Learning Not to Breathe

Posted on December 29 2016 in The Journey

freedivingBreathe in…1…2…3…4…Breathe out…1…2…3…4…5…6…

Breathe in…1…2…3…4…Breathe out…1…2…3…4…5…6…

I place my masked face in the water, continue breathing through my snorkel … in for 4 counts…out for 6…

My arms and legs dangle loosely at my sides, gently swaying with the swells. I feel my heart rate slow, watch the light paint the sandy bottom of the clear sea, then close my eyes.

When the time’s right, I take one long, deep breath, filling diaphragm, lungs and throat.

I flick the snorkel out of my mouth, tip one finned-leg up and start to sink.

At first I have to kick against my own positive buoyancy, then I don’t. Neutral buoyancy. Another kick and I feel it – negative buoyancy. I have passed through the door to the deep. I start being pulled downward without effort.

The school of fish I disturbed on my descent closes ranks again and goes back about its business. The squadron of rays gliding along the bottom never once gives me a glance.

For a second or two I am 45 feet underwater with nothing but one lung-full of air. Then it comes: the first spasm. I’m not running out of oxygen, but because I’m holding my breath, I’m building up carbon dioxide, and my body isn’t used to it. My diaphragm is contracting, trying to make me exhale. The urge to rush to the surface races through me. I tell myself to trust. Trust that my body knows what to do. That I was once millennia ago, no, thousands of millennia ago, a marine mammal.

My trust earns me a few more seconds. On the next spasm, however, my terrestrial mind panics, overriding my trust, and I turn and start kicking upward, toward the light.

A few feet from the top I exhale the built-up carbon dioxide, making room for the fresh air soon to be welcomed at the surface.

My coach greets me, gives my hand a squeeze of congratulations. I’ve done it. Gone deeper than 45 feet, held my breath over 2 minutes. I am now, officially, a freediver.

Only the most beginner of freedivers, it is true, but a freediver nonetheless. My coach can dive to over 150 feet, hold her breath for more than 6 minutes…the modern world record breath-hold is now over 11 minutes…respected historical accounts report pearl divers staying under for over 15. The truth is we don’t actually know the limit of how long a human can stay underwater.

“Have you lost your mind?” you ask. Nope. Or if I have, I just don’t care.  Freediving is the next frontier of marine conservation, it is expanding our understanding of the wilderness that is our seas. And thus, for me, it is the next stone in the stream. The stream that I have been following since first accepting that fateful invitation to raft the Arctic a couple of years ago. The stream whose water is words and whose singing comes from the stones upon which I have rested my feet – the Arctic, Alaska, Costa Rica, Madagascar – and now Mexico.

I became fascinated with freediving while I was in Madagascar. Day after day my fellow researchers and I would prepare our oxygen tanks and buoyancy vests, waddle down to the beach, lumber into the boats and head out to scuba dive. As we bobbed like balloons at the surface checking our gauges before our decent, the villagers would paddle past us in their hand-hewn pirogues, waving jauntily on their way to freedive for their dinner. I would yearn to throw off my clumsy buoyancy vest and heavy tank and join them in their unencumbered freedom. Experience the ocean more simply, released from the artificial breathing apparatus that kept me more aware of my gauges and the sound of my own breathing than of the subtleties of the sea surrounding me.

Then a friend gave me the book Deep by James Nestor, and I was hooked. It turns out that freediving isn’t about learning how to hold your breath, it’s about remembering how not to breathe.

The human body still remembers that we were once creatures of the sea. The deeper we go on our own breath, the more physiological changes automatically happen that allow us to remain underwater longer and to go deeper. Our heart rate slows to use oxygen more sparingly, the blood vessels of our extremities contract bringing blood back into our organs and brain, plasma seeps between the cells of our lungs cushioning them from collapse, our spleen squirts hyper-oxygenated blood into our system just when we need it most.

The medical term for this is The Mammalian Dive Reflex. Freedivers call it The Master Switch of Life. We share it with all marine mammals. The same physiological changes that allow sea lions to hold their breath for over 2 hours, the same changes that allow beaked whales to survive the extraordinary pressures at 10,000 feet, occur in humans, allowing us to return to the primordial soup from which our ancestors emerged.

Our bodies remember. From the moment we put our faces in water, the memory is awakened. And once awakened, we can dive down on one breath, surface to breathe, and then dive again, and again. Our behavior begins to mimic that of all marine mammals. We become just another creature of the sea: sharks stay calm, cetaceans become interactive, schools of fish make room for us in their midst.

The natural interaction possible through freediving is allowing marine researchers to observe animal behavior, hear communications, understand the ocean in ways impossible through the separation of scuba and submersibles.

Because of that natural interaction, we now know that dolphins name their babies, that they greet each other by name, introduce themselves to strangers. We are learning that bull sharks are not always aggressive, that sperm whales, the largest predators on earth, are as curious about us as we are about them.

Reports like that remind me of my own observations of the intelligence and emotions of the creatures I was researching in Costa Rica: witnessing the joyous celebration at the birth of one dolphin calf and the mournful funeral procession at the death of another; exchanging caresses with that wise-beyond-her-years little sea turtle; the pride in the eye of the humpback whale mother as she brought her baby over to meet me.

So I traveled to the Sea of Cortez to learn to freedive with Hanli Prinsloo.  She is a record holding competitive freediver, yes, but more importantly to me and to the sea that we were swimming in, an impassioned, effective ocean conservationist. Hanli’s foundation, I AM WATER, teaches children to freedive, so that they can more intimately experience the sea. Jacques Cousteau once famously said “People protect what they love,” and Hanli helps people love the sea.

I am not a particularly good swimmer, and am definitely an awkward snorkeler. But over the course of a week of yoga to limber up the muscles of my rib cage so my lungs could expand to hold more air, of practicing breath-holds in a pool to get used to the sensation of carbon dioxide buildup and those darn spasms, and of training sessions in the sea pulling myself down a rope, little by little my dives got deeper, my breath-holds longer.

It was interesting. It was challenging. It was fun. And then there was The Dive.

We had finished training for the day and were swimming with a huge school of jackfish. By huge I mean a school the size of a four story building. I took a deep breath and swam directly into the middle of them. They opened up at my approach, and I could hear the crackling of their signals as they swirled around me.

Then, all of a sudden, I was enveloped by silence, saturated by stillness.

For a second, for an eternity, Mother Nature held me close and whispered in my ear. Her voice? A deep, deep silence.  It was the same embrace that had found me high on a tundra slope in the Arctic. The same silent stillness that had stripped away the cohesion of my atoms and gifted me with the knowing that I am simply an integral part of an infinite whole.

In Baja, diving on nothing but one breath, trusting my body’s evolutionary memory, Mother Nature again wrapped her arms around me, and with a silent whisper reminded me that the infinite whole contains the watery depths as well as the furthest galaxies, and that this human, this collection of atoms, walks on the thinnest of terrestrial veneers between the increasing pressures of the sea and the expanding void of the cosmos…yet is a part of all.


photo credit: Peter Marshall



4 thoughts on “Learning Not to Breathe

  1. This is beautiful. A reminder of who we are in our innermost dpths, and who we can be, if we but open up and trust. Thanks, Molly. Good to hear of your adventures.

  2. This is beautiful. A reminder of who we are in our innermost dpths, and who we can be, if we but open up and trust. Thanks, Sally. Good to hear of your adventures.

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