Finding Joy: Open-water swimming

Finding Joy: Open-water swimming

Article by Elka Requinta

Illustration by Jof Sering

I have an irrational fear of sea monsters. And by sea monsters, I mean anything under the sea that I don’t know about or understand. I have only been confident swimming in shallow waters. I had other priorities when I was a kid in the city. I was able to survive years of traveling to tropical islands without a proper swimming lesson. I relied heavily on flotation devices or other people to keep me from drowning.

Post-lockdown (and considering the airport reopened in December), time has come for me to surf in Siargao. The island is the surfing capital of the Philippines after all. But having attempted surfing at the sandy beaches of La Union and Baler some 10 years ago, I felt I needed to get more comfortable in Siargao’s reefy waters first. What better way to do this than to take open-water swimming lessons with pro-diver, mermaid and swim instructor Chie Defino? We went to Jacking Horse, where the baby waves are usually best for newbie surfers. The sea was mid-tide and glassy at 7am perfect conditions for wannabe swimmers like me who need more confidence in the open water.

“Let’s get you re-acquainted with the area where you’re likely to surf. Our aim is to build your confidence in deeper water, and help you realize that you can be safe in the reef,” Chie said gently. “Your fear of stepping on what’s under the water, like the seagrass and the reef, is normal. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. But you need to learn how to let go of that fear.” I liked her and felt safe instantly!

After helping me properly secure my snorkel mask (that’s a whole other slew of instructions), Chie then asked me to demonstrate what I can do (slow and easy breast strokes), if I can do a backfloat, and if I can touch the bottom of the seafloor with my head. She would correct some movements and point out which areas I should improve on. This was all done in shallow waters at first, and having a proper mask made a huge difference, so I was preening a little bit like a star student. Suddenly the “monster” seagrass doesn’t seem so scary to step on anymore. For the first time since landing in Siargao in February, I actually enjoyed swimming further onto deeper waters. I saw corals as big as buses. I have begun looking forward to seeing a sea turtle or two as well, since it’s nesting season from November.

Chie would also take time to clearly explain the connection between the human body, the ocean and marine life. Sometimes these lessons can even be applicable to help us do better for ourselves and the people in our lives. But let’s save philosophizing for another day.

For now, here are five key things to remember about open-water swimming from Chie:

1. Work with what you have. When you’re out in the ocean, you usually have nothing else except yourself and your body. Use your lungs, your feet and even your weight. Your lungs are a natural flotation device, so practice how to use them properly. It’s also natural for humans to float — you simply won’t won’t sink right away. The more still and calm you are in the water, the more you’ll float. The more body parts are out of the water, the heavier you’ll become. Some people use reef shoes, but I would still recommend going barefoot. It’s ok to wear reef shoes if you’re mindful where you’re stepping, but the tendency sometimes is to step on anything, even corals, which is a big no.

2. Panic is deadly. Panic is in your head. It limits what we can do in the water to make it a joyful experience. Panic is the one that makes us sink. It really helps to understand more about the sea, so we can avoid panicking and enjoy its benefit to us and our environment. “Whenever you feel tired of swimming or feel panic coming on, fight the impulse to want to touch the floor. Instead try to float on your back,” Chie said. “It’s a way for you to take breaks while swimming, and can also help you overcome panic.”

3. Seagrasses are friends, not monsters. It’s more about the fear of the unknown: you’re scared of seagrass and of the dark underwater because you don’t know about it, or have not been exposed to it before. Take the time to learn more about the ocean. You’ll learn so many wonderful things about it: how the currents, tides and corals work; that seagrasses don’t sting. It’s ok to touch the sea grasses, and they are actually an underrated part of marine life. Scientists estimate that 80% of the earth’s oxygen source comes from the ocean, which seagrasses are a part of, so “instead of being scared of them, we should be appreciating them more,” Chie said.

4. Practice, practice, practice. Like with any skill, open-water swimming also requires regular practice. Make swimming a habit so you can further improve and maintain your proficiency in the water. Work on your breathing, practice floating on your back (when you need to rest) and going back to your swimming position when you think you’re ready to swim further. This is general knowledge, but worth reiterating: you also have to accept that you don’t have to do everything perfectly all at once and all the time. There is always room for further improvement. “I recommend swimming with a buddy or a group, and making sure you are patient with yourself,” Chie said. “Remember everyone is on a different learning level, so you don’t have to compare your skill to other people’s.”

5. Don’t fight the ocean. Go with the current so you can avoid wasting energy fighting it. You’ll just get tired. You can actually use the current to work with you rather than against you. When you do breast strokes, for example, finish the flow of your movement in the water before doing another stroke using your arms and legs again. “This is actually a key learning I got from diving,” Chie said. “And for swimming lessons in the ocean, I like combining what I learned in swimming and the ocean.”

Things to remember when using a snorkel mask:

1. Once it’s on, it’s on. Avoid the impulse to readjust.

2. Spread a drop of baby shampoo on the inside of the mask at least the night before you’re planning to use it. This helps against fogging. You can use your own spit when you’re already in the water, right before you put the mask on.

3. Put the mask on your face side first, before the strap over the back of your head to avoid stretching the strap. This helps make the mask last longer.

Profile: Meet mermaid Chie Defino

Chie Defino, hails from Cagayan Valley in the Philippines. Since the age of 21, Chie has been island-hopping for work as a mermaid and dive instructor for about five years. Her starting point was in Boracay then went off to Bohol, Romblon and Palawan (including Tubbataha Reef, which is every divers’ dream destination).

“Honestly my relationship with the ocean started as a mermaid teacher,” Chie said. “Then it just so happened that the more I move from place to place, I get invited to acquire a new skill. I was invited to learn how to dive so I can teach. Now in Siargao, I learned how to surf and — apart from mermaiding (swimming without your hands while wearing a monofin), I’m also teaching people how to swim in the ocean.”

Thanks to COVID-19, Chie found herself staying longer than expected in Siargao island and— keeping busy. “Apart from teaching, running a juicing business and of course surfing, I have a lot of projects on nature conservation that I want to roll out in Siargao while I’m still here,” Chie said.

Follow Chie Defino and learn more about her lessons and projects on Instagram: @siargaomermaid.

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