“There is some comfort in the emptiness of the sea, no past, no future.”
– Nathan Algren, The Last Samurai
A strange mist envelops my mind and smothers my ability to concentrate. I try to form coherent thoughts but the experience is like trying to eat an overly doughy pancake. Instead, I attempt to focus my attention on the impressive beam of light emanating from my weighty torch, pregnant with eight, heavy ‘D’ size batteries.
The pool of light washes over the peeling wall in front of me. Located above the art deco fireplace is an ornate statue, recessed in the wall. A lady, sitting side saddle on a white horse. Detritus slowly drifts past her porcelain face, a snowfall that began decades earlier. My attention slips again and I am vaguely aware of my laboured breathing, the scuba regulator in my mouth strains to deliver life-giving air to me. Disquiet has begun, a low hum, which now threatens to build to a screeching siren. Agitated, I steal a glance at the nearest exit, a series of windows that are actually above me. Wait, above me?
The 1930s era smoking room I am in is rotated ninety degrees. The floor is to my left, the ceiling to my right and the windows with an impossibly blue sky beyond them are far above me, like the ceiling of an atrium. Too far. I palm the analogue gauge connected to the high pressure hose off to my left. This can’t be right. With each breath I can see the needle move to the left and downwards. At this rate I will be running on empty. What if I asphyxiate? The white horse is kicking against the barn doors now. Pretty soon it will break free and full blown panic will be here.
A white horse? Yes, above the fireplace. I stare at the charger and the lady, mounted sideways on the steed’s back. Her arms are open wide, and for a tiny moment, I anticipate a fear-erasing benediction from her. Her right hand is missing, cleanly severed from the wrist. My eyes narrow and I valiantly attempt to hold onto my sanity. Too late … a ghostly face materialises behind the Lady on Horseback … the barn doors fling open and the horse bolts. Full blown panic is in the house! My torch beam turns the once stately room into an impromptu disco, bringing me to the attention of the nearest sane person, Kevin.
Firm hands gently pull me up towards the window apertures and out into the awesome embrace of the Pacific Ocean. I am only fifteen years old and freshly certified as a scuba diver. My inexperience coupled with the dark environment and the depth of the dive—46 metres (150 feet)—has made me a candidate for Nitrogen Narcosis or the Rapture of the Deep. It is an alteration in consciousness that occurs while diving at depth. With shallower water, my sanity sheepishly returns. The fact that I thought I saw a ghost behind the statue of the lady on horseback was a big, fat cherry on an already crazy sundae.
That formative experience happened back in the bad old 1980s whilst diving on a once grand ocean liner, now rusting in the clear waters of the Pacific Ocean. The recreational scuba diving industry was not as stringent as it is today with enforcing depth limits for newly minted divers, let alone fifteen year old ones like myself.
Now that I am [much] older, I have chosen freediving as my recreation of choice. Freediving is the art of underwater diving that relies on the diver’s ability to hold their breath rather than the use of breathing devices. And just like scuba diving, I have noticed an obsession with performance and metrics among my fellow practitioners. How deep have you gone? How far did you swim?
For most other freedivers, each dive is a mini competition, an activity to be conquered. My bones tell me that I need to consider another approach. When I start a breath hold dive, I take a great big gulp of air on the surface. As a result my heart rate increases as does my buoyancy. The effort to dive and kick my legs, fighting against the increased buoyancy just places me in oxygen burning mode. This is paradoxical, as you need to conserve energy and oxygen, as you have no external air supply to rely upon. The dive is over before it really begins. Why am I doing this again?
Listen, I’m on the wrong side of forty, I feel that I squandered much of my now absent youth and the years are now rapidly burning up. I want to arrest time and place life on a low flame. But how?
One summer’s day, the last of my orthodox freediving beliefs evaporated. Sitting at a picnic table, overlooking the beach was an enigmatic individual. He was much taller than me and he was donned in a reflective silver wetsuit. The suit material seemed to be of an otherworldly nature. This was oddly appropriate as my overriding impression was of a man that had just fallen to earth.
His first name had a Latin quality while his surname sounded French. An impressive sounding name that suggested he would be equally at home anywhere on the globe (or in the Solar System). He was briefly stopping over in Sydney before heading off to Switzerland and then Silicon Valley, California. He spoke vaguely about working with a cutting edge technology company that would be providing research for space exploration and medicine.
Like Paul on the road to Damascus, I was rooted in place, an audience of one made captive by the intrusion of the supernatural into our mundane realm. A puzzling sermon was then delivered to me from the silver clad man.
He told me of The Dive Response. It is an emergency, backup life support system that is latent in all living things, a useful mechanism that allows biological functions to run on ‘vapours’. This is useful for divers who choose to hold their breath rather than use air cylinders. Tapping into it though is an arcane mystery.
Information dense charts and tables were flashed before my eyes. It was too much information for my conscious mind to absorb, but I could feel the mathematical symbols and curves burrowing down into my subconscious. Hungry earth worms going about their business of creating rich soil.
Most of what the stranger taught me sounded like heresy. It contradicted all that I’d believed. The stranger’s approach to breath-hold diving sounded counter intuitive and nigh impossible to put into practice. Everything was about emptiness and negative spaces. Technical concepts were tumbling from his lips: limit your pre-dive lung volume, limit your physical exertion, especially at the start and end of a dive. Exist in the slow burning end of the metabolic spectrum.
The stranger, or as I prefer to remember him, The Last Contrarian departed for Switzerland, his face is now vague to me. I am unable to furnish proof that I even met him.
The ocean beckons and I return to the same beach where I met the silver clad freediver. Or did I just imagine our time together? After all, his approach was so unconventional; it could have been a dream. I try and piece together fragments of what the stranger taught me, but it read like blasphemy in our age of conformity. His philosophy was to expel the air from your lungs before a dive and run on empty. It sounded like madness. I swim out from the beach to my favourite spot, a vibrant marine reserve. There is only one way to be sure …
I take one final breath and lay on the surface, not going anywhere. I slowly exhale and empty my lungs. My descent hardly burns any energy and is slow, like honey on a cold morning. My heart rate plummets and I notice the fish are staring at me in a way I have never experienced before. Time freezes and a tiny Maori Wrasse swims up to my camera lens, seemingly aware of my new energy signature. I am running on empty, and I am at peace. I look at the fish and it looks at me.by