What it’s really like to freedive
What a single underwater breath can teach you about yourself and the ocean
In partnership with Ocean Lover’s Festival
Freedivers defy science both in the length of time they can hold their breath and how deep they can dive (the current record is 214m). Bella Massey is the Founder and Head Instructor at Immersia Freediving, who says at its core, freediving is a beautiful and meditative process that will change your life. Here we speak to Bella about the unique techniques the sport requires and how it can radically rewrite one’s body and mind. We also unlock what freediving can teach you about yourself and the ocean, and of course, uncover what to do with the imminent fear of taking that one big breath.
Why is our connection to the Ocean so important?
There’s this really beautiful quote that you hear in the freediving world, it’s the John F Kennedy quote about our ‘blood and our tears are of the same make-up of the ocean…and we’re all returning to the ocean’, and I think it summarises how beautifully connected we are. We can’t survive as a human race without the ocean. It’s responsible for absorbing carbon dioxide, from a biological standpoint the ocean is very much our lifeblood, and I think anybody who lives close to the ocean will tell you that connection is palpable. Now more than ever I think that relationship is starting to change. The ocean has gone from a position of protecting and supporting human life to it increasingly becoming our responsibility to protect our ocean.
What has freediving taught you about yourself, and about the ocean?
Freediving is like looking in the mirror and answering how do you handle stress? To go through the process of a breath hold you have to let go and listen to what your body is telling you, and we are really bad at doing that. We’re quite bad at listening to ourselves. We’re bad at detaching and letting go and stepping outside of our own immediate experience and watching ourselves as an observer and not as an active participant.
When you learn to freedive you have to learn to detach and look at what’s happening to your body and be as distant to that as possible so you can correctly identify when you are safe, when you are no longer safe, when you need to react and when you need to distract. So many freedivers go through this process of learning to listen to our bodies in a way that simultaneously allows us to let go and accept what’s happening to us.
The idea of freediving can feel intimidating at times – what can those new to the sport expect?
The things we are most scared about in freediving are often times the easiest. Lots of students come to freediving and they’re particularly intimidated by the breath hold and how they’re going to feel underwater just relying on their breath. But what you find is that by the time you’re focusing on all the technical elements of freediving, the equipment the techniques you’re using to release pressure through your ears, the body’s natural breath holding state becomes the easiest thing to handle.
Freediving comes with its challenges for sure, but they’re often not what people expect. As free divers we’re there to learn about ourselves, we’re there to enjoy the atmosphere and the beautiful world we otherwise can’t access. Freediving got this dark and scary reputation over the years because when it goes wrong, it goes very very very wrong.
The reality of freediving for most of us, is it’s a very safe and beautiful meditative fun experience. The majority of recreational freediving, you couldn’t call it an extreme sport, it’s water meditation. The excitement and the mission of finding new underwater creatures and exploring new environments is compelling but the thing that gets people really hooked is when you spend an hour in the water, during that hour you don’t once think about your emails, it’s like you’ve checked out of life for an hour!
How can free diving help our general state of wellbeing?
Whenever you’re relying on your body to do something for you, you start to respect it very quickly. Your lungs are your main tool for free diving so free divers are very respectful of their lungs and their bodies. We spend our whole diving careers listening to what our body is telling us, so how could you not carry that into daily life, into how you eat, how you sleep, into the way you spend time in the outdoors, to keep active, to keep fit, to allow yourself to keep practicing for that sport that you love.
Have you noticed any changes within the marine atmosphere in the years that you’ve been diving?
Horrifically yes. I’ve only been free diving for six years which is a relatively small amount of time to be observing changes in the ocean. The dive site I go to most commonly at North Bondi, in the six years I’ve been free diving, I’ve seen the amount of biodiversity in that area completely plummet. I very rarely see animals out there now.
Years ago you couldn’t get in the water without seeing, at the very least, big schools of fish. During the pandemic when the water was a bit quieter, you would’ve expected to see the level of pollution in the water actually decrease but in actual fact it was quite disappointing to observe the sheer amount of single use plastic – gloves, masks, covid tests, we really ramped up our single use plastic and that was very noticeable in the water. In the last couple of years in particular since we’ve had all the flooding, we’ve had to call off dives because of water pollution and that’s never previously happened.
How can freedivers help in the conservation of our oceans?
Anyone who spends time in the water, goes to the effort of understanding the fragility of that eco system. Freedivers spend so much of their time exploring, looking, enjoying the underwater atmosphere so when we see things like dolphins trapped in shark nets, and animals caught by plastic, when we see plastic bottles which animals stuck inside, we feel that very deeply because we see that as a direct threat to an environment that we really care about.
I’ve seen how passionate this community is around the protection of our oceans and when there is a protest or some level of activism it’s so often frequented by freedivers, scuba divers, surfers, people who spend time in the water. As freedivers we have a responsibility to be active participants in the conversation and share what we’re experiencing through stories, photos, videos, to inspire curiosity, and inspire people to try free diving, to get them into the ocean because it doesn’t take long as a diver to care very deeply about that environment.
How will the Immersia Freediving be involved at this year’s Ocean Lovers Festival?
We’ll be at the Ocean Lovers market throughout the whole festival with members of our team there talking about freediving, answering freediving questions people have and also with a special discount for people wanting to sign up to the courses to give it a go. We’ll be running a freediving intro talk which is a free talk for people who want to come and learn a bit about how freedivers use breathing and other techniques to find a place of calm, and that’s a huge benefit for managing day to day stress. On the Sunday we are also running an intro to freediving workshop for anyone who’d like to get wet and give the sport a go in a very supportive and gentle environment.
- Immersia freediving 1 hour workshop, Saturday March 18, 11am-12noon, Seagull Room, Bondi Pavilion
- Immersia freediver taster experience, Sunday March 19, 9am-1pm, North Bondi
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