Descended as a free diver to transcend my limits

From a non-swimmer to a free diver

Claiming that it’s an easy transition is a lie. The first time I tried to swim, without a life vest, was during the first time I took a free diving lesson. It was a three-tier program which includes traversing the rope down the 20-foot swimming pool with feet first, then head first, then the finale — attempting to dive. The first two steps were fine, the third tier of the program was a totally different discussion.

Our instructor, knowing that I was a non-swimmer, challenged me to cross the 20-foot deep pool without a buoy whatsoever. A feat I’ve never tried in my 27 years of existence on Earth, which I believe was my life’s biggest irony. Growing up by the sea, in a country surrounded by water, and on a planet which surface is covered 71% by water, I should’ve known how to swim, right? But I didn’t.

While waiting, I summoned all that’s left of my fast-depleting courage. It was finally my turn, but my courage was all down the drain or, in this case, the pool. However, I knew deep down, deeper than the pool itself, that I really wanted to learn how to swim and, eventually, dive. So before fear took over my shivering body, I took the final step from the ledge, cursed in vernacular, and pushed myself forward in the water. And the rest after that is a wet and wild history.

Free Diving - Harv

You’d probably think that since I was able to put my fears on leash, all was great and easy. Well, not really.

Overcoming fear is a constant struggle

I’ve gone through multiple free diving practice sessions after my first class and every time I will attempt to dive, I feel fishes wildly swimming in my stomach. The fear I had the first time I swam is still there, leashed, but is barking from time to time. Slowly, I became more comfortable in the water. Despite that, I felt proud and happy because every inch deeper than my previous attempts is a kilometre’s worth of fulfilment for myself.

Few more sessions later, my dives were smoother and my confidence grew bigger. Then I thought, my fear has been finally tamed just in time for my then upcoming birthday trip in Coron, Philippines where I planned to have my very first legitimate open water session.

All was set for the trip. Tours were already booked, clothes were packed, my fins and snorkel were ready, I was ecstatic and ready. Little did I know, I wasn’t really just going to Coron — I was about to enter a different world.

Free diving to a new world

Coron’s pictures are all scattered on the internet. Palawan, the province where it is located, is declared by Conde Nast Traveler as one of the most beautiful islands in the world. Its beauty is almost otherworldly. So stunning that no photo or video could do justice to its striking ethereal features.

Free Diving - Harv - Coron

But aside from its towering pillars of limestones with patches of lush greenery, Coron has something else to boast and be proud of  — it’s crystal clear lagoons and rich marine ecosystem. Indeed, it’s a perfect setting to finally break through the water’s surface.

Free Diving - Harv - Coron

Luckily, my free-diving-instructors-turned-friends were also in Coron setting up a branch of Seazoned (the school where I learned free diving) in the island. They were kind enough to accompany us on our tour which made me feel more excited about the trip and likewise feel safe knowing that I won’t be diving alone.

The first day of our tour came, a wonderful day that would not just delight us but would test my courage. Fear was creeping in from the crevices of my thoughts with a sly grin as I was about to enter this new world.

A tug of war: Water vs Fear

The tour’s first stop was hidden behind a limestone facade with a single rickety staircase leading to one of Coron’s favourite lakes, the Barracuda Lake. Armed with our snorkels, fins, and waterproof cameras, we walked towards the lake. A few minutes later, we found ourselves in front of one of the most picturesque scenes in the world.

Free Diving - Harv - Coron

As I was taking in the view, my friends were busy wearing their fins and snorkels. That’s when it finally sank in — we were finally doing what we intended to do. I geared up and finally jumped in Barracuda Lake’s water. My heart was thumping, a no-no for free divers since racing heartbeats could lead to faster consumption of oxygen we so needed to reserve. Upon arriving at the diving spot, I did my best to calm my nerves and put my fears back on leash.

Finally, I made my first attempt to free dive. I tried to descend a few metres down from the surface. However, as much as I wanted to go deeper, I felt a sudden tug in my guts. It’s fear pulling me up seconds after I tried descending. For once, I somehow felt grateful for having fear as it helped in keeping me safe. However, surprisingly, there was another force pulling me towards a different direction. The water was pulling me down.

Free Diving - Harv - Coron

A part of me wanted to give in to the water’s force but, for the most part, I allowed fear to take over. This time, I was the one on the leash doing whatever fear wants me to. After leaving Barracuda Lake, I started talking to myself: “Hey, it’s okay. You’ve dealt with fear before. You can deal with it again now. Right now, what’s important is you have to resist water and its force.”

A force was wrecked, while the other succeeded

We went to another diving spot, this time to a shipwreck that became an artificial coral reef. I was excited, but it was still tough to keep fear at bay especially when free diving. However, my desire to dive became stronger. Our boat was anchored on the island and we started swimming towards the shipwreck. Above it, a flock of tourists floating like geese gathered. A few minutes later, we then understood why — the shipwreck is a sight to behold. Eerie but magnificent, holding its fort underwater, covered in corals, surrounded by marine life.

Free Diving - Harv - Coron

As I was about to dive, I felt fear tugging on the leash. At the same time, a much greater force is trying to pull me down. Water was doing its best to gently pull me down but forcefully fighting against fear’s manipulating prowess. How could the water be so gentle towards me and at the same time be so hostile to fear? The curiosity to find the answer was more than enough to make me resist free diving woes. The second time I dove, I fought fear’s steadfast grip and welcomed water’s gentle pull. I got deeper, closer to the shipwreck, until I was finally just a metre away from it. That’s when I understood, the water was pulling me for a totally different reason. 

Free Diving - Harv - Coron

Free diving several metres down, I was welcomed by water to a different world. I saw creatures I only once saw in National Geographic and magazines. I was close to relics of the past succumbed to the power of nature. I was finally in a domain I once fathomed I couldn’t explore.

Free Diving - Harv - Coron

It’s a Eureka moment for me to understand why water was so eager. But does that mean fear is nothing but a villain? No, not at all.

Fear is not your enemy

Fear could be manipulative, depressing, and even cunning. But fear is nothing but an innate part of who we are as human beings. It guards us against the unknown, it tries its best to protect us from harm, it is not a villain trying to take us far from our dream reality.

One of fear’s flaws is its tendency to react to irrational impulses. Its reaction leads to unnecessary worries and anxiety. But after free diving in Coron and after understanding fear’s unpredictable predicaments, I’ve realised how important my transition from a non-swimmer to a free diver was.

Indeed the transition ain’t easy and I never would have done it without the help of my friends and the wonders that the water has shown me. However, the same transition introduced me to another phase I have to go through in which I ought to succeed. That is, to transition from being manipulated by fear along with anxiety and woes that come with it, to understanding its cause and mustering enough courage to fully embrace and consistently conquer the things I am afraid of.

That’s the kind of transition that could help anyone transcend beyond limits and could bring us to wonders once unknown.

Photo Credits: Nico Soriano, Loui Bacosa, and MJ Ricafrente