Embrace of the Deep | Freediving to 40m below
Fingers grasp at the rope beyond and I pull myself deeper. The double black ring of twenty meters slides past and I begin to accelerate down the line. Freefall. The weightlessness and smooth acceleration that freedivers obsess over: pure euphoria and detachment from our normal reality.
Back in June 2018 I had the opportunity to train freediving for the first time in Amed, Bali. I fell in love with the discipline: both its beauty and as an ultimate exercise in body and mind control.
Rather than go into the technical ins and outs of the process (you can find more of that here: Starting Freediving: Misconceptions and realities), I wanted to give you a descriptive account. It makes more sense to me for such a sensation-oriented discipline. I hope this article can give you an idea of what it’s like, and allow you to share the thoughts and feelings that affected me so much. Although it’s less than a third of that reached by the professionals, the depths and experiences I reached were enough to change me and my attitude (for a future post!). This is my account of a dive to a different world: 40m below.
A World Below | A short film shot during my time freediving in Bali
I hook one hand around the line at my waist and bring the other to pinch my nose, forcing air into my middle ear with the base of my tongue. Knees bend slightly to streamline my fins, and almost without thought my shoulders shift forward in protective anticipation of the pressure squeeze to come. I begin to fall, faster and faster, light and the surface above slipping rapidly from view and reality.
The subtle roughness of the line glides smoothly across the skin between finger and thumb. It represents the only remaining link and memory of the world above: a physical stimulation that alone is left keeping me aware of material consciousness and reality.
The rush of water against my torso intensifies. My skin is alive with sensation as I fall deeper and deeper, meter after meter, faster and faster. My chest begins to compress: an inevitable consequence of the immense weight of water above and behind me. I can feel the air in my lungs shrinking, pulling against my throat with growing intensity. As the thirty-meter mark accelerates past I force a pocket of air into my mouth. It’s just in time. Within another few meters lung volume drops below residual and I can no longer withdraw any air. At surface pressure this is equivalent to a forceful exhale, a strong negative pressure sucking my torso into the space where my lungs used to be. I compress the mouthful with my cheeks, easing it gently into the nasal cavity and eustachian tubes. A gentle hiss fills my ears as the space is decompressed. The mouthful of air begins to disappear.
The pressure increases: a crushing but comforting embrace of the deep, until at 40m my lungs are shrunk to one fifth of their previous volume. It is a force beyond human control: unstoppable and immensely powerful. We are entirely at its mercy; surrender is the natural, and indeed only, solution. I hunch further, relaxing muscles and clearing my mind of conscious thought. Here there is little light, and the water rushes around me distinctly colder than before.
‘The best way to observe a fish is to become a fish’
I push to equalise, but my ears fail to clear. A momentary surge of panic: tightness of the throat and mind. I force the mental disturbance out, refusing to allow emotion to surface. I check my neck for tightness, relax, and my ears hiss satisfyingly, releasing the building pinch on my eardrum.
The dive has gone smoothly, with very little psychological or technical difficulty. I’m comfortable and easy, and it’s calm down here. Compared to the seething swell of the surface above, here is a reality of beauty and sensation: a moving meditation; the essence of flow. I am entirely present and nothing else is, no past and no future. Life above does not exist for me, and I am only here: one with the water around me.
The weighted end of the line approaches and I fold forward, rotating in place to sink to a final depth of 42m. Compression of my chest and throat is approaching the limit of what I can bear. Briefly I pause: a quick glance at the darkness-shrouded seabed a few meters below. Down here there is little to see, and less to understand: a secret world of broken coral and blue-tinted landscapes, hidden from the eyes of the surface above.
The technical part is done, but the dive is far from over. Above me stretches a column of rope over 40m high: the equivalent to a fourteen-storey tower block. At the top is my survival. Slowly I reach up, tentatively, careful not to overstretch the vacuum in my lungs and throat. The line is rough between my fingers, an intrusive, alien memory of material reality. I pull against it, accelerating myself upward with gathering momentum. Hand-over-hand, short pulls become longer as I stretch out to meet the internal expansion of decreasing pressure.
‘Freediving is about silence...the silence that comes from within’
At twenty meters feel the first contraction: an uncontrollable spasm of the diaphragm, rocking through my body like a punch from within. The urge to breathe is stronger now: an incessant tapping that can’t be silenced, knocking at the door of my consciousness with increasing strength and regularity. I close my eyes, shutting out the light of the surface, drawing inwards and focussing on emptying my mind, barring it more strongly against the unwelcome intruder. I ride the contractions, allowing my chest and belly to lurch unrestrained as they come faster and faster. I am elsewhere, intensely aware of, yet somehow separate to sensations of my body.
I open my eyes to the surface above me. The juxtaposition to the calmness seems a different dimension. Circular radiations of falling raindrops intersect with one another in an endless network of pulsating complexity. Their geometric regularity contrasts sharply with the chaotic turbulence of the waves. Rays of sunlight slice downwards through this writhing surface film, sending shadows dancing to the depths below; flickering and diminishing in the world from which I returned. For a long moment I don’t want to resurface, but rather to stay forever in this calm – I’m in a different state of consciousness, and surfacing, breathing, I know will break the spell.
Human instinct wins, as it always does at last, and I surface in synchrony with my safety diver, water rolling off my forehead in a sparkling film and shower of droplets. I take my first breath: lazily, almost grudgingly, releasing the long-restrained air from my lungs and sucking in clear, crisp freshness to course through my chest. The trance-like euphoria is broken, and I’m brought back to full, regular consciousness as I breathe long recovery breaths. My lungs feel close to bursting: a pleasant, slight overexpansion the result of the blood-shift at depth. I feel the sun on my back, the wind across my skin, raising hairs and replacing sensations of the deep. All that remains is a gentle tingle and intense relaxation. I feel that I have woken from a fantasy; returned from an alternative, yet innately natural reality – a far-reaching limb of our ancestral human potential.
‘There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. A man must constantly exceed his level.’