Four years ago, Carlo Navarro dove into the waters of Moalboal in Cebu to set the first few Philippine national records in freediving. Those were the nascent days of the sport in an archipelago that offers plenty of opportunity for it. Today, freediving is arguably the most accessible extreme sport in the Philippines, and Carlo — the first and only Filipino AIDA master instructor and 10-time national record holder — is the head croupier in this most peculiar gamble. AIDA, or the International Association for Development of Apnea (Association Internationale pour le Développement de l’Apnée), is the international governing body for competitive breath-holding events or freediving.
Paraxodically, freediving is the antithesis to extreme sports — to do it effectively, you need to ease into the immense pressure, slow down when the fear comes, and summon calm as opposed to adrenaline. It’s like yoga on steroids. And it is marked by a slow and deliberate progression.
The human body also changes in reaction to a dive. Metabolism of oxygen becomes more efficient as the heart rate slows down, and the body redistributes blood to the most important organs. So why would anyone freedive? Why go against your most basic, human instincts to survive? Why dive bomb into deep and dark waters with the most minimal equipment possible, and simultaneously, voluntarily, just stop breathing?
“I think initially people freedive because of the thrill of accomplishment in pushing the impossible,” Carlo says of his own experience. For him the fascination began 15 years ago in a small cove in Batangas. Getting inducted into the student organization called UP MBS required going on a dive. Breaking from his usual stoicism, Carlo recalls this first dive as “Just…wow!”
And he can’t be faulted. They say we know more about the moon than we do our own oceans, and diving is akin to exploring a distant planet: Forget everything you know about gravity, light and sound. Underwater, these things morph into unknowns. In this spectacularly diverse “distant planet”, you encounter creatures you will swear were inspired by aliens. Carlo can still picture the turtles and sharks on his first time in the magical waters of Apo Reef, Occidental Mindoro.
But freediving is less about the sights. The Italian freediver Umberto Pelizzari, among the pillars of the sport, once said: “The scuba diver dives to look around. The freediver dives to look inside.” When you find yourself slowly transitioning from being an explorer to an extreme freediver, even time and perception gets warped. Suddenly, a free dive is filled with the inner workings of your mind. “On a good dive, there should be nothing but peace. Nothing else matters but the here and now,” Carlo says. “As freedivers, we train ourselves mentally to become a master of our emotions, fears and focus.”
Clearly, the ocean transforms your body, too — discovering a new muscle becomes commonplace. “You try your best to read and learn about this stuff, but nothing is like that eureka moment you experience and internalize it yourself,” he laughs. Back then, there was only one freediving school in the Philippines located in Moalboal, Cebu — the one school that eventually gave him a shot at his first records.
Fast forward to 2015. Carlo bagged his 10th national record in four out of six competitive disciplines, and the number of freediving schools in the Philippines had increased five-fold. He has since left his nine-year engineering stint at a major airline, won a freediving championship, and has gone on to become an instructor and competition judge. One eureka moment turned into a career. There was no turning back.
Now 36, he runs a small freedive center off Manila and Batangas with the aim of building a community founded on safe freediving. He’s also the founder and president of the Sisid Philippine Freedivers Association, recognized by AIDA, which encourages more freedivers to join competitions.
“There will always be a deeper goal to reach,” he says, but a limitless ocean means there’s more than enough room for everyone. “Having more freedivers means more chances of improving the overall level of freediving in the Philippines.” All in due time, of course.
The gamble is now beginning to pay off. Competitions organized just for Filipinos are in the pipeline this year, and all eyes are set on a new wave of freedivers eager to ease into new records for the country. And behind all this, there is Carlo Navarro, slowly but surely, ushering other Filipinos into the amazing distant planet that is freediving.
This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of Smile magazine.