Swim like a mammal, waddle like a reptile

{29.08.2009 – Picture now added]

It was the fifth day of my free-diving course, and my final dive. I knew I was about 20 metres down, unthinkable only a few days earlier. I tried manfully not to panic. As I tried to push a metre or two deeper, the upside-down goggled face of my effortlessly cool instructor Eusebio eased into view…

He looked at me with penetratingly confidence-boosting eyes and a broad grin, and made the thumbs-up (or down, depending on your point of view) sign. “Further… I know you can go further…” he wordlessly communicated to me. But I’d had enough – I glided as slowly as I could up the rope to the surface sand emerged gasping for breath.

“How-did-I-do?” I blurted out breathlessly.

“22 metres, my freeend. Excellent dive…” Eusebio told me in his wonderful Spanish accent.

“I could have gone further… I could have gone further…”

Tales of Oxygen and the Brain

It’s a well known fact that free-divers nearly always think they could have gone further after they’ve set a new Personal Best. It is one of many slightly weird things about this emerging sport.

Some brief explanation for the uninitiated – free-diving has a number of different variations, but in essence they all come down to one thing – diving as deep under water as you can on a single breath of air. There’s something very attractive about the simplicity of it all. But like other extreme sports, the sport comes into its own when you comprehend that limits are as much mental (and in some ways imaginary) as physical. For that reason, instructors have to tread a fine line between inspiring courage in their students and scaring them witless. You can indeed go further than you think you can. In fact, much further.

There is certainly danger – in the 1950s when Jacques Mayol (made famous by the film “The Big Blue”) started diving, the theory was that the body would collapse below 30 metres. Mayol smashed that theory, and nowadays the top divers frequently get down below 100 metres. Medical research has uncovered that something called the Mammalian Dive Reflex exists in humans, and free-divers themselves are discovering new ways of breathing and relaxing to help them go longer and deeper underwater.

But on Day One of the training at the small Apnea Total school, all this was yet to be discovered. So when John, our Basque instructor, told us that we had to think of blackouts as our friends, I was a little freaked out to say the least.

John explained the principle further. “Ees a natural reaction by your body – the system shut down for a while when things get a leetle bit difficult, heh?” He sensed a little edginess in the five of us sitting in the beach-side classroom. “Ees OK, I never know someone blackout on beginners course…” Well, it’s one way of looking at it, I told myself in a wobbly internal voice.

Two hours later I found myself clasping a buoy off the back of a boat, with a weighted rope hanging 20 metres down into the Gulf of Thailand. I’ve never really felt comfortable in the sea, and as my instructor Rodrigo looked at me with his deep eyes, it occurred to me that this was therefore perhaps one of the stupider things I’ve decided to do.

The waves lapped over me; Rodrigo purred in my ear. “You are beerry relaxed Andy, beerry relaxed. You look beeeerry relaxed. Ees beerry beautiful, excellent breathing, Andy…” I felt anything but relaxed – but there’s a game of positive thinking to be played here, and the instructors were experts at playing it. At times it was almost hypnotic.

A final deep breath, and I was under, pulling myself down on the weighted rope into the beautifully clear water. On the first couple of days, I don’t mind admitting that unexpurgated panic set in at an early stage; I struggled to get down below 5 metres, while my compadres on the course reached depths approaching the bottom of the rope. It was all deeply depressing.

So by the second afternoon I was frustrated beyond belief. Rodrigo fixed me with his penetrating stare. “What’s een your mind, Andy? This game is all in your mind…”

And something clicked. It really was in my mind. Suddenly I was at 14 metres and feeling, well, at least OK. And more than that, I was conquering my mental demons – and developing my breathing. It all felt so connected – to the yoga, the tai chi, the kung fu – and so far away from my days struggling to breathe at my desk in London.

I knew that I had to move on to the three-day Advanced course.

Advanced Apnea for dummies

Apnea, meaning suspension of external breathing, is at the heart of free-diving – the diving is really just the culmination of what’s called the “breathe-up” which can easily take five to ten times as long at the dive itself. So the advanced teaching focuses far more on breathing.

Without getting too technical, you have to learn to live with diaphragmatic contractions in order to stay at depth. Initially frightening, the best free-divers see these as “internal breathing” – and to be welcomed.

Despite the rather frightening sight of one of the course attendees blacking out during a training breathe-up (low blood pressure), things progressed remarkably quickly. By the end of the first day I was holding my breath face down in the water (called “static Apnea”) for what felt like an age – 2 minutes 50 seconds. (By the way, usual warning – don’t try this at home, kids – needs supervision…)

Over the next two days we practised new forms of “breathe-ups”, learnt to kick the Mammalian dive Reflex quickly into action, studied all kinds of exercises to increase lung capacity, and tried new ways to equalise at depth.

But above all, we kept on diving. We did NPSA dives, Exhale dives, free immersion dives, you name it. As with any sport, it’s the only way to progress. And that final dive, to 22 metres, made it all worthwhile – mostly thanks to stunning instruction from Rodrigo, John and Eusebio.

From here, the only way is up. Or down. Depending on how you look at it. Highly, highly recommended.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

A thirty hour train journey through the troubled wilds of Southern Thailand, and I reached my current location – the little-known Ma’Daerah Turtle Sanctuary on the East coast of peninsular Malaysia.

I’m the only volunteer here, which is a treat. I released my first hatchling on the beach last night. It’s a great experience to watch this tiny reptile – no longer than the size of my pinkie – make its way down to the sea for the first time. In 30 years, it will grow to be a metre or more long. And if it’s a male (you can’t tell until they’re older), it won’t ever come back to land. Tonight I hope to watch a female actually lay its eggs.

I’ll be a nocturnal beast for the next fortnight – the work is all in the hours of darkness. Which is rather apt, given that it is Ramadan, and finding food during the day is a little tricky.


[Unfortunately pictures aren’t working on blogger today. They will follow].


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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, South East Asia '09

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