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This article appears in Volume 25: The Pioneer Issue.
Freediving (diving without breathing equipment) is as much a mental as a physical sport. For over ten years I’ve been exploring the limits of both my body and mind in the water. My fascination with the human body’s mammalian dive response has kept me committed to an activity most people have never heard of, while those who have think we’re all crazy adrenalin seekers. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I AM WATER was founded on the overwhelming connection I feel with nature and specifically with the ocean when I freedive, and the belief that this connection should be accessible to everyone. In my home country of South Africa our conservation foundation works with thousands of students in schools in under-served communities, who despite being within walking distance of the beach have never had a real ocean experience.
Our teams of coaches share yoga and mindfulness practices, lead rock-pool explorations, give marine ecosystem education and, of course, take the children snorkelling, allowing them to safely see the world beneath the waves – the kelp forests full of light and life, the pink and purple urchins, the bright-orange starfish, and the myriad octopi, penguins, seals and otters. Meanwhile, our travel arm puts people face-to-face with these creatures in order to fund our conservation work and inspire them to protect the ocean in their own lives in whatever small (or large) way that they can. These are some of the moments that have lingered with me on my journey to understanding the power and potential of those lesser-explored, submerged parts of our planet.
I was going to set the rope a little deeper that day.
I’d been teaching free-diving for weeks without doing any deep dives of my own and I was getting nervous. The world championships were only six weeks away and I was aiming for another African record – maybe even a world record. We leave the beach early before the wind picks up and before breakfast – it’s better to hold your breath on an empty stomach, they say. Summertime in Mozambique sees the sun rise before six and it glows on the horizon as we push the boat through the waves. “We need to go further out to find you more depth,” the skipper shouts over his shoulder. I nod and close my eyes, deepening my breath to slow my heart rate and oxygenate my blood.
As the sun climbs higher above us and the green of the coastline grows blurry in the distance, the skipper suddenly slows down. “Dolphins! Hundreds of spinners!” he cries as the ocean erupts with lithe, slate-grey bodies, effortlessly gliding through the water before launching, spinning up into the air like a tornado of mercury twirling into the sky. I grab my mask and pull on my monofin, my feet together like a mermaid’s tail. The skipper shakes his head: “No use Han – these spinners aren’t interested in humans. They’ll just swim away if we stop the boat.”
My heart is hammering in my chest, deep breathing and heart-rate control out of the window as my every fibre longs to join the dance. I’ve never swum with dolphins before. “Please,” I beg, “just let me jump in.” I get an impatient shrug of the shoulders but he cuts the motors and I go. One deep breath, a few kicks of my fin and I’m with them. Large dark eyes move closer as I kick further down. “They’re not leaving,” I think as more and more dolphins join the swirling mass of bodies around me.
I try to move just like them, all my years of swimming up and down a rope, lengths along the black line at the bottom of the swimming pool suddenly paying off. I am part of the pod. I am in a whirlpool of curious dolphins that click, whistle and crackle around me, talking to each other and scanning me up and down: “Who is this pale, soft mammal who moves like us?” We reach the sandy bottom in a tangle of fins and flukes and I look up at the silhouettes layered above me, adults and babies in twos and threes, whole squadrons of perfectly synchronised bodies. They are so close I could touch them. They start circling me as we slowly swim up towards the surface, their intelligent eyes watching me. I look back and know that nothing could possibly be the same again.
This life, this freedom, this sentience – it exists out here, just below the surface. As I break through I know I’ll do anything to ensure that these creatures get to retain this wild joy – that I’ll never want to do anything else other than protect their world. I never did break that world record – there are too many oceans to explore, underwater friendships to forge and conservation efforts to launch.
Along the Baja coastline the red sand meets the blue ocean and the iconic cacti stand watch as we shun the land and explore the sea. Jacques Cousteau once called the Sea of Cortez the “world’s aquarium” and thanks to the great efforts of a local community of fishermen turned divers, this is still true today. As we travel out to sea with our expert skipper David, the son of Mario, who dedicated his life to convincing his town to stop fishing, he stops the boat. “Here,” he says, “I can smell them.” We look at each other disbelievingly but put on masks and fins and slide into a silver world. Larger than a basketball field and stretching deeper than 20m, the giant school of jackfish swirl below us. I take a big breath and dive down as stealthily as I can. If disturbed the giant school acts as one spirit and splinters away. However, as I swim very slowly towards them, one languid kick at a time, the school opens before me and I’m swallowed into the glowing ball of fish.
At over a foot long, they are not small. Slowly I start seeing individuals. Eyes and fins and tails. As I dive deeper down they close above me and I’m surrounded, immersed in a spectacle that has become so very rare – an ocean full of life, a magical place where we are completely outnumbered.
“Wait, can you spell that for me?” is the first thing I say when my sailor friend Joe first tells me about the tiny limestone rock cast away in the middle of the South Pacific. With only two flights a week from Auckland, this autonomous nation is hardly known outside of New Zealand. I zoom out on the map until eventually Samoa, Fiji and Tonga pop up. This small green dot feels very far from everything – except humpback whales, that is.
Every year the whales travel from Antarctica up to the South Pacific to give birth, mate and prepare their young for the long journey back at the season’s end. Niue is not a hotspot like neighbouring Tonga – the whales pass through for just a few days at a time, not the weeks and months they spend in the shallow lagoons of other islands. This is exactly why we like it. The proud Niueans have carefully observed their visitors and made decisions based on the wellbeing of all, with very few permits for whale swim operators and a “no diving down” policy to ensure the whales are never put under pressure from either boats or people.
After quietly observing three whales and confirming the right conditions for a swim we slip into the water. Looking down I see their enormous blue-grey backs resting just ten metres below us and feast my eyes on their iconic knobbly heads and ludicrously long pectoral fins. Five, ten, 15 minutes pass as we wait. The whales have been watching us as we have been watching them – it is completely their choice if they want to investigate. In slow motion they start coming up, floating vertically like giant, fat angels. The first one decides to emerge right beside us and we stare transfixed at her white belly. She exhales loudly.
Suddenly I glance behind us and see a second whale swimming right towards us, turning slightly to observe us before surfacing beside me. Staring into that large, wrinkled eye I see her looking back at me. What does she see? For the half hour we are in the water we don’t say a word. The whales hang around, accepting our presence. Then as one they take a last breath and dive. Bereft, we watch them disappear into the blue.
Working with a local researcher and a highly reputable operator we spend hours at sea exploring this wild pocket of the Indian Ocean. In one week we see over ten individual whale sharks, super pods of spinner dolphins, quietly feeding turtles and squadrons of mobula rays. The white beaches are scattered with cowrie shells, gigantic mango trees drip with fruit and groves of sweet-smelling ylang ylang plantations fringe the bays.
This wild island is already well-known for its staggering terrestrial biodiversity, but the small island of Nosy Be just off its northwestern tip is making a claim as a home for the greatest of all fish – the whale shark. In most places around the world where whale sharks congregate it is to feed, and the water is typically murky from all the plankton. In the Philippines they are fed by local fishermen who want to keep them in the area for tourism, which has devastating effects on their wellbeing, while in other places tourism is so poorly regulated that there are often over 300 boats in the water offering the opportunity to swim with the sharks. In short, to have the privilege of swimming alongside a majestic whale shark without it being to the detriment of the animal is not as easy as it looks on Instagram.
In the water, I gaze down at the broad back of a whale shark. It’s like staring up at the Milky Way – bright pinpricks of white on a midnight-blue back, each creature unique. The Malagasy name for whale shark is “marokintana”, meaning many stars. She is a constellation fingerprint.
I AM Water Ocean Travel expeditions run throughout the year, with prices differing depending on destination.
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