Learning about Freediving among the Sama

Competitive Freediving and its search for the Sama

Though competitive freediving has only recently taken the form of a sport, freediving has existed for centuries as a means of livelihood and an alternative source of income for those that have an aptitude for it. Recently I received an e-mail from Wolfgang Dafert of www.freediving-philippines.com. He has been teaching freediving for over 7 years and they recently held the first freediving competition in the Philippines. He approached me for help finding the deepest and best Badjao freediver. After explaining to him that the Badjao (Sama Dilaut) are actually part of a larger tribe, I told him that here in Davao alone I know of at least 5 very good freedivers.
Apnea, as the term is used in freediving for being able to hold one’s breath underwater, is readily translated into the Sinama language as ap’ddon.  Here in Davao, my experience is that when asking the question of who among the divers are ap’ddon, the people are often Sama from the island of Silumpak.  Though when asking Sama Silumpak they will also state that the Sama Dilaut (Badjao) are also ap’ddon.  Of the five divers here in town I knew of, all of them were at least part Sama Silumpak.  Regular dives are around 20 d’ppa (20 fathoms or about 100ft).  On occasion they have done dives reaching 40-50 d’ppa (as high as 250ft).  I also shared with Wolfgang that I knew of a story of a man who dove 105 d’ppa (525 ft).   (Content Removed: More information on the 105 d’ppa dive will be provided as it becomes verifiable).

Connecting Freediving Knowledge to Sama Freediving Practice

These things were of enough interest to Wolfgang that he came and visited us here in Davao on Saturday.  Sama divers could learn a lot from Wolfgang that would help them in their pagusaha (livelihood).  For instance when we were sitting down with a Sama Imam (community religious leader), he mentioned that sometimes he spits out blood after freediving.  It usually happens when he hasn’t been diving for a while and he goes quite deep.  The reason, we found out from Wolfgang, was that after a few weeks of not diving, lung muscles that were once stretched out and conditioned, return to a normal state.  Just like if you haven’t played basketball for a while it is easy to strain your muscles, resulting in injury.  In the same way you can damage your lungs by not stretching them properly during extended periods of rest from freediving.  Wolfgang gave an example of lung stretches that he uses when away from freediving.  That way when he starts diving again there is no blood.  This is especially important for Imam who always takes a break from freediving during Ramadan, the Muslim month for fasting.  There are also breathing techniques that can aid a freediver in using air more efficiently while underwater so that they can stay there for quite some time.  Wolfgang has done 7 minutes on one breath before.
In just a two day visit, Sama that have been my friends for years could relate better with my guest.  This is due to similar experiences that I do not yet share with them.  Wolfgang is also a spear-gun fisherman.  The Sama were quite interested in how he marks areas that have lots of fish when he goes out.  In the end I think its not so different than their own techniques.  He also mentioned that when he fishes near coral, he often goes about 20 ft or so beyond the coral in the direction of the current.  Bigger fish are often waiting out their to find smaller fish that come out from the reef.
I think Wolfgang also learned quite a bit from the Sama.  Traditionally the Sama dive headfirst when diving.   The men that knew the diver from Tinoto who dove 105 d’ppa, recalled that he would always go feet first. The reason as explained by freedivers is that it is actually easier to equalize the pressure in your body when your ears are above your lungs.  Wolfgang still can’t comprehend how the Sama equalize to relieve the pain in their ears.  They don’t tend to mention plugging their nose and blowing.  Those that are using full masks do blow out some of their air into their mask as a method to relieve pressure on the ears.  Though it is a common tale that Sama and Badjao blow their eardrums on purpose in order to dive with greater ease, no one I have met has ever confirmed that.  Imam said that none of the divers he knows even have blown eardrums, except for one.  This man blew his eardrums at a young age.  It was an accident since he was expected to provide for his family at a time when his father was sick.
I will return to the topic of the diver who dove 105 d’ppa.  Wolfgang was amazed that when he did the dive, he stopped about 3-5 d’ppa from the surface to relax his body.  Most likely this was done in an attempt to avoid decompression sickness.  Among competitive freedivers a technique like this has only recently been used and has proved helpful.

Traces of the Impact of Freediving on Sama Culture

I had thought that freedivers weren’t at risk of getting the bends, but Wolfgang corrected me.  He said that decompression sickness is especially dangerous because it doesn’t always manifest itself immediately.  I find this interesting as I have ran into several Sama men that are suffering from diving related sicknesses.  The man who dove 105 d’ppa is said to have been poisoned.  In the last few years of his life he was said to not be able to dive more than 1 d’ppa.  Stories among the Sama about poisonings are frequent.  I wonder how many of the stories might actually be rooted in diving related sicknesses that only manifest themselves over time.
There are also quite a few stories about the most ap’ddon Sama fishermen being connected to spirit beings or mermaids in the deep ocean.  Interestingly enough, Wolfgang did not deny this account, but instead noted that high levels of nitrogen in the body while deep in the ocean are known to introduce hallucinations and highly euphoric experiences.  This of course can be a very dangerous high, which is why he stressed how important it is to always dive with a partner.  The Sama in most cases already do this, especially when diving at greater depths.

Freediving can be more Effective than Scuba Diving

I learned a lot over Wolfgang’s two day visit.  I always thought that scuba divers would dive deeper than freedivers.  Scuba divers have limitations based on their air.  Its not recommended to go over 24 d’ppa (120 ft) on regular air, though some will push the limit as high as 36 d’ppa (180 ft).  This is the reason that a Sama freediver would be hired to prove the presence of a shipwreck.  For anything over 36 d’ppa the freediver is more useful than your ordinary scuba diver.

What the Increasing Popularity of the Sport of Freediving could do for the Sama

For me it was an honor to host Wolfgang for a two day visit.  Any freediving instructor in the Philippines should do as much as possible to connect the sport with its roots.  I was pleased to introduce him to some of the deeper divers among the Sama.  Too often the Sama are looked down upon by their Filipino countrymen and even their fellow Muslims.  The pearl is a parable woven into the lives of the Sama.  The pearl which once held great value has now become a cheap commodity.  Its now farmed, processed, manufactured.  It used to be strove for by diving to great depths.  The Sama are indeed a great tribe, worthy of honor, but they have been kicked about by the modern world who does not care so much about culture and heritage as it does materialism and commercial value.
I am hopeful that the sport of competitive freediving as it begins to develop in the Philippines can serve as a means to bring honor and dignity once again to this awesome tribe, the Sama.

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