Deep water, ocean blue. The cool of the sea as it rushes past your face. You fall ever deeper, down through the ephemeral blue, down to the blackness that waits at the bottom. Air slips through the gap in your lips, but you do not feel it. You feel nothing but the drag of the sea as it pulls and tugs at your skin, rushing past you as you descend down and down some more. You are lost in the fall.
This is free diving.
Free diving is an extreme underwater sport that has grown in popularity over the past years. It’s a sport in the family of diving sports, alongside skin diving and SCUBA diving. Where SCUBA diving requires equipment and where the focus of skin diving is the appreciation of marine life, free divers challenge themselves to see how deep they can dive. Divers descend down a marked line tethered to a buoy floating up at the surface, watched over by a buddy who supervises their dive to make sure they’re doing all right.
Professional free diver Tara Abrina sat down with me to talk about the appeal of the sport and its ever-growing community. “I get scared before a dive all the time, 100%,” says Tara, herself a record-holding diver. Unlike most extreme sports, explains Tara, free diving requires you to be calm so as not to use up all your oxygen as you dive. “In order to be good at free diving, you have to learn to be the opposite of extreme,” she explains, stressing that, like all other extreme sports, free diving can be dangerous if done incorrectly.
The desire to prolong their stay in the water is what motivates many free divers. “You go out on trips, and then you want to go deeper and stay longer,” says Tara, describing how natural it is for anyone choosing to enter the water to want to test their limits and spend more time beneath the waves. As the dive begins and the divers descend into the depths, an altogether different, almost intimate experience takes precedence.
“A lot of free divers, they’ll say it’s really a personal sport,” says Tara as she walks me through the feeling of being on a dive. “The ocean is so interesting in general because it’s so calm and relaxing and quiet.” Both free diving and skin diving also allow for an intimate experience with the ocean and marine life that is not as hazardous to the wallet as SCUBA diving. “It’s access to the water that breaks all social barriers,” says Tara, describing the joy she gets in taking the average fisherman she meets during her fieldwork and teaching them how to dive.
As tantalizing as the deep blue may seem, however, you have little time to lose yourself in it. “It’s 90% equalization, 90% pressure, trying to be streamlined or whatever,” continues Tara, explaining that the dive itself requires such intense levels of concentration as to keep you from enjoying the experience. Amidst all that, however, there are moments of bliss. “10% of the time it’s the weirdest feeling, like you’re falling from the sky… it’s the best feeling you’ve ever had in the world.”
The massively thrilling experience that surrounds such an undisturbed descent into the deep has left a sizable community of free divers in the Philippines. Despite the differences between the two sports, Tara recognizes both skin divers and free divers as belonging to the same community. “It’s very fluid,” says Tara. “You can’t just compartmentalize between these things, they’re very related,” she goes on, explaining that free divers and skin divers often share the same objective of wanting to experience the serenity beneath the waves. Within the community, though, is a tighter, more close-knit group of certified free divers and free diving instructors. Those who are part of this group have the licenses and, in many cases, the accolades to assert their position as professional free divers.
The community of free diving professionals finds its origins in Metro Manila with the University of the Philippine’s Marine Biological Society and the Institusyon ng Skin Divers ng Ateneo, or ISDA. Divers would get together to hit the seas for good times. The social media boom in 2012 helped the community become relevant by tackling environmental issues and sharing these and the sport of free diving with the wider Philippine community. Other diving organizations began popping up across the country, and soon there were groups in Batangas, Cebu, Bohol, Davao and Camiguin.
Members from he different diving organizations from all over the Philippines often see each other while on dives. “If you find yourself [at a dive site] and you just message everybody, chances are one or two others are gonna be there, so, it’ll be like, tara, dive tayo,” says Tara, recounting a time where she went for a joy ride around Bohol with the Philippine Free Diving team after a dive. It’s a very relaxed community, explains Tara, and divers often meet up for dinners and inumans and the occasional organized talk.
While there may be a smaller circle of trainers, competitors, and recognized professionals, Tara holds the position that the community is open to anyone so long as they be interested in diving. “Once you take interest in the ocean and you’re super willing to go in there without equipment, I consider you a skin diver, a free diver,” says Tara. “Some people are, like, where’s your certification. Not me. I think it’s all the same to me.” She doesn’t take kindly to people who criticize others on their motivations for diving, however, saying that it’s the bashers within the community she doesn’t consider to be a part of it.
Should you try free diving? While she may still get scared at the start of dives, Tara claims free diving is a safe and controlled sport, safer than SCUBA diving and skin diving can be. “You have all of these safety protocols in place,” she says. “The line and the buoy keep people alive. It controls the environment, gets rid of the dangerous things of SCUBA and free diving … You have to muck things up a lot [to put yourself at risk.]”
Swallow the fear and follow proper protocol and “you can have the most blissful, beautiful dive,” the kind of dive where your mind relaxes and you find yourself engaged in the moment, feeling nothing but the blissful freefall into the depths of the quiet ocean.
With the abundance of water and wealth of life and mystery lying beneath waves both calm and roaring, it comes as no surprise that many have taken to exploring and immersing themselves in the deep. “The Philippines has so much to offer, so take pride in that,” says Tara, smiling from across the table as if in testimony to what awaits us down below.