I get out of bed to the sound of turtle doves cooing in the dark, and automatically know what time it is. I won’t have breakfast until I come back but have some water before the guys arrive. I packed my gear bag yesterday but go though the items in my mind just to make sure I’ve not forgotten anything. Low volume mask, snorkel, wetsuit, weight belt, and fins. I grab my dive watch and put it on. It’s six am, and I hear the little boat motoring toward my house. I am greeted by smiles from Sam and Don on the dock as I pass my bag to them. The oranges, pinks and reds are starting to appear over the hills east of Jolly Harbour as sunrise approaches. We slowly cruise out of the still and quiet harbour trying not to wake the neighbors before we accelerate outside the entrance. The mooring is 4 miles away, and we are trying to get there before the wind picks up enough to make it choppy. Watching the amazing sunrise change before my eyes makes me smile on the inside which is exactly what i want to be doing before a dive. Being happy, content and at peace is often the feelings that sunrises bring out in me, and I guess it’s another good reason that Don and Sam like to go so early. They are the most experienced freedivers in Antigua, and it’s fun to dive with them. We go beyond the reef, and the water is black in the early morning light. Surprisingly, we find the mooring ball easily using land marks and tie up. Over goes our lead weight with 160 feet of line attached to our dive float. Another line keeps it attached and floating behind the boat at a safe enough distance so that we don’t make contact with the boat on our dives. The current direction looks good and not too strong. Sometimes it can be like swimming in a river out there, but today at sunrise it was going to be nice and easy. We are now trying to relax ourselves even more as we slowly put on our equipment in silence. My wetsuit top has a hood and when that goes over my head i feel like things have slowed down even more in the muffled stillness. Scientists say that all mammals have a dive reflex which kicks in when we enter the water.
When you enter the sea and that cool water washes over your face, without realizing it your heart rate slows down and blood pulls away from your arms and legs toward your core. A prehistoric change happens within you that enables you to better adapt to the undersea world from where all life originated. The mammalian dive reflex is something that happens within all marine mammals allowing them to use just one breath from the surface to go to great depths and to travel huge distances under water. Normal surface heart rates of about 125 beats per minute fall to about 10 beats per minute in seals, for example. This is important because together with blood being pulled from the extremities, a lower heart rate means less oxygen is being consumed and as a result one breath lasts longer and longer.
I splash water onto my face before putting my mask on and slowly slip over the side into the ocean. It feels so natural, so effortless so peaceful in the ocean in a way that makes me sometimes feel like I am more of a visitor on land than in the ocean.
Famous American President, John F. Kennedy once said, “I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it’s because in addition to the fact that the sea changes, and the light changes, and ships change, it’s because we all came from the sea. And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea – whether it is to sail or to watch it – we are going back from whence we came.” I believe there’s plenty to what he was saying.
Our heart rate starts to slow and we start doing our “warm up dives” in rotation. One of us dives while the other does his breath up and the last one watches carefully acting as the buddy. We rotate this way until each has done three warm ups. It’s the way we freedive, but there are many other ways out there. After our warm up dives, it’s my turn to “breath up” for a deep dive, and I relax my mind, calming it in one of many relaxation techniques out there. I notice my lips smiling around my snorkel as I think of a happy memory. My breathing is slow and technical, done in a way to maximize my blood’s oxygen saturation while making sure that i keep good amounts of carbon dioxide in there too.
Don returns to the surface with his buddy Sam doing “safety” for him. I notice his smile and know it was a good one for him. I take a few more breath cycles slightly different to how i had been breathing up until that point. The expert freedive course that i did with Jonathan Sunnex really has helped me take my dives to another level very quickly. I am so relaxed that I almost feel intoxicated or floating in a dreamlike state. Perfect! As my last breath fills my lungs to the max, I slowly take my snorkel out of my mouth and begin my dive.
I can’t help but notice the amazing colours of the sunrise refracting through the water column as I descend head first. This vision helps me relax even more as I kick deeper and deeper along the dive line.
I wear just enough lead to make up for the buoyancy that the wetsuit provides. This means I need to propel myself straight down to about sixty feet before the air in my lungs compresses under the weight of the ocean enough to make me negatively buoyant. At this point the “freefall” starts. It’s one of the most enjoyable sensations in freediving where you start to fall deeper and deeper without having to swim at all. The line moving rapidly in front of my mask shows me that i am dropping fast “flying” or gliding effortlessly into the darker and cooler waters below. Seventy feet, eighty feet, ninety feet, one hundred feet, one ten…. I start to feel the pressure against my chest and abdomen as my lungs get smaller and smaller getting “crushed” by the pressure.
I pass through some sort of localized thermocline and notice the cold water against my face. One hundred and thirty feet and it’s challenging to equalize as the air i had on the surface has compressed to what feels like nothing. It’s almost impossible to push any air from my lungs into my mask, and I have so use special techniques to equalize my ears. One hundred and forty feet and a large fish flashes past my periphery.
I bring my attention immediately back to the dive but it’s too late, and I have lost my concentration which made me miss an equalization. My ears won’t let me go deeper on this dive. I grab the line and let my body fall to an upright position. I look down and see the green rocky sea floor only about forty feet away and immediately remember that i need to get back up. In less time than a whole second, panic tries to creep in as I think about the distance I have to swim back up to the surface. Will I have enough air? What if I don’t? Will I black out? These haunting questions swirl for a second and try to break my concentration. I know that if they succeed then I will have real problems, so in a flash I tell myself that I am in control and that this is no big deal. I focus on relaxing on the dive and smile again as I start to methodically kick my fins back and forth looking straight ahead at the rope and the dark blue water straight ahead. It’s all good and I know there’s no problem getting to the surface. I see the rope moving in front of my mask in the right direction and I know I am going up comfortably. At about 60 feet Don meets me while intently looking into my eyes to see if I am in control. I smile and we continue to go to the surface. The sunshine is amazing….. no it’s actually glorious. I don’t usually use that word but that’s the best way to describe how I see the colours bouncing off the waves above and decending to greet me.
The euphoria is real and I know that I could have gone way deeper. Now that my lungs have expanded again i allow the regained buoyancy to pull me the last ten feet slowly to the surface. I do my recovery breath routine and feel the wind on my face and the sunlight in my eyes. I could have gone deeper! lol Freediving can be like surfing in that you are always searching for the perfect wave….or the perfect dive. You know it’s out there, and you will keep enjoying each session hoping that you’ll find it some day in the future.
If you want to experience freediving or learn more about how relaxation, breathing, stretching and other techniques can affect your mind and body then you should consider a course. Whatever happens, never do it alone. There is a freedive camp running for five full days Feb 3rd to 7th. Check the poster below: