The Daily Telegraph - Take a deep breath...
August 27th, 2016
Michelle Jana Chan (yes, that’s her with the dolphins!) plunges into the Big Blue with freediver Hanli Prinsloo in Mozambique.
If you have seen Luc Besson’s 1988 film The Big Blue, you will know about the moment when the sport of freediving was propelled into the public consciousness. One character, Enzo Molinari, aims to dive the deepest, holding his breath the longest and pushing his body to the limit. The other, Jacques Mayol, is less interested in breaking records. For him freediving is about expressing his love of the ocean – and of dolphins. “I don’t dive to conquer the elements,” he said. “The sea is my lover; I make love to her when I dive.”
Much as I am swayed by records, summits and certificates, I wanted to freedive not with weights and balloons but in the most natural way possible alongside the world’s great marine creatures: dolphins, sharks and other favourites. In fact, like many people, I had perhaps unknowingly been freediving all my life: swimming underwater, holding my breath for a few seconds, perhaps to retrieve a penny from the bottom of a pool. That was a revelation: if you too have ever held your breath and swum underwater, you have freedived.
Without the need for much equipment, freediving is uncomplicated. It is also very appealing in an age when we are shedding gear to go rock climbing, running without shoes, indulging in wild swimming, even decluttering our homes and our head spaces. Freediving is particularly of the moment – and it is flourishing. Scuba programmes provided by Padi (the Professional Association of Diving Instructors) are available at thousands of beach resorts around the world; the logical follow-up might well be freediving.
But the real pioneers are individuals such as Hanli Prinsloo, 37, a South African freediver who has broken 11 records for her country. Nowadays she shuns competitive freediving and looks after athletes’ safety. “The sport is in a dangerous place right now,” she told me. “We are so close to our human limitations.”
Freediving for fun is another story, however. To learn how to do it, I met up with Hanli in Durban on the eastern cape of South Africa and we drove north together to Mozambique. From the border we followed a sand track leading up to Ponta Malongane, one of the small coastal settlements on this sensational stretch of endless golden sand without a footprint in sight.
We ran down to the shore like children and jumped into the sea. Hanli bodysurfed the big waves, popping up like a seal. In a baptism of sorts, I was slammed into the sand and emerged breathless but smiling.
Back at the rented beach house, we did some training in breathing techniques. Hanli is also a qualified yoga instructor, which is a perfect accompaniment to freediving. We did some stretching and breath control on the deck – as the stars pierced the inky Indian Ocean above.
Next morning, ocean-based training began. We took a boat out to sea, beyond the surf, and using a float and weight hung a rope vertically down from the surface. Treading water, I slowed down my breathing the way Hanli had taught me while lying on a yoga mat. Deep breaths. Counting slowly.
“In your own time, when you are ready,” Hanli said. I took a big gulp, inverted my body and headed down, down, down. At the surface the sea was choppy, but underwater, as I focused on the swaying rope, it felt supremely still and quiet. Perhaps this is what it feels like for dolphins as they leap into the roar of the air, then splash back down into the silence of the sea.
The journey down a rope is all about “equalising” – gently forcing air into the middle ear chamber, to balance the increasing water pressure on the other side of the ear drum. This can be done by pinching the nose and blowing, or sometimes simply by moving the jaw.
The key is to descend slowly, equalising as you go – something I discovered I was hopeless at. I kept rushing down the rope, hand over hand, overexcited by the notion that I was freediving with one of the world’s best. This was all wrong, of course, and I paid for it with sore ears for my entire trip. Be warned. Take it slowly.
The other key factor is to eke out your oxygen consumption, something I found easier to do. It’s important to hold the whole gulp of air on a dive without releasing any breath. The swimming action, meanwhile, should consist of long, languorous movements in order to conserve oxygen.
Finally, one must meet the mental challenge of keeping a breath held longer than you believe possible. There is a natural instinct to surface much earlier than necessary – and the trick is to reject that call, regardless of the slight risks.
What I also loved about the sport – after 25 years of scuba diving – was the refreshingly lightweight gear. All you need is a wetsuit, a weight belt, fins and mask. There are no tanks, no cumbersome jackets, no tubes and no gauges. Freedom.
After my training we continued north in the boat to look for dolphins. We saw the first pod not far offshore, their distinctive dorsal fins rising out of the water. Hanli and I jumped in. Without the aid of a rope, we used duck-dives to invert and descend. The mammals were intrigued and tried to share with us a sprig of seaweed, playing with it, dangling it over their noses, spinning around us in circles.
Sometimes we found a pod of dolphins sleeping (noticeable because one eye is closed); other times we found a group on the move and travelling too quickly for us to keep up. Every time we sighted another pod we leapt off the side of the boat, trying our luck, clambering back in again, depending on the animals’ appetite for engagement.
A few months previously, the Paralympic swimmer Ellie Simmonds had experienced much the same thing. She also travelled to Mozambique to freedive with Hanli (see sidebar). I tried to imagine how it might have been for Ellie in the water – probably not unlike the way it is for Hanli, since both are extraordinary athletes in a medium that feels natural to them but daunting and unfamiliar to most of us.
“Freediving is not about depth and time,” said Hanli, “but about personal awareness. I teach freediving to facilitate the 'wilderness moment’.” And that is how it felt for me. We weren’t going especially deep or holding our breath for very long, but I did feel fully absorbed in this underwater world, humbled to be sharing the dolphins’ home and with a renewed desire to protect the marine environment.
Hanli also operates an ocean conservation foundation, “I am water”, which teaches underprivileged coastal communities how to swim, snorkel and freedive in the hope that they will become the custodians of the oceans.
Week-long trips to Mozambique usually consist of as many as eight boat launches, depending on the weather. With my limited time we had only one morning on the sea, but even after half a day I felt I had improved significantly. It was enough of a taste for me to want to do more.
Hanli and I then flew to Cape Town for another freediving experience entirely. It was a sharp transition from the tropics to the chilly waters of the Cape – but we were wearing thick wetsuits. Here, off Miller’s Point, I swam among kelp beds, a fairyland of dense plant life with thick, rigid, yellow stems and soft, verdant leaves. These are important breeding grounds for marine life, serving as nurseries for small fish and also the home of the massive seven-gilled sharks, one of the oldest shark species on the planet. They look remarkably benign compared with their brethren, more like Muppets than killers.
We also visited jackass penguins at Simon’s Town – though it was simply to watch these speedy little creatures torpedo around the shallows, rather than join them in the water. Instead we had a pressing date on a group boat trip to dive with Cape fur seals off Hout Bay. Hanli calls them the “Labrador puppies” of the marine world; they are silly, playful and incredibly cute.
My most magical encounter, however, was with an ocean sunfish (Mola mola), which we spotted from the boat. These creatures are so-called because they are often seen flapping about the surface of the sea, dorsal fin raised, as much out of the water as they are in it. That is because they eat jellyfish, which attempt to survive by stinging and paralysing the sunfish. The antidote to the poison is sunshine, and so the sunfish loiters at the surface until it feels well again. Mola mola is the world’s heaviest bony fish and weirdly beautiful: half-floating, half-drugged at the surface with a huge frame and a tiny mouth. As odd as the sunfish looks, it was magical to swim by its side surrounded by a surreal waterscape of pulsating jellyfish.
On the way back to shore, as a final flourish, we saw a humpback whale fluking. “Did you know you can freedive with them in Tonga?” Hanli said. I started to write my new to-do list as she recounted marine experiences: freediving with whale sharks in Baja; dugongs in Papua New Guinea; tiger sharks in the Bahamas; orcas in Norway; and narwhals in the Arctic.
I am hoping that my freediving adventures have only just begun.
Ellie Simmonds's underwater world
Ellie Simmonds, 21, is a four-times Paralympic champion swimmer, having won her first medal at the age of 13. She will be competing in the Rio 2016 Paralympics from September 7-18.
Was this your first experience of freediving?
I had worked before with a freediver who helped control my breathing for swimming. But this Mozambique trip was something else altogether. This was my my first big ocean experience and it was a dream: to swim with dolphins. It was the trip of a lifetime.
How did swimming in the Indian Ocean compare to the pool?
I used to be quite scared of the sea. It was the fear of the unknown: from how big the ocean is, to not being able to put your feet down, to the thought of sharks. This television programme is about my journey of overcoming that fear.
Had you swum with marine creatures before?
Never. It was magical experience to see dolphins in their own habitat, watching them move and seeing how fast they swim. They look like they are not putting in any work yet I was struggling to keep up with them.
Did the trip help lessen your fear of the sea?
Yes. I don’t have any fears now. I want to swim with whale sharks and see giant manta rays, as well as other sharks. I would love to go to the Maldives and Fiji.
Did it change your view of ocean conservation?
I think what Hanli is doing is incredible: teaching kids about the oceans so they pass the message on to their parents. It’s not just us on this planet, but all these other wonderful creatures – and we need to spread that message.
Has this experience helped you prepare for Rio?
With my breathing, yes, but also with feeling more comfortable in the water. On that trip I felt as if I was at one with the ocean.
The best diving gear
Wetsuits for freediving are more streamlined – with fewer zips and fasteners – than scuba suits. The Omer Masterteam jacket and long john combination is flexible, durable and has an open cell neoprene inner for added warmth. It is available in various thicknesses for different conditions. To ease getting into a suit, use a soapy shower gel or aqueous cream mix (£154.45, scubastore.com).
A rubber weight belt works best as it stays in place without slipping around. Choose one with a quick release such as the Riffe rubber weight belt. Standard weights are available from most dive shops (£24, spearfishing.co.uk).
The AquaLung Sphera mask has an excellent field of vision and low volume of air. Its close-to-the-face shape means the diver wastes less oxygen when equalising this air pocket (£22.99, aqualung.com/uk; see website for dealers).
A snorkel is useful for breathing at the surface and to keep an eye on a diving buddy. Most brands have a simple, straight snorkel without valves, such as the Mares Pro Flex (£16, simplyscuba.com).
Freediving fins are longer than scuba fins, and carbon-fibre blades are the most effective without straining ankles, such as the WaterWay Capt Nemo Carbon Power Fins. Plastic fins are a good inexpensive alternative for beginners, and fibreglass is best for intermediate divers (£153, freedivershop.com).
The watch-sized Suunto D4i Black freediving computer has a specific freediving mode (£325, suunto.com).