The motion of single- and two-cavitation bubbles generated by laser beams directly beneath a free surface is studied experimentally, using high-speed photography, and theoretically using the highly accurate boundary integral method. Favorable comparisons of bubble shape history and centroid motion are observed while the numerical calculations provide information on the pressure field surrounding the bubbles. A range of responses, including the null impulse state, is obtained for the two bubbles depending on the bubble size ratio and the interbubble and bubble-free surface distances, although in all cases reported in this article, the bubble nearest the free surface yields a high-speed liquid jet directed away from the free surface. It is also found that when the free-surface-bubble interaction is strong, a fast free-surface spike is formed for both the single- and two-bubble cases. (C) 2001 American Institute of Physics.