Sunday, 13th August 2017 was meant to be my first open water free dive session in Brunei. I also knew that it would be the first topic on my blog. That doesn’t really explain the random topic of choice for a return to the blogging world but I’ll save that for another post.
I was on edge about the whole thing the night before. Even though I had downed a good dinner, slept early and had my gear ready by the door, I was still fighting my inner demons that were telling me to get out of the booked session with Stefano. To put it simply, I was nervous… and when I get nervous, I find that my doubt tries to access the “creative excuses” part of me.
We’ve all played hooky before. But this time around I knew I didn’t have any real reasons to back out. I was just trying to find something legitimate to play out in my favour of cancelling:
My car wouldn’t start or has a flat tire. Nope, engine and tires are working fine and can arguably take on touring cars on the racing track.
I’m on my period. Nope, it’s finishing up. The residual spotting would still not be enough to attract blood thirsty creatures in the sea.
My parents are on Haj and I need to take care of the house. True, but I had already sorted the schedule with my siblings. Everyone else was living up to their Sunday duty and staying in would only result in me being extra furniture in the house.
The weather isn’t looking too good from the forecast. It’s been raining heavily. It was pouring cats and dogs Saturday night, but the sun couldn’t have shone any brighter by the time dusk broke.
So I find myself sucking it in and make good time on the travel from Lumapas to Serasa. I arrive at my promised 7.45am time. I thought to myself, “since I’m here already, there’s no turning back.” Poni Divers isn’t exactly unwelcoming anyway. The centre has occupied some major real estate in Serasa Beach and in the news as of late. Not to mention free diver instructor Stefano will only be around ‘til end of September, so shame on me for even thinking what I was thinking up to that point.
I bypass the office to the back where part human part fish population of dive masters and students are busy gearing up. I instantly recognized the Italian water demigod and he said hi as soon as he saw me. I exhale a sight of relief as it indicated to me that either 1) I looked like this confident mermaid-to-be roaming around, or 2) I had newb free diver splashed all over me and everyone else were familiar faces. It’s most likely the latter but let me have my moment please.
A good hour was spent mentally and physically preparing – selecting equipment, small talk, breathing exercise, yoga, warm-up… the whole getting into free diving mode shebang. Some of the warm up exercises were familiar yet refreshing as it reminded me of my years in martial arts – focus on correct breathing, meditating, unconventional stretch points, etc.
I was a bit thrown off guard when it was revealed to me that it would be a group session – 3 of us to be exact – sharing a buoy and going through the 1.5 hour session up and down the line in either free immersion or constant weight routines. Of course it had me nervous but the guys had me part of their family in an instant. I later on find out that doing it in a group served to my advantage, especially since we were all relatively new to freediving (we’re all originally scuba divers) in the sense that we would be taking turns with the exercises. That basically leaves more room for rest in between sets and less pressure with varying levels of freediving capability to work on. I do miss my one-to-one sessions with Nic and Justin, my original free diving mentors, but it’s always good to try something new – training in a group, since I’m so used to learning things in a private session or individually. Believe it or not, I am actually somewhat of an introvert. An adventurous person yes, but introvert nonetheless.
I had already been scuba diving a few months and gone with a few different dive boat operators in Brunei. Still, I found my eyes in anthropology mode as I was watching the various species sharing one motored water monster. The boat is basically customized for scuba divers in particular; with large holes to house the tanks on the side where people would typically be seated and long ropes to somewhat secure them all down. Space was managed well too as bags were kept under the hood nets; warm tea, bottled water and hot food in Styrofoam boxes ready for a noon feast. I was so surprised about the fact that food was provided as the usual case would be to pack your own or go back to the dive centre to grab a quick bite. I had to rush prepping lunch the night before that I ended up with a decent container of pasta salad, carrots and fruit only to find out that we had a pantry in the sea. I guess I was impressed that everything had been well thought out beforehand and Poni has elevated itself in even the minuscule aspects of going on a dive trip.
Everyone else found something to “do” or knew what they were doing – be it staring forward at the Brunei horizon, getting to know one another or taking a snooze in some nook or cranny. I was faking it to make it. I was donning the borrowed M sized Mares free dive suit from the centre, had my knife comfortably sleeping inside its sheath on my leg and took my time putting on my dive socks and straps that I had proudly invested in a while ago. My long fins sat comfortably by my side – ready to kick into action if anyone needed to be saved in the water (sure). I basically made Rambo look like a douche in comparison.
I apologize in advance for that lengthy preamble. On the training itself, there was just a lot of freediving preparation consisting of relaxation and going up and down the line. And when I say relaxing, I don’t mean sleeping on the boat and being all carefree. At the heart of free diving IS to get yourself in a relaxed state and manage your breathing, to a point that there are specific exercises that can be done to build up the CO2 tolerance in your body. You really have to be able to balance the physical exertion of free diving and be able to hold your breath long enough to reach your intended depth and stay down there for a sufficient underwater safari experience.
1st Dive Site: American Wreck (Average Depth: 30m)
The depth of this site was very telling from the surface – the line seemed to be swallowed up by the ocean when I looked down to see where it ends (no end in sight). I knew that my focus shouldn’t have been there, but again, my demons took a free ride to the ocean with me. Stefano warned that he wouldn’t tell us how deep the line was or how far we’d gone until after the session, but I couldn’t help eyeing the rope for measure.
Stefano set it up in true training fashion. We had the freediving buoy as our exercise mark and a rope that was latched to the orange tire buoy a few meters away (also connected to the boat) where we were to wait our turn and focus on getting our breathing to acceptable levels. Because I was very obvious about my eagerness to try it out, I was assigned No. 1. Not that it really mattered because Stefano accorded each of us one or two tries, safely buddied every individual going up and down and ensured proper recovery breathing at surface (“Happooo…. Happooo… Happooo!”) before calling the next in line by name.
Stefano wasn’t kidding when he said he would inform us by touch on areas that we need to have relaxed – typically the shoulders, backs and legs. In the first few tries, equalizing was definitely the issue for me and seemed to get better after I loosened up my shoulder or legs a bit. I felt his hand press on my neck and legs a number of times, so much so that I don’t think a big fish or shark nudging me would freak me out anymore (don’t take my word for it, though!). I came to the conclusion that going down the line means you have to kinda look like a shrimp – chin closer to chest, arms loose, knees bent slightly forward and back not so straight. But hey, if curling up a bit to prawn stance while staying supple gets me down further, then so be it. I was watching my other dive buddies’ tenseness and I could see (and feel!) first-hand how it makes all the difference to be physically relaxed.
I went up and down the line in pure immersion mode for the first 3-4 times. That means turning my body facing the line, head first, focusing on equalizing and pulling down until I couldn’t go down any further. Because I was mentally fixated on the free diving chip on my shoulder (equalizing), I initially couldn’t equalize maybe past the 7-10m mark. Stefano’s typical review consisted of the need to relax, clear my mind and go down at a slow and comfortable pace. “There’s no need to rush it,” he said, “your body uses up only 3-4% of your oxygen as you go down so you still have lots of air to work with.”
When I still couldn’t equalize, Stefano told me to sniff salt water. Obviously I looked at him perplexed at this suggestion but it made sense that using an all-natural saline solution would be good for clearing my sinus. It wasn’t fun, nor was it a pretty sight, but it did help as I felt my nose clear up with every purge while waiting my next turn. Your next ocean encounter would probably be of my snot and mucus floating around.
In the next few tries, Stefano’s specific instructions were for me to equalize with one hand on my nose the whole time while my other hand pulls down on the line. And keep my eyes closed. Hot damn, it really made a difference as I could tell I was getting down further with each comfortable pull. I really only lost my zen because I got too excited and thought I had run out of air. Back on the buoy, Stefano asked me why I stopped. I could only manage a smile as I knew it was his way of telling me I was getting the hang of it.
Later on we tried a few constant weight (finning down the line) exercises with a duck dive start. I can’t quite recall if the farthest I had gone was with the immersion or constant weight but I had definitely loosened up a bit more by the end of that training session. Stefano didn’t comment much on my duck dives but that’s because I know that’s my strength. Either that or there’s enough for him to worry about for the time being when it comes to me. I’ll find out eventually.
The next focus would be on my breathing and finning. The latter is about opening up my legs wider and learning to draw on the power of my highly revered carbon fiber kicks. My legs were pulled back and forth like a barbie doll as I was finning back up to surface. My buns ached for days after. I was basically doing resistance ballet in the water – “keep your toes pointed!”, “open wide!”, “go slower!”.
…But first thing’s first, Stefano seemed particularly concerned about my breathing – probably because I had diverted my inability to get down further from equalizing to running out of air.
“Great, one after the other” I said to myself. And here I thought my problem was equalizing. Stefano said he would talk to me after about how to hold my breath longer and not sound so much like a fire breathing dragon.
One other minuscule, but important, skill that I had also picked up is how to use a snorkel. I can make a decent duck dive and swim a few meters vertically, but I struggled to hold my snorkel up – stupidly because my head was fully immersed in the water instead of just my face. I had sea water come in buckets full, resulting in me swallowing the ocean and having to redo my preparation breathing several times, much to Stefano’s annoyance. With a bit of practice, and few fun dives later, I was able to breathe through it, keep sea water away and take out my snorkel before duck diving down.
2nd Dive Site: Abana Reef (Average Depth: 16m)
After recuperating with ultra-light meal of banana and crackers (I learned that free diving on a full stomach would get your heart rate skyrocketing), I was eager to jump into the second session. I was also getting well acquainted with Sabreena, my new found dive buddy as we hit it off great in an instant. She has a very uplifting disposition about her. I had heard of her from the other free divers as she recently got certified in Bali. She trained in freediving with Stefano the week before, opting to return to scuba diving for that Sunday session I guess because she didn’t have a proper buddy. She was with us on the boat to scuba dive that particular day but when I told her I will be relatively focused on my free diving training thereon, I know that got her thinking about her next training with Stefano as well.
When I jumped into the water again, Stefano asked me if this was another training session or just a fun dive. That basically said to me that he probably thought the first session at American Wreck was already physically trying and would suffice for the day. Sure enough, after just one or two constant weight attempts, I was too tired (evidenced by my duck dives that turned more into bear rolls) and requested to be dismissed. I could tell it was a relief for him anyway as swells were going up more than a meter high and the current was swaying all divers in different directions. The so-called lack of depth of the reef didn’t help in keeping the line relatively static either.
Getting deeper down the line is really all in the mind. At times I kept telling myself that there’s no way I can go down American Wreck with the expanse of blue not giving me any insight to the bottom. But when I could finally see Abana’s reefs, I could only touch up to maybe 10-11 metres. It’s as though I have this mental block that kicks in after certain depths, shaving off a few metres from the actual bottom reach. That was so annoying and had me in a thoughtful trance for quite some time on the boat.
3rd Dive Site: Pelong Rocks (Average Depth: 7-10m)
I initially thought we were gonna dock closer to Pelong Rocks – but we were still kilometres away from the actual island. Stefano was swimming around the boat and I thought I would join him on the swim towards the formation – but the swells were relatively aggressive and minimal visibility kept me hanging onto the ropes for a while. I eventually realized I wasn’t gonna join him considering he was already over 20 metres away and hurdling past the waves faster than I could finish saying “wait up!”. My inner woman also came out ‘cos someone from the boat warned of jelly fish at the bottom and I got super anxious. So when my weight belt brushed up on my hand, I was too freaked out to check what the soft thing was and shrieked like a school girl. I practically zipped to the back of the boat in no time.
At the back of the boat, I find Sabreena standing on the edge. She asked if I was free diving. I said there were no more training sessions. She then eagerly put aside her scuba diving hat and we swam/finned together towards the rocks. We were against the current so we found ourselves stuck in the halfway mark between the boat and Pelong’s structure. That’s where we resigned to our fate and practiced some duck dives and swam around the 5-7m bottom reach. I thoroughly enjoyed it but I admit I was on edge as I had to make sure that Sabreena was in sight to appease myself of both our safety. Every time she went down, I would watch her like a hawk. And while I was down there, I would scan around, swim on my back and make eye contact. Needless to say, I felt I was finally introduced to the real concept of having a dive buddy that works with and for me.
I teased the scuba divers diving below the front of the boat as I could see them at the bottom. I think I managed to stay down maybe a good 20 seconds to say hello. I was a bit disappointed that only one of them waved back while the others forged ahead but realized I was getting too excited. It must’ve been 10m from the surface when I came down then. I couldn’t see the bottom from the back of the boat so I aborted a skin dive attempt there and called it a day.
Poni Dive Centre, Serasa– 15:00 Brunei time
I was one of the last few to get off the boat. Everyone jumped right into putting their equipment away in the rightful places so the inevitable goodbyes were efficient. Stefano briefed me on breathing exercises I could work on in my time – specifically dry static exercises consisting of the “square” breathing method and CO2 tolerance management. Of course I was daunted but was assured that we’ll keep in touch via Whatsapp on how to go about it.
I finally made transaction at the front office, where I finally got to meet Sasha who, via Thye Sing (Poni Divers’s Owner), hooked me up with Stefano. For the taxi to several dive sites and having a world class diving instructor guide me, B$60 total is a steal! I know that my next Sunday is clear, so I didn’t hesitate to put my name down for the 20th August slot. And this time, Sabreena will be joining on the full free diving session again.
There are other administrative things that I need to lock down, specifically regarding my certification. As I had undergone 2 days of training in Bali last July, Stefano wanted details on what certification and level I have completed. He’s happy to certify me AIDA but after several communications back and forth, I think I understand it that he wants to avoid any overlap, yet accord me with the rightful recognition on paper. The confusion is mainly in part because I hadn’t exactly qualified for the last part of the course – which are the safety and rescue portion of the curriculum (since I couldn’t get down past 10m last time to do a proper rescue dive). It’s been a bit of a headache communicating between my instructor Nic in Bali and Stefano here in Brunei, but I just remind myself that I’m here to learn to free dive comfortably. Stay positive, I tell myself. Plus the various free diving accrediting organizations – SSI, AIDA, Pure Apnea – offer relatively transferable certifications, simply because free diving is such an emerging discipline and they’re still trying to strike a balance between the specifics of education and the real concept of free diving, i.e. being able to dive down without restriction. Anyhow, what use are details on paper if I don’t have the actual skills locked down.
So… after rambling on with my verbose account (including rants, worries, apprehensions) of my first free dive session in Brunei waters, where is the “free” in free diving?
In truth I don’t actually have an answer to the question. For all I know, there were a lot more things that I learned about myself during the dive attempts and in retrospect:
- I can and still do get anxious in water. I have always said I’m a fish because I learned to swim at a young age and have never shied away from swimming at the beach or an Olympic pool. But the open ocean offers a good mix of apprehension and exhilaration. There is so much about the sea that we can at best only learn to go with. Mind you, we’ve only explored like 0.01% of the blue expanse. There is no way to control the weather or the swells. Don’t even mention the sea creatures! I felt so vulnerable holding onto the boat when the metre high waves were coming at me in Pelong. I have so much to overcome and I’m not as much the Mellmaid that I thought I always was. I mean, I can thoroughly recall the mental banter I had in my head about whether to attempt to chase Stefano when he began swimming to Pelong Rocks. In the 30 seconds staring at him at a distance, I really felt exposed and concluded that as much as I want to overcome my fears, safety and comfort are very paramount. You have no idea how grateful I am to be able to come back in one piece after even that fun dive.
- I should remember why I’m doing this. Like I said, I love being in water since I can remember, and I thought scuba diving was a step up to that. I tried it and am a certified Open Water scuba diver, but it just felt like it’s all on reliance on equipment. Freediving, I thought, would be a step up to something I already know – immersing in water without the weight of tanks and all sorts of bells and whistles. And to “master” freediving, you gotta really master yourself above all else. It is just immersing in water, but perhaps because it’s been put into the conventions of training, certifications and organizational politics, it has now instilled a sense of mystery and some structured climb that looks quite overwhelming to achieve.
- Related to #2 (and to fulfill the rule of 3s): Be patient with myself. If someone just told me to just swim and comfortably go down when and to where I want to, I’m sure I would get it in no time. But because now it is elevated to glossaries like depth, equalizing, mammalian dive reflex, physiology, etc., I end up doubting what I know. It is good in most cases – to question what you know – but in freediving it is very important to go back to basics. I should trust what I know and who I am. Most importantly, have fun. My best dive attempts were when I wasn’t thinking about it being a training session and just enjoyed it for what it is. So I find myself having to constantly set aside my overthinking hat. The certification will come naturally though that shouldn’t be the focus anyway.
To conclude this post, this is the start of an inner journey – as a freediver. I call into question “journey” though because there may be no end, this could be a once every blue moon thing or even something that will fall to the wayside after a few sessions… who knows. As for being a freediver, I am already one and many others can follow suit. I cannot attribute that nomenclature to the depth I reach or how much I can equalize or even how often I go. Dive freely. Go with it. It means exactly what it sounds like.
See you all in the next one.