Free diving AntiguaThe silence from within

Freediving: Plumbing the depths of the ocean on a voyage to self-discovery

Since the dawn of humankind, man’s relationship with the ocean has been complex and at times contradictory. A giver of life and nourishment, it’s both a barrier and a link to distant lands, a source of deep fascination yet fraught with fear of the unknown. It’s true that we know more about the surface of Mars than the depths of the seas. For many the water holds a special intrigue, a longing to fraternise with marine life as much as we yearn to fly with birds. And for some it’s the driving force to experience the ultimate symbiosis between man and nature – and go deeper than anyone has ever gone before.

Freediving is often described as an underwater journey to self-discovery. While scuba diving is for looking around us, freediving is about looking inside. The absence of cumbersome equipment and regulator noise – subsisting on just a single breath of air – is said to enhance inner balance and peace. As legendary world champion Jacques Mayol said, it’s “about silence, the silence that comes from within”.

While hardly a modern concept – freediving dates back to 4500 BC when our predecessors scoured the ocean for food – it has evolved to become one of the world’s fastest-growing extreme sports. Top competitors can hold their breath for several minutes, reaching depths below 300ft where pressure causes human lungs to shrink to the size of two fists. In Antigua, its burgeoning popularity saw the country’s first freediving course – taught by acclaimed instructor Jonathan Sunnex and scheduled for January 2015 – sold out in 24 hours. Luxury Locations’ own CEO Sam Dyson, Don McIntosh of Indigo Divers and Eli Fuller of Adventure Antigua are among a growing number able to dive deeper than the average scuba diver on just one breath.

In December 2010, UK-born champion William Trubridge became the first recorded freediver to plunge to 100m (328ft) with his two bare feet and a lungful of air, a discipline known as ‘constant weight no fins’. Like many, his first foray with the sport was entirely organic. “I was brought up on a boat and was always in the water, freediving and snorkelling,” he said. “The sea was both a playground and a classroom. I didn’t find out freediving was even a sport until I was 22 and went to the Caribbean on a three-month diving trip. For me it’s about self-discovery as much as world records. It’s unlike anything you can experience above water; you get to experience aquatic life as an aquatic being. When you’re really far down you hear nothing; it’s completely silent – and very, very dark. There’s a detachment from all the senses, and you are weightless so there are no points of pressure or contact on the body. It’s a complete sensory experience that allows you to draw within your own mind.”

freediving2Trubridge said he thrives on both the mental and physical challenge. “Any sport requires discipline but with freediving you need an acute awareness of your own body and the ability to interpret the signals it gives you. You also have to be able to shut off the mind; it’s like a holistic challenge.” Shutting off the mind could be vital to keeping safe too. Freediving is certainly not without its risks. Fear releases adrenaline which pumps up the heart rate, constricts blood vessels and consumes oxygen which can cause a loss of consciousness.

Perhaps the most disconcerting danger is a shallow-water blackout. That occurs when the brain shuts down within a few feet of the surface during the ascent. As a diver descends, water pressure squeezes the lungs, condensing the oxygen and giving what feels like a second breath. During the return trip however, the lungs re-expand, dissipating the remaining oxygen and restricting supply to the bloodstream. Trubridge said while perils do exist, accidents are rare and avoidable. “People see freediving as a death-defying stunt but if you practise in the right way it’s actually very safe. My advice is only ever dive with someone else who’s trained, never by yourself. Know the signs of a blackout, don’t focus on depth but technique and being efficient under water. And enjoy it.”

Trubridge trains for 11 months of the year – a strict programme incorporating breathing exercises, dry breath holds and yoga, complemented by a high-carbohydrate vegetarian diet with plenty of alkalising fruit and veg to regulate acidity in the blood and increase its oxygen uptake. “Breaking a world record is a pretty intense experience,” he added. “You spend a lot of time working up to the moment, aiming for that particular depth, so it’s a sense of relief as well as a cause for celebration.”

For Antiguan freediver Junior Martin, a passion for the sport came on the heels of earning a living from the ocean. Martin, from Urlings, began spearfishing at the age of 12, catching lobster and fish to sell to pay his school tuition fees. What began as a job has developed into a profound appreciation and deep respect for the nautical world. His subaquatic experiences are as diverse as the local marine life. “It’s like a different world down there. I even see dolphins sometimes, they come very close to me. Freediving gives you a relaxed mind and in Antigua there are so many places to explore – from reefs to underwater caves.” Martin added: “I’m always trying to improve, so I can dive deeper each time.”

Free dive CaribbeanAs freediving continues to carve a space in the mainstream sports arena, some believe it’s lost its meditative aspect and become a numbers game. And none can boast of such salient numbers as Herbert Nitsch. Dubbed ‘the deepest man on earth’, the 44-year-old Austrian holds the record in the ‘no-limits’ discipline boasting a descent of 253m (830ft) and the ability to hold his breath for an astounding nine minutes. No-limits involves using a weighted sled to go down and a lifting device, such as an inflatable bag, to pull the diver back to the surface. Nitsch, who started diving in 1999, said: “The jumps have got bigger and bigger over the years as people realised it’s not just about yoga and quieting the mind but also about technique. Today we understand more about how the human body functions. And the internet means freedivers have more contact than before so they can share tricks and training techniques, rather than having to invent their own.”

For Nitsch, it was a seemingly unfortunate airline mishap that would spawn a lifelong love for the sport – and ultimately a career. “I was going on a scuba diving safari when the airline lost all my luggage including my scuba gear,” he recalled.“All I had was my underwater camera and Speedos. I rented a facemask and fins so I could take some photos. I was distracted from the fact I was holding my breath and was going deeper and for longer each time to get my pictures. I was training without knowing I was training.” Like Trubridge, Nitsch was also unaware back then that freediving was a competitive sport. “Someone asked me how deep I could go and when I checked it was 32 metres. He told me to buy some decent fins and try and set some records. I went straight onto the international scene after that.” Fifteen years later, Nitsch describes regular scuba diving as “like running with ankle cuffs”. “As a freediver you can move around easier than with a tank. And you see so much more because the insanely loud breathing noises don’t scare away all the fish.”

Essential qualities to be a proficient freediver include dedication and the ability to remain “very, very calm”. “Most good freedivers tend to be older as that’s when you know how to better control the mind. Many get into it seriously in their late 30s, early 40s.” A trained airline pilot, Nitsch was a captain for Tyrolean Airways for 15 years before deciding to focus on freediving full time in 2010. “The similarities between flying and freediving are more than I wanted to believe,” he smiled. “Most freedivers see it from a yoga-meditation point of view. Coming from a pilot background, my approach is very analytical. I am always working to train and dive in the most efficient way, fine tuning the weakest link. For me it’s not the quantity of training but the quality.”

Nitsch has had a couple of close calls, one being an almost fatal attack of decompression sickness, aka ‘the bends’, during a world record attempt in 2012. He later described the episode as like “multiple brain strokes” which preceded months of rehabilitation to learn to walk, talk and move around again. Another narrow escape was from something slightly more tangible. “I had a close encounter with a massive bull shark about three metres long. It was very quick and came straight at me. It was a little scary but I have dived with sharks many times and held onto them; they’re usually not dangerous at all.”

While modern freediving has myriad formats and disciplines, one feature appears to transcend all: a palpable regard for the special place the ocean occupies in our environment. “The best places I’ve dived are the most remote - French Polynesia and Palau Micronesia,” Nitsch said. “Sadly most reefs these days are close to extinction. Wherever there’s a lot of people there’s overfishing.”

In February 2014 Nitsch joined Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s board of advisors to help stop the slaughter of aquatic wildlife and the destruction of their habitat. He continued: “A couple of decades ago there were no plastic bags or bottles. Today there’s so much plastic on the beaches you can’t believe it – and on the bottom it’s even worse. People should be more aware that the oceans are not a garbage dump.”

Trubridge, who set up the TruBlue Foundation aimed at stemming pollution and protecting New Zealand’s critically endangered dolphins, agrees. “Freediving and spending so much time in the water training has given me a sense of place in the world,” he added. “It’s made me very aware of ecosystems – and just how significant we are regarding our effect on the planet.”