more and more schools popped up, headed by a venerable list of international divers who were attracted to the Philippines’ warm waters, its easy access to depth, and the diveable conditions all year round. In 2012, German national record holder, Stefan Randig, opened up Freedive Panglao. In 2014, Carlo (who is also a national record holder) earned his instructor certificate with Freediving Planet, a few steps away from Wolfgang’s place in Moalboal.

That school was co-founded in 2014 by Suzanne Lim and JP François, a former world and current national record holder for Belgium who was formerly AIDA International‘s Head of Education. Mike Wells, the man who designed SSI’s freediving curriculum, and his wife Alana, who was also a former Australian record holder, started Freedive HQ in Mactan in that same year. Then, in 2015, ManuMano Freedive opened up shop in Anilao. It was clear: the Philippines is a world-class freediving destination and it had the capacity to accommodate high-caliber athletes.

Still, the freediving scene remained under the radar. But during the 2016 Salon de la Plongee, a trade show for the diving industry held in Paris, Guillaume Néry, arguably one of the most recognizable faces in the sport, dropped by the Philippines’ booth and mentioned that he’d like to visit. His appearance in a Beyoncé video is the least of his accomplishments. The man has broken the world record in the discipline of Constant Weight Apnea four times and has won the world champion title twice. The Department of Tourism, who had already heard of freediving’s potential in the country but hadn’t quite found the right project, smelled opportunity. It was the spark that led to the declaration of the Philippines as “The Freediving Capital of Asia.”

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JP freediving with a monofin.

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Slovenian world record holder, Alenka Artnik.

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JP with the reefs in Moalboal.

I’M TREADING WATER A FEW METERS OFF OF PANAGSAMA BEACH with newly-certified instructor, Gen Abanilla. We’re about a kilometer away from the famous sardine run and the boats don’t bother us as much. Here, the water is dark enough to stir this vague sense of discomfort I never knew I had about the deep. So much is said about the elegance of freediving, but there is actually so little of it involved in the beginning. Floating face-down on the water, I’m trying to hold the sequence of movements in my head; deep belly breaths through the snorkel, one big inhale, hold, fold at the hips, then straighten the legs, don’t forget to equalize, sweep the arms to propel the body down, kick, make sure the body’s line is perpendicular to the water, tuck the chin. By the time I’ve performed my first kick, I’m already spinning in the water and I’m running out of air. I resurface. Gen patiently goes over the sequence one more time, makes minor corrections here and there. And then we try again.

Back at Freediving Planet, where she earned her instructor certification, she tells me that she had been looking for a way to maximize her travels, to pick up a skill that allowed her to experience more of the water. Scuba perhaps. But it was videos of freedivers, mesmerized by the gracefulness they exuded, that made her go: I want to do that. The fascination was supplemented by the posts she’d see on a GoPro Facebook group she joined; a member from Dive Ta Bai would share footage of his dives. This was in 2015 and freediving had already earned its relatively small but devoted following, but it was still just beginning to register on everybody’s collective radar. At the time, and to her at least, his images stuck out against a backdrop of people who shared their trips to the mountains.

Whenever I ask about what catapulted freediving into the public consciousness, people almost always point to the Guillaume Néry event last July, when it was announced that the Philippines was going to be the “Freediving Capital of Asia” and that he was going to be its ambassador.

The Philippines is a world-class freediving destination and it has the capacity to accommodate high-caliber athletes.

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The Anilao outpost of ManuMano Freedive Training Center.

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Carlo Navarro, the first Filipino freediving instructor.

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Underwater photographer and Philippine national record holder, Martin Zapanta, in Panglao.

What drives its popularity now, apart from the fact that it brings us closer to the world underneath, is largely attributed to the sheer aesthetic pleasure of it; a poetry in the body that almost makes it look easy.

As it turns out, Guillaume is a friend of JP’s, Freediving Planet’s founder, and the school played a major role in coordinating his visit. They go way back, to their time diving in France when Guillaume was much younger. The Frenchman even visited JP in Moalboal back in 2014 and managed to teach a few clinics there and in El Nido.

After the DOT event, a month-long bonanza that spanned visits to Cebu, Bohol, Palawan, and Davao, it seemed like Instagram was injected with a constant stream of long-finned limbs sweeping dramatically over corals in Apo Reef or the shipwrecks in Coron. And while it’s wonderful to bring more attention to what we have, it also raises the question of what it means to be the “freediving capital” when there are barely any systems or regulations in place to support it.

Freediving is deceptive. What drives its popularity now, apart from the fact that it brings us closer to the world underneath, is largely attributed to the sheer aesthetic pleasure of it; a poetry in the body that almost makes it look easy. These images and videos-such as the ones Guillaume often stars in, for example-are aspirational and they belie the incredible amount of training needed to move that efficiently and beautifully in the water. But even beyond that, the nature of freediving tickles an impulse to challenge the self; to satisfy that curiosity for one’s own physical and mental limits. This is a positive: this is what’s going to drive the sport forward, past that initial infatuation. But as it has taken an increasingly more prominent role, the calls to ensure that everybody engage in it properly grows louder.

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The problem is this: There is the more informal side to freediving (more closely associated with skin diving) where you’re diving at shallow depths that won’t harm the body, and then there’s the side of it that demands technique, skill, and the understanding of its mechanics to reduce the risk of blacking out and taking in water, for example, or damaging an eardrum-or much worse. The line that separates these two is highly subjective and different from person to person. But those two sides are often conflated when a diver-to-be sees somebody playing at 20 meters deep and brazenly thinks, I can do that too. For Carlo Navarro, it goes back to one thing: What is the intention for getting into the water?

To an extent, Carlo agrees with the latter point. He says, “The beauty of freediving is that it’s free and accessible to everyone. But it’s also dangerous when people are trying to push their limits because they’re either getting pressured by the media or by their community na ‘uy nakalalim si ganito’. If you’re trying to explore how to go under more efficiently, go longer, then that’s what the longer courses are for—so you understand what’s actually happening, and to mediate the risk.”

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Open water training at Freedive Panglao takes place about half a kilometer away from the coast where depths are at 120 meters.

Johnn said it best: “Freediving is not defined by depth, it’s defined by breath.” The worry now is that the exposure might be muddling up the messaging; that all this attention on freediving is glorifying depth and aesthetics; that it might promote a misguided view of the sport that could border on dangerous if people don’t go through the proper channels (i.e. legitimate freediving schools or instructors) to learn it. And in fact, a lot of people who are intrigued by it don’t, whether it’s because of the expense or because of the simple fact that they believe freediving should be free.

“[Back then], we didn’t have anyone to look to. We were setting our own limits. ‘This feels deep, so I’m not gonna push myself any further.’ We didn’t have anything for us to pick up from. We had to self-learn,” says Johnn. “[But] suddenly, the mindset is no longer ‘I want to enjoy freediving,’ it’s more how deep can I go without having to pay for certification. You’re now chasing numbers, but you don’t remember why you started in the first place.”

Unlike scuba diving, which has the Philippine Commission on SportsScuba Diving (PCSS), freediving-as a recreational activity and sport that is still considered a minority-doesn’t have a government-mandated regulatory body yet. There isn’t anybody to enforce the primary rule of diving: never dive alone; nobody to ensure that proper skills and knowledge are being passed down evenly across all providers; no laws to protect freedivers and snorkelers from wayward bangkas, even. And so, the onus has fallen on individual communities to implement and promulgate their own safety standards. The good thing is that we aren’t in the early phases anymore. Now, some of the groundwork has been laid out for the next generation of enthusiasts to take advantage of. Part of the SISID Philippine Freedivers Association‘s mission, for example, is to promote safe freediving practices. They do this by holding free clinics for breath-hold basics, among other things. On their last count, there are already 17 freediving schools in the Philippines. There are now around 20 certified local freediving instructors scattered throughout the islands. Dive Ta Bai has grown to seven chapters in the country, and plenty of other similar communities have followed suit.

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When the light ceases to matter, it’s only you down there; you and that one breath, that one lifeline. And everything you work for on land leads up to that single dive.

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A GROUP OF FREEDIVERS ARE SHUFFLING ALONG A PROVINCIAL ROAD, lining up to board a multicab. Neoprene is rubbing against neoprene and fin tips are threatening to graze the roof during the short ride to the beach from Freedive Panglao in Bohol. We’ve got a solid mix of levels here, from beginners who have no prior experience, to world record holders; all of us, jammed inside the tiny vehicle. From the beach, we take a short boat ride, about half a kilometer out, where the depth is at around 120 meters.

Alenka Artnik, a Slovenian world record holder and the fourth woman to have reached 100 meters, has come to Panglao to train for the upcoming deep diving season in the summer. Beside one of the buoys bobbing on the surface, she slowly starts her descent. She continues to make her way, down, down, down, until her figure completely disappears. Waiting for her to reappear seems endless. It’s only after we see a series of silver bubbles traveling to the surface with her trailing serenely close behind them that the mild discomfort starts to subside. The watch says it’s been two minutes.

It strikes me then how truly individual the practice of freediving can be. At a certain depth, when the light ceases to matter, it’s only you down there; you and that one breath, that one lifeline. And everything you work for on land leads up to that single dive.

Freedivers come in all shapes and sizes, but the ones who have dedicated themselves to the sport share a leanness in their bodies and a mental strength that allows them to relax when their bodies have entered self-preservation mode in the deep; a quiet intensity. Stefan Randig, the owner of Freedive Panglao, says something that stays with me: “Your reason for turning around at the bottom will always be different. That’s what keeps it challenging.”

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Freediving in Mactan with the members of Dive Ta Bai.

I carry this mystified feeling with me back to Freedive Panglao, a training facility-a freedive haven, really-resembling a scuba center except instead of tanks lining the walls, there are rows of buoys and rashguards. In the pool, an instructor is monitoring a dive watch and standing over somebody floating on the water. Further inside the property, there is an open-roofed area where trainees do yoga and focus on their breathing exercises. The cafeteria doesn’t serve coffee.

Stefan Randig, the center’s co-owner, says that the conditions needed for competitive training is ideal in the Philippines, where the water is warm and depths of up to 300 meters remain relatively accessible. In Panglao specifically, there are four places to choose from depending on the wind direction and strength, making it possible to train year-round. Although a majority of their clients are recreational divers, the center has really come to represent competitive freediving in the Philippines. This June, it will host the Asian Freediving Cup, the biggest event of its kind in Asia. When it launched in 2014, it was called the Freedive Panglao Depth Challenge and there were only 21 participants. This year, they’ve expanded it to accommodate 60 from 18 different countries.

For the first time since 2015, the Philippines will come represented at the event. Gen Abanilla, the Batangueña who finished her instructor course in Moalboal, is one of five Filipinos who will make up the Philippine contingency. Martin Zapanta, an instructor at Freedive Panglao and already the deepest Filipino, is aiming for a new national record. As more and more Filipinos take on the path of professional freediver and log in more water time, we’re that much closer to becoming competitive internationally. The balance needed to progress is encapsulated perfectly by Stefan: “It’s a special sport. You find that balance between pushing yourself and keeping it light… as soon as you get too serious, it doesn’t work anymore.”

Perhaps this is what differentiates freediving: it’s a constant confrontation with the self. More than any other sport, it requires you to tread that line between zen and intensity perfectly-but to never force it. Because when you force it, you lose focus, you expend energy, you endanger yourself. In freediving, as in life, when it comes to moving forward and going deeper, it’s all in due time.

The Asian Freediving Cup was held last June 6 to 9 at Panglao. Three national records were set during the event:

Constant Weight Maria Noella Zosa (48m)
Free Immersion Maria Noella Zosa & Lady Lisondra (47m)
Constant Weight Without Fins Lady Lisondra (33m)

Martin Zapanta also set a national record for CWT (60m) and FIM (60m) during Freedive Panglao’s staff competition on May 24. 

To keep tabs on the Philippine Freediving Team, follow them on their Facebook page.

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As featured in
Between Two Breaths
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