Whilst waiting for my morning coffee to arrive, I couldn’t help noticing an arresting photograph of a lithe, slim and elegant female who was gliding along, deep underwater, propelling herself with huge fins as long as her legs, without being encumbered by an air tank, regulator or tubes.
On further investigation, it turns out that such diving is called ‘Free diving’ and basically involves the participants being able to hold their breath under water in order to swim free from the restrictions that having a full tank of breathable air on one’s back would present.
So enamoured was I with the thought of floating free and peaceful in the water, that when I came across a dive school on the island that held free diving beginners courses…I thought I’d have a go.
Somewhere In the back of my mind I imagined that I too would look lithe, slim and elegant when attempting to dive down deep under the sea! A rather ravishing Frenchman booked me on to the course and, after assurances that I was by no means the oldest ever to sign up, I agreed to return the next morning for instruction.
After a quick round of introductions to the other students, we were straight into the nitty gritty…trying to convert our bodies from land-locked, air-breathing entities into, the more towards the dolphin end of the mammal species spectrum.
With the minimum of explanation about what we would actually be subjecting ourselves to, we immediately started to learn how to breath effectively. Now, there you go, after fifty four years on this planet and, recent yoga sessions excepted, I have managed to breathe without thinking about it at all. It has come so naturally to me. I, it can honestly be claimed, am gifted at breathing. But for this, I am being asked to breathe in a totally different way.
The aim is to maximise the amount of oxygen that can be taken into the body. The coach explains how to compress the air through pursed lips as we breathe in so that first we fill the belly and then the lungs. Then, we equally slowly, exhale.
After whipping off his shirt, the rather ravishing Frenchman (RRFM) demonstrates the technique. He Perches on the edge of his seat to create the maximum space for the air to fill his torso. He closes his eyes in order to fully concentrate on the job in hand. Anyone watching would be forgiven for thinking that this was some kind of mediation conducted by follower of some a dodgy religious sect.
We watch open-mouthed.
Now, it’s our turn. I am somewhat perturbed to be asked to remove my top so that RRFM (afore-mentioned) can watch my belly and lung technique! Well, I’ve heard some excuses to take a glimpse of my tummy and chest, but that really takes the biscuit.
Please bear in mind at this stage, that among my fellow free divers, is Courtney from the U. S of A. The alacrity with which she pulls off her top, and bottoms, to reveal a toned, tanned and bikini clad body was, frankly, embarrassing. The rest of the group complied without a qualm. Thank goodness I had had the foresight to wear my black swimming costume under my clothes.
We practise, and practise and before we know it we are ready to go out on the water to try out our new found skills.
We head out in a small tender to the main dive boat. I am encased in a shortie wet suit and a rather fetching pair of neoprene socks. Some of the group have elected to wear long sleeves and leggings, as well as balaclava style head gear. I am puzzled that they think it will be that cold. It’s 30 degrees in the shade!
Without any delay we put on weight belts, masks and fins, jump into the water and swim out to a series of life belt rings bobbing about on ropes attached to the stern of our dive boat.
I am with one other trainee. We have Silvie to coach us.
The first skill is a duck dive. What I would call a surface dive. We have a go. There is the added complication of contending with a snorkel and fins, now pulled on over my glamorous footwear, and trying to equalise the pressure in our ears as we descend.
Next, we have a go at pulling ourselves down a rope suspended from the life belts to the ocean floor, 12 metres below.
We have to tip upside down and pull ourselves, in even stokes, down the rope, equalising our ears every time we pull.
I find that the remnants of a horrible cold in January are even more pronounced under water. I can’t equalise easily. I have serious squeaking in my ears as I come back up.
I am encouraged to try going down feet first in order to makes equalising easier.
As you descend the pressure of the water squeezes the air in the lungs and reduces its volume. The body’s reflex to breathe kicks in because it believes that the reduced size of the lungs is due to there being insufficient oxygen available.
In actual fact, there is, apparently, plenty of oxygen for the body to function well for a significant amount of time, as long as you can relax and persuade the brain that it doesn’t need to tell the body to breathe in!
All I can say is, that it is rather like trying to resist the urge to kick your leg up when someone whacks you under the knee cap. My reflex to breathe is very well developed. I discover that whilst I may know that I have sufficient oxygen, I don’t actually I believe it! I rush to the surface lungs bursting.
We continue to practise. Taking the obligatory cycles of belly and chest breaths before descending the rope as far as possible.
Soon, it is time to return. We head back to the shore ready for day two in the morning. However, it is as I am walking home that I realise that I have been burnt to a crisp. The powerful noon day sun has burnt my arms, face, scalp and knees. My skin is red and swollen. I have to make an ice pack to cool off my arms. Now I understand why some of the course members covered up so completely. Very wise.
On day two, a week later, I am with Camilla.
She is supremely reassuring, and, with her support, I am soon diving down to 15 metres. I feel much more confident than on my first day but still experience this overwhelming urge to breath in when I am about as deep as I can go, which is not the done thing. Camilla encourages me to relax and try to think about something else. AS if! She suggests that I descend, control the rising panic and then descend again! I try it and succeed, to some extent. I open my eyes momentarily to see a huge shoal of brightly coloured fish swim right by me, i am almost distracted from the bursting feeling in my lungs. The water is clear, even at that depth and I can see other course members diving down beside me. I feel like I have been under the water for ages, but it’s probably only 45 seconds. I panic all over again at the thought of where I am. Wondering if I have sufficient air to make it back to the surface. I do! Phew!
But, it’s not a comfortable feeling. I have to try so hard to stem the rising tide of fear and panic. As a strong swimmer, I have spent years trying to stay afloat and above the water. Despite assurances that we are built for swimming under the water; and explanations of how it is that we would definitely have sufficient oxygen to complete a dive for up to one minute at this stage in our training, I find that I still can’t persuade my body that it is a natural thing for it to be doing. It’s such a shame, because it looks amazing, doesn’t it?
The lure of pearls, or shells, or fish would probably help. Certainly, diving down a rope in this ‘Constant weight’ discipline is seemingly pointless. The record, I am told, is 200m. That is the distance someone has descended on a rope. That is an awfully long way down should something go wrong.
I didn’t achieve my certification. I didn’t reach 20 metres, I didn’t complete the rescue of another diver. For the first time in my personal sporting history, I find that I am not equal to the challenge. I tried and it was interesting…but it’s just not natural, for me!