Hong Kong free-diving: where to learn, and why it's catching on

Free-diving is catching on in Hong Kong. Exponents find it a challenge for both body and mind, and are not put off by the death last month of Russian free-diving queen Natalia Molchanova

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 August, 2015, 6:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 September, 2015, 2:46pm

The tightly knit community of free-divers around the world was stunned when news emerged in early August that Natalia Molchanova failed to return from a dive near Ibiza, Spain, and was presumed dead. The 53-year-old Russian had long been an inspirational figure in free-diving, her 41 world records making her the undisputed queen of the sport.

Although the tragedy highlighted the risks of free-diving, it has done little to dampen enthusiasm for the extraordinary discipline whereby athletes such as Molchanova can plumb depths of 100 metres on a single breath.

In Hong Kong, a growing number of scuba divers have been setting aside their air tanks to explore the underwater realm like graceful mermaids - or mermen.

Since its inception in 2012, the Hong Kong Freediving Association has grown from a tiny community of 10 like-minded people into one of three free-diving schools in the city. The association has trained about 200 students - mainly Cantonese speakers - and gained a following of 1,000 people on its Facebook page.

Last November, Freediving Planet, a Philippine-based school founded by five-time world-record holder Jean-Pol Francois and Suzanne Lim, a former pharmacist from France, expanded its operations to Hong Kong to fill the vacuum in English-language courses.

Both schools offer courses certified by AIDA (International Association for Development of Apnoea), one of two world organisations governing competitive free-diving.

All Freediving Planet courses in Hong Kong have been fully booked so far - much to the surprise of Lim, who heads the school's Hong Kong office.

It's a natural step for scuba divers to want to take up free-diving because the sport allows them to "swim like a dolphin", says Hong Kong association founder Chris Cheung Lap-hing. He acknowledges scuba diving is easier to master and carrying tanks of compressed air allows divers stay underwater for longer and cover more ground in a single dive.

But to Cheung, who uses monofins, the scuba experience can't compare to free-diving: although they are relatively brief, the dives are serene as people are not encumbered by heavy, bulky breathing gear and undisturbed by the noise of bubbles expelled via the air regulator.

"When scuba diving, I couldn't even catch up with the turtles," says Cheung, a medical equipment salesman by day. "And even if I could, my bubbles would indicate that I am alien to the ocean and scare away most marine life. But free-diving allows me to get close with sea creatures I yearn to see."

The greatest appeal to many enthusiasts, as well as champions like Molchanova and William Trubridge, is that each plunge is as much a journey deep into oneself as it is an adventure into extreme ocean depths, Lim says.

Taking a break on a recent Sunday while running a free-diving class for beginners off Trio Beach in Sai Kung, Lim says free-diving allowed her to better understand her inner psyche and physical limits because she has to listen to her body's signals to determine how deep she can go and how long she can stay beneath the surface.

French banker Charles Gillet, who relocated to Hong Kong in 2005, knows how enthralling it can be. He became fascinated with the sport two decades ago, influenced in part by The Big Blue, Luc Besson's 1988 movie about two rival free-divers, and partly by his spearfishing trips in the summer.

"The more I discovered about the sport, the more I loved its minimalistic approach. The communion with the water and yourself had an appeal I couldn't imagine before," Gillet says.

He also became a qualified free-diving instructor, but had to give up coaching four years ago due to the travel demands of his job. Still, Gillet leaps at any chance to free dive.

When you go through these phases, you have to look deep inside yourself and face your inner demons
Charles Gillet

Free-diving is "an introspective discipline", he says.

"As you go deeper, you have to let go, relax, teach your body and your mind to suppress the survival instinct which tells you to come back to the surface and breathe like you are supposed to. When you go through these phases, you have to look deep inside yourself and face your inner demons."

While most extreme sports are all about willpower and toughing it out, free-diving has more in common with yoga. Both pursuits stress the importance of relaxation through controlled breathing and calming the mind.

In free-diving, practitioners adopt breathing techniques that bring them into a meditative state, allowing them slow their heart rate and conserve all oxygen in their reserve. Applied in combination, this ultimately enables free-divers to achieve almost superhuman feats: the world's longest held breath lasted more than 11 minutes and the deepest dive reached 214 metres - about the height of One IFC in Central.

That's why diaphragmatic breathing is one of the first skills taught in Freediving Planet's beginner course. At a recent weekend class, Lim asks her four students to lie on their back and practise the correct breathing technique.

"You have to let your belly rise on the inhalation and fall on the exhalation. Slow, conscious and deep breathing conditions the lungs and mind prior to dives," she tells her class.

When Gillet was training with well-known Italian free-diver Umberto Pelizzari, his teacher would urge him to relax each time he was unable to progress any deeper.

"Pelizzari would tell me:'The deeper you go, the more tense you become. But you have to learn to do exactly the contrary … Don't fight with the ocean. You should embrace it and let the water and the pressure shape you.'"

It's a philosophy that echoes martial arts icon Bruce Lee's advice to "be like water".

Like every sport, with the thrills come the risks. The most dangerous period during a dive is when free-divers ascend to the surface: sustained by a breath taken several minutes before, a diver can black out as they reach shallow waters, less than 10 metres from fresh air, because the oxygen circulating in the body is insufficient to maintain consciousness. Others may suffer loss of muscle control after surfacing, leading to seizures and blackouts.

Although most people would classify free-diving as an extreme sport, Cheung thinks the discipline is no more dangerous than scuba diving or snorkelling, provided divers are professionally trained, respect safety rules and are equipped for emergencies.

And the two most important tenets in free-diving are to never dive alone and never push one's limit.

Free-diving allows me to get close with sea creatures I yearn to see
Chris Cheung

Gillet says disregard of the first rule is the root of almost all tragic accidents in free-diving, possibly including Molchanova's. The Russian free-diver was reportedly unaccompanied on her last dive, though it was set for 35 metres - well short of her record depth of 127 metres.

Blackouts can happen but are almost "harmless", he says, as long as the diver is accompanied by an experienced individual.

At Lim's beginner class, students are required to learn rescue techniques before they are even allowed to practise duck diving and finning. In waist-deep waters, the novices take turns to help their buddy "in danger" by first keeping their airway above water, removing the mask, tapping the cheeks and blowing lightly across the face to encourage them to breathe.

If you take certified courses and adhere to safety rules, the ocean depths need not be dark and menacing, enthusiasts say.

In fact, Gillet, once a keen scuba diver, has left his gear gathering dust at home for 10 years because he "could not find a good reason to scuba dive any more".

"Nothing can replace the freedom one can experience when gliding effortlessly in total silence," he says.

Seven popular free-diving spots in Hong Kong waters and beyond

Free-divers may dive with or without fins and weights, and aim for depth, time or distance, although many people associate the sport with going as deep as they can only with the aid of a rope during descent and ascent.

For those ready to plunge into the abyss, free-diving association founder Chris Cheung Lap-hing recommends starting off Sai Kung, in waters around spots such as Ung Kong Wan and Hoi Ha Wan.

After gaining confidence and sufficient skills, you can venture into the deep blue abroad - since waters around Sai Kung descend to only about 20 metres.

Among the overseas sites that Hong Kong free-divers favour are Moalboal in Cebu, Philippines, famous for its near-shore shoals of resident sardines; Oslob, also in Cebu, known for its friendly resident population of whale sharks; the USS Liberty wreck, off Tulamben, a town on Bali's northeast coast, at depths of three to 30 metres; Jellyfish Lake, off Koror in Palau, an inland saltwater lake that is linked to the sea via tidal tunnels and Dean's Blue Hole, Bahamas, the world's deepest known saltwater sinkhole which plunges to 200 metres.