It’s May 2020. The world has become an entirely different place. Global travel is restricted in a way no one could have predicted 3 months ago. Whilst isolation has been undeniably challenging, it’s also provided us all with a time for self-reflection, a time to work out what’s really important to us, a time to be still. During this rather odd moment in history, one of my beautiful friends, Bella, has done just that. A former full-time management consultant, Bella has recently taken the incredibly brave and exciting decision to reevaluate her priorities and explore one of her greatest passions; freediving.
When I first met Bella and she told me she and her partner regularly freedive (in a nutshell, dive underwater on one single breath), I thought she was nuts. Australia is, of course, one of the best places to freedive, but still! I myself am partial to the occasional scuba dive, but have had numerous panicked moments that I cringe about to this day. So the idea of diving to not-insignificant depths with no breathing apparatus both terrifies and intrigues me. In fact, Bella and I had planned for her to give me a ‘freediving for beginners’ introductory lesson before COVID.
Alongside plans to build her own coaching business, Bella has recently launched an incredibly stylish and fascinating blog called Immersia Freediving. The blog, focused on making this mysterious sport more accessible, is a perfect introduction on freediving for beginners. It also showcasing epic photography of Bella’s freediving travels across the globe.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Bella and am delighted to share with you this little insight into “experiencing the underwater world in one breath.”
Hi Bella, firstly, welcome to jessicapascoe.com, and secondly, can you please tell my readers a little about yourself?
Hi, I’m Bella, and I’m a freediver and blogger, although that only goes a little way towards explaining what I do in my average week. Over the past few years I’ve made some major life changes. I left my friends, family, home country, and management consulting job all in search of a life that I will look back upon and be proud of. Along the way I’ve found some incredible new passions that have truly reset my purpose; camping, travelling, photography, pole-dancing, and – most of all – freediving. I now spend my days split between consulting, writing, training my diving and dancing, exploring Australia (on land and underwater) with my partner, and coaching freediving. I’ve also recently launched my blog – Immersia. It’s a place where you can explore freediving for beginners, learning the basics and get inspired to give it a go!
For those of us who are new to the term ‘freediving’ – can you tell me a little bit about what this sport involves?
Of course! Freediving is very simple – it is any act of diving, swimming and exploring underwater whilst holding your breath. It is different from scuba diving since freediving doesn’t involve any breathing apparatus, tanks, etc. It is sometimes also called skin-diving or apnea, and is often associated with spearfishing. When we hold our breath and dive, our bodies go through some pretty crazy physiological changes to help us cope with the new environment, which I’ve described in very simple terms in a blog post. Freedivers try to take advantage of these changes to stay under a little longer.
Can you tell us a little bit about your freediving journey? How did you get started?
I have to be honest, I don’t remember where I first heard of freediving, but I certainly remember having a mental image of freedivers as weird, masochistic people in lycra, torturing themselves for fun. I definitely wasn’t interested at that point!
It’s strange; I had a deep feeling for many years that I wanted to be in the water, but I really hated swimming. I just loved the feeling of submersion, and the freedom of my body to move around without gravity. Eventually, I threw myself into scuba, which allowed me to start exploring underwater, but still felt a little restrictive. As a newbie in Australia I met two very influential people in my life – my partner and my close friend. Both were deeply connected to the ocean and, through them, I became more confident in the water.
On a sabbatical from work in 2018 and I hit the freediving destinations immediately. I took my first proper freediving course in Coron, Philippines. The lake we dived in was breathtaking – literally. It was the best and worst place to take my first course; so beautiful but so hard to beat. I explored the Philippines, Bali, Tonga, Hawaii and Iceland, finding local people and travellers to freedive with. Once I returned to Sydney I was hooked and I started to train more regularly with coaches around Sydney. I progressed to Advanced Freediver level (there are around 3 levels of freediving certifications, depending on the agency), passing the certification at the famous freediving camp, Deep Week.
Since that point, I have started to work as an assistant instructor, coaching freediving for beginners as they start to dive deeper. I truly love it, and I’m now working to make coaching a bigger part of my life. I’ve also launched my freediving blog- something I’ve wanted to do for years. It’s a really exciting project for me where I get to combine my love of writing and diving.
Why is freediving becoming so popular? What is it that you love?
Freediving is such a life-changing activity. There is a feeling that takes over your body when you’re relaxed underwater that is so hard to describe. Imagine that you are immersed in crystal blue, weightless, as if you’re being held tightly by the water around you. When you look around, you see varying shades of blue, and when you look up you see twinkling light on the surface.
If you want to, you can twirl, backflip, curl up, swim up or dive down. Imagine that a turtle swims past you. To be underwater is to be almost in another dimension, immune to the noise and stress of the world above. In your breath-hold, underwater, you will not be thinking about that bill you have to pay; you’ll be focusing on your heart, and the sensation of water as you move your body. It’s the closest thing to peace that I’ve ever found, and it brings me back to the world calmer and happier.
Freediving also gives you the tools and confidence to explore places you’ve never seen before, and interact with creatures you never dreamed of seeing. I’ve had the opportunity to dive with sharks, humpback whales, stingrays, turtles and all kinds of fish. A few months ago I went for a casual dive at my favourite spot in Sydney, and I watched a Port Jackson shark lay an egg. It was incredible.
Recently, I’ve also really loved the coaching side of things. I love to meet people and help them discover this world, and I really identify with so many of the anxieties and technical issues new divers encounter.
I’ve written a whole article on how freediving changes your life once you start getting into the sport.
What are the best free diving locations you’ve visited?
That is really difficult to say. If forced, it’s a toss-up between Silfra in Iceland, and Barracuda Lake in Coron, Philippines. Barracuda lake offers the most surreal underwater landscape, with rock formations that look like ancient city spires. It’s also one of the places on earth that you can experience a thermocline, where the saltwater mixes with freshwater and the temperature changes drastically. It’s live diving into a hot bath at about 12 metres deep! The reason I mention Iceland here is because it has the clearest water I’ve ever seen, and it’s such a surreal experience diving in glassy, freezing cold water with snow on the ground all around you!
New South Wales has some excellent freediving spots, check out this post on my favourite beaches for some inspiration
What is the best experience you’ve ever had freediving and why?
This is also hard to say, because I’ve had some amazing experiences diving with amazing creatures and in beautiful places. One day I will never forget was my first time freediving in Hawaii. I knew nobody, but I had joined some Facebook groups and arranged to meet up with some local freedivers for a fun-dive. With no idea what to expect, I showed up and met a great group of 3 divers. We swam out off the coast of Oahu, into the blue, clear, warm water. I felt relaxed and my breath-hold felt strong. We were playing around and rock-running along the sea floor, when all of a sudden, we heard dolphins. Within moments, a pod of dolphins appeared and swam around us, darting back and forth to play with us. I honestly wanted to cry.
I think that moment, along with the whole beautiful dive and the warmth that this amazing group of people extended to me, made it one of the happiest diving days of my life.
That sounds absolutely awesome, but also for someone as nervous as me, a little bit terrifying! What are some of the risks?
I think there’s a big misconception that you need to be an athlete to take part in freediving, and you need to already have an amazing breath-hold. This is not true. Freediving is a way of tapping into a type of physical capability that we often don’t use; it’s not just about strength or fitness. However, for freediving for beginners you do need to be reasonable healthy, and able to swim without fins. You should speak to your doctor if you have experienced any health problems, particularly with your lungs and heart.
If you were to Google freediving risks and accidents, you’d find a juicy list of horror stories. Its not surprising – the sport involves holding your breath for prolonged periods and adventuring into unpredictable environments. Things can go wrong. Freediving is a safe sport when the proper safety protocols are followed, and divers do not push themselves to extreme limits. The most critical rule in freediving is that you never, ever, dive alone. You need a trained buddy who knows how to recognise a problem and how to react.
Following on from the risks what is the worst experience you’ve had?
Like all divers, I have had bad days in the water where I can’t relax. I remember some really frustrating days in the water as a new diver. I struggled to learn to equalise my ears properly. There was one dive in particular which felt quite uncomfortable. Despite this, I really pushed it, lost my relaxation and started to panic hard on the way back up. It was not a deep or long dive – I just let fear to take over. It was the only time I’ve ever thought that I might not get back to the surface. My coach was fantastic that day; he talked me out of my panic and it ended up as a great day of diving.
What sort of kit do you need for freediving – and what brands do you recommend?
Haha, I had my own big misconception about freediving, thinking I would spend less on freediving gear that scuba gear. But most of my money seems to go into buying new gear…
The most critical pieces of gear you need are:
- Weights and Weight-belt (although I don’t recommend playing with weights until you’ve taken a course)
The main difference between a regular snorkelling/scuba mask and a Freedive mask is the volume. Freedivers use smaller masks, usually with a softer silicone. This makes it easy to equalise the mask (i.e. breathe air into the mask as you go deeper). When it comes to buying a mask, I recommend you try on lots of different ones. It needs to fit your face perfectly.
You do not need a fancy snorkel for freediving. You simply need to be able to breathe through it, take it out of your mouth quickly for the dive, and clear it easily.
Freediving fins are much longer than scuba fins. They allow for a more efficient kick using less energy (important when you’re holding your breath). There are lots of good fins on the market suitable for freediving for beginners. These are made from plastic in the $100-200 range. More advanced divers tend to upgrade to fibreglass or carbon fins eventually. These are incredibly efficient but also very expensive (typically $500+).
For plastic fins, I suggest looking at Beauchat or Omer Sporasub. The Sporasub ‘Spitfire’ fins are very popular with women because they offer footpockets in smaller sizes.
Weights are used by more confident freedivers to combat buoyancy (your body’s tendency to float). I always suggest getting a little more experience in freediving before using weight to be safe.
Depending on where you are diving, you may also want to think about renting or buying a wetsuit to keep warm. I don’t last long in Sydney water in just a swimsuit.
What’s next for you in your freediving journey?
I’ve taken some time out of full time work to focus on my own training, and start to build a coaching business. I’m really enjoying instructing for an existing school, but I would love to see more people getting involved in freediving. In particular, I want to create opportunities for people – and women especially – who want to try out freediving for beginners in a relaxed environment. I want to help people feel more confident exploring the beautiful underwater world. I will be launching coaching in freediving for beginners in Sydney this year, and I hope to create a supportive community of ocean lovers. Who knows where this will take me!
Everyone is welcome to come to the site and drop a comment or message with their questions
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