S'pore hits new depths in free diving

S'pore hits new depths in free diving
STAYING UNDER: Free divers after a training session at Bukit Merah Swimming Complex.

SINGAPORE - When I stopped breathing and submerged my head in the water, my world became light undulating and grains of sand shifting on pale blue tiles; the weightlessness of my limbs hanging in chlorinated water... until I began to feel the tightness against my chest.

I surfaced and exhaled, inhaled, and began to wonder, how long did I last?

Along with eight free-dive enthusiasts, I was attending a training session at the Bukit Merah Swimming Complex, where we attempted to stay underwater, fin or swim as long or as far as we could on one breath.

In the pool, there was some element of competition as divers noted times and distances covered, but free diving is not just about breaking records or going to depths unknown, as movies or videos online may have us believe.

"When I first started four years ago, people didn't even know what it was," free-dive coach Bernard Wong told My Paper. "It's more accepted as a sport now."

He loves the fact that it allows him to bond with marine life.

In his two years of teaching the sport, the former SEA Games cycling champion says he has seen a 20 to 30 per cent increase in the number of people coming to him for lessons each year.

Not all persist, but there is a pool of about 50 divers who may go on free-dive trips that he organises, he said.

Still, it is a challenge to practise the sport here. Despite being surrounded by sea, Singapore is hardly an underwater paradise.

"The problem with diving in Singapore (is), past 20m, you can't see a thing," Mr Wong, 38, who was reluctant to divulge his breath-hold record (more than six minutes) added. "It's not ideal to bring beginners out there."

So here, the group trains only in the pool. They travel to locations like Cebu and Bali for open-sea diving.

Mr Wong went to Phuket to pick up the sport, and took his instructor courses in the Philippines and Egypt.

The next step, he said, may be to start a Singapore chapter of Aida - the international association for free diving. In the future, he has hopes of forming a Singapore national team to compete in international competitions.

Another indication that the sport is picking up are records on the Aida website, which show Singapore free-dive records set at competitions in recent years.

Veterinarian Michelle Ooi, who has been free diving for three years, picked up the sport in Brisbane.

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