One breath, three minutes and 10 meters. If you had asked me how long I could hold my breath underwater before we started our one-day introductory freediving course in El Nido, Palawan I probably would have guessed 30 seconds. But after only a half-day of instruction on proper technique and some practice I completely surprised myself with my dramatically increased static apnea times and free dive depths. Freediving, a fun water sport quickly growing in popularity, relies on a person’s ability to hold his/her breath to explore under water instead of using a tank of air as you do in scuba. It is tremendously rewarding to be able to explore untethered to a tank and breathing apparatus and is also a lot less intrusive on the marine ecosystem, which is a significant plus. We were always intrigued by the idea (in fact, we originally came to the Philippines to do so with whale sharks) so we decided to take our first steps and learn the fundamentals of freediving in the Philippines with Palawan Divers. We can happily report it was worth the time and investment and are looking forward to returning to complete the full freediving beginner course so we can dive to depths of 20 meters next.
A lot of people assume freediving is for elite athletes and competitors. But that’s just not so. It’s about experiencing the ocean in a natural and serene way with very little environmental impact. And it can be done so more recreationally today than ever before. As freediving grows in popularity more and more dive shops are offering opportunities to learn the techniques of this water sport. Done the right way, freediving is a calming and peaceful activity that allows you to connect in new and liberating ways with the underwater world.
The 1-Day AIDA 1 Freediver Course
AIDA (International Association for the Development of Apnea) is the leading provider of freediving education around the world.
We only had time to complete the 1-day AIDA 1 Freediver Course with Palawan Divers during our recent visit to El Nido. (Our second day we spent scuba diving the most beautiful island in the world!) In hindsight, we definitely should have made time to complete AIDA 2 and get our beginner certification as free divers. We saw so much improvement over the duration of our one-day lesson that we were a bit disappointed when we realized we weren’t going to be returning to the water the next day to practice and improve our new skills.
This course is challenging mentally but also tremendously rewarding. The purpose is to build a foundation of proper technique and safety to maximize your underwater dive time. The AIDA 1 course was one part theory out of water, one part shallow water static apnea breathing and one part open water freediving.
The Philippines are home to some of the world’s original free divers, a sea tribe of the Moro indigenous ethnic group who lives between the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. These nomadic explorers rely on deep sea diving for their livelihoods and are in fact some of the best free divers in the world, plunging to depths of 20 meters and holding their breath for minutes at a time in order to spear fish.
Just as it is for these sea gypsies, the Philippines is an ideal location to learn to free diving thanks to its tight clustering of 7,000+ islands that protect and provide calm water and less current and waves. This is especially true in El Nido which is located in the heart of beautiful Bacuit Bay.
Freediving with Palawan Divers
Yes, if you can believe it, laying around on a gorgeous remote sandy beach was a part of our one-day AIDA 1 freediving course in the Philippines! Before even getting in the water, we needed knowledge on the fundamentals of freediving and background information on freedive safety. So this was the theory part of the course, in which we discussed our readings from the night before and began to practice our deep breathing techniques (full-chest from the diaphragm) prior to entering the water.
After getting comfortable with our full chest breathing and relaxation, we went into the shallower part of the water and practiced static apnea to see how long we could hold our breath while lying still after a few relaxation and visualization techniques. It was the oddest and most calming sensation lying there for 1:30, then 2:00, 2:30 and then nearly 3:00 minutes. Every time I felt my throat clench up or my chest jerk in an attempt to breathe I had to mentally train myself to stay calm and continue. This mental hurdle was a bit more challenging for Meghan to overcome so freediving definitely affects people differently. But the reality is that our bodies are capable of staying under water for far longer than we give them credit for. So the trick with freediving is to get your mind past its visceral instinct to breathe. Once you do that, the ocean is your oyster!
During this water session, we also learned how to be a good buddy to our partner as they train. Freediving with a buddy is absolutely essential and so you have to know what to do if your buddy blacks out or loses control under the water.
After our static apnea lessons, we took a lunch break and mini-siesta on the beach before getting ready for our open water deep free diving. Man was it a feast!
And then finally it was time to dive! This time, we brought our fins and weight belts with us out to the deep blue. Once we were deep enough Florent let down the rope to ten meters. Meghan and I each took turns setting our breathing pace, clearing our heads and taking our own deep breath to hold. It was amazing how fast we were able to get to 10 meters. The sensation when you are down there is unreal – the rest of the world slips away and it is just you and the fish around you.
Unfortunately we both had trouble equalizing as we were going down head first (the proper way) and since regular equalization is absolutely critical before moving any deeper, we spent the rest of the time going feet first.
All too soon, the Palawan Divers boat was returning to pick us up. One day was certainly not enough time to satisfy our lust for our new favorite underwater activity. We wish we hadn’t already booked our onward travel to Coron or we would have stuck around a few more days to finish our AIDA 2 course and get our Beginner Freediving certificate.
If You Go: Learning Freediving in the Philippines
What: Gone are the days when freediving was a water sport for the intensely athletic and competitive. Now you can try your hand (or lungs rather) at freediving in the Philippines on your next holiday. El Nido, which is located in picturesque Bacuit Bay, provides the perfect backdrop against which to learn proper static apnea breathing techniques and practice deep free dives amidst turtles, squid and schools of fish.
Where: El Nido is set on the emerald northwest coast of north Palawan Island in the Philippines.
When: You can free dive El Nido year round, but sites are especially pleasant from October to May.
How: Palawan Divers is located on the main road in El Nido town. The most popular way to reach El Nido is to fly into Puerto Princesa in Central Palawan then take a shuttle north to El Nido. Regular flights arrive to Puerto Princesa Airport from Manila and Cebu via Cebu Pacific and AirAsia. Shuttles can be arranged directly at the airport just outside the arrivals terminal. It will take you approximately 6 hours to drive the 220 kilometers to El Nido. Bring snacks and water with you as food options are limited on the road.
If you are arriving south to El Nido from Coron, you can take a boat (1,200PHP) which departs once daily and takes roughly 8 hours (weather and ocean conditions depending). The boat is very basic so bring water and snacks. Also, be prepared to get wet from seaspray as the sides of the boat are exposed to the open ocean.
Disclaimer: Our day of El Nido free diving was supported by Palawan Divers. As with everything on our blog, our opinions above are an honest account of what we experienced. As you consider your options for El Nido scuba diving reach out to Jerome at Palawan Divers (+639 399 581 076, [email protected], www.palawan-divers.org).