It’s not that I stand around name-checking French film directors a lot, you understand, but for once I had good reason. ‘Ah, yes, The Big Blue,’ came the chorus of approval. To anyone unfamiliar with the Luc Besson’s 1988 paean to freediving, he basically introduced the world to a sport that had, until then, remained under the radar of all but the most passionate divers, lending it an air of Gallic mystery and a splash of spirituality in the process. In short: he made it French and sexy.
My introduction to freediving is not quite as dramatic (or sexy). It begins with meeting British instructor Alex Boulting at a suburban villa where, together with fellow instructor Sarah, pro-diver Arnaud and a rather serious amateur by the name of Dale, I learn about the three basic disciplines of competition. First up is constant weight apnea, where the freediver swims down as far as they can and returns in one breath; then variable weight apnea, where you go down with a weight and swim back up; and finally, no limits, the kind associated with The Big Blue, where divers are lowered on a sled to remarkable depths (the record is 213 metres) and return via an inflatable bag before running out of oxygen. The latter is far less common, but the sort of peril that the cameras love.
Hearing them talk, it’s hard not to ask the obvious question: why? For Arnaud, it’s a personal journey. ‘You are so focused; you feel at one, water within water,’ he says – yes, a poetic Frenchman is a glorious thing. Dale goes the spiritual route too, while Sarah was a diving instructor in the Bahamas and simply fell into the sport. It takes your average competitive British male to nail the other side of things. ‘No one knows how deep you can go,’ says Alex. ‘In the 1930s they thought you couldn’t go beyond 30m because your lungs would collapse; then it was 100m, next came 200m. Now, who knows?’
Instructors need to be able to dive to 40 metres without oxygen in order to teach, but introductory courses start at any depth. ‘There’s no danger, you always dive with a buddy, and you always dive within your limits,’ reassures Alex. The group regularly goes on three-day diving trips to Khor Fakkan in Fujairah, but the majority of the work is done in backyard pools, building up fitness and lung capacity. Freediving is a case of using as little oxygen as possible, so improving your anaerobic fitness (exercising without oxygen to fuel your muscles) helps to battle lactic acid build-up.
Alex invites me to borrow a wetsuit and join them. The man bears an uncanny resemblance to Daniel Craig and enjoys yoga; the last thing I want to do is compare physiques, so I sidle away to a tiny bathroom to struggle into my oversized wetsuit. Emerging stiff-legged and uncomfortable, I join the other divers poolside for the warm-up, breathing exercises and a bit of biology. ‘When you reach certain depths,’ says Alex, ‘your blood will shift to support your lungs and organs.’ I doubt there was much blood shifting going on in ‘the pool’ – I didn’t even go in the deep end.
I’m then taught to breathe. I lie down as Sarah leans over me. I’m told to exhale deeply then suck in oxygen from my stomach, then ribs, then chest, until I fill up like a skinny beach ball. It’s as perplexing as it sounds, but the idea is to cram as much oxygen into your lungs as possible. Allegedly, children learn to breathe from their stomach (expanding their diaphragm rather than their rib cages); women continue to do so as adults, but men soon forget this. We learn to puff out our chests like peacocks as soon as we’re old enough to strut.
Eventually, it’s my turn to go into the pool. Sarah’s advice is to ‘lie face down in the water and go to sleep’. It sounds a little threatening, rather like being told to ‘go play in traffic’. Nevertheless, we begin with my two minutes of breathing out. The aim is to filter out all distractions and lower your heart rate (thereby pumping less oxygen to the blood). Eventually, I fall slowly forward and try to slip into my underwater trance, watched over by my buddy. After a short while I emerge shivery and baffled. Practising at my desk, I barely manage a minute without precious oxygen; deprived of my senses and with just the lull of the water and my own internal workings to concentrate on, I manage two minutes. Success!
In the end, freediving is a mystical sport, one that I’ve barely touched upon. My experience in the pool was hardly The Big Blue, but it’s not advisable to jump in (literally) at the deep end, I’m told. Freediving is part yoga, part meditation, part survival. Down in the depths, ‘you’re just part of the menu,’ laughs Sarah. It’s an oddly comforting thought. Maybe, next time, we’ll escape the shallow end.
Classes are held at Mangrove Village in Abu Dhabi, costing from Dhs2,200 to Dhs3,300 for AIDA training. Visit www.freedivinguae.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org