Diving Apo Island - Freediving the Philippines

Diving Apo Island without tanks & Freediving the Philippines

Diving Apo Island - Freediving the Philippines

Diving Apo Island next to SCUBA divers along the ocean floor, 30 feet down, on a single breath of air, with no tanks, just a mask, fins, and a feeling of pure peace.  If you’d told me 6 months ago that I would be finning around dive sites that require tanks of air I wouldn’t have believed you…but the experience of swimming on the ocean floor of this surprisingly rich marine sanctuary has me sold on the capabilities of the human body, and the beauty of the ocean.  This was my experience joining SCUBA divers to dive Apo Island…with just my lungs…

Welcome to Dumaguete, Gateway to Apo Island

“Hey!  Welcome to the Flying Fish Hostel!  The little Pinay girl behind the desk said as she signed me into the Dumaguete hostel. “What are you here for?” She asked as she checked the computer for the reservation I made 5 minutes earlier.

“I’m not sure.  I just heard that Dumaguete was a good place to go from Oslob”, the place I was at that very same morning, swimming with whale sharks. “What do most people do here?”

“Most people here are diving Apo Island.  Should I sign you up?”

“Yeah, let’s do it.”

“Ok, I’ve written down your name for the boat.  Will you be SCUBA diving?”

“No.  Just my lungs…but put me on the same boat.”

With that, the receptionist scribbled my name down.  The following morning I would hop on a boat full of SCUBA divers and snorkelers, aiming to follow the SCUBA divers around with just the air in my lungs, exploring the marine sanctuary of Apo Island. 

This would be interesting.

A Little Intro: Apo Island Philippines

The Philippines.  If you haven’t been then I’ll confirm…every view of the water looks exactly like the pictures – so crystal clear you can see as deeply as light from above can penetrate.  The locals are friendly. The undersea life is plentiful and dazzling.  On any of the 7,000 islands that comprise the territory, there are amazing diving and snorkeling sites filled with coral, fish, and other little critters like snakes, starfish, cucumbers, and “nudibranches” all over the place.

Apo Island is no different and actually much more of the same.  A small island wrapped in underwater cliffs and flourishing reefs, hundreds of sea turtles, protected as a sanctuary and a haven for those that love life below the ocean’s surface.  Diving Apo Island is the highlight of Negros and the surrounding area. 

If you book far enough in advance, there’s a tiny eco resort on the island you can stay at that lives up the islands in a traditional way.  Fishing is allowed, but only by the local inhabitants that have lived here for centuries and number about 500. 

Every night on Apo (which means “Queen”), a few hours after sunset, the power is shutoff on the Island and the lights are replaced by battery powered torches and, better yet, candles.  So, from Dumaguete, around 10 each night you can see this floating island of speckled lights in the ocean just go out.  The electrically powered gizmos die giving way to the stars in the sky that emerge through the lack of light.  No generators.  No cars.  No motorcycles.  Just the sound of waves wrapping a candlelight Island. That is Apo Island.

…and I happened here on Dumaguete, a short boat ride away, by chance.  Sometimes Lady Luck does smile on me.

From Swimming with Whale Sharks to Swimming with Turtles

My ferry from Oslob, on Cebu island, to Dumaguete happened by chance after my experience of swimming with whale sharks in Oslob. I forgot to book another night at my guesthouse in Oslob and with accommodation fully booked, I looked at Maps.Me and saw the nearest city I had a marker on (though I couldn’t remember why) was Dumaguete. 

I decided to flip a coin to choose my destination. Heads and I was going to Dumaguete.  Tales was stay in Oslob and find a way to Cebu’s western coast.

Flip…

Heads it was. 

I packed my bags, turned in the key to my room, walked to the side of the road, and flag down the first bus to the port for Dumaguete.

Now, here I was a few hours later standing at the desk, committing to go to some “Apo Island” for diving…or something like that.  Hopefully the travel gods and Lady Luck were willing to hang with me a while longer…as my intention to plan left me a long time ago.

My Goal on Apo: Test the Usefulness of “Freediving”

I walked away from the reception desk researching Apo Island excitedly, as this would be an opportunity to test out my new hobby of “Freediving.”

Freediving is essentially the skill of holding a breath as long as possible by relaxing, breathing, and swimming efficiently.   Though these concepts are simple at first mastering them is a completely different story and can enable a human to stay underwater much longer than most expect. 

During the initial freediving training on Bali I was able to swim down to 25 meters (~75 feet) and hold a single breath for 3 minutes after a couple days of training.  Since then I’d managed to get up to 4 minutes and I was eager to see how useful and practical this new skill was in action.

The Crew for the Day and a Game of Underwater Hide & Seek

The tour to dive off Apo Island consisted of hopping on a jealousy inspiring Filipino boat, bamboo pontoons and all, from Dumaguete with a crew of other swimmers. 

Apo Island Diving & Freediving the Philippines
A Filipino outrigger boat in paradise. A perfect combination.

Half of the other tourists were snorkelers, destined to float on the surface looking down like observant bits of human sea debris. 

Just over a quarter of the group were new divers – completing their PADI Open Water Course or on “discovery dives”. 

The last pair of sea goers was a cool German couple, with over 100 dives between them.   The German couple usually spent most of their vacations traveling to exotic places and getting in their “relaxation” by diving – Egypt, Malaysia, Seychelles, Vietnam, you name it and they’ve probably dived there. 

Goes to show that no matter how cool you think you are, there’s always someone cooler. 

I like meeting “cooler” people.

Needless to say, we had a varied crew, which made my self-guided free diving adventure for the day even more interesting.

Before learning to freedive, I would have opted for the SCUBA diving option as chasing the German sea-ninjas around would have been the most adventurous thing.  Instead, I decided to use this opportunity as a tester…

If you research the best natural dive sites in the world – known for coral, predictable animals and the like – many of them occur at less than a depth of 30 meters.  Beyond 30 meters the dives becomes less interesting (for me) as less light from above reaches down and the colors of the coral and marine life fade as the light changes and the warm hues of red and orange disappear. 

It’s very easy to reach a good level of comfort free-diving down to 30 meters and hanging out there.  I had already reached 25 meters (though I admit I can’t stay there long…yet), so why not build up the ability to go where most divers go, using my own lungs?

My plan going forward was to go to traditional dive sites, ideally going to 18 meters, but eventually up to 30 meters, and intermittently freedive them with the SCUBA divers.  Apo Island would be a test.  If I could thrive, I would be on a heavy first step to embracing freediving, my 3rd sport in my “Adventure 8” chase.  I was rolling the dice with the travel gods a second time. Hopefully my plan (or lack of one) still had some luck.

Apo Island: An Aquatic Dream

The ride out from Negros Island onboard the oversized outrigger boat was perfect. The water was choppy enough to lull me into trance like relaxation, as Apo Island grew larger in my view.  I laid on the front deck for the whole 30 minutes wondering how life could get any better.   The closer we got, the more this island looked like paradise…above and below the water.

As we pulled up to the first dive site, an underwater cliff face where we would drop the German sea ninjas, the water was so crystal clear I could see the sea floor, tens of meters below the boat.

I wouldn’t be able to test my plan for now, by chasing them, they were doing a one way dive along the cliff face about 25 meters down, riding an underwater current.  I’d have to keep myself entertained until they came back into view.  Given the natural splendor of this place, that was going to be a very easy task.

One of the many dive sites on Apo Island. An underwater cliff face with plenty of creatures and helpful currents

The Deutsch couple toppled into the water and floated off, and so did we as our boat navigated towards a marine sanctuary around the corner.  Below the boat, the sea floor pulled closer as more and more sea life carpeted the ocean bottom.

Ahead, more diving boats anchored onto each other in a way that should have been an eyesore but made the vista seem more like…the Philippines.  More like an aquatic paradise.

Diving Apo Island - Freediving the Philippines

As I sat there with my legs hanging off the edge, the boat slowed to a stop. 

Snorkelers trickled off the boat and drifted away, looking at the coral from above as the beginner divers went through their briefings and checks.  They then plopped off the boat in a humorous bit of chaos that brought back memories of my Open Water Course on Koh Tao.  My turn.

I planned ahead, realizing that the plan to freedive while others floated and SCUBAed wouldn’t be catered too, but I didn’t require much so prep would be easy.  I requested a wetsuit, so that my body temperature wouldn’t drop too low while I was floating in the water slowing my breathing and heart rate.  I grabbed a pair of weights, strapped on by a belt, to help me sink to the bottom more quickly instead of wasting effort kicking.  I hooked up my makeshift leash for my camera, made from extra rock climbing gear, to record the adventure in the event that it was a success…or in the event that I failed, at least there would be funny clips for my funeral.  Finally, it was time to rock.

Fins on. Mask on. Luck (hopefully) on.  Let’s go.  Time to become wannabe Aquaman.

Free Diving Apo Island & the Beauty Below

Below the surface of the water, once the froth of bubbles cleared, the undersea view was much more beautiful than I anticipated.  In all my travels, I’ve never seen a view so filled with coral and sea life: fish, large and small, snakes, starfish, cucumbers, jellyfish floating, and so many things I didn’t recognize.  I know my “objective” for this experience was to test whether freediving could truly be a replacement for SCUBA diving…but at this point I couldn’t care less.  I just enjoyed the view.

Floating on the water’s surface with outstretched arms and legs like a starfish suspended on the surface, breathing deeply and relaxing to slow my heart rate for the dive to come, I couldn’t help but notice that the more I slowed, my body and my mind, the more life appeared on the ocean floor.  A forest of coral and color with critters large and small decorating them and dancing between them.  After a couple minutes I closed my eyes and took my final breaths…

…4…3…2…1

With the last breath I opened my eyes and removed the snorkeling from my mouth, kicking forward with a final burst of outstretched arms toward the ocean floor.  My fins rose out of the water as they pushed me toward the reef below.  A few meters later, I was among the coral forest.  Just moments before, I was a bystander observing from the surface.  Now, I was a part of this undersea world

I had to shoot my arms out to stop quickly and avoid hitting the coral in front of me. 

As I stopped I realized…I had plenty of breath to spare.  I might as well hang out a while.  So, I launched forward, cruising and floating between the giant pieces of coral. 

Apo Island Diving - Freediving the Philippines

Tiny fish poked their heads out to see who was invading their neighborhood.  Not alarmed, but curious as they looked at each other, seemingly chatting.  I couldn’t help but think they reminded me of the friendly and colorful observers that always poke their heads out and say hello when I wander around in not so commonly treaded barrios in South America.

As I reached the end of this reef neighborhood’s street, I rolled over onto my back looking at the light above and saw countless floating life jackets with limbs extending from them.  Seemingly a world away.  They reminded me that this, swimming with just my body and a pair of goggles and staying minutes on the sea floor was uncommon, new to me, and one of the best decisions I’ve been pressured into in a long time (thanks Aaron aka Duckman). 

Seeing those bodies also reminded me of my need to breathe, as my legs started to burn and my chest began to spasm, my body gently nudged me with the warning that it was time to hit the surface.

I kicked furiously, attention no longer fixed on the colorful sea garden and now focused on the badly needed breath.

I rocketed above the surface, performing my recovery breaths according to freediving doctrine then relaxed.  I laid on my back staring at the sky as I felt blood rushing back to my arms and legs, oxygen flooding my body again.  I felt fully recovered.

Looking around, the Filipino pontoon boats floated in a circle as captains chatted good in good nature, snorkelers floated in the shallows tens of meters away.  Below, the sea floor full of life seemed like a completely different world.  It was just below, but felt so far away again.  I wanted to dive again.  I loved this.  Considering I used to be scared of the ocean, I felt pretty damn at home in this place. 

I hung out on the surface breathing in a relaxed, unforced way to finish the last bit of recovery, swapping out the built up carbon dioxide for fresh oxygen.  After a couple minutes I kicked off to a new spot, took four deep breaths and kicked to the bottom again…swimming around and through the colorful forests, examining the creatures up close.

After repeating the dives over and over in different patches of coral it was time to re-board and head to a new dive site.  Hoping that I would actually be able to test my limits I chatted up the dive instructor.  The site we were at was about four to six meters deep.  Not much at all, but the next site would be about six meters on the snorkeling side and around 10 meters and deeper on the diving side of the boat.  This would be good.  We originally dropped off the advanced divers (the German sea ninjas) for a one way dive that would float them down to our new site, and proceeded to our new site, so there was a chance I’d be able to catch them. 

After the throng of flailing snorkelers jumped in and swam off at our new spot, it was time to see what I could really do.  I hopped off the dive side.  Once the bubbles cleared I saw a pale blue abyss below.

Perfection.  The ocean floor was a bit darker, and definitely a bit further down.  A bit further away.  The ocean floor dropped off into an eerie blue grayness.  This was exactly what I needed.  I popped my head up to make sure no boats were in the area or headed in the direction that I wanted to go.  Then, I kicked off. 

I stopped at what from the view above, onboard a boat, would look like a simple patch of wet darkness.  A bit of nervousness kicked in as I wasn’t being nearly completely safe.  I should have had a buddy.  I should have had a buoy.  I should have had a dive marker.  In the event that I blacked out on the way up, no one would be there immediately to slap me and tell me to breathe or get the water out of my mouth.  

On the mitigation side, before I jumped in I took a weight off my belt, so that if anything went wrong my body would float to the surface quickly.    Luckily, as I was removing the weight from my belt one of the divemasters quizzically pointed to the belt and said, “you’re SCUBA diving?”

“Nah.” I replied as I pointed down. 

“Ah, freediving.” He said with a smile. “I’ll look out for you.” 

So, I had one Ace in my pocket in the event that thing went wrong.   I wouldn’t push my limits too far, but this fella had my back on the boat nearby in the event of the unexpected.

I was above my targeted point in the grayish blue distance below.  It was time to test this whole “natural diving” idea.

I took my final deep breaths.

4…3…2…1…

I looked up one final time to see the Filipino divemaster watching.  I gave him a thumbs up, which he returned.   I kicked forward, shot my hands out below me, toward the sea floor, as my legs pushed me downward from above…

“Halfway,” I thought, gliding toward the sea floor with the “sky” above me and the ocean below.  My lungs felt fresh and my body felt comfortable.  My arms shot out instinctively, slowing my descent to keep from hitting the coral.  I made it. 

I wasn’t as deep as this dive site went, but I made it as deep as I needed to enjoy the best of it.  Under my own power.  Minimum equipment. Energy to spare.  I kicked forward following the underwater hill down, examining how the sea-life changed with depth.  The feeling was somehow relaxing yet exhilarating.  Amazing.

I looked up and though I could see light from the surface I could barely make out the thin silhouette of my boat’s hull.  Time to surface.  I swam up to halfway, looking above for boats, and stopped to look down, suspended there in what felt like midair.  If you give in to the moment, its amazing what this feeling feels like.  I highly recommend freediving in a dive spot.  It’s unreal.

My lungs started to burn slightly as I continued to kick to the surface, breaking the water and starting my recovery breaths a few meters from the boat.  Immediately, the Filipino divemaster shot me a thumbs up to ensure I was ok. I returned it with a huge smile as I breathed. 

I hung out there staring at the sky for a bit recovering before I kicked off back to the spot I had just come from. 

As I got closer I saw something below more pleasing than I would have expected it to be – divers.  They were cruising along diving a line of the hill I had just dove.   This meant that I had reached a depth suitable for SCUBA diving in my last dive.  I had to seize this moment.

I kicked out in front of them, giving myself enough time to descend and catch them, and took my four prep breaths before kicking down, grabbing pictures along the way.  As I pulled up close, I saw it was the German sea-ninjas, and the expression I got was priceless.

As I swam out the corner of their vision, I managed to catch the attention of one of them. 

He looked at me, looked at the surface, and looked back at me with an expression of “wtf?” as he pointed to the surface then looking at his partner’s dive computer.  I hung out and swam with them for a few seconds savoring the moment, and then rocketed back towards the surface.  I chatted with him later and at the time, they were at 10 or 11 meters (30-33 feet) down.  The point I had previously swam down to was a bit further out and a bit deeper, meaning this whole “freediving thing” had some potential.

After that last dive, I hopped out, stripped off my fins, and hung my feet off the boat just enjoying the achievement, and the moment, as the boat motored off back to Dumaguete and Negros island.

If you’re ever in the Philippines near Cebu or Bohol, I highly recommend Apo island as its one of the few places I’ve seen with lush, thriving coral and a healthy ecosystem within.  But, I recommend Freediving it.

Freediving is becoming more and more an activity I plan to invest my energy and adventures in.  As much as I do enjoy SCUBA diving, the simplicity of freediving, the balanced excitement it brings, and the empowerment you have (and feel) in the water the water being “slick” is amazing. 

My Freediving training, outside of normal exercise, cardio, and swimming, has been daily breathing exercises to extend my max breath hold time.  Oddly, the training puts me in such a chill and relaxed state that not even greedy taxi drivers can get on my nerves.  Additionally, the sport is so low impact that anyone without cardiovascular issues could start with few if any worries (double check with your doc, of course).

IF you’ll have access to a beautiful ocean anytime soon, consider freediving as a new hobby.  If you don’t have a body of water…consider one of the other Adventure 8 sports.

With the “Wannabe Aquaman Test” complete, the resources I previously planned to use for SCUBA diving would now be used for Freediving, and I’ll be planning more of my travels around Freediving in the future.  As for the immediate future, it appears my hostel doesn’t have any room for tomorrow night given all of the Chinese tourists in town for the lunar new year. 

Looks like its time for another round of traveler roulette. And the coin flip says…

…next stop, Siquijor Island.   Voodoo, waterfalls, and scenic motorbike rides…

A note on safety from this story: The way I went about this dive is a way I DO NOT recommend for anyone else.  There are several precautions and steps that I should have taken but didn’t…but, this is an approach to adventure I’ve taken for a long time, and I have my own safeties built in to the process that I didn’t detail in this story.  Meaning, I did not follow the prescribed way o doing things however I have taken several steps to mitigate the risks.  If you decide to freedive (which I highly recommend) please start with a certified and authorized PADI Freediving Level I course and follow the prescribed safety procedures.  Then adventure hard AF.

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