On that day Julia planned filming her TV project. On the reef near Pescador Island, where we dived a few days earlier, was an arch in the reef under the water – “The Cathedral”. The arch’s entry was at 18 meters depth, and the exit at 28. Julia wanted to film herself and few other freedivers swimming through the arch.
Therefore, in the morning we boarded the boat and went to the island. The plan was to do some depth diving first. We arrived at the island, cast an anchor and dropped the diving line down directly along the wall of the reef. However, we were unlucky. There was a strong current, and instead of going down vertically into the depth, the rope was hanging at a 60-degree angle. Diving like that was pointless. We pulled the weights out and tried to find a better place. Having sailed around the island, we dropped an anchor a few hundred meters away from the reef. There it was a little better, but the ropes were still out of plumb. However, there was nothing we could do, and we started diving. As always, we started with pulling ourselves down the rope by hands. I descended to about 10 meters, and then felt that the rope I was holding to was moving. Caught by surprise, I clung to it and was brought to the surface. It turned out that the guys decided to re-drop the weights and pulled me out with them. Then the current appeared again, and the diving became even funnier than on the previous day. While diving down the line was still OK, on ascent you had a choice of going up holding to the rope, which meant not directly up, or releasing the rope and swimming straight up, surfacing wherever the current took you. A couple of times I was carried to another side of the boat and surfaced a dozen meters away from the place I dived. Also when ascending, I had to continually look up to avoid bumping my head against the boat. The last time I went on the rope down to 21 meters. Tania, who was on a stand-by that day, told me that since I swam up and down at an angle, I could safely assume that I dived to 25. On that the depth diving was over. We weighed the anchor, sailed to the reef and dropped the lines in front of the place where, at a depth of 18 meters, the entrance to “The Cathedral” was located.
Filming underwater scenes on breath-holding is difficult – the cameraman simply does not have enough time at the depth. Therefore, for flexibility Julia decided to send one of our team members down with a scuba. Andrew, himself an experienced freediving instructor, donned scuba, took the camera and positioned himself at a depth of 24 meters inside the arch near the entrance. Julia and Tania were diving into the arch, and Andrew was filming them. In the meantime the others spread out along the reef.
I floated on the surface above the arch and watched our girls diving down. I was curious what was down there. I took a deep breath and dived. Of course I didn’t go into the arch – I’m not crazy – and have a very strong sense of self-preservation. Moreover, I didn’t want to dive deeply without somebody watching me. But nevertheless, I very comfortably dove down to a depth where I could see the edge of the hole in the reef and Andrew sitting there with a scuba a few meters below me. I did not have a computer, which shows the depth and time intervals, so I did not know how deep that was, but I reckon about 15 meters. At this depth, my buoyancy was already neutral; I could hang there for some time looking around without moving a muscle. It was very beautiful there. I was hanging in the water column, and right in front of me the reef wall was stretched from surface into the depths. Underwater coral forests played all shades of emerald green in the sun rays penetrating from the surface. Julia and Tania swam past me along the rope and disappeared inside the arch. I hung there for a few more seconds and rose to the surface. I dived a few more times and found that such a depth was quite comfortable to me. It is a pity that I did not have a dive computer. When I depart on such a journey once again, I will certainly buy one.
On that the filming was over and we returned to the hotel. It was about five o’clock in the evening and everyone was hungry, because shooting dragged on, and we were left without a lunch. While we waited for dinner, Vasily suggested that I try to swim in his monofin – we had the same foot size. As I said, monofin is a blade in the form of a mermaid’s tail, with attached pockets for both feet. The foot pockets themselves are of unusual shape and the foot inside them is bent in a special way, which is very uncomfortable but provides better performance.
A monofin was invented in the 70s in the Soviet Union by fin-swimming athletes. They became popular in the rest of the world thanks to Jacques Mayol, who received one during his visit to the Soviet Union from the inventor himself, fin-swimmer coach Boris Porotov. These days monofins are not something extraordinary. They are manufactured in a number of countries. But the best ones are still Russian and they are made individually to order. A monofin is much more efficient than traditional fins; however, it has its disadvantages. It does not offer the same manoeuvrability as traditional fins. And it’s not the best choice if it needs to be used for a few hours in a row: foot pockets are so uncomfortable that after some time swimming they start to hurt.
Swimming in a monofin was a pretty interesting experience. The small pool did not allow us to develop great speed, but still the power was amazing: three strokes with a “tail”, and 10 meters were behind. Even with my practically nonexistent dolphin-style swimming technique. I certainly liked that. I probably would have bought one for myself, but I clearly understood that I didn’t need one yet. I didn’t know where I could use it. I wouldn’t buy it to swim just in a pool, and I would freeze in Port Phillip Bay. With our water temperature, we need to choose the fins in such a way that they could be put on a 3mm neoprene sock.
After dinner, Julia continued to read us freediving theory.
Modern freediving competitions are held in several disciplines: diving to a depth, lengthwise in the pool (dynamic apnoea) with fins and without fins, and the static breath-hold. Currently, man has learned to hold his breath for more than 11 minutes and swim with fins underwater for 250 meters in a pool. But the most interesting competitions are on diving into the depths. They are divided into several types: Free Immersion – where an athlete dives without fins and pulls himself up and down the line with his hands. Constant Weight with or without fins – an athlete swims down and up without touching the rope. Variable Weight – an athlete dives down with extra weight, and at a depth releases it and uses his fins to ascend. No Limits. Here an athlete holds on to a special weighted platform – a sled – as it carries him along to the depths. At the moment the deepest dive in this category is 214 meters. Coming up to the surface from such depths just by using a muscular force is unthinkable, and that’s why special aids are used. At the deepest point a freediver unleashes a gas-filled float, which then pulls him up. Such an extreme is not for everyone, and not just because of the enormous depth.
In this kind of competition an athlete’s life depends on technical aids, which can fail. In the history of the competitions, there were several deaths and near-death cases occurred because of equipment: a jammed sled, or a valve of a gas tank not opening. And yet, there are still people who beat those records.
Constant weight with fins is considered the most classical discipline and a highlight of any competition. Here an athlete dives into the depth, counting only on himself. He is one-on-one with the abyss. According to current competition rules, an athlete must declare the depth at which he is going to dive in advance. At that depth a plate with the corresponding number is fixed. The athlete has to grab the plate and show it to the judges upon surfacing. In addition, a depth gauge on the wrist registers the depth. But just reaching the depth isn’t sufficient. It is necessary to pass the surface protocol, which states that a freediver must be in full consciousness and behave adequately. If an athlete breaches any of these requirements, he is disqualified.
It’s not entirely clear to me why people take part in such competitions and beat records. Any “big” sport brings pain and traumas. As for me right now, I dive into depth, but not for depth. Yes, I am curious to know what I am capable of, but I would never dive to a depth that is uncomfortable to me. While diving, we submerge into ourselves, and that is the only thing that matters.
The end of the seventh day.
The text and the photos © 2010 Sergey Stadnik, Vasily Avseenko