Is this the most serene extreme sport on the planet? Nyree Barrett learns the ropes and meets a diver who’s showing off his skills at The Dubai Mall aquarium
The sun is setting over the Palm Jumeirah as I lie on a lounger, eyes closed, focusing on my breathing. This is hardly what I imagined when setting off for my first freediving class. I expected to be challenged, soggy and somewhat upset by the end of it, but the whole experience is actually very calming.
Frenchman Arnaud Palu, the enthusiastic instructor, is showing me how to breathe from my belly: in for five seconds and out for 10. He makes sure I relax every muscle and close my eyes to block stimuli. He even goes through some simple visualisation work with me, telling me to imagine the numbers as I’m counting and take note of the ambient sound around me. My foot starts twitching, anticipating sleep: I’m truly relaxed. The idea is that the more relaxed I am, the less oxygen I pump around the body and the less anxious I get about not breathing. Before I know it I’m holding my breath for close to two minutes. Admittedly I haven’t been anywhere near the water yet, but I soon don fins and a rash vest and lower myself into the pool.
Arnaud teaches me to ‘stick’ to the bottom of the pool by keeping my chin tucked into my neck while swimming, a skill that takes me a while to master. He also shows me basic gliding skills so I can propel myself through the water with the least effort. I’m managing to hold my breath for far longer than I would have expected. I’m learning the No Tanx school of freediving, which isn’t about how deep you can dive or how long you can stay submerged, but instead focuses on relaxation and enjoyment. They believe that freedivers don’t ‘hold their breath’, they just pause to enjoy it.
Apnea – a term that describes the suspension of normal breathing – is the goal: the team at No Tanx claim that cutting off our normal oxygen (in a responsible way) and training our breathing in order to do so has big health benefits. One student, a middle-aged woman who suffered from severe asthma, hasn’t had an attack since she began practising the sport.
As I walk away from my first lesson, I have the same fuzzy feeling hovering around me that descends after a yoga class and I’m already craving more: next time I just hope to get into the sea.
Arnaud Palu teaches freediving at The Palm Jumeirah. One-on-one lessons cost Dhs150 per hour, group classes can also be organised. Call 050 708 6761 for more information.
On May 5-8, The Dubai Mall aquarium will become an underwater stage for 12 freedivers. They swam with the mall’s sharks last year and Arnaud (pictured below) recalls people’s shock at their lack of equipment. ‘I remember an Indian gentleman frantically holding his hand to his mouth and frowning as if to ask where my mouthpiece was! So I started blowing bubbles and patting my back like I was looking for my tank,’ he laughs.
Last year’s show included antics such as underwater noughts and crosses, divers dressed as mermaids and immersion times of up to three minutes; this year they’re planning an aquatic game of Connect Four. They’re also expecting at least a couple of nosy sharks. Because they don’t carry oxygen tanks, freedivers make less noise and are therefore less intimidating to sea creatures. Last year one of the divers had a shark brush past his shoulder and hover over him: he was in the middle of a ‘static dive’ (three minutes lying on a rock) and presumed it was a fellow diver telling him his time was up.
It’s not all fun and games, though. The dive is particularly challenging for the team because a lot of their technique involves blocking out stimulus and getting into a meditative state – tricky when you have hordes of shoppers staring at you through the aquarium’s glass, buzzing on sugar from Candylicious.
For a taste of freediving on film, check out these clips on YouTube.
The Cove This investigative film won Best Documentary at this year’s Oscars: it uncovers the tragic mistreatment of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, and features amazing freediving scenes. YouTube search terms: ‘The Cove movie freediving’
Deep-sea diving Record-breaking diver William Turnbridge descends to 88 metres in this beautiful film – and all with no fins. Earlier this month he beat his own record and hit 92 metres. YouTube search: ‘Freediving World Record no fins 88m’
Sticky fingers Watch as Victor Huang’s camera is taken hostage by an octopus. We think the eight-legged director needs to work on his camera control… YouTube search: ‘Octopus steals underwater camera’
Constant weight without fins This is where a diver descends vertically, using their own strength to propel them. Many consider it the purest form of freediving. Men: 92 metres, by New Zealander William Turnbridge Women: 62 metres, by Russian Natalia Molchanova
Static Apnea Basically, this is who can hold their breath the longest underwater. Men: 11 minutes 35 seconds, by Frenchman Stephane Mifsud Women: 8 minutes 23 seconds, by Natalia Molchanova