When I was four years old, my father took my older sister and me to Manila Bay for a swim. It was my first memory of going to the sea, and I remember seeing many people frolicking and enjoying their time in the water. Papa made us sit on a massive rock by the shore and told us that he would teach us how to swim. Now my father, may he rest in peace, was generally a good man, but he could also be a jerk. And that day, he seemed to have thought it was time to reenact his mobster fantasies.
He took me in his arms and carried me into the water. I looked around nervously, scared that he would let me go. But what he did was a lot worse. Before I could process what was going on, Papa pushed my head underwater. I flailed my arms and legs in complete terror and on reflex, opened my mouth to scream. The salty seawater rushed down my throat, but I couldn’t come up to the surface because my father held me down there for God knows how long.
As soon as he pulled me up, I started screaming and crying. My throat burned from the seawater that I had swallowed. He then carried me to the side, took my sister, and proceeded to ‘drown’ her as well. He did this to us several times; I lost count. My sister and I were utterly traumatized. That day unlocked not a swimming skill but my fear of deep waters.
Over the years, I tried my best to overcome this fear. I taught myself how to swim; I did snorkeling, surfing, jumped into the river, and even tried open sea scuba diving. Although I found my way into the water without panicking, my confidence was still lacking. I would only swim where my feet could reach the bottom as much as possible. If I had to venture into the deeper parts, I’d wear a life vest. I only stayed on the surface and didn’t dare to swim underwater.
When people ask if I could swim, I say, “yes, but….” Yes, I can swim, but I can’t tread in the upright position. Yes, I can swim, but only in the shallow parts. Yes, I can swim, but I’m not a good swimmer.
This year, I resolved to tell people that I could swim with no buts.
So, I told myself, “Why not learn it bish, it’s never too late.”
In 2017, I attended a freediving workshop in a swimming pool with some fellow bloggers. Azul Freediving provided the lesson held at the SCUBA Studio in San Juan. While the experience was fun, I couldn’t pursue the sport. I didn’t get a chance to practice in the open sea until this year.
Now that I’m determined to try freediving in the sea, I must do it right, and by right, I mean I wanted a coach to guide me through it. Unfortunately, that 2017 experience was a long time ago and without practice, my knowledge has become rusty.
I searched Facebook for freediving courses and found DIVERSity by SeaReynang Pengki. It’s the page of Coach Pangke, who offers freediving and mermaid lessons in Anilao, Batangas. The positive feedback of her clients coaxed me to take classes from her. So, I sent them an inquiry, and as soon as I got the information, I immediately booked my weekend trip.
Traveling and freediving expenses
5th February – I was up as early as 4:00 am to prepare for the trip. I took public transportation and traveled for four hours to get to Mabini, Batangas. The lesson was held at a newly established resort called Ocean Camp. The resort sits right in front of the beach with a rocky shoreline. It has several cottages, two facing the sea, and a shared room.
If you’re curious about the breakdown of my expenses for this weekend trip, here they are (note: food is excluded):
Motorbike taxi to Ortigas
Bus to Mabini
Jeep to Anilao
Tricycle to Ocean Camp
Carpool from Batangas to Pasig
I walked into the resort through the side entrance and went straight to the restaurant. About 20 or more people were sitting there, waiting for the orientation to begin. Most of them came in groups, and I wasn’t sure if any other solo travelers were there like me.
I immediately went into the restroom to change into my swimsuit. When I went back to the restaurant, I spotted this person with long, curly, blonde hair standing at the end of the room. I recognized her right away; it was coach Pangke. I didn’t talk to her at first, but she gave me a small smile when our eyes met. I checked my phone and saw her message, asking where I was. That’s when I approached her and introduced myself.
She let out a little laugh and said, “Ikaw pala yan” (so it’s you).
She then told me to get my gears and gestured toward the back part of the restaurant to find the storage room for the diving equipment. They gave me a valve-type snorkeling gear with goggles and a pair of 3-5 XS fins.
During the orientation, the coaches explained freediving basics, including equalizing breathing methods, explaining the purpose and usage of freediving gears, and other freediving techniques. It was followed by breathing exercises that focused on breath holds. The longest breath-hold that I could do was 50 seconds during the second round of the exercise. For some reason, I couldn’t go beyond 30 seconds in the succeeding rounds, and I was a bit disappointed with myself. I wanted to do one full minute, but I couldn’t.
Equalization for freediving
Equalization is essential to freediving; if you’re not able to do it, you’re not going to last underwater. This is because our body has air spaces that get constricted the further we descend underwater. That’s where equalization helps as it releases the pressure from the air spaces, specifically in our middle ears (behind the eardrum), sinuses, and lungs. Doing this will help prevent injury.
They mentioned two equalization techniques for freediving during the orientation. First is the Valsavala Maneuver, where you pinch and blow your nose to force the air into your middle ear. You will hear a popping sound when you’ve successfully performed this technique. It’s the same technique most people do to equalize to release pressure in the ears when on a plane.
The second option is the Frenzel equalization technique, which requires less effort. Here, you pinch your nose, fill your mouth with air, close your throat, then push the air into your ears with your tongue. You will know that it works when you hear the popping sound in your ears, indicating that the pressure has been released. If you want a visual, here’s a Frenzel equalization tutorial on YouTube.
We were divided into groups, and I was included in a team of 6 under coach Pangke. The weather was fine that day; cloudy skies, the sun was hiding.
Coach Pangke and her assistant, whose name I didn’t get, led us out to the sea. We held on to the freediving buoy and swam our way to the diving spot indicated by a floating Styrofoam box. We started the session by practicing floating on our stomachs and breathing through the snorkel.
The water was freezing cold. Coach PPangke instructed us to blow bubbles through the mouth in the water to help warm up our bodies, but no matter how many times I tried, it didn’t work. The freediving session lasted for 2 hours or so, yet my body could not adjust to the temperature. I was shivering the entire time, making the experience harder than it already was.
While we were waiting for the assistant coach to finish setting up the rope fastened to the buoy, the other girl in our group told us that she didn’t know how to swim. We told her that it was okay since we are naturally buoyant in seawater; plus, we were wearing fins that also help keep us afloat. But no amount of encouragement got through her. Finally, she told coach Pangke that she wanted to go back to the shore.
“Why? We haven’t done anything yet,” coach Pangke said.
I thought the girl was friends with the boys; it turned out she wasn’t. I didn’t know if she came to the resort alone like me, but I didn’t see her again after she backed out from our training. The assistant coach guided her back to the shore. While I do understand her fear, I think it was unfortunate that she let it get the best of her. She was already there; it would have been great if she had at least given it a try before giving it up.
We then started with the freediving line. We took dives one person at a time, with coach Pangke assigning the order of our turns; I was third in line. This allowed me to check how others were doing and gave me confidence when it was my time to dive.
Descending into the water while holding on to the rope was easy but venturing deeper was not. The challenge was my inability to perform the Valsalva equalization technique. My head hurt from the pressure, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t equalize.
Sensing my disappointment, coach Pangke said that we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves as not everyone could successfully equalize underwater, especially beginners. It would take a lot of practice; we just need to be patient and keep trying.
We did line diving several times before we moved on to duck diving. This is the part where you dive headfirst but without holding onto a rope. If you can quickly sink below the water, this technique may come easy to you, but duck diving would be very challenging if you’re a ‘floater’ (naturally buoyant people) like me.
After demonstrating how it’s supposed to be done, coach Pangke asked us to do it one by one. A few were able to do it successfully, while some, including yours truly, failed miserably.
I kicked my legs rapidly, trying to push myself downward, but I couldn’t, for the life of me, descend. A dog can dive better than me.
But even when I failed at duck diving, I realized that I had unlocked a skill; I can now swim without a vest!
When the session was over, Coach asked us to swim toward the shore.
“If you guys can snorkel and swim back to the shore, do it,” she said.
I held on to the freediving buoy to get to the diving spot, so it was easy. The seabed is filled with corals, and the water is deep; Would I be able to swim back to the shore without a buoy to keep me afloat?
I took it as a challenge.
The boys started heading back, and I decided to swim along with them. I kept my face to the water and breathed through the snorkel. There were moments when I started to feel a little bit anxious and doubtful, but I talked myself through it, “Don’t panic, you can do this. You can swim now; you got this.”
I focused on my breathing, meditating through the sight of corals and the fishes passing by. Doing this was quite effective in calming down my nerves. The thing that you have to know about me is that I’m not without fears; I’m just stubborn. I’d do it to see if I could, and most of the time, I could. Just like getting to the shore on my own, no boat to take me, no buoy or vest to keep me afloat, and most of all, no person to hold onto. It may not sound like a big deal to you, but to me, it is. This is the first time I’ve ever done this relying solely on my strength and my mediocre swimming ability. And I’ve done it so hell yeah, I’m proud of myself.
Ocean Dive accommodation
Considering I was alone and was only there to spend one night, I only rented a tent when I booked my stay at Ocean Dive resort. They did pitch me a small tent, but the thing is, they put it atop the rocky shore. They didn’t provide anything other than the tent; there was no pillow, no blanket, not even a sleeping bag.
I sat inside this tent to rest after our morning session dive, and I even tried to take a nap but sitting and lying on top of the rocks made it all impossible. Nobody can sleep in this condition, not when the rocks keep poking through the bottom of the tent.
I got up, put my stuff inside my backpack, and went to one staff. I told them that I couldn’t sleep in the tent, so I would go home that night instead. Then, I overheard an old lady talking about commuting back to Manila. I approached her, asking if it was okay that I went with them.
Upon hearing this, coach Pangke offered that I use her bed in the shared room. At first, I didn’t want to as I didn’t want to impose, and also, where would she sleep? She dispelled my worries, saying she could find somewhere else to sleep. I was very touched; she didn’t have to do that, you know. I thanked her and accepted her offer.
The room has eight bunk beds, and Coach’s bed happens to be the closest one to the air conditioner. I don’t do well in the cold, so I turned off the AC at one point. The other guests didn’t like this, complaining that the room was hot.
I went outside and approached one of the resort’s staff to borrow a blanket because I couldn’t stand the cold inside the room. I waited a long time as they tried to find me a blanket, but in the end, they told me that they had no spare anymore.
Later that afternoon, one of the guests offered to exchange beds with me. I happily agreed and transferred to the upper bunk bed on the elevated part of the room.
I thought I’d be knocked out easily after that tiring day, but I ended up not sleeping a wink. The snoring fest from three other guests kept me up all night long.
There were three freediving sessions; a morning and afternoon session on Saturday and one last lesson on Sunday. I admit, there were moments when I tried to talk myself out of it. Thoughts like, “I’ve done the morning session; do I really need to do the afternoon session as well?” and “I did two sessions yesterday already; why not skip the Sunday dive and just go home early?”
But each time I heard these voices, I would silence them and say, “I’m already here; I might as well do it.”
I also reminded myself that the more I practice, the quicker I will acquire the skill. I haven’t even mastered duck diving yet; I have no reason to quit.
In the third session, I was assigned to go first. By this time, I’d grown enough confidence being in the water that I didn’t mind.
I noticed that I was the only one that coach addressed by name in our group. Maybe it helped that I approached her and introduced myself when we met the day before? I’m not sure, but I’m happy that she recalls my name either way.
By the way, they took some videos of us while freediving, and coach sent me copies of them. I’ll find some time to create a YouTube vlog about it soon.
New skill unlocked, freediving
Out of all the decisions I’ve made thus far, this is one of the best. Learning to free dive has undone the fear that has paralyzed me since childhood. To me, fear is the worst kind of feeling because of its power to cripple a person’s ability to make something happen. And so, overcoming fear can be such an empowering experience. It makes you realize that you’re bigger than the things that scare you, and you’re more capable than what you think.
I went home that day feeling quite accomplished and inspired to continue the sport. As I write this, I haven’t gone back to the water yet due to other priorities, but I do have plans to go back with my friends next time. I’m also searching for freediving courses because I want to get certified. Hopefully, I can do it this year.
To end, I’m happy to say, I can now swim with no buts. I can swim, full stop.