Getting into deep water

8 Mins read

On the Pacific Ocean’s western edge, thousands of miles away on the coral reefs that sprawl between the Philippines, Borneo, and Indonesia, the Bajau Laut people live between sea and sky.

Commonly referred to as the ‘Sea Gypsies’, their existence is defined by the ever-constant ebb and flow of the water beneath them.

They have very little money, no permanent home, and no nationality. For them, the sea and life are intrinsically entwined.


The children of the Bajau Laut play not farm from their amphibious homes in the warm water of the Coral Sea. [Image by Borneo Child Aid via Flickr CC]

The Bajau Laut use it for everything from hunting and washing to timekeeping, using the rise and fall of the tides in place of the hands on a clock, returning to land only to trade for rice and fuel.

Many suffer land sickness on solid ground and their children spend so long in the water that their eyes adapt to allow them to focus beneath the surface.

The tranquil life of these sea-dwelling people has barely altered since their initial discovery by the 16th-century explorer Antonio Pigafetta.

Barring perhaps the introduction of engines and motors to their houseboats and fishing vessels, life on the reefs has not changed for hundreds of years.

Whether it is due to a certain reluctance towards modern technologies, or – perhaps more likely – inadequate funding to afford luxurious equipment, the fishing methods of this nomadic culture is one of its most fascinating aspects; one that not only proves the outstanding adaptability and endeavour of the human race, but also one that has influenced such a venturesome sport.

Hunting only with a long harpoon gun and a set of crudely fashioned goggles, the fishermen of the Bajau Laut descend to depths of twenty metres and beyond to stalk their prey, often staying submerged for ten minutes at a time to find their catch.

Out of necessity they dive to the seabed, wandering in search of food, guided only by their keen sight, constantly on the lookout for the silver flicker of a fish against the dark waters of the Pacific.

It is odd then that this practice should have influenced such an unnerving, and sometimes fatal, pastime.

Freediving is not an activity for the faint-hearted, and certainly not one for the hydrophobes among us; its athletes descend to unheard of depths for lengthy periods of time, sometimes resurfacing unconscious, bleeding from the nose and ears or, rarely, not at all.

They use no oxygen other than the air they pack into their lungs, and have nothing but their wetsuit and a pair of goggles to protect them from the crushing blackness of the sea.


Marianne Thoreson, Professor of Physiology at the University of Oslo, specialises in the effect of oxygen deprivation on the brain: “There comes a point where the brain cells will start to suffer, I don’t think that one can change that cut off very much by training. I think it’s an individual ability that some can do better than others.

“Brain damage is gradual. First, you become unconscious and then if you manage to get oxygen you’ll probably be okay without any permanent injury,” she said, “but, from the time when you lose consciousness, you don’t have many minutes before you get irreversible damage.”

Freediver underwater

A freediver propels himself along the bottom of the sea using a monofin [Simon Reid]

The French governing body for the sport, Association Internationale pour le Développement de l’Apnée (AIDA), recognises eight main disciplines in the sport.

The first three, Static Apnea, Dynamic Apnea with Fins, and Dynamic Apnea without Fins, are done in a pool.

The first is relatively simple to understand: hold your breath underwater for as long as possible, while the dynamic disciplines involve swimming horizontally as far as you can on a single breath.

The next five are all conducted in open water, and looking at the world records that have been set in these categories may make you shiver.

Constant Weight Apnea both with and without fins has seen athletes descend to depths of over a hundred metres on their own steam; free Immersion Apnea allows the use of a long vertical rope to pull yourself down into the deep

[pullquote align=”right”]“From the time when you lose consciousness, you don’t have many minutes before you get irreversible damage.”
Professor Marianne Thoreson[/pullquote]

If that’s not a daunting enough prospect, Variable Weight Apnea and No Limit Apnea both use a weighted sled that drops, with athletes in tow, before they ascend using either the guide rope or an inflatable balloon to drag them back to the surface.

It is important to understand that, regardless of the physical and mental strain, this is not an extreme sport. Adrenaline is a freediver’s worst enemy, raising the heart rate and using up the precious oxygen in their lungs. Pushing oneself to the limit is rarely the goal.

The key to freediving is complete relaxation. Spending prolonged periods of time so far from the surface is a daunting task in itself, but to calm your mind while maintaining concentration on the dive is an extremely difficult skill to master.

Emma Farrell, a freediving instructor trainer and author of One Breath: A Reflection on Freediving, explained the difference: “Extreme sports involve a massive adrenaline rush and a raised heart rate whereas when you freedive you have to be so relaxed that you could almost fall asleep.”


Not just a competitive sport, freediving is also an opportunity to explore deeper parts of the ocean, unhindered by the restraints of breathing apparatus [Simon Reid]

When down at her personal best depth of 40 metres, Ferrell says she must enter a tranquil state, unmoving, thinking only about her style and maintaining equalisation.

When she is calm, she can slow her heart rate so as to preserve her oxygen, a process aided by the brain’s inability to completely offload the blood of oxygen in the same way that muscle tissue can.

Put simply, if she remains as still and calm as possible she can last, but if she loses her cool, it’s all over.

Liv Philip, the British Freediving Champion, stressed that “you have to put yourself in a mindset where you’re very relaxed. It’s not a rufty tufty sport. You don’t attack it.”

In August, disaster rocked the freediving world when Natalia Molchanova went missing during a relatively routine dive to 35 metres below sea level.

The Russian, who is presumed dead, was diving near to La Savina port on the island of Formentera, just south of Ibiza.

The 53 year old, whose lung capacity could sustain her for up to nine minutes under water, was reported missing after she didn’t resurface.

This, however, is not the only death the sport has seen. In 2002, Audrey Mestre, a world record holding French diver, died at the age of 28 after the floatation device that was to bring her back from the deep failed to deploy.

After being dragged onto dry land, there was nothing anyone could do, close to ten minutes underwater had taken its toll. The damage to her brain was irreversible and she was pronounced dead on the beach.

In 2013, another freediver, Nicholas Mevoli, died and became the first casualty in an international freediving competition. In the free immersion category of the Vertical Blue competition at Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas.

After resurfacing from his world record attempting dive, Mevoli lost consciousness, it is thought he suffered a pulmonary edema, and died.

So what is the allure of such a sport? What possible reason could be so enticing that athletes are willing to hold their breath for long after they should have died from oxygen starvation? Or descend beyond depths at which Archimedes’ Principle dictates that the human body will not simply float back to the surface?

For Liv Philip, it’s a chance to escape. “It’s the time and experience of being able to move in that medium,” she says. “I like the feeling of moving through the water: the colours, the change in temperature as you descend, the challenge to get back.

“When I clip on to the line and I decide to do a dive, then everything I do from the point that I made the commitment is my time and it’s determined by me.”

Philip, who has retained her title for the last nine years in a row, and has descended without fins to a staggering depth of 70 metres, said “I think it’s one place where I am completely separate from the extremely over-controlled world of rules and regulations, directives, and parking inspectors that we live in these days.”


Freedivers return from the deep, dragging themselves to the surface along a guide rope [Simon Reid]

According to Philip there is a great freedom in it, regardless of the thousands of miles of empty blue ocean that surrounds and envelopes her when she dives.

“Its up to you,” she says, “what you make of it and the decisions you make are yours.”

With regards to the dangers of the sport she believes there is only one to speak of: human error.

Aside from the death of Nicholas Mevoli, there has not been a single death in competitive freediving, only during world record attempts or practices when the proper procedure wasn’t followed.

“I think [accidents] make the people in the sport really think. What happened with Natalia [Molchanova] was incredibly sad. She was an amazing member of our community, we all knew her and we all liked her and she was an amazing athlete,” Philip told Artefact.

However, the champion freediver, who also acts as a Safety Officer for the British Freediving Association, went on to say that “[her death] wasn’t the result of good protocol, it was the result of someone making a mistake, if that had happened because freediving is inherently dangerous for your physiology then of course it would be terrifying, but it didn’t, it happened because she didn’t have the adequate safety there.”

[pullquote]“I am more worried about getting in my car and driving down the road than I am about freediving.”
Emma Farrell[/pullquote]Speaking to Farrell, who runs the Go Freediving school, the exasperation and pain that such an accident can cause is evident. “It gets so frustrating for people like me who teach thousands and thousands of people and never have a single accident,” she said. “The newspapers and the media pick up on the most isolated incidents and think that it’s representative of the sport.”

Asked if she was deterred by the deaths, her answer was an unequivocal “No.”

“I am more worried about getting in my car and driving down the road than I am about freediving,” she said. “There is more under my control when I dive than when I drive.”

Freedivers will tell you that it’s not a dangerous sport when practised properly, but that could arguably said for just about any potentially hazardous activity – we would all probably agree that snooker is all fun and games until you get a cue in the eye.

The fact is that it is a sport in which people have died as opposed to one in which they haven’t. True, more people died playing golf last year than on freedives, but golfers aren’t knowingly putting themselves at risk unless they go out in an electrical storm.

However, it is so evidently frustrating that, in a sport where so much care is taken in regards to the safety and so much training is undertaken that, when accidents do happen we tend to focus more on the ends rather than the means.



Featured Image by Simon Reid

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