The Freediver

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 The sun’s rays shimmered hypnotically off the gently undulating sea in a thousand points of light as three Bilbao cousins set out in a bangka (outrigger canoe) early one morning.  They knew the Sulu Sea well, having spent many summers with her. She would remain placid for a few more hours till she awakened around noon when her waves would enliven to an animated chop.

But canoeing was not the activity du jour.  Today they were off on the aquatic sport of freediving—breath-hold forays into the depths. They had logged umpteen freedives in Hinoba-an’s crystal clear waters, improving their technique and bolstering their confidence with each passing year.

On the surface the Sulu was enticing enough, but beneath her waves lay another world—a realm of ethereal beauty that handily consumed one in rapturous adventure. They were hooked on an exquisite addiction that had them engaging her daily in some activity or other.  Though given to reckless frolicking, they never lost sight of her intrinsic danger.  In turn, the latitude she afforded them seemed boundless.  It was a glorious dance—man in sublime delectation of the sea. 

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This particular outing was perilous as the elder cousin would push the envelope by diving deeper than he ever had.  The target depth would strain him to the limits of his capacity. While his experience and physique mitigated the danger, this skirted the edge of failure placing the odds of a lost of consciousness on the ascent, precariously, at better than even.  

Pursuing a personal best amidst the risk, he mapped out the dive as best he could, endeavoring to cover all the bases.  As a safety net his younger chums Jimmyboy Bilbao and JJ Beltran would hover underwater at lesser depths throughout the attempt. One would be two-thirds, the other a third of the way down.  Having practiced the manuever a few times, he was confident they could bail him out if things got dicey.

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The only thing he hadn’t factored in, he thought, as they reached an ideal spot some hundred yards from the shore, their makeshift weighted-rope depth gauge indicating the right depth, was how the dynamics might change in the event of a shark encounter.  Since there hadn’t been sightings in these waters as far as he knew, the thought quickly faded.  This was the day he would free dive to 60 feet on a single breath!  The proof of hitting bottom would be a handful of sand scooped from the sea floor and brought to the surface.

Sixty was the magic number—about the height of a tall coconut tree.  He had under his belt scores of dives to depths of upwards of 45 feet and this was his third summer of no-nonsense freediving, so he was primed (it didn’t hurt that he had acquired his PADI Open Water Diver certification the year prior). Gravitating to swimming underwater as soon as he had learned to swim, he was a strong swimmer, though not nearly as good, nor as fast, as his competition-class cousins Peter Garcia and Frankie Uy Bico, whose speed and form were remarkable.  His body was negatively buoyant, so skimming the surface didn’t come naturally to him.  Underwater though he was in his element. Comfortable and confident, he could out-dive anyone he knew.

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The stage set, the cousins slipped off the bangka into the water.  Wishing each other luck, they began the de rigueur hyperventilation, gulping in one last full breath before jackknifing, their fins rising up out of the water as their weight thrust them downward into the blue.  With big, stiff kicks, they made their way down staying relaxed and exerting as little energy as possible.  At 20 feet down, one freediver peeled off, then at 30 feet the other, holding at those depths as planned.  Alone now, the elder cousin continued down the remaining stretch to the bottom.  Thirty or Forty odd seconds later he had made it!  60 feet deep underwater, he calmly scooped up a handful of sand, looked up at this mates, then grinning, gave them a triumphant thumbs-up.  Although the magical, womb-like environment of the deep filled him with an indescribable euphoria, he had to leave it in haste as he was just about out of air.  Glancing up before starting his ascent, a pang of anxiety crept in as he beheld the enormous amount of water above him.  With Zen-like concentration, he forced himself to relax mentally and physically as he pushed aside the increasing pain of oxygen deprivation.  50 feet to go, 40, 30,…his body convulsed lightly now as the strain was becoming intolerable.  With 15 feet left, light began receding around the edge of his vision—he was on the verge of blacking out!  The last few feet were a blur as time slowed to a standstill.  With nothing left, his lungs screaming for air, he finally broke the surface, explosively gasping for a breath.

The fresh sea air soon had him regaining his wits as he bobbled on the water relishing in the moment of having pulled off the ambitious feat.  Back aboard the bangka, the trio savored a round of chilled beer and smokes as they contemplated their next exploit.

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