Conquering your fear when attempting to surf huge waves can be a challenge.
In the upcoming October issue of the Red Bulletin, world team surfing champion Justine Dupont credits freediving for her ability to face down the biggest waves without fear.
Training twice a week, Dupont can now regularly knock off 60-foot/18-meter-deep dives and spend over four minutes underwater. Such training has allowed her to tackle big-wave surfing, and place second in last year’s Big Wave World Championships.
In the Red Bulletin, she explains why freediving is her way of demystifying the sheer size of the waves.
Here’s an excerpt from the upcoming issue:
Any trip Justine Dupont makes to the diving tower at La Teste-de-Buch near Bordeaux is a return to a bizarre world, a stark contrast to a big-wave surfer’s regular life; a still, peaceful parallel universe in which the churn and violence of the surface are left far behind.
Last winter in Nazaré, Portugal, one of the globe’s major big-wave hot spots, was no different. There, the waves — vast 100-foot-high slabs as tall as a city block and collapsing like dynamited buildings — are Dupont’s playground. And yet within seconds of a dive, and 30 or 60 feet down, she’s overcome by calm, cocooned by the deep and wrapped in a cloak of serenity. “You can’t hear a thing below the surface,” says the 26-year-old. “It’s as if time stands still. Plus, there’s this unbelievable three-dimensional freedom — a lightness. You concentrate on the here and now. It’s magical.”
Dupont has been practicing freediving twice a week for two years to learn how to react as calmly as possible should something happen while she’s in the water. She goes to the diving pool at La Teste-de-Buch as often as she can. Her trainer, Laurent Gamundi — an expertin freediving and underwater hunting, whose club, Biarritz Chasse Océan, hasa diving course for surfers — watches over her while she’s there.
“At first, I had difficulty letting go,” says Dupont, “but now I feel totally liberated. I used to think too much about the exercise itself and whether the time I spent in the water was long enough to prepare me for the conditions in the sea at Nazaré or at Belharra in the Basque Country.”
Read the full interview at RedBull.com and in the October issue of The Red Bulletin — on newsstands beginning September 19th.
ANT Williams can hold his breath for eight minutes, but one dive into a pitch black abyss pushed his mind, and his body, to the brink.
IT WAS the deepest freedive I had ever attempted. Looming beneath me was the deep abyss of Dean’s Blue Hole that plunged to a depth of 200m. I slowed my breathing and checked my heart rate.
The head judge signalled me over as my name and target depth was announced by the commentator. As I clipped on to the competition line, I knew there was no room for fear.
Ten years earlier I had been working as a sport psychologist for a motoGP team in Europe. The two riders I had the responsibility of “making go fast” were small, tough blokes who had broken all manner of bones during their extensive careers in motorcycle racing.
I had also worked with boxers, mountaineers, kickboxing fighters, high-speed ski racers, extreme endurance athletes, rally car drivers and big wave tow-in surfers. What drew me towards these athletes was their unflinching composure before taking on something terrifying.
I was plagued by the fact that I had never succeeded in sport, moreover anything remotely dangerous. I felt like a fraud.
Everything I shared with my athletes came straight out of a text book. I had no first-hand knowledge of the techniques I was teaching. Somewhere within me I knew that I had to experience a dangerous sport. And that in doing so I would form a closer connection with the athletes I was trying to help. It was this belief that lead me to freediving.
Freediving is a sport that traces its roots back to ancient times. Free swimming to depths of 90m or more asks extreme questions of an athlete’s body and psyche. The ability to overcome the body’s natural urge for oxygen in deep water requires a remarkable level of strength, stamina, determination and commitment that few people possess without many years of training. I found the sport frightening, but at the same time highly addictive.
To this day I struggle to explain why I compete in this sport. There just seems to be something marvellous about descending to impossible depths in the ocean, and to be completely at peace with the foreign world around you.
Applying what I knew about mental toughness training, my performances began to improve quickly. Before long I had a breathhold of over eight minutes, in a pool I could swim 225m on a single breath, and in the ocean I was descending to -80m without anything but the air in my lungs.
My journey had taught me the ability to stay calm under severe pressure, in a sport where there is little hope for the athlete that loses his nerve at the critical moment.
But the dive in the Bahamas tested me in new ways. It was 2012 and I had announced a target depth of -100m. Some 20m deeper than I had ever attempted in competition.
Off the surface I had to swim hard to overcome the buoyancy created by the enormous amount of air I had packed in to my lungs. By 20m the weight of the water above me was so heavy that I continued to sink, without the need for more kicking.
At 60m I was surrounded by pitch-black darkness and my throat felt like it was being choked. There is nothing more solitary than sinking along in the ocean. The fear. The brutal discomfort.
At depth you are crushed by the water pressure — your chest shrinks to half its size and your trachea begins to collapse. The same pressure on land would cause massive internal damage.
When I finally reached 100m I saw a steel plate lit by high-powered torches. I reached out for a tag and my mind was screaming for me to do it fast. Swimming up I was desperate for air. I realised it had been three minutes and the ocean was still pitch black. I had no frame of reference and terror began to set in. Am I stuck? Am I still at the bottom?
I eventually arrived back at the surface where the sense of accomplishment was overwhelming.
In that moment it defined who I was and what I believed I was capable of in this world. For the next three months I woke up every morning with a brimming smile believing I had achieved the impossible.
To achieve something great in life you must start by taking positive, calculated risk. It’s not easy, or comfortable, but anyone can learn how to do it.
Life might feel safer when we keep things within our control. But taking risks is an incredibly valuable source of self-discovery. Every time you push through an obstacle you learn something new about yourself. It builds your resilience and boosts your self-confidence. It helps you redefine your limits and break free from the average way of thinking.
Ant is a guest on Tuesday’s episode of Insight at 8.30pm on SBS, which asks what drives people to push their bodies to the limit?
HOW long can you hold your breath? Training in the art (and sport) of freediving, I have learned that the usual urge to breathe comes between one and one 1/2 minutes, and it is a mental challenge to overcome it. There is a certain peace and quiet when you’re underwater down to more than 10 meters (more than 30 feet) – still shallow to many freedivers – and in my first time to descend around this depth and to feel that I no longer crave for air, this peace of mind became a euphoric feeling. It felt like freedom, it’s almost being suspended in flight, and my body has become part of the ocean. Yet my personal record time is just one minute and 30 seconds, and depth of 16 meters. I still have to conquer a lot of physical challenges to go deeper and longer. My limits are negligible to the current freediving world champion Herbert Nitsch who has gone down to 214 meters (700 feet!) or Tom Sietas who held his breath for 22 minutes and 22 seconds. I learned through my instructors that the mental urge to breathe will momentarily disappear since we do not lack oxygen anyway (it’s in our blood!), but the physical need to expel the concentrated carbon dioxide in the body will become stronger through the contractions of the diaphragm. It’s like a series of hiccups that signal a freediver to calmly head back to the surface. Every freedive is an attempt to understand the mammalian dive reflex, similar to what dolphins and whales have, and this is what captivates me about the experience. I have learned to embrace this feeling, surrender to it, sometimes push my limits, but ultimately to listen to my body and naturally come back for air. Once I’m back at the surface with hook breaths to recover, I long to go deeper and longer again the next time.
But why? Where is this motivation coming from? What pushes freediving athletes to conquer depths or breath-holds unimaginable to human nature? What pushes ordinary (mostly non-athletic) people like me to freedive? I was very fortunate that my Aida certification in freediving was part of a scholarship program by Kapit Sisid: Freediving for Marine Conservation. Kapit Sisid envisions Philippine coastal communities to be “aware of the role of their marine resources in their economic development and overall wellbeing. It uses the sport of freediving as a communication tool to achieve this – how can you appreciate something that belongs to you if you have never seen it with your own eyes”? These words are from Tara Abrina, Philippine national record holder in freediving, and a research officer at the University of the Philippines-Marine Science Institute. Tara led Kapit Sisid which started out as a project by Reef Nomads Skin Diving Tours and Manumano Freediving when they did work in Ipil, Zamboanga Sibugay. Her in-depth knowledge on both sides has allowed her to connect freediving schools to coastal communities or NGOs that have been working to protect the ocean and vice versa. This approach is seen in the two projects Kapit Sisid has accomplished so far: the Ipil project and the Freedive Panglao project. While the former focused on a group of reef managers in Ipil and trained them to be internationally-certified freedivers, the latter brought reef managers from all over the country to train and get certified under one school in Panglao, Bohol. Through a selection process, I was able to join the Freedive Panglao project because of my role then as Island Manager for Danjugan Sanctuary. My objective was to be better in skin diving for regular underwater assessments and more importantly, for safer snorkeling sessions with kids (and adults) when we conduct our Marine and Wildlife Camps. I was also eager to pass what I learn to the people I work with, although now I know that locals who have grown up fishing could obviously dive deeper and longer, albeit with differences in methods. Being almost always in the water, being a certified freediver will nurture my sense of responsibility for our conservation and environmental education work. As I was making my way to the training (held at Freedive Panglao, Bohol, from November 29 to December 1, 2016), I caught a cold. The timing couldn’t just be worse. I know congestion will prevent proper equalization and will make it difficult for me to dive deeper. I normally do not use pharmaceuticals to deal with a cold, but for this trip I took everything that could decongest my sinuses fast. Then I met my fellow freediving trainees – all of them deserved the six slots of the sponsored training. They were passionate about conservation and how freediving could support their work. What surprised me is that the training was more like a meditation or yoga retreat. Our instructor Stefan Randig was like a Zen master. When he talked about preparing to freedive, he made sure we understand by heart that relaxation is key. Calming the mind, being “one with the water,” and watching your breath – these were our mantras. I didn’t feel I was training for a sport. But the actual exercises in the pool and open water were very challenging of course – especially with my congestion, it was difficult to equalize, and I think the pressure started a toothache! I wasn’t having problems with the breath hold, maybe because I have a background in meditation – but I had pain piercing through a molar every time I went deeper. Eventually, the depth or the time of my dives did not matter anymore. It is true, what Stefan taught us, that the important thing is we relax and enjoy the dive. This mindset was extremely important to the extreme sport of freediving. And enjoying the dive, as Kapit Sisid advocates for, would also mean caring about the ocean more. Freediving could be a strong expression of our love for the marine world. And finally, “freedom.” Those who have been freediving know this is what we’re all about.
Cruisers in Tonga discover freediving and are immediately hooked on the simple elegance of a healthy pastime.
I’m floating in the electric-blue water of Tonga’s Vava‘u group. My goal is relaxation. It shouldn’t be that hard here, 50 meters from the white shores of a tiny tropical paradise. Then again, I’m not floating on the surface, cocktail in hand. I am facedown, taking deep breaths through a snorkel in preparation for a 30-foot descent. I will hold my breath for nearly two minutes while the cheery island of ‘Eua’iki and its clacking coconut palms, thatched-roof fales and smells of lunch wound up in the breeze are left at the surface. I’ll need to focus, but I’ll also need to be calm as I descend into my brief underwater existence, where, if everything comes together, I’ll find myself suspended in another world.
This is Day One of my freediving certification course, and I’m immediately hooked. Freediving is a pure form of sport, involving almost no equipment and an uncluttered mind. On a purely athletic level, it’ll whip you into shape if you take it seriously. For those of us who are keen to stay fit while cruising but are less than thrilled with the idea of downward dog on the foredeck every morning, freediving is the perfect practice. It also puts you on a more level playing field with fish, so when you select and spear your own dinner instead of reeling in whatever you happen to hook, you can truly say you worked for it. For me, it’s a combination of all these things.
Tonga is an incredible place, and seemingly designed for learning the essentials of freediving. The numerous islands that make up the Vava‘u group have steep drop-offs, so divers can ease into deeper water as they progress rather than plunge immediately into the deep blue or, worse, have to be surrounded by the concrete walls, chlorine stench and fluorescent lighting of an indoor pool. The Vava‘u group also is perfectly set up for leisurely cruising. There are lots of sandy anchorages, protected bays and a lively little main harbor. No anchorage is more than a few hours’ sail from the next, so short trips between islands don’t require advanced planning. Sundowners and barbecues at picturesque anchorages happen all too frequently, which, if you’re like me, is dangerous to maintaining an ideal level of fitness.
Until I began freediving, I only partook in two forms of exercise while living aboard: grinding winches and walking long distances, carrying as many overstuffed grocery bags as each shoulder could bear. And I was attending happy hour more often than I care to admit. I badly missed running — the challenge of it, the way my body had to work in sync, the feelings of accomplishment and pride at having pushed myself after a tough session, and the lucidity that came after a long run. I missed needing only a pair of shoes to get a glimpse of the outdoors.
Freediving relit that athletic flame for me. Unlike scuba, I didn’t need a bulky buoyancy compensator or oxygen tank to re-establish my connection with nature, and as I progressed, the psychological aspect of the sport became more significant too. I began paying more attention to the daily influences on my state of mind and the minute patterns in my breathing. I paid close attention to my diet. With practice, I was not only able to dive deeper and hold my breath longer, but I began to feel stronger, more agile, and to regain the mental clarity that I’d felt I’d lost along with regular cardio exercise.
Why, as someone who spends every day on the water, it took me so long to discover this sport, I’m not sure. But when I found myself 30 feet below, focused but calm, physically challenged and mentally aware, I knew I would continue. For a brief moment, blueness and silence enveloped me. Then my diaphragm began contracting, a signal that it was time to ascend. The fish that had scattered at first encounter now swam near me, curiosity prevailing over fear. To my left, the sandbank rose gently toward where I’d watched from shore earlier as a school of baitfish moved as one unit, hunted by cunning needlefish. To my right, nothing but depthless blue. Whales sang in the distance. Time melted. I felt nowhere and everywhere all at once. I was a world away, just like I’d set out to be.
How the high-risk, high-reward extreme sport helps conquer your fear of the deep through meditation.
The Guinness World Record for holding one’s breath underwater is 24 minutes and 3 seconds. Most humans, however, can barely make it a minute and a half.
For a diver, the degree of difficulty increases exponentially. Lungs shrink to half their size at a depth of 10 meters (33 feet). After about 30 seconds, blood vessels in the arms and legs constrict, redirecting red blood cells to vital organs, including the heart and brain, part of the “mammalian dive reflex.” After a minute or so, trapped carbon dioxide causes the diaphragm to spasm, signaling the brain to breathe.
Keep going, and eventually the spleen will release stores of red blood cells to keep you alive for a while longer. Below 50 meters, capillaries around the alveoli in the lungs expand to create a cushion to protect the rib cage from collapse as pressure increases on the body. Most people will shortly lose consciousness. If you’re still underwater at that point—watch out.
Freedivers—a slightly mental group of thrill-seekers who focus on holding their breath while descending into the open sea—have figured out how to stay underwater for 3, 4, or 5 minutes at a time. They say the key to the sport is to relax, that humans can override the urge to breathe underwater by learning to embody the energy that flows throughout the universe. They say you can stay underwater for minutes even after the first contractions of the diaphragm.
Nine meters below the surface of the Red Sea, in my mask, wetsuit, and fins, I’m trying my best to do just that. But my lungs feel squeezed, as if in a vise. My arms and legs turn heavy as the blood vessels constrict. Every few seconds, my diaphragm heaves more intensely as the carbon dioxide increases. My brain feels fuzzy as the pressure in my head builds.
The payoff for this seemingly crazy stunt, I’m told, is a euphoria unlike any other. Freedivers talk among themselves of being addicted to the sport. The body and mind are altered. Surface cares dissolve, replaced by a profound immersion in the present.
It sounded great back on land, in the laid-back Egyptian village of Dahab on the eastern shore of the Sinai Peninsula. My instructor, the world-record-setting freediver Sara Campbell, teaches Yoga for Freediving, a weeklong course that promises to unlock my potential. Our training begins with yoga and meditation in a sun-speckled hut at the Coral Coast Hotel, timing our inhale with the mantra ong namo and our exhale to guru dev namo, meaning, “I bow to the divine teacher within.” Campbell tells us that at a certain depth, gravity will pull you down into the dark stillness and squeeze you in a loving hug. “It’s the one you have been waiting for your entire life,” she says.
Underwater, it feels more like strangulation. I’d already gotten tangled in the rope that extends from a buoy at the surface. At a depth of 9 meters, I reach neutral buoyancy—too light to sink, too heavy to rise—and I’m supposed to hang out and chill. But after a minute and 20 seconds, the convulsions are overwhelming. I stare at the white-and-red rope through my mask with only one thought: I have to get to the surface, or I’m going to die. I climb up hand-over-hand toward the light and emerge gasping for air.
In ancient times, people dove to these sorts of depths out of necessity, to harvest shellfish, sponges, and pearls. Only after the mid-1940s did divers start competing to sink deeper. Interest in freediving rose after the 1988 movie The Big Blue, a fictionalized rivalry between two real-life European freedivers. Four years later a group of enthusiasts formed a volunteer governing body—the International Association for the Development of Apnea, or AIDA—to organize competitions and set protocols. Since the ’90s the sport has attracted a dedicated and growing number of divers who want to go underwater as deep, as long, and as far as possible on one breath. Most everyone has a 30-meter dive and a 4-minute breath-hold inside them, says Grant Graves, head of USA Freediving.
Russian freediver Alexey Molchanov set a men’s record for a fin-propelled freedive in October 2016 when he swam down to 129 meters and stayed under for 3 minutes and 50 seconds. “It’s like surrendering to the pressure of the ocean,” he says. “And that brings peace of mind and calmness and acceptance.”
Still, it’s a risky proposition. The enormous water pressure can cause ruptured eardrums and create lung-squeeze, which can result in internal bleeding. The lack of oxygen from an extended breath-hold can lead to blackout, most often just before or after resurfacing. Molchanov’s mother, Natalia, also a champion freediver, drowned after giving a lesson in August 2015 near Ibiza. She was 53.
But fatalities are rare. According to the association, there’s been only one death in an AIDA competition over 25 years and more than 40,000 dives. In the past decade the number of countries that participate in AIDA events has more than doubled, to 35, and more people join each year, says the association spokesman, Denys Rylov, by phone from his native Ukraine.
The most popular competitions are held in places such as Kalamata in Greece, Roatán in Honduras, and what many consider the best location, Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas. Despite little sponsorship or prize money, new contests keep coming. This September, the Authentic Big Blue will be held on Amorgos Island, Greece; another, the Sabang International Freediving Competition & Workshop in Indonesia, begins in November.
What makes Dahab a favorite, especially among Europeans, is convenience. Sharm El Sheikh International Airport is an hour south of the town. Rooms with a sea view can be had for less than $50, and it’s hard to spend more than $25 on a three-course fish dinner. Divers can plop down their gear a few feet from the water at dozens of open-air cafes with big cushions and the occasional stoned waiter. With its azure sea and jagged mountain peaks, the resort can lure visitors who arrive for a week to remain for years.
That’s what happened with Campbell. On vacation from her high-stress life in London almost 13 years ago, she had an epiphany: While on horseback on the shore at sunrise, a voice inside her said, “You’re home.” She returned to England, wound down her public-relations consulting company, and moved to Dahab to teach yoga.
It’s a popular spot for divers because of its storied Blue Hole, a large opening in a reef offshore that drops 91 meters. Locals call it a divers’ cemetery, because scuba divers can get lured in too far. But for freedivers, who descend and rise quickly, the conditions are perfect: The water is deep, clear, and warm, and has very little current.
Campbell took up freediving a year into her new life, and after nine months of training, she broke three world records at the Blue Hole, including diving to 90 meters using a monofin, which looks like a mermaid’s tail.
After Campbell set another record in 2009, with a dive to 96 meters, others began to seek her out as a guru. She credits her success to the relaxation and breathing techniques she learned through yoga and chanting. Campbell began teaching private sessions and weeklong courses, among them Yoga for Freediving, which I joined with four others in May.
In our first session, we practice pulling ourselves headfirst down the rope extended from the buoy, a discipline called free immersion. “Whether you are on the surface or going down, you are letting the ocean move you, and this becomes your first teacher,” Campbell says.
Don’t let the Zen-speak fool you: Freedivers, including Campbell, can be as fixated with numbers as any other extreme sportsmen or women, and quests for personal bests are always right below the surface. “Every time we say we do freediving, that’s the first question,” says Bart Denys, 48, a physiotherapist from Belgium and one of my course mates. “ ‘How deep do you go? How long can you hold your breath?’ I’m more interested in ‘How relaxed are you?’ ”
Kerry Hollowell, 41, a member of the US Freediving team and an emergency medicine doctor in North Carolina, is the most advanced diver in our group. She’s preparing for her goal of an 85-meter monofin dive, 10 meters deeper than her personal best, in the AIDA world championships this summer in Honduras.
Freediving, she says, “helped me find my authentic self. And when I’m in a stressful situation and a patient is dying in front of me, I don’t freak out. There is a bigger energy, a bigger sense of purpose that I have.”
I was curious to see how I’d fare in the undersea world. I’ve been a swimmer most of my life, and in a one-day basic certification before the course, I surprised myself by kicking with fins down to almost 18 meters. So I set a 30-meter target for the course.
After that first panicky day, the revelations come easier. I find I can expand my lungs to a greater degree by breathing into my belly first and then up into my chest. I learn that a hooded wetsuit helps me stay warm and lead weights help me to descend. And I discover the point after neutral buoyancy where gravity takes over and pulls you down in a free fall. “Flying in the sea” is how one classmate puts it.
The second day is full of breakthroughs. My dives begin to improve, because I slip down into the water like a seal, going in backward as I pull on the rope, instead of face first. I also learn to crouch and descend slowly, bending my knees to release tension, instead of rushing down.
I dive to 21 meters and stay under for 2 minutes and 26 seconds. But I keep forgetting to equalize on the way down; when my ears ache, I pinch my nose and blow too hard, causing “mask squeeze”—bright red blotches in the whites of my eyes from ruptured blood vessels. After that, I mostly use a nose clip instead of a mask.
After five days of training, I still haven’t reached 30 meters. On the roof of a divers’ hangout overlooking the Blue Hole, Campbell tells us to forget about the numbers—they’re a projection of our ego. “You have to let go of the outcome and be in the present moment, and then what it is you want to achieve comes naturally,” she says. “Just let your inner dolphin out to play.”
The sea that day is unsettled, and I bob on my back as choppy waves splash my face. Hollowell resurfaces after a 70-meter dive, flailing her head and shoulders in a “samba,” the term divers use when lack of oxygen briefly causes a loss of motor control. Campbell and Denys pat her face and call her name, and she’s soon alert, but it’s disconcerting.
I breathe deeply and slip into the silence, reaching along the rope as if raising a flag on a pole. At 20 meters, I find enough air to equalize and continue the free fall headfirst. But the pain in my ears makes me stop again, and in a moment, I decide the number isn’t worth bursting my eardrums. I pull back up from a depth of 26 meters.
Coming out of the water, I tell Campbell I want one more shot the next morning. “It’s not about the number, Patrick,” she says. But of course it is.
On my final dive, the urge to breathe doesn’t hit until after a minute. I welcome the first contractions as I look up at the divers’ dangling flippers, like frog legs at the surface. At a minute and a half, I feel the weight in my chest and arms increasing, but I’m able to shake my hips and relax the back of my knees.
At 2 minutes, I picture my spleen releasing oxygen-filled blood to my core as my arms tingle. I wiggle my neck to release tension and still feel in command. At 2:30, my arms start to quiver, and my head feels lighter, squeezed harder. The contractions are coming faster and stronger.
I pull back up the rope and feel a new reserve of air. My lungs and sinuses enlarge, giving me the sensation of being inflated with pure oxygen. It’s the closest I’ve gotten to that famous euphoria. And I don’t even know how deep I went. I pop up out of the water, catch my breath, and look at my watch: 2 minutes and 57 seconds. A personal best.
A six-day Yoga for Freediving course in Dahab starts at $775 per person. Fly into Sharm El Sheikh International Airport, a one-hour drive away. Standard rooms at the four-star Swiss Inn Resort range from $63 to $81. The Coral Coast Hotel (rooms from $34) is also popular with freedivers and scuba divers.
“Learning to freedive takes any limitations we may feel about ourselves and blows them out of the water.”
When you go away for a tropical getaway, there’s no end to the list of ways that you can fit in fun physical activity. You’ve got beach volleyball, snorkeling, kayaking…the list goes on.
At one point or another, I’ve tried them all. Heck, the stand-up paddleboard (SUP) trend even had me doing yoga inversions on a board in the middle of the ocean. (OK, they were pretty horrible inversions, but still, I did them.) And SCUBA diving? I got certified several years back and now make it a priority to go diving each and every time I visit someplace with open water.
But it wasn’t until a recent trip to the Galápagos Islands with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic that I considered freediving—a form of deep-water diving where you simply hold your breath. In all honesty, when I first tried freediving, I didn’t even know it had a name. I was snorkeling with an underwater photographer, and when he dove down to get up close and personal with the sea turtles, manta rays, and even sharks that were just 20 or so feet below us, you bet your wetsuit that I was diving down after him to see what there was to see.
By the time I made it back up to the surface, I knew two things for sure. First, that what I just saw was awesome. And second, that I was out of breath and every muscle in my body was exhausted.
Apparently, our bodies are built for freediving and have a handful of mechanisms that kick in to help us do it.
“Humans have evolved to be freedivers,” Emma Farrell, a certified freediving instructor and owner of Go Freediving, tells SELF. “We spent several million years of our evolution living in the shallows, foraging for nutrient-dense food that fueled brain development, and escaping from land-based predators. During this time in the water, we evolved to lose our body hair, gain a layer of subcutaneous fat to keep us warm in the water, and developed the mammalian dive reflex, the physiological changes that occur in the body when we freedive to enable us to dive deeper, safer.”
For one, like seals and other water-loving mammals, humans experience a decrease in heart rate the second we dive into the water, Patrician Alexander, M.Sc., a researcher at Mid Sweden University who has studied the physical effects of freediving, tells SELF. This allows the body to conserve oxygen when it’s scarce. What’s more, blood reroutes away from the arms and legs and toward the heart, lungs, and brain to keep the high-priority organs working at top speed, he says. The blood around the lungs also works to protect the lungs from increasing water pressures as you go deeper and deeper. While most recreational freedivers swim 30 to 55 feet underwater, elites can go as deep as 130 feet (!!!).
And how’s this for trippy: As you descend, your lung volume actually decreases as the air within them compresses. As you swim back up to the surface, they expand back to their previous volume. Changes in air pressure also make your inner ears feel “full,” kind of like when you’re on an airplane, Alexander says.
“Even with basic training, we have a pretty remarkable ability to dive underwater,” he says. After all, we’re built for it.
Freediving is more than just awe-inducing—it’s actually a great way to challenge and tune into your body.
No matter how naturally freediving comes to us homo sapiens, that’s not to say it won’t push you. Swimming in general is a great workout, and when you add the currents that open waters provide, well, you can expect every muscle to be sore the next day. What’s more, if you decide to wear a wetsuit while freediving, which allows you to float at the surface of the water without too much effort (handy if you’re also snorkeling, or just in cold waters!), swimming down to depths will be an act of resistance training.
But perhaps the greatest physical benefit of freediving is that it gets you practicing deep, diaphragmatic breathing. To hold your breath for any length of time, you need to first take a big, deep breath, Farrell explains. That means relaxing the diaphragm to allow the lungs to fill more fully.
Diaphragmatic breathing enables you take in more oxygen, and increases vital capacity, the amount of air that we can take in and expel in a single breath. “This impacts all aspects of life and has huge associated benefits for all other sports,” says Farrell, who has worked with multiple U.K. Olympic athletes across a wide range of sports to help increase their lung function and performance.
What’s more, diaphragmatic breathing also calms the body and mind and lowers the heart rate, Farrell says. Recent research in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that deep, diaphragmatic breathing lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body to improve mood, and it also improves mental function and your ability to focus.
As far as Alexander is concerned, these mental benefits are what truly sets freediving apart from other water sports. “You become more in-tune with your body and it becomes easier to relax and dive longer,” he says. That way, you can really get the experience of freediving—being just “one of the fish” and hanging out with underwater animals in their natural habitat, with no air tanks or bulky equipment hanging on you or getting in the way. (I love SCUBA diving, but I do hate it when my tank bops me in the back of the head mid-dive!)
To Farrell, this “tuning into your body part” is important for improving confidence and self-esteem. “Learning to freedive takes any limitations we may feel about ourselves and blows them out of the water,” she says. “When you learn to hold your breath and dive to depth, you realize just what you are capable of, and how the barriers we feel are mostly self-created and self-imposed.
Before diving in, always make sure you’re doing it safely.
Like in all sports (especially underwater ones), staying safe when freediving is priority number one. “One of the most crucial considerations is to always dive with a buddy and be watchful of one another,” says Alexander, noting that in rare cases, freedivers can black out from too-low levels of oxygen to the brain. And, just like when snorkeling and SCUBA diving, it’s important to safely manage current, marine life, and boat traffic. Learning to equalize the pressure in the inner ear (again, like on an airplane) is important so that you don’t rupture the ear drum.
These are all things that a qualified freediving school and certified instructors can teach you. “The courses are great first exposure because they allow anyone to get the most out of the experience and in a safe learning environment,” Alexander explains. Check out PADI to learn about courses and find freediving centers wherever your next vacation takes you.
When freediver Janeanne Gilchrist noticed an increase in the amount of debris washing up on the shores of her favorite diving spots, she decided to do something about it.
To raise awareness of the problem, she created a collection of breathtaking images, transforming waste into art.
Gilchrist, who dives without breathing equipment off the coast of Scotland, began taking photos of debris in the water over a year ago. Since then she has photographed plastic bags, discarded sous’westers (fishermen’s hats), and entangled fisherman’s rope, all captured in beautiful light.
“I didn’t want to just document a piece of plastic in the water. There is a lot of imagery like that available to people but it doesn’t necessarily make them sit up and take notice,” explains Gilchrist. “The images are made from man-made debris, which shouldn’t be there. It looks ethereal and majestic – but it makes people go wow, that’s amazing, what is it?”
The Edinburgh-based photographer has been taking photographs underwater for over 10 years. In that time she has seen a drastic change.
“Sadly, over this period of time I have seen an increase of debris in the water. This is a large problem and it’s not just off the coast of Scotland. This is a global problem,” says Gilchrist.
Capturing the images was no small feat. Gilchrist, who has been diving for over 15 years, had to retrain herself to photograph underwater. She says that the conditions around Scotland can be very challenging and the currents “are playing with me and the objects the entire time.”
But in the end, Gilchrist stresses, the process is well worth it.
“The images are a one off. I can’t reproduce this work. It’s caught at a moment of time and at a location that you just can’t recreate again,” she says.
Freediving is when divers swim without an air tank or snorkel, holding their breath underwater. Gilchrist prefers this method as it allows her to move more freely
“The work is not for the faint hearted. You’re in cold water, holding your breath and you have to make sure you get the image at the right time,” she explains.
Gilchrist’s main goal with her work is to “evoke emotions and spark imaginations” that inspire conversations about the worldwide problem of pollution and climate change.
“The irony of my work is that I’m using waste that shouldn’t be there,” says Gilchrist. “We all need to come together and figure out a solution. Because by the time this plastic and rubbish gets into the water, the damage is already done.”
An exhibition of Gilchrist’s work, titled “Above, Below, Beyond,” will be shown until March 24, 2018, at the JD Ferguson Gallery in Perth, Scotland.
How Mike Board left a finance job in Canary Wharf and became an instructor in Indonesia
I remember sitting on the 10th floor of One Canada Square in London, the rain beating against the window, and thinking, “This isn’t what I want to be doing for the next 10 years”.
I was 38 and working as a consultant in the finance industry. I’d previously been a commando in the Royal Marines and I think that training gives you an amazing sense of belief in what you can achieve. So I left London to work in a bar in the French Alps for a season, then came here to Gili Trawangan, a tiny island just off the coast of Lombok in Indonesia. I faced a lot of questioning when I jacked in the job. But I think in my own mind I knew it wasn’t really a risk — if you work hard, you’ve always got the ability to start anew.
I started free diving by accident. I was working as a scuba instructor, and there would often be times I needed to dive down and do things without any equipment — to free an anchor, say, or to check the current. I really enjoyed the challenge and it became a question of “How deep can I go?” When I started researching techniques for holding my breath online I learnt what I was doing had a name — free diving — and that it was something you could do professionally. I went and did an instructor course in Thailand, and decided to open a school. Over the years I’ve added to it — there’s now a yoga studio and a vegetarian restaurant.
The basic set of skills for free diving really aren’t complex: you hold your breath and you swim underwater. It seems quite challenging because it taps in to one of our most basic fears, going somewhere you can’t breathe — but once you’ve got over that it’s easy. Then all you need to learn is how to swim using oxygen in the most efficient way. Out in the tropics we’ve got perfect conditions. You can learn to free dive to between 10 and 20 metres on a two-day course.
Gili Trawangan is an interesting island. It’s 2km by 3km, with no motorised traffic — we get around by bike or horse and cart. It’s become a bit of a party spot since I moved here eight years ago so we get a lot of gap-year students, but the ones who walk into the free diving shop tend to be the more interesting people.
I think that’s because the challenge of free diving is really internal. When you discover you can go down to 10 metres without panicking you’re so interested in what’s going on inside you that you’re not actually looking at the fish.
Once you’ve mastered the technique you can go out exploring on a breath hold. The waters around Gili are full of tropical fish, turtles and reef sharks, and you can get up close to them because they’re not spooked by the bubbles like they are with a scuba. You’re part of the natural environment.
When I’m not teaching I compete in free diving competitions. I’m 47, and in any other sport I would have stopped years ago, but this has actually been my best year: I dived to 108 meters and was in the world’s top five. By the time you get 100 metres down you’ve got an 11th of the volume of air in your lungs that you had at the surface. Some people talk about feeling a crushing pressure but I’ve always just felt totally absorbed — it’s a sort of meditation.
I think marines tend to go on to do quite odd things, so I don’t think my friends from that time look at me and think I’m doing anything more interesting than the next person. At the end of the day I’m running a business, but I get to do it in a tropical paradise, not sitting at a desk in London.
We have been exploring new locations and discovering site gems for years. I remember diving in Dahab in 1999, and taking my first group there in 2001 – when The Blue Hole was strictly a 4×4 excursion, since then we seem to be bombarded with offers from further and further afield, promising a freediving experience like no other. Then, last year, a small sailing company, dedicated to delivering personal experiences contacted us: I was intrigued to see how much of a true expedition we could find just 3h away from London.
We sailed from the island of Kefalonia, the biggest of the Ionian Islands, as a location I have explored a few times getting tanks for the sled was easy on a stopover in Fiscardo, before checking out “The Cracken” as well as “Seal the Deal”. Two amazing natural surface formations. The Cracken being an invisible (at least up-to 5m away) crack, which effectively separated a huge rock from the mainland – about 30m long and 3m deep. As it twists and turns, the crystal clear water is reminiscent of a ridiculously exotic film location. A simply stunning find for our 1st day!
The Skipper deftly motored/sailed around the islands, sometimes sheltering from winds and high water behind them, sometimes taking us on open water to new unexplored territories. After a brief discussion on the 2nd day that went something like
“we cannot anchor in water deeper than 20m… but we would love to anchor in 80 – 90m”
“OK – we’ll work out a way”: every dive location we could think of was available to us. From the awe-inspiring “Eye of Cyclops” – a huge cave with an entrance (the eye) in the top at 20m and an exit at 30m – to the “Pressure Chamber” a hidden iridescent blue cave filled with air that tests your equalizing by pressurizing every time a swell forces it way in.
On the 3rd afternoon, when all equalization cobwebs had been blown away and the stress of London life was but a passing thought, we came to a secluded beach frequented by only a few ships in the winter as it offered sheltered anchoring and more importantly a makeshift barbecue pit on the beach. The water was insanely flat which allowed us to spot “A ladder which we should avoid tangling our anchor on”. Due to the water being gin clear, we could see that this “ladder” was a strange looking wreck that required further exploration. It turned out to be the wreck of a 40 – 45ft yacht, unmarked on charts or diving maps. The steel frame was in one piece, with the wooden shroud all but completely rotten away leaving an almost perfect freedive wreck sitting at 20 – 25m. After the morning rope session on a deserted island and a few excited dives on our new favorite wreck, we needed to find a port.
After a night dreaming of wreck diving, we came back and as the yacht was expertly moored almost directly above “The Unnamed Wreck”, we set up the sled and started diving. We take our travel sled with us most places we go and have done since the early 2000’s when we invented it. A simple machine that uses the scuba tank as the mainstay, to which the weights and lift bag are connected with climbing slings. The secret of this is the way it falls, as in the tank “wants” to fall at an angle, which means – if you let it – it actually sinks perfectly straight not requiring the rope to guide it at all. Resulting in a freefall Guillaume Nery would be envious of.
Almost immediately we found the sheltered bay had virtually zero current allowing unprecedented ability to arrive directly on the wreck every dive. Some of the guests were at their limit as we touched down but, of course, having had a free ride were able to stay and enjoy the awe-inspiring view for a few seconds before returning ‘a la’ sled.
Marco (my assistant instructor) had recently discovered the joys of photography over spearfishing and was intrigued with the idea of photographing the wreck – while using the sled. A seemingly benign proposition considering he had descended to it at least 10 times during the session under his own propulsion, but the proposition of holding both the sled and the camera whilst equalizing was a step too far. The obvious solution – a camera caddy. Elias obligingly took the job of diving to the wreck with the camera, Mika drove the sled and Marco went along for the ride. SIMPLE. Well – simplish. As we needed 3 safety divers as well, the total of 6 divers that needed to be co-ordinated was a point of mirth – but ultimately successful. A demonstration that we can set our own targets, irrespective of what would be considered a difficult dive by other people. 2hours and 30 dives later we clambered back on board to a delightful veggie/vegan brunch that would make London restauranteurs jealous.
The sled is a reasonably new invention, brought about by Jaques Mayol’s desire to maintain the world record. It’s forerunner, by several hundred years, was the skandolapetra. A tool used by Greek fishermen to harvest the ocean floor long before underwater breathing apparatus. A large stone was held by the diver, attached to a rope that was fed out (and hauled back in) by a partner onboard a boat. The EYSailing guys were very excited about the new skandolapetra they had on board, and we wanted to try this ancient Freediving system out. The principle is simple, jump overboard holding a heavy stone, get pulled back when you’re done. The reality is not quite as simple, especially if you are not able to use a noseclip to equalize as the Ancient Greeks were not. We were, however, able to test the new TiTAN titanium nose clip. After an hour of photo shoots, dives and dubious “pull me back” rope signals we were getting a bit cold and ready for a call into port for an evening on land.
Finding depth is not a problem in the Ionian Islands, more often than not the shores drop off into deep iridescent blue, inviting rope sessions at every location. We resisted the temptation in favor of exploration most afternoons, leaving the AM dives open for rope sessions. This was not the only objective of the trip… a more sinister (some would say sinister, I would say “playful”) objective had been given to us. Mermaid photos. Merfolk would be a better description… either way we had to photograph them!
I had some ideas beyond the basic “Merman on a rock” – which involved the interaction of Merfolk and Freedivers. instantly the complexity of these shots became a problem for us to play with and eventually solve. There’s not a lot more I can say – except: we did it. And had fun doing it.
The final part of the trip involved accessing some caves we had previously explored on Kefalonia. We moored off the coast on the last day before returning to the airport, and jumped on the tender for the short trip to the beach to the bemusement of the locals… a group of freedivers coming off a boat – onshore – to dive? We opted to dive the easier of the caves and attempt to photograph our exploration in 360 panoramas. This required a little invention to float the camera exactly 1/2 way out of the water, to which a chip shop polystyrene tray came into its own! Not very technical, but very effective.
3 of us were returning – excited by the prospect of diving in the most amazing location I have ever dived, 3 of us were apprehensive about the prospect of pitch black cave with vertigo-inducing clear water. It did not disappoint. Awe-inspiring dive, with some photos actually getting close to capturing the assault on our senses. The entrance to the cave a bright blue, mesmerizing arch at one end… its light dwindling as we moved 10m from it, leaving us totally dependant on our torches (no ordinary torches I might add). The darkness always holds secrets and breathtaking expectations, especially when there are several chambers beyond your torchlight. Although the main chamber is 15m deep, it feels like you are always just 2m from the surface throughout each dive, you feel like you can reach out and touch the ceiling. From the surface looking down, your buddies seem to get smaller, without moving away from you… a very disconcerting experience.
I have written about the caves of Kefalonia in the past, and filmed them, and photographed them – but they never lose their awesomeness. The pure feeling of freedom within the seemingly endless caverns is addictive and seductive. On this trip, the 3 newbies were (as expected) in sensory overload, unable to take in all the information resulting in dives where they failed to see the 10ft high stalactites just 5m from the surface. Returning divers always seem to have a calm acceptance of what they are experiencing, and a soft focus on what they want to do/see. This trip was not an exception. It was, however, exceptional.
As we walked along the beach back to the tender we reminisced about the amazing trip we had just experienced. 6 days of exploration, crystal clear water, caves, photography, sled diving, drone flying and good times – not forgetting Mermaids and Mermen.
I was pleasantly surprised to find although it was a “small” yacht with only 8 beds, how the set-up maximized space, and we never felt cramped. The showers in the 2 “heads” (ships loos) were awkward but with a hot fresh water shower on the rear of the boat, these hardly seemed necessary.
I can’t speak highly enough of the crew, Elias (Skipper) was insanely knowledgeable and helpful beyond any expectations, Panos (host) became so in tune with our requirements the merest thought of tea or light lunch was enough to bring it into existence. The presence of a vegan, a veggie and recovering caffeine addict was not the slightest problem with them.
They have a standard Freedive Bouy onboard, with enough rope to dive deep. Of course, they stipulate that the depths they offer a group depend entirely on skill levels and qualifications. Oxygen is available on the islands, but again is the responsibility of the group.