There’s something that happens to the human body when it gets pushed underwater. You don’t simply drown—something in the most ancient parts of your brain switches on and, recognizing that you are somewhere you’re not meant to be, tries to keep you alive. Your heartbeat slows down, lessening the need for oxygen in the bloodstream. Dive down deep enough, and capillaries in your limbs start closing up to redirect the blood to your vital organs. Your lungs will become tight little balls pushing up against your heart. You should be dead, but you’re not; you’ve just become part of the water.
There’s a depth when everything changes to accommodate the impossible. At around 300 feet underwater, the walls of your blood vessels begin to allow plasma into your thoracic cavity. Your lungs fill with plasma, the liquid matter of your blood. The process is called the blood shift, which makes it sound almost supernatural.
And maybe it is supernatural, in the sense that there are men and women who transcend the limits of the natural, of what we were born to do, of what the human body is capable of doing. Some people do it on purpose—for sport, or purely for curiosity. Others do it out of necessity. This is just the way they live.
Elidio Gulisan is 52, the imam of a Muslim community in the barangay poetically called Sagrada Seaside in Sasa, Davao City. That means that he is respected as a religious leader—he is the man to whom the other Muslims in the mixed community go for guidance; on Fridays, he leads prayers and delivers sermons in the mosque.
Elidio’s father was imam before him, and the younger Gulisan was also chosen by community consensus, for his standing in Sagrada Seaside and for his knowledge of the Koran.
The imam is also a husband to his wife and father to nine children, six girls and three boys, whom he supports by his livelihood as a fisherman. The imam goes out every day—sometimes with a net to get schools of the smaller fish, sometimes with a speargun he jerry-rigged himself for the larger catch. When he lands something good, the catch goes to the market. He’ll get maybe P300 per kilo of lapu-lapu, which will buy something humbler (say, some cans of sardines) for their table.
Sometimes the imam will go with his right-hand man, the guy we call Papa Kula, who’s widely known to be a daring and talented spearfisherman who’s acknowledged to be the best in the community. Papa Kula lands the big fish: he goes after large tanigue, which he draws in with a stunningly lifelike three-foot wooden lure that he fashioned himself; before it was outlawed, he’d regularly go after mako sharks, too.
The imam is known as one of the best fishermen around here, too, a good match for Papa Kula. Both of them are powerful swimmers and deep divers, which makes all the difference when you’re hunting with a speargun. The imam remembers how he once hooked a ray that measured at least five feet from one wingtip to the other; the imam found himself dragged through the water at top speed as the furious fish tried to escape. The whole world was cool blue, it was speed and confusion, it was pain.
The nylon fishing line had twisted around his hand, so he wasn’t able to let go, and the other hand clutched a babet, a piece of metal on which he’d fashioned wings, so that it functioned as both dive weight and rudder. The ray pulled one way, the man another. In that kind of scenario, inevitably, one has to die. And it will be the weaker swimmer.
“Akala ko katapusan ko na,” the imam now grins, years later. The whole episode took maybe five minutes—which doesn’t seem like a lot until you try to hold your breath for that long, while pulling against a force twice your weight.
It was a phenomenal feat of strength and endurance, of course, and the imam was pushed as close to the limit as he’d ever been. Up till then, he didn’t know where his limits lay.
Nobody knew the imam’s limits in August last year, either, but an Austrian freediver named Wolfgang Dafert was determined to find out. So there he was, in the waters somewhere off Talikud Island, hosting what was billed—hurriedly—as the 1st Davao Sama/Badjao Freediving Contest.
Strictly speaking, this was not a legitimate freediving competition, as sport freediving has different disciplines, each with its own set of rules. There are pool disciplines that measure how long one can hold a breath, or how many lengths a swimmer can go; and then there are depth disciplines that measure how deep one can dive into the sea, descending with or without mechanical assistance. Whatever happens, everything hinges on one breath.
Wolfgang runs Freediving Philippines, perhaps the first freediving school in the country, mainly out of a really lovely resort in Moalboal, Cebu. He sometimes takes the show on the road, teaching a class or two in other shores—part businessman, part evangelist for freediving.
He was in it for sport, in the beginning, but as part of his ongoing research into techniques, he had decided to look into the history of freediving. It had always existed as a practice in many parts of the world, and Wolfgang suspected that there were some untapped pockets of native knowledge handed down among the fisherfolk who are known for their diving skills. There were the sponge fishermen of Greece, for example, legendary for centuries; or the Moken of Myanmar, whose children have learned to override the unconscious reflexes controlling the pupils in their eyes so that they could see better underwater.
In Moalboal, Wolfgang teaches freediving as both sport and as recreation. Moalboal is known for its sardine shoals, and divers who have been in the middle of a sardine run will tell you that it’s an indelible experience, seeing a living tornado of whirling silver fish coming toward you. Scuba divers can stay with the shoal for as long as they can keep up with the fish, but the bubbles they breathe out can frighten away the fish, and the weight of their equipment tends to limit them. But the stark experience of freediving strips away all these walls, so with proper training, a freediver can swim with the shoal for minutes at a time.
It was curiosity about freediving in all its forms that led him to Davao. He’d heard about the Badjao—and later, about the Sama—and he wanted to study their ways. What were their techniques, and how did they learn them? How long could they hold their breath, how deep can they dive?
Wolfgang had met with the imam before, and had gone fishing with him and Papa Kula a couple of times before. This competition, however, would be the first formal attempt to measure their abilities. This meant, simply, that Wolfgang was going to lend his dive computer to the contestants, so that its depth gauge could officially verify their native abilities.
Nineteen men joined the competition, hoping to win the top prize of a few thousand pesos and a sack of rice, of course, but they were also curious about their own abilities. Fishing was in their blood, and their talent at being underwater was generations-old—wasn’t there a beautifully shot BBC documentary about them?—but to be perfectly candid about it, they hadn’t really cared about holding their breath for longer, or going down deeper.
They don’t really have much reason to go too deep, either—while it’s true that bigger fish can be found in the deep, there’s a limit to how much water the sunlight can go through. You can’t spear fish that you can’t see.
Through their stories, Wolfgang predicted that the divers would go 150, 160 feet, tops.* That’s about a third deeper than the limit for recreational scuba diving. *His contestants were deep-diving without training and without any equipment, save for the babet.
Spoiler alert: The imam does not win the competition.
That’s about a third deeper than the limit for recreational scuba diving.
There’s a video on YouTube where you can still see the winning dive. The man leans over the edge of a small banca, babet in hand, and goes in head first into the sea. The weight pulls the man steadily downwards, trailing a hemp line. Jussi Rovanpera, a Finnish freediving instructor, is in the water, wearing a yellow t-shirt over his wetsuit to mark him as the safety diver that will go after contestants in trouble and rush them back up to the surface if necessary.
The GoPro is held by a third diver from Wolfgang’s team, Jet Panes, who dutifully follows the competing diver to about 15 feet down. You see the camera wait there at that safe depth, as the rope trails down, down, down, and no more is seen of the diver.
The camera stays there until about the 2:00 mark, when you finally see the signal flag attached to the rope come back up, followed by the faint figure of a man, arms to his sides, being pulled back up. He looks toward the camera and gives a thumbs-up as he passes, and the camera pans up to show him rocketing back to air.
Back on the surface, he looks triumphant and happy as he wipes the water off his face and looks at the dive computer. He doesn’t know whether the numbers are good or bad, so he hands the watch to Jussi for verification.
Jussi has his back toward the camera, but you can sense his disbelief as he stares at the reading on the depth gauge. The usually reserved Finn whirls around, still clutching the dive computer, his eyes wide open in excitement. The dive had taken the man to an incredible 260 feet.
Could this Filipino fisherman have stumbled on to the very advanced technique?
Later, Wolfgang and his crew would parse the footage, looking for any signs that would show them how these untrained fishermen could manage the depths. They take note of the different above water breathing techniques the men practice before going into the water, the contractions in their bodies as they surface, and the pressure-equalization techniques they use to protect their eardrums and sinuses from bursting at depth.
“Look, there’s quite a lot of water going out of this man’s nose,” Wolfgang notes at the end of one of the dives. “Do you think he does wet equalization?” Wet equalization, he explains, is a technique practiced only by a handful of world-class competitive freedivers. “This,” he pinches off his nose and mimes the standard equalization technique taught to most scuba divers, “is a terrible way to equalize. Very inefficient.”
Competitive freedivers, he explains, learn how to push air into their sinuses without pinching their noses, but a few have figured that letting in water instead of air could work just as well. Those that he knows of are only now experimenting with it—could this Filipino fisherman have stumbled on to the very advanced technique?
“I’ve seen many divers with burst eardrums,” says Wolfgang. “It’s because they don’t know how to equalize properly. They burst their eardrums over and over, and so they become prone to infection.” He pauses. He really doesn’t interfere with local practice, he says, but he wonders if he should teach safety.
In the meantime, the imam—about the oldest contestant there—hadn’t broken the 200-foot barrier, as six other contestants did that day. But he did go down to 180 feet, exceeding Wolfgang’s projections for the entire competition.
“First time kong mag-dive nang ganung kalalim,” the imam says later. As all fishermen, he dives deep, but stays where there is enough light. So, finding himself at 180 feet, what did he do? “Tumingin-tingin lang ako,” he says. “Kaya ko pang tumagal sa ilalim, kaya lang pinapasok na ng tubig yung gamit ko.”
He shows off the dive mask he’d used for the competition—it’s an old piece of equipment given to him by a friend from Davao, a long time ago. At 180 feet, the mask had started to leak around the clearing valve by the nosepiece, where the imam had put marine epoxy to try and seal it. “Madami pa akong hininga, hindi pa naman ako naubusan pagtaas ko,” he smiles.
Papa Kula saunters up and whispers, “May sipon lang ako, kaya hindi ako nakasali.”
The Sea Gypsies of the Philippine south are notoriously wary of outsiders, and for good reason. They haven’t gotten much back from the government, or from other people. Someone had come to study them before, but they never heard back from that foreigner after he left. People take photos that they never see.
Most people don’t even know what to call them. The sea gypsies are known collectively as Badjao, but the imam comes from the Sama people, not the Badjao. The Encyclopedia Britannica will tell you that the Sama are “also called Samal or Bajau,” while Wikipedia will tell you that the Bajau are also called Sama; most people wouldn’t bother to make the distinction, and will just call everyone Badjao.
The distinction matters a lot to the Sama. In Davao, the indigenous peoples are entitled to free medical care at government hospitals. They merely have to present themselves to the hospital and say that they are from one of the qualified tribes. The Bajau are listed, of course; the Sama are not. But rather than ride along on the common misconception that they are one and the same, some Sama would rather leave without medical care.
On Sinama.org, the only online ethnolinguistic resource on the Sama and their language, Luke, an American missionary and scholar—whose wife, Ruth, is herself Sama—explains:
“The Sama people can be quite hard to classify. Due to the nomadic nature of the Sama they can be found in several countries (especially the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia). In Malaysia they are called Bajau by the Malaysians. In the Philippines, other Filipinos call them Badjaos or Samals, depending on which subgroup of the Sama they belong to.
To complicate things further Sinama is the name for at least four language groups of the Philippines, which are then subdivided into numerous dialects depending on what island a person is from. Speakers of Northern Sinama, Central Sinama, and Southern Sinama are unaware of these language names given them by the linguists, because they identify themselves by island and region instead of closeness in language.
The Sama Dilaut have a tendency to answer questions about their identity based on what they believe the asker will respond most positively to. Sama Deya on the other hand will sometimes classify the Sama Dilaut as being completely different from themselves.”
The imam’s family comes from Sulu, where most of the Sama come from. The Sagrada Seaside community is built halfway into the water, as there are as many wooden shanties on stilts as there are cement houses on shore. It’s already a mixed community, with many Christians among the Sama, and as many non-Sama folk as there are of the imam’s flock. The differences in religion and tribal identity matter less to them than most people think.
There are more pressing problems that plague the entire community as a whole. Just the Saturday before, the old house that now functioned as their daycare and learning center had given out entirely. The entire floor had simply just fallen into the sea. “Buti na lang wala yung mga anak ko, kasi tapos na yung klase,” says Papa Kula, who would otherwise have had four young children in there. He and the imam look worriedly over the big hole where the floor used to be. “Iyan talaga ang aming pinakamalaking problema.”
In freediving, your mental state is everything.
The competitive apnea branch of the sport is considered an extreme sport that has claimed the lives of many freedivers, where the numbers are nothing short of incredible. The world record for no-limits apnea, stands incredibly at over 702 feet (214 meters). It is held by Austrian freediver Herbert Nitsch, who is also, incidentally, a good friend of Wolfgang’s.
Held up to this standard, the winning dive of 260 feet/79 meters seems paltry, but Wolfgang is adamant that the two achievements cannot be compared. “Apples and oranges,” he shakes his head. It’s not just a matter of training: For the world-record attempt, his friend Herbert had access to all kinds of mechanical devices to help him descend and ascend, for example. Not to mention access to the best medical care there was, in case something goes wrong.
At these depths, the biggest danger isn’t merely running out of breath and drowning. What kills freedivers is the dreaded shallow-water blackout, which can set upon a diver without warning. It’s when your normally smart unconscious mind short-circuits, and, on your way back up to the surface from a deep dive, your body suddenly remembers the low levels of oxygen in your blood. Your brain just shuts down to conserve oxygen—the problem, of course, is that when you pass out underwater, there’s often no one to catch you.
You would think that the men and women who willingly and enthusiastically throw themselves into this life-or-death situation are mad-eyed thrill-seekers. The opposite is true.
In freediving, your mental state is everything. An overexcitable person will have his heartbeat up, his systems raring and eating up oxygen. Freedivers train to quell excitement, to enter into that alpha-wave dream state where the body is completely calm and slowed, and the mind completely alert. Freedivers have more in common with yoga and meditation practitioners than, say, snowboarders.
Wolfgang and the imam are quintessential freedivers in that sense. Both soft-spoken and reflective, Elidio and Wolfgang understand each other easily. Wolfgang had been introduced to the imam by Luke, and Wolfgang had come to Davao as part of his research into native freediving techniques.
In the beginning, all conversations with the imam would begin with Wolfgang asking, “So, when you dive…?” That happens less and less now.
The day before, the imam had taken Wolfgang on his small fishing boat to a sandy paradise about two hours out of Davao, where the two planned to fish. On the ride there, Wolfgang lay prone on the small boat, hands crossed over his chest, sun full on his face, meditating. The imam’s pre-dive rituals had to be shorter, burdened as he was by an engine that was always conking out.
But two hours later, they do get to the island, an isolated, uninhabited strip of beach fringed by trees. There’s a dropoff just offshore, a reef where the imam can find some fish. Maybe there is a way to organize tours with the imam and the other fishermen from Sagrada Seaside, to bring additional income to the community? The imam considers this slowly, nods. “Para naman makita ng ibang tao na may maganda din pala dito, at makilala naman kami,” he says.
He sets that thought aside in the meantime, as there is lunch to take care of.
His pre-dive ritual is very quick. On the boat, he leans over the side, takes a handful of water over his face. Still in the boat, he puts his face into the water first, as if he were trading in his lungs for gills. And then Elidio, the imam of Sagrada Seaside, plunges again into the cool blue waterworld.
Originally published as “Into the Deep” in Issue 02.