The benefits of the breath-holding sport go beyond just physical and mental fitness

By Joy Wong | Photos by Noel Guevarra and Kaila Ledesma Trebol (Bobbit Suntay);, Jake Alejandre and Martin Zapanta (Carlo Navarro); Francisco Guerrero and Oka Espenilla (Tara Abrina)

You may have been swimming or even scuba diving for sometime now, but have you ever thought of trying freediving? What is it all about? How does it work? Why will you ever try it?

Freediving is also known as “apnea,” a Greek word that means “without air.” What’s more familiar is the concept of “sleep apnea,” that is, when the body forgets to breathe during sleep. Close to home, freediving is more known through Badjaos (or the “Sea Gypsies” of the Sulu and Celebes Seas). They are indigenous ethnic groups scattered along the seas and shores of the Sulu archipelago. There are studies revolving around Badjaos, but one thing is common to all: They are amazing fisherfolks who can dive deep in the open sea just by holding their breath for minutes and with just goggles and a spear.

My exposure to the open sea started in early 2000 when my husband Wowie and I got certified for the PADI Open Water course under the guidance of our open water scuba instructor Jan Acosta. Through time, I was able to reach PADI Advanced Open Water (AOW) certification while Wowie has achieved PADI Divemaster (DM) status.

With these experiences, we’ve been used (and attached) to our scuba tanks when exploring the underwater. It was just recently when I learned about freediving, thanks to three people whom we met through our diving network: Carlo Navarro, Tara Abrina, and Robert “Bobbit” Suntay.

Carlo Navarro (fourth from left) is the founder of ManuMano Freedive

What makes freediving so exciting? 

Tara Abrina (TA): Freediving is the opposite of exciting. It’s probably the most peculiar extreme sport out there in that, to be the best, you have to be the opposite of extreme. You have to be soft. You have to be gentle and patient. It is the sport of conserving oxygen. And nothing burns oxygen faster than excitement.

What keeps me coming back to it is that it’s rare to find a place in this fast-paced world that scores you for being calm, reserved, slow, and steady. Now, imagine that kind of lifestyle within a community. It’s like my rest from the world.

Bobbit Suntay (BS): I was very encouraged by the fact that in my mid 50s I managed to pick up a new sport that I could engage in well into my even later years. What attracts me to freediving isn’t so much the excitement, but rather the self-understanding, peace, and oneness with nature. Freediving is so multi-faceted that it is even somewhat paradoxical:  Many consider it to be one of the most extreme sports, given that divers strive to go deeper, swim farther, and stay underwater longer than most “normal” people would be comfortable doing.

I say it’s paradoxical because, while it has obvious elements of risk (blacking out or even drowning), when taught professionally and practiced properly, freediving is a safe and relaxing activity. Imagine floating down into the aquamarine depths of the sea; gliding and diving with gentle currents carrying you along; witnessing the grandeur of our beautiful, delicate, and wonderful underwater world in total silence, no bulky equipment or noisy vehicles, and with only a single breath to sustain you. This is what it’s all about for me: Knowing myself well enough to be confident in my ability to dive safely and enjoyably.

“Freediving is the opposite of exciting. It’s probably the most peculiar extreme sport out there in that, to be the best, you have to be the opposite of extreme. You have to be soft. You have to be gentle and patient. It is the sport of conserving oxygen. And nothing burns oxygen faster than excitement,” says Tara Abrina

What about you Carlo? What made you love freediving and how did it mold you into the person you are now? 

Carlo Navarro (CN): People who know me would describe me to be more on the quiet side, so this could be what attracted me to it. In the beginning, it was more exploring the unknown. How far can I take myself in the sport? What am I capable of? Then you realize it’s not about pushing yourself to go deeper but to be in a state of peace and calm. This feeling of tranquility is another thing that makes it enjoyable. You have to be focused on the here and now, how you’re about to do your dive. With practice, it will get easier to get into this state where everything feels just right.

Among the many recognitions you’ve received in freediving communities plus being a freediving instructor, what was the most fulfilling for you? 

CN: When we started to enter in competitions back in 2012, there were only about five Filipinos who signed up. I remember feeling like the small fish in the open water. The other competitors were attempting two to three times the depth we were going for. I felt we shouldn’t be there. The good thing was, whatever we did was a Philippine record. Looking back, I shouldn’t have pushed beyond what I was capable of. I was able to get white cards in the depth disciplines with just 32 meters, but it really felt stressful with the competitive atmosphere

For the next few years, it was more or less the same people. Looking at the competitive atmosphere in the Philippines, it’s delightful to see that there are a lot more interested Filipinos getting into this, and I hope to get a chance to compete again in the future.

Bobbit Suntay

The best feeling as an instructor is to be able to share freediving to aspiring students. The best ones aren’t even the students who have the best skills. The most fulfilling ones are the ones whose face lights up when they finally discovered a new skill or when they don’t easily believe what they can do. 

Tara, you held the Free Immersion Women’s National Record from 2015 to 2017 as well as breaking the Constant Weight–No Fins record in 2015. How did you prepare and train for these competitions? 

TA: These national records were quite easy to come by, simply because there was no one else going deeper at the time. I honestly believe that with very minimal training, anyone could have achieved what I did in a short period. Perhaps what I can share is what made me realize that I could go this deep: when I decided to accept the feeling of pressure, the feeling of being so far from the surface, and to just relax and fall into it. The level where my record was at the time is nowhere near too technical that a beginner can’t aspire it. I just needed a change in perception since no one else was diving that deep at the time. I was so relaxed; my dives could stretch as long as 2:30 minutes for only 30 meters.

As a freediving instructor, what are the important reminders you share with your students? What should they keep in mind especially during the first session with you? 

TA: As of now, I’ve only been handling beginner freedivers in my classes. AIDA, the governing body for breath-holding events, mandates that the objective of the first course is rooted in relaxation: equipping beginners with just enough knowledge to safely enjoy deep waters, to not be afraid of it, and to find joy in freediving. A lot of the time, I can get frustrated since I now train at a higher level, where my learning curve just sort of plateaus and it becomes harder and harder to progress. But it helps when I teach beginners over and over again. I’m reminded with every class why I started freediving in the first place, and most of the time, it’s these basic lessons that help me break through these plateaus.

Tara Abrina

Bobbit, since you have been skin diving since your grade school days in the ‘60s as well as scuba diving since the ‘90s, what have been your life-changing realizations?

BS: I have always been attracted to the sea. I seem to be much more comfortable under (rather than on) the water (I get seasick!). What has become clearer to me only recently is the reason why. What scuba, skin, and free diving all have in common is they have allowed me to come closer to directly experiencing all the beauty, wonder, and magic that our underwater world has to offer. 

Moreover, spending so much time up close and personal with the denizens of the deep has made me a more “spiritual” person. By this, I mean that my experiences with marine flora and fauna have helped me see that one’s relationship with “The Almighty” need not be limited to the inside of a church, mosque, or synagogue. As I have marveled at the unbelievable beauty, unfathomable complexity, and undeniable interconnectedness of everything that exists beneath our oceans, I have also come to learn that prayer need not be limited to reciting novenas, chanting mantras, or singing praises.  Somehow, the more time I’m able to spend underwater, the closer I’m able to get in touch with The Ultimate. Only half-jokingly, I often tell others: Show me a person who does not believe in God or in a Benevolent Universe, then give me a half hour with them underwater and they will emerge from the water with the zeal of the converted.

You mentioned in one of our conversations that freediving, more than just a sport, has become a lifestyle.

BS: One of my freediving “heroes” is a young lady named Kimi Werner. She started out as a competitive spearfisher and then evolved to become a world-class freediver. I find her very admirable as she changed her life into such a simpler life—less cluttered, more authentic, closer to nature, and respectful of everyone and everything on our planet.  She lives gently and peacefully in a quiet part of Hawaii and lives off the produce she has planted and the sea creatures she has speared. All these are always only in quantities necessary to sustain herself and her loved ones and in a manner that show great respect for nature as well as all who rely on it.

This is a lifestyle that I have just begun to emulate. Similar to the advice that is offered for giving speeches: “K.I.S.S.” or Keep It Simple, Silly!  It goes a long way towards helping us live our lives in a less troublesome and more benevolent manner. It’s pretty much about what freediving teaches us: Do unto your buddy as you would have them do unto you. Respect your body and everything around it, and that respect will be reflected back to you.

Tell me more about your advocacies. What outcomes do you want to have out of these initiatives? 

CN: For now, I’m a bit busy with my new family, so I’m trying to focus on ManuMano. I’m trying to help aspiring freedivers in Manila have a venue to continue their training and provide courses to help them safely progress in the sport. Also, with more certified instructors in ManuMano, there would be more courses and other cool projects that will be lined up.

BS: My advocacy would have to be in helping others become more aware of—and committed to—protecting our beautiful, fragile, and important underwater environment. In order to achieve this, I have selected conservation videography as my weapon of choice. Thus, I’m able to make films that I hope help people better understand, appreciate, and care for our fabulous underwater world. 

Free diving has also helped me reach my goals of becoming a better videographer.  Specifically, when there are certain filming situations where scuba or skin diving are not viable due to safety and practicality reasons, free diving has been key to getting the footage needed to make a good film. I have been fortunate to help film a Kapit Sisid program in Ipil, Zamboanga as well as help start a similar project in Anilao, Batangas.

“My advocacy would have to be in helping others become more aware of—and committed to—protecting our beautiful, fragile, and important underwater environment. In order to achieve this, I have selected conservation videography as my weapon of choice. Thus, I’m able to make films that I hope help people better understand, appreciate, and care for our fabulous underwater world,” says Bobbit Suntay

TA: It would be nice to highlight that Bobbit and Carlo have always supported my marine conservation work, and were directly involved in three advocacy projects related to freediving in the past couple years. Two of these are under the Kapit Sisid project where we help certify marine conservationists (usually locals) as freedivers. This is because we believe that formalized freediving is a great addition to their skillset as people who work in the water. It lowers the cost of their surveys done on scuba and allows them to bring other people in the water without the need to learn complicated skills as in scuba. The third project was for Women’s Month where we hosted a viewing of Julie Gautier’s short film Ama. After which, there was a short round of talks about the applications of freediving in conservation and empowerment, especially women empowerment, given that my last batch of Kapit Sisid freedivers were all women.

Helping aspiring freedivers is one of Navarro’s main initiatives

Bobbit and I have also helped some marine scientists from De La Salle University and the California Academy of Science develop a community–based coral reef monitoring protocol that could be done on freediving.

I think now is the perfect time to get as many people involved in environmental work as possible. Information sharing is so much easier, data gathering is simpler. It’s just a matter of making the problems more relatable and understandable to people, and making the solutions even simpler. I really believe freediving has this unique ability to empower people to action. It doesn’t require much money and is the most economical way to get everyone in the water. Being an accessible sport, it has the power to transcend social barriers and can become a language that everyone can speak.

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