As recreational freedivers, we all have our bucket list of sea creatures, wrecks, and diving spots that we are dying to see, whether it be floating with majestic eagle rays, circling the USS Liberty in Indonesia, or exploring Ras Mohammed National Park in Egypt. But as conscientious divers who respect and love the ocean, there is a thin line between an organic, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and knowingly participating in unethical behavior that harms our beloved sea.
Freediving with whale sharks is an experience most freedivers yearn for, and it can be hard just waiting around for one to appear if it is even the proper season for them. There are tours around the world that can guarantee snorkeling, swimming, and scuba diving with these gentle giants. But what exactly makes these companies so confident that they can guarantee to spot whale sharks?
The Problem with Baiting
Whale shark tours, like the ones in Oslob, Philippines, have no problem assuring their customers a selfie with whale sharks due to their baiting practices. In Oslob, fishermen use a certain type of krill as bait, called uyap, to lure the whale sharks to the boats, and then dispatch snorkelers and divers into the water for the experience to begin. The issue with baiting is that the natural krill whale sharks eat in Oslob is seasonal. Their migratory patterns are established by following their food. Therefore, when the natural krill becomes out-of-season, fishermen obtain krill from neighboring islands like Ilo-Ilo and Bacolod, which contain different types of plankton, and miss out on the different nutrients that they get just by migrating with their natural food source.
Wild animals should not depend on humans for food, and limiting the nutritional value of a whale shark’s diet is unacceptable. Imagine yourself living only off of tacos. Yes, of course, it sounds good in theory, but imagine the face your doctor would make with that information. Let’s also not forget the possible contamination of the bait that comes from outside of Oslob during transportation and the loss of nutrients from storage.
Changes in Migratory Patterns
Remember how whale sharks migrate depending on where their nutritious plankton float off to? They are naturally very mobile creatures and travel long distances, but as they get used to being fed by humans and stop having to forage for their own food, they stay longer than normal in these feeding areas. It is still too early for scientists to see the ramifications of these differences in migration patterns, but long-term effects can include changes to their breeding patterns, which in turn will affect the reproduction of an already vulnerable species.
Even though there are rules and regulations that attempt to govern the way tourists interact with whale sharks, it becomes very difficult to enforce them. Since whale sharks are not aware of these human rules and associate boats with food, they typically chase the boats instead of instinctually avoiding them. They constantly bump into or rub against them, which causes reactions and injuries to the skin. It gets even more dangerous when they confuse non-tourist boats with tourist boats and get severely injured by the propellers. It is typical to see many scars and injuries around the mouth and dorsal fins of baited whale sharks at these tourist hotspots.
All of these inevitable injuries do not even account for the bodily harm that will be inflicted on them by their only known predator: humans. Tour guides and rules may state that there should be a specific distance kept between tourists and whale sharks, but often there are so many groups of people at once, sometimes trapping the whale sharks, that accidental touches are inevitable. This does not account for the tourists who are touching the sharks on purpose, whether it’s capturing the perfect selfie or attempting an original photo by standing on the whale shark. Even the fishermen who feed the sharks often put their feet inside of the water and keep them pressed against the whale shark’s mouth, to keep them from jostling the boat. The issue with so many careless touches is that humans have bacteria that the sharks are not naturally exposed to, which can leave them prone to infections.
What Are Your Options?
There are plenty of spots in the world to witness these majestic sea creatures in the wild, naturally foraging for their own food, sticking to their instinctual migratory patterns, and lazing around, unharmed by the humans and boats they should be characteristically wary of. In fact, here is a handy list of the best locations to swim and dive with whale sharks by month.
Armed with this information, freedivers have a choice. We can shut our eyes when we witness mistreatment, photoshop whale shark scars out of our photos, and capture our next awe-inspiring profile photo. Or, we can avoid unethical practices and companies, and spread our knowledge to those who are not aware, slowly forcing these tourist traps into extinction.
Is Australia’s Great Barrier Reef losing its male sea turtles?
A new study has found that green sea turtle hatchlings in one of the world’s largest colonies are increasingly female, and this trend has been ongoing for decades, with warming global temperatures the suspected culprit.
Sea turtles, as well as some other reptiles, lack sex chromosomes. Their gender is determined by the environment of the nest while the embryos are incubating, and by nest temperature in particular. Warmer sand tends to produce higher numbers of female hatchlings, making sea turtles and other reptiles particularly vulnerable to a warming Earth. Moreover, the range of temperatures that produce 100% males or 100% females spans only a few degrees Celsius.
The study’s authors developed a novel method to determine sex ratios of free-ranging turtles from specific regions of the Great Barrier Reef. The researchers matched the sex and age class of green sea turtles to the nesting beaches from which they hatched by combining basic field methods with genetic and hormone analyses.
Lead author Michael Jensen, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, said in an email to Mongabay-Wildtech that where turtle populations from genetically distinct rookeries feed together, scientists have been able to estimate the rookery origin of these turtles through their DNA.
“The novelty of this work was the multidisciplinary approach that combined genetic and endocrine data from the same turtle,” Jensen said. “We assessed the secondary sex ratios of turtles at foraging grounds – as opposed to looking at primary sex ratios of hatchlings produced on a specific nesting beach. We believe our approach offers a better way of tracing trends in a population’s sex ratio. Foraging grounds encompass turtles of different life stages (juveniles, subadults and adults), which represents different generations of turtles and therefore many years of hatchlings produced from regional nesting beaches. That gave us a window into sex ratios produced over time from different rookeries.”
Wrangling turtles for their DNA
Virtually no turtles nest in the middle stretch of Australia’s 2,300 kilometer (1,400 mile)-long Great Barrier Reef, so the northern and southern breeding populations are genetically distinct.
The researchers sampled 411 turtles at foraging sites (74 of them during a 2008 study) in the middle section. Turtles of many ages from distinct nesting areas congregate in these shallow waters to feed, so sampling there allowed the researchers to estimate sex ratios of turtle cohorts from various beaches over the past 50 plus years.
They first had to catch the turtles – “rodeo-style” – which consisted of finding, following, and hand-catching the animals from a small boat, then bringing them to shore to process them. Assigning age class was easy and based on the length of each animal’s curved carapace.
The researchers distinguished adult males turtles from females by noting their longer tails and measuring testosterone in blood samples. Sea turtles lack external sex-based traits until they reach maturity, however, so the scientists also physically examined most of the immature turtles to ensure they’d assigned gender correctly.
Laparoscopy, the surgical technique used to definitively determine a turtle’s sex, runs a thin tube into the turtle to briefly examine its reproductive organs. The turtle recovers from the procedure in a couple of days, so researchers have been testing less-invasive and labor-intensive techniques to assess sex ratios of immature turtles.
Measuring a turtle’s testosterone level required a far simpler blood sample, allowing the researchers to process hundreds of turtles with high accuracy.
The researchers linked each turtle back to the beach from which it hatched by analysing DNA from skin tissue samples and ran models to group the foraging turtles based on their genetic similarity. Female and male green turtles along Australia’s east coast will feed in various preferred foraging grounds but return to the area around their nesting beach to mate.
Where the boys are (not)
The scientists showed that the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef, in particular, has been producing mainly females for more than 20 years by determining the genetic origin of turtles from each sex relative to their life stage. They found that turtles that had hatched on the cooler southern nesting beaches showed a “moderate” sex bias (65%–69% female), similar to reports from feeding grounds located in the southern region. However, nearly all the turtles (87% of adults and over 99% of both juveniles and subadults) that originated from beaches in the warmer northern portion of the Great Barrier Reef were female.
The scientists estimated monthly temperatures of the sand on the key nesting beaches using air and sea surface temperatures from 1960 to 2016. They found sand temperatures consistently remained above the “pivotal” temperature of 29.3°C (84.7°F) – the value corresponding to a roughly equal number of male and female hatchlings – starting around 1980.
Some imbalance in the female-male ratio may be expected and potentially beneficial. Male sea turtles tend to breed more frequently and with more individuals than females do, which may mitigate some of the imbalance.
Nevertheless, scientists have seen turtle sex ratios become increasingly female-dominated over the past few decades, and they fear that warming air and sea temperatures may begin causing single-sex populations that cannot sustain themselves.
Moreover, the authors state in their paper, “extreme incubation temperatures not only produce female-only hatchlings but also cause high mortality of developing clutches.”
“While some of the decreased hatching success [that researchers in Australia have observed] might be explained by high temperatures, many other factors influence hatching success (for example, flooding of the nest from increased water table),” said Jensen. “We are just now beginning to understand the problem, so we have more work to do before we can begin to suggest ways to address it. The good news is that a lot of research is now focusing on understanding the influence of environmental factors on sea turtle hatchlings’ success.”
Researchers have seen over decades that warming temperatures alter the sex of sea turtle hatchlings; this study is the first to document the trend in a major wild population.
The findings suggest that wildlife managers consider strategies to lower incubation temperatures at key nesting sites of sea turtles and other temperature-dependent species around the world. Moisture and shade from coastal vegetation, for example, also affect sea turtles’ incubation and, thus, the sex of hatchlings, by keeping sand temperatures cooler.
Avoiding extreme incubation temperatures, the authors state in their paper, would help “boost the ability of local turtle populations to adapt to the changing environment and avoid a population collapse or even extinction.”
Jensen and colleagues hope their work will encourage others to do similar studies, as it offers a rapid way to monitor trends in turtle population sex ratios.
“However, the success of this method depends on many factors, such as accessibility to large sample sizes of turtles at foraging grounds, understanding the genetic characterisation of rookeries that might be contributing to the foraging grounds, and the degree of genetic structure among those rookeries,” said Jensen. “So whether this method will work in other regions and other species should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.”
More than 11 billion pieces of plastic larger than five centimetres wide are littering coral reefs across the Asia-Pacific region, according to a recent study.
That is enough plastic to make it from Earth to the moon and nearly halfway back.
Researchers who published the study last week in Science Magazine believe that the amount of plastic in coral reefs will grow by 40 percent in the next seven years.
Meanwhile, the researchers found that the chance of corals becoming infected with a disease increased from four percent to 89 percent when they were draped in plastic.
Plastic pollution is just one factor that is putting the world’s coral reefs at risk.
Coral reefs may have been around for as long as 500 million years, but scientists are warning that they might be gone or decimated by the end of the century.
Al Jazeera examines why coral reefs matter and if they can be saved.
What are coral reefs?
Corals are invertebrate animals. Individual coral animals, called polyps, live in groups of hundreds to millions of genetically identical polyps called colonies.
Reefs are created by hard corals which secrete a skeleton that can turn into giant structures like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the largest living structure on the planet.
In 2001, the UN estimated that the total surface area of coral reefs measured 284,300 square kilometres (sq km), which is just shy of the size of Italy.
More than half of the earth’s coral reefs is distributed over only five countries: Indonesia, Australia, the Philippines, France (including its overseas territories) and Papua New Guinea. Their reefs are the size of small countries themselves. Indonesia’s 51,020 sq km worth of reefs, for example, is nearly as big as Costa Rica.
The Red Sea is one of the world’s least studied regions when it comes to whales and dolphins – until now. A report was released recently that brings together historic records and the latest information on a range of the sea’s mammal species. This will supply some of the information needed for science based conservation measures. I interviewed Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, one of the reports’ authors who is also among the region’s most respected marine mammal specialists, on the findings and their implications.
What is special about the Red Sea and the habitat it provides to whales and dolphins?
While huge progress has been made globally in our ecological knowledge of marine mammals, this hasn’t been the case for the Red Sea. With the exception of dugongs, very little is known about the Red Sea’s mammals. This is one of the main reasons we put this report together, conducting and collating research from 1983 to 2017.
Among the things we learned was that the fertility of the Red Sea’s environment affects marine mammal presence in the region.
Life in any ocean starts from the water’s productivity. This is the ability of phytoplankton (microalgae) to bloom because of the nutrients contained in the water, like phosphates and nitrates. This is triggered by upwelling currents that bring nutrient-rich deeper waters to the surface. This fertilises the phytoplankton, which need sunlight. The phytoplankton bloom gets eaten by zooplankton, which are then eaten by little fish, and so on up the food web.
Such upwellings are rare in the Red Sea. This makes it a hard place to live for the great whales, which need big swarms of krill, small crustaceans, to survive.
This could be why only a few whale species have been able to colonise the Red Sea.
We also found out more about how dolphins – which are known collectively with whales as cetaceans – survive in the Red Sea.
The environment is better for smaller dolphin species like spinner dolphins and pan-tropical spotted dolphins. Spinner dolphins take advantage of a community of smaller critters living in what scientists call the deep scattering layer. It’s mostly made up of small crustaceans, fishes and squid. They live in a narrow layer that rises towards the surface at night to feed, and returns to the depths during the day to shelter. It provides the critical source of food for the dolphins to tap into in an otherwise poor marine environment.
What threats do cetaceans face in the Red Sea?
What worries me most is that the Red Sea is crossed by a huge amount of ship traffic carrying oil. It is a key strategic channel: an estimated 4% of global oil supply passes through it. The proportion sounds small, but it represents a vast amount of oil. A major accident would be disastrous for marine life in the narrow Red Sea.
An immediate and obvious threat today is disturbance by tourists. For example, spinner dolphins enter a reef in an area known as Samadai, on the southern coast of Egypt, to rest. They do this because they’ve been hunting at night and the reef gives them protection from sharks during the day.
The tourism industry discovered this and started to advertise swimming with dolphins in the area. It very quickly became a mess, creating an outcry on social media calling for people to stop bothering the animals. Fortunately, the Egyptian government took action and I helped to explore the situation and draft a plan. There is now a large area of the reef that is completely off limits to tourism, and the dolphins have enough space to rest.
Unfortunately these situations aren’t always so well managed. Another area called Sataya, also in Egypt, has no management plan and the spinner dolphins are very stressed. It’s likely the entire reef area will be taken over by people and the animals will be pushed out.
In terms of fishing, I’m aware of situations in which particularly Yemeni fishermen travel widely across the Red Sea to hunt sharks for the Far East fin trade. I know that they have been using dolphin meat as bait for catching sharks. But we really don’t know how big this practice is or its impact on dolphin populations.
What immediate and longer-term steps should be taken to mitigate the threats
It would be great to have a model in the Red Sea similar to the one applied in the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Since 2002 there’s been an agreement between most countries bordering those seas. It commits the coastal countries to protecting those seas’ cetaceans. Something like that would be extremely helpful in the Red Sea, and raise their visibility at the policy level.
It’s also important to protect marine mammal habitats in the Red Sea. This could come partly from the identification of important marine mammal areas, work that’s being done by a task force established within the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The identification of the areas is based on specific criteria, and is modelled on earlier work on birds. The areas are critical for some aspect of a species life, for example feeding, breeding or migrating. Identifying them gives decision makers an easy tool to help select which areas need protection.
The task force is in the process of identifying these mammal areas in large portions of the southern hemisphere, and there are plans to do this in the Red Sea in 2019.
David Obura, Adjunct Fellow, The University of Queensland
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
Of course, I’ve drawn breath all my life, but I really learned how to breathe on a freediving trip in the Bahamas. Liz Parkinson, one of my favorite friends and an ex-college roommate, had invited me to the West End of Grand Bahamas to tag along on a freediving trip with tiger sharks, something that I have always wanted to do. Liz swims with sharks for a living in the name of conservation, and while most people find them terrifying, swimming next to, and coexisting with, large fishy predators is her passion and she is amazing at it.
Although I’ve always thought of myself as a fairly decent freediver, I’d never really spent any time learning the fundamentals behind it; cruising next to a 16-foot pregnant female tiger shark on just one breath really put my relaxation skills (or lack thereof) into perspective. Trying to keep your heart rate down when an animal the size of a Volkswagen Bus is swimming at you isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do.
After the first day of the trip, I really started to appreciate the importance of relaxing and holding my breath the right way, so I had Liz teach me some of the basics of legitimate freediving, starting with the ‘breathe-up’ technique. The ‘breathe-up’ is basically a cycle of diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, aimed at lowering your heart rate and preparing your body to stay relaxed underwater for an extended period of time.
As it turns out, the ‘breathe up’ technique isn’t just helpful for relaxing underwater, it has some everyday applications as well.
“I find that I can apply the ‘breathe-up’ to my life on a fairly regular basis,” Liz says. “It’s a great way to relax and it helps me get ready for a big event or anything important I have to do. Or, if I am just feeling stressed out in the middle of the day, I take five minutes to myself and I find that breathing through the cycle nice and calmly on my own somewhere really helps me out.”
Diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to reduce stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. In addition, practicing the ‘breathe-up’ first thing in the morning can serve as a kind of meditative practice, helping you to relax, to stay calm, and to improve focus by increasing blood flow to the prefrontal cortex of the brain.
Rids lungs of residual toxic air and makes oxygenation more efficient
For the most part, a healthy human is only two deep breaths away from 100 percent blood oxygen saturation, so using the ‘breathe-up’ has more to do with relaxing than actual oxygen saturation. However, relaxation does promote oxygen storage in the body, and belly breathing pulls air into the voluminous bottom of the lungs. The breathing cycle used in the ‘breathe-up’ also helps rid the body of toxic air that has built up in the lungs throughout the day, or after exercising.
Balances out the nervous system
Breathing exercises in general help to balance out the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. By slowing down breathing, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, resulting in a variety of health benefits including lowered heart rate, lowered blood pressure, increased energy, improved mood, reduced anxiety, improved sleep and better digestion.
Here’s how to do it:
Start by lying, sitting, or standing in a comfortable position.
Place one hand on your belly and the other hand on your chest. Take in a big breath, using the breath to push the belly hand out, while keeping the chest hand stationary. If you take a deep enough breath in, the chest will eventually expand, but only after the belly has already expanded.
Hold that big breath for 2 counts.
Exhale slowly over 10 counts.
Hold for 2 counts.
Repeat this cycle for 5 to 10 minutes.
The ‘breathe-up’ can also be done in a pool or in the ocean, which adds in the benefits of the mammalian dive reflex, an innate response to facial contact with, and submersion in, cold water (under supervision, never practice the ‘breathe-up’ alone in water).
Holding on to the side of a pool while standing or to a dive float, remove your mask and completely immerse your face while breathing through a snorkel. Doing the exercise this way will activate the dive reflex, which automatically decreases heart rate by about 15-25 percent and promotes a number of other physiological changes that optimize oxygen conservation in the body.
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.