IT’S AS SIMPLE as taking a breath, being able to swim, and believing in yourself. If you’ve got these abilities, you’re ready for freediving — the art of diving in a single breath, i.e., no tanks. All across Asia, the silent, underwater world is waiting.
Freediving has been gaining popularity, perhaps because it requires far less equipment (and cash) than scuba, and because at its essence it’s the practice of mindfulness — something we all could use more of these days. But if you look at the diverse populations across Asia who are best at freediving, it becomes apparent the health benefits are many, and its roots go a long way back, both historically and, believe it or not, genetically.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the freediving grandmas who fish for sea urchin and abalone off Jeju Island in Korea? Most now well above 60, the women in this community have been passing this tradition down since before the 18th century. And what about the Moken — an indigenous group who have been living for centuries at sea, subsistence diving along the western coasts of Thailand and Burma. One of the groups referred to as Sea Gypsies, the Moken are famously so at one with the water that they anticipated the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and suffered no casualties from that continental tragedy, having fled to high ground in time.
Likewise, the Bajau people of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, known as Sea Nomads, can stay underwater hunting fish for up to 5 minutes. Scientists have shown that the bodies of Bajau have evolved thanks to the amount of time they spend in the water — around five hours per day, regularly diving as deep as 20 meters or more. Their spleens are 50 percent larger than the average person’s. Why is this important? When you dive your spleen contracts and red blood cells are released into your bloodstream. A larger spleen gives you a greater supply of red blood cells, so more oxygen, allowing you to stay underwater longer.
Increase Your Fitness
On the physical side, freediving’s a gateway to a healthier lifestyle. Your joints also experience less pressure when underwater. And participating in an activity with no impact, unlike running, will help increase your endurance and vitality, with fewer injuries.
Freediving helps strengthen your lungs through exercises to increase their oxygen capacity. As you learn to gently push the physical boundaries of your body, you’ll also learn how to best your brain.
Master Your Mind + Manage Stress
Courtesy of Khemwanta Tangon, photos by @plantongirl (2)
Unlike almost every sport on the planet where the goal is to get your heart racing and increase adrenaline levels, the goal of freediving is the complete opposite. To be able to perform better, your body relies on being able to completely relax — mentally and physically.
There are numerous breathing techniques to prepare your body for going on an underwater dive. Many are related to yoga and have a combination of belly, diaphragm, rib, and chest expansions and contractions. The most important thing is to never do any kind of breath-holding without a trained buddy next to you. This is why it’s imperative to do training courses in a pool with professionals. You’ll learn the correct, and safe, way to breathe, stay calm and lower your heart rate.
Jemeluk Bay is the most protected deep bay on the north coast of Bali, with up to 50 meters of depth easily accessible within a short swim from shore. The bay is home to vibrant reefs and a coral wall. There are also shipwrecks suitable for freediving not too far away.
Apneista, located by the bay, offers freediving courses from basic to instructor level. They run various specialty trips including freediving with manta rays (go March to November) and liveaboard excursions, as well as yoga classes.
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Nanuya Balavu Island
Just northwest of Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu lies the aptly named Mantaray Island Resort. Stay here to get the best access to freediving with some of the coolest creatures in Asia-Pacific.
Manta rays visit between May to October, and fly through shallow water (the channel they cruise through is only 6.5 meters deep)—but there are a host of corals and other marine life to be found deeper.
Courtesy of Freedive Koh Tao (2)
Protected from seasonal typhoons, without strong currents, and blessed with warm, tropical water year-round, the island of Koh Tao hosts an array of corals and marine life, such as blacktip reef sharks, turtles, stingrays, schools of barracuda, and, occasionally, whales.
Tucked into the northwest of the Gulf of Thailand, the island has long been the go-to for folks looking to get their scuba certifications. But it’s also one of the best places in Asia for freediving. If you’re extremely lucky, you’ll spot a pink dolphin.
4. The Philippines
On the west coast of Cebu is the peninsula of Moalboal, with water bluer than could be achieved in a Hollywood effects studio.
If you want to learn to dive from the best in one of the most postcard-perfect spots in Asia, sign up with Freediving Philippines as their training site, Tongo Bay, is sheltered from swell and wind and is home to whale sharks and a spectacular school of sardines.
T+L Tip: Freediving Philippines also offers three-day trips to Talikud Island, near Davao, to dive with the Sea Gypsies. These trips are not-for-profit, with the money going to the Sea Gypsies community. You can also try, and buy, their traditional wooden goggles.
Crater Lakes National Park
Tropical rainforest in Far North Queensland (FNQ) may seem an unlikely place for freediving, but the Crater Lakes National Park has two perfectly suited bodies of water just under an hour’s drive from Cairns.
Both Eacham and Barrine lakes serve as the training grounds for Freedive FNQ and are surrounded by lush rainforest. No need to worry about accessibility, tides, currents, or sharks here. No word on drop bears though.
For Singapore’s almost six million inhabitants, the convenience of the southern islands is a boon to those wanting to freedive.
While the waters here don’t offer bright corals or a vast array of wildlife, they’re tropical and easily accessible by charter boat. These trips are regularly undertaken by Zen Freediving and ensure both pool and open-water experience can be gained within the city-state.