El Nido is a popular tourist spot in the north of Palawan Province in the Philippines. It’s best known for its world-class beaches and island hopping tours, but you’d be a fool to miss out on what lurks beneath the surface of its pristine coastal waters.
Divers flock to the area in their thousands and you’re never short of a snorkel spot, but one sport in particular has been gaining popularity in recent years – and it’s not for the faint hearted.
Palawan Freedivers is the first freediving school in El Nido and, for the timbeing at least, the only one. Set up in partnership with the 5-star dive resort Palawan Divers, it’s a fantastic opportunity for you to learn to be more comfortable in the water without your scuba gear, or – if you’re not a diver – to explore deeper than you’ve ever been before!
WHAT IS FREEDIVING?
Freediving encompasses a range of disciplines that require you to hold your breath underwater without the aid of breathing apparatus. It’s most commonly associated with competitive breath-hold diving or apnoea, the aim of which is to achieve the greatest depths, distances or times possible on a single breath.
A French man called Stéphane Mifsud holds the world record for static apnoea, with a time of 11 minutes 35 seconds, and the deepest no-limits apnoea dive (an incredible 214 metres) was performed by the Austrian Herbert Nitsch in 2007.
Freediving isn’t just about breaking records, though. It’s had many uses over the years, from fishing to boat repairs, and even underwater bomb disposal, and today it’s commonly practised recreationally as an alternative to scuba diving. It requires less equipment, enables you to be faster and more mobile in the water, costs less, takes less time to prepare for and does not require long surface intervals.
WHAT COURSES ARE AVAILABLE?
With Palawan Freedivers, you can choose between the following options. All courses are approved by the International Association for Development of Apnea (AIDA), and their education programme is shown below. If you complete all of the AIDA training, Palawan Freedivers also offer specialised courses.
DISCOVERY FREEDIVING (AIDA 1)
This is a one-day course to give you a feel for freediving without you having to commit to any kind of qualification. It’s an opportunity to learn the essentials through a few hours of theory and an open-water session. By the end of the day, you should know about breathing and relaxation techniques, pressure and equalisation, and efficient finning and body position. The cost is 5300 Php and you have to be over 16 and able to swim at least 50 m.
BEGINNER FREEDIVING (AIDA 2)
The beginner freediving course aims to develop the skills you learned in your discovery session, improving your safety and enjoyment and helping you to feel more comfortable. After learning about some of the more technical aspects of diving, you’ll practise static apnoea and learn more about finning techniques and body positioning. This course costs Php 16,000 and takes three days to complete. You must be over 16 and able to swim at least 200 m.
CONFIRMED FREEDIVING (AIDA 3)
The confirmed freediving course takes you to a level where you can plan your own independent freediving excursions with experienced buddies. You’ll master freefall, learn safety drills, practise stretching, discover more behind the science of breathing, and reach depths you never thought would be possible. This course is 18,000 Php and AIDA 2 certification is a prerequisite.
ADVANCED FREEDIVING (AIDA 4)
AIDA 4 takes you beyond recreational freediving. It’s the first step towards becoming a competitive freediver and a requirement for doing your instructor training. Costing 26,000 Php and lasting four to five days, you’ll learn techniques such as mouth fill, lung stretching, exhale diving and packing – all of which are potentially dangerous if performed incorrectly. You will need to be able to hold your breath for 3.5 minutes, swim over 70 m underwater with fins, and dive to a depth of 32 m.
WHY EL NIDO?
Not only has El Nido been listed as having the best beaches in the world by Conde Nast two years running, but its waters are perfect for learning to freedive. The bay and surrounding islands provide shelter from currents and large waves, the temperature is typically around 30 degrees, and there are vertical drops as far as 50 m just a short distance from the shore. There’s an incredible biodiversity of marine life too, which means you can hop on a boat with Palawan Divers once you’re certified and do fun dives at some of the world’s best scuba diving sites.
A TYPICAL DAY
Before you do any freediving, you’ll need to pop into Palawan Divers to meet your instructor and set up your equipment. This is usually done the evening before. You should also be aware that you’re not permitted to freedive within 24 hours of scuba diving, due to the increased risk of decompression sickness.
On the day of your session, you need to be at the dive centre at 8 am for a briefing. Your in-water training takes place just offshore from one of the 45 islands of Bacuit Bay. A popular place for first-timers is the beautiful Paradise Beach – one of the closest to El Nido town, but still relatively isolated. After finding a shady patch of sand, your instructor talks you through the basics of relaxation and breathing, before asking you to try it out for yourselves. After lunch and a rest it’s time to enter the water, where you’ll practise your descents using a line attached to a flotation device. Expect to be back in El Nido by around 4 pm.
Payment for each of the available courses includes equipment rental, transport, lunch and drinks, training, instructive materials and your certification. The only additional cost you’re likely to encounter is the ecotourism development fee, which is 200 Php for 10 days and can be used on dive, snorkel or island hopping trips as well. You can purchase it at the dive centre on the day of your first excursion.
IS FREEDIVING SAFE?
Freediving has been labelled by some as the world’s most dangerous sport, and considering what it involves it’s easy to see why. It’s important to remember, though, that if you follow the basic safety procedures and don’t try too hard to push your limits, you should be perfectly fine.
The three rules of freediving are:
1. Always freedive with a buddy;
2. Relax before you hold your breath; and
3. Be correctly weighted.
As with ocean-based mammals, humans have physiological responses to being underwater that help them to conserve oxygen, and these are all part of what is known as the ‘mammalian diving reflex’. They include a significant fall in heart rate and a redistribution of blood flow to vital organs.
With knowledge and experience, an appreciation of the safety considerations and an understanding of your personal limits, there’s no reason why freediving should put you in any danger.
The great thing about the course structure is that you get the chance to try it out before deciding if its a sport you’re keen to pursue. Many people are surprised by how deep they can go after just one session, while, of course, it’s not for everyone. Two things are for certain though – it’s seriously badass, and you won’t know unless you try.
WHERE TO STAY IN EL NIDO
By far and away one of the best accommodation options in El Nido is the Sea Cocoon Hotel. Its rooms are ridiculously comfortable, clean and incredibly spacious, with powerful hot showers, huge flat-screen TVs, air conditioning, good WiFi and ice-cold water refills. A buffet-style breakfast is included, and there’s a good-sized pool with loungers – a rare commodity in El Nido. If you’re thinking about staying there, pop in and ask to speak to Eric. He’s the life and soul of the property and he’ll go out of his way to make sure you have an enjoyable stay. You’ll also love the resident dogs! Rooms start at 3800 Php.
HOW TO GET THERE
You can fly to El Nido directly from Manila, but flights are quite expensive by Filipino standards (about US$140, or £100). They also charge for every additional kilogram of luggage over 10 kg. From Puerto Princesa to El Nido, there are regular buses that take 6 to 8 hours, or, for 600 Php and a couple of hours’ less, a minibus will pick you up and drop you off directly at your accommodation. Coming from Coron, there’s a daily ferry for between 1200 and 1800 Php. Two companies take it in turns, but they’re both large outrigger boats, which means the ride can get quite choppy. Waves have been known to course through the passenger deck, benches are uncomfortable, the included meal is nothing more than undercooked rice and gristly chicken, and delays and cancellations are quite common due to the weather. An alternative to this journey is the highly acclaimed Tao Experience – a five-day tour of the islands between El Nido and Coron, including homestays with local villagers. Book at least one month in advance if you’re interested.