Freedom Is No Longer Free

One final breath and I follow Calypso down into the waters off Ogygia. Photograph by the author.
One final breath and I follow Calypso down into the waters off Ogygia. Photograph by the author.

“Society cares for the individual only so far as he is profitable.” – Simone de Beauvoir, The Coming of Age

 “Can I take a couple of lead weights with me?” requests the pretty Italian girl who is interning with the dive shop. The girl wants to thread the weights on the belt that would rest on her shapely hips, aiding her in her planned descent beneath the waves. The boat skipper is not swayed by her deep, iridescent eyes and swathe of luscious, shoulder length hair. 

“Absolutely not,” is his stern reply.

“But why?” she plaintively responds. “You’re not certified for freediving, that’s why I can’t allow it,” he explains with arms crossed.

A tiny spark of early, non-domesticated man flares up like a flame within me when I hear the boat skipper use the word certified. Freediving, or Apnea, refers to underwater diving that relies on the diver’s ability to hold their breath rather than the use of scuba or other breathing devices. It is the original form of underwater exploration. Did anyone certify the sponge divers of Ancient Greece or the Ama Divers from Japan who collected pearls 2,000 years ago?

Sitting a few paces away, my heart is breaking for the enthusiastic girl. I need to help her discover her sense of adventure and I am just the person to do it. A couple of years ago, I paid $500 to a Freediving Instructor and he made me jump—or rather swim underwater—through the hoops that his training organisation deemed necessary for me to become certified for holding my breath underwater. “I’m certified, I’ll look after her,” I offer, trying to mask my eagerness behind a veil of cool.

Both sets of eyes look in my direction. The girl’s large pupils are full of expectation that she has found her new best friend while the boat skipper shoots me a dismissive look that seems to say, “You’re a trouble maker.”

“No can do,” is Mr. Boat Skipper’s final word on the matter. The radiant girl’s light diminishes slightly as she pouts and I mouth the word “sorry” to her.

We are part of a group of about a dozen people, sitting in a dive boat that has just arrived at a popular dive spot in Byron Bay—Julian Rocks. The six scuba divers in our group quickly enter the water to explore the marine reserve below us. Those of us still on the boat are part of a ‘Snorkel Tour’. There would be no holding of the breath for the beautiful Italian girl; she will have to content herself with swimming face downwards in the water, breathing through a tube.

There is no way that I am going to limit my experience to a plastic snorkel. If I spot a Giant Loggerhead Turtle or even better, a shark, nothing is going to prevent me from freediving and grabbing a photo with my trusty GoPro camera. However, the boat skipper has ruled out freediving for me also, as I do not have another certified buddy to dive with. God has spoken, but the Serpent enters into Eden in the form of a snaking, green silicone belt threaded with lead weights I have surreptitiously smuggled on board. I quickly buckle it around my waist.

Just before I roll over the side of the inflatable boat and engage in the pretense of snorkeling in the crystal clear waters of far northern New South Wales, the Italian girl looks over at me and asks with her melodic voice: “Can you take a photo of me with my friend later?” I give her a blank look and consent vaguely. “Ah, sure. No problems,” as I wonder just who her friend is?

We kick out from the boat towards a large mooring buoy. “Now can you take a photo of me with my friend?” Where was her friend I wonder as I scan the surface? She gently shakes her head and points straight down, seventy feet below us. Gently cascading bubbles, rise from a scuba diver on the sea floor – it is her friend, the stunning blonde Swedish girl who was also on our boat. She is acting as tour guide for the five other scuba divers.

My new, aquatic friend duck-dives and swims straight to the bottom before I can answer. She only has short plastic fins to propel her. Her full length (and very buoyant) wetsuit and lack of lead weights is no impediment and her streamlined form slices through the water column like an elegant knife through a ripe avocado.

I quickly follow, astounded at her natural freediving ability. Before I know it we are both at the bottom and I am composing a close-up of her with her very surprised friend. “Where did these two air-cylinder-less creatures drop in from?” the Swedish girl’s eyes ask through her dive mask.

After capturing the moment, we both surface, safely away from the eagle eyes of the boat skipper. I compliment her on her natural freediving skills and gently suggest that she remove the snorkel from her mouth next time she freedives. “Why is that?” she asks. “When you are low on oxygen, your diaphragm begins to contract and the snorkel can allow inhalation of water into the lungs. Also, a snorkel in the mouth makes it difficult for your buddy to remove it and revive you,” I mechanically respond.  “Why would I need to be revived?” is the next question that escapes from her lips.

“Shallow water blackout,” I state. It is the loss of consciousness caused by cerebral hypoxia towards the end of a breath-hold dive in shallow water. Surprisingly, a diver can be easily revived from such a state if they are attended to almost immediately by their dive buddy. However, if you freedive or spearfish alone, with no one to watch over you, it is a killer, as you will eventually drown. Many an experienced diver has lost their life by pushing their limits while on their own.

Next, I explain the importance of correct recovery breathing after surfacing from a freedive and the importance of diving with an experienced buddy. My new friend beams back at me, lapping up my impromptu freediving advice like a parched traveler who has gone without water for a couple of days.

I grudgingly admit to myself that my certification has helped me and is in fact helping someone else at this very moment. How many Ancient Greek Sponge and Japanese Ama Divers encountered a fatal lesson that could have easily been avoided?

Simply telling people they can’t freedive is like the Jehovah’s Witnesses telling people they can’t have sex before marriage. It’s not a realistic approach and people are going to do it anyway. I resent the all-consuming impulse that organisations have to wall off parts of the human experience through rules and price tags. Perhaps the freedivers of Ancient Greece and Japan were not really free either. Rather, they were expendable because someone was profiting from their valuable sponges and pearls.

To honour those brave souls, we should freely share the knowledge they earned with their blood. Are we going to insist that people who are interested in freediving or apnea give us money before we impart knowledge?

Of course it is wise to get certified by an experienced Freedive Instructor if you have the means to do so. But what about those we meet on our travels that are informally—that means without the sanction of an organisation—freediving and will continue to do so? Our knowledge wants to be shared, so share it. Future paleontologists are going to be unearthing our bones, not our training manuals, as we have committed these to media that will not last.

We might just prevent a tragedy with our charitableness.  Hopefully I was able to do so.

Stay safe and stay free, my new found friend.

My aquatic friend in the waters off Julian Rocks, Byron Bay. Photograph by the author.
My aquatic friend in the waters off Julian Rocks, Byron Bay. Photograph by the author.

“I wish that every human life might be pure transparent freedom.” – Simone de Beauvoir,
The Blood of Others

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