On One Breath

Flying in to the Big Island of Hawai’i, the two largest volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, are capped with snow and surrounded by an aureola of clouds. Driving east to west across the island between the volcanoes, I pass through several climatic zones and multiple ecosystems. The journey takes me from the wet, windward eastern side to the much drier lee coast on the west.

It’s my second time on a tropical archipelago in a few months. In February I accompanied ten UOW undergraduates to India’s Andaman Islands for our pilot iteration of GEOG334 ‘Geographies of Change: International Fieldwork’. A great trip with a fantastic group of students – fun, resilient and very hard-working. Relevant to this research blog because each student completed their first ever independent research project while there, ranging from studying the territorial behaviour of damsel fish, to a detailed supply chain analysis of everything we ate. Great work.


The Apneista team, Indonesia (http://apneista.com/)

But I’m in Hawai’i to continue research on freediving, which I started last year in Indonesia. Freediving, or breath-hold diving, is at once a commonplace and unique form of engagement between humans and oceans.

Commonplace because we can do it from the moment we are born (having already lived in the watery world of the amniotic sac for nine months). An infant immersed in water will open her eyes, hold her breath, slow her heartbeat and begin to swim breaststroke. And commonplace because many native and local cultures in coastal areas around the world use breath-hold diving. The largely women-only diving communities of Japanese ama and Korean haenyeo are legendary, and much researched. Moken sea gypsies of the coasts of Burma/Myanmar and Thailand, who dive from childhood, have underwater vision twice as good as other humans.

But also unique because it has recently been reinvented as an ‘extreme sport’. Competitive divers are regularly reaching depths exceeding 200 metres on a single breath, and there are divers able to hold their breath underwater for periods exceeding 11 minutes. Freediving is also undergoing very rapid expansion as a recreational activity in a number of locations around the world.

I am diving at Puuhonua o Honaunau at Honaunau Bay on the Kona coast of Hawai’i. The first day I am just testing my gear. This is my first time diving since I was in the Andamans where I scuba dived with students. Someone has compared scuba diving to ‘driving though a forest in a 4WD with the windows up and the air conditioning on’ – and that was definitely my experience – I kept wanting to stop breathing to cut out all that noise and bubbles. Diving at Honaunau Bay was the opposite – serenely quiet except for the crackle of shrimp and the slap of the waves.

Michael diving at Honaunau Bay. Photo Dan Koval.

In Hawaii I am training with Dan Koval, a young instructor from southern California who has relocated to the Big Island. Dan is a member of the Beuchat International Spearfishing Team, and very, very relaxed in the water. Honaunau Bay is unique in having very great depth close to shore: less than 100m offshore it’s 100m deep! I have never been in water that deep, and the first day have trouble relaxing. Being relaxed is really important in free diving – I wind up with continuous cramps in both legs. On my third day diving we are joined by Shell Eisenberg, a quietly-spoken young instructor and international competitor. Shell this month broke the USA women’s national record in the pool discipline of ‘dynamic no-fins (DNF),’ swimming 125m underwater in 2 minutes 49 seconds.

Freedivers including Shell Eisenberg (far right)

Freedivers including Shell Eisenberg (far right) Photo by Joakim Hjelm

Two of the key aspects of freediving are equalisation- adjusting the pressure inside your ears to compensate for the increased pressure outside that the water exerts with increasing depth; and responding to the ‘urge to breathe’ – your mind telling you insistently that you should breath again, very soon, followed by involuntary spasms of your diaphragm, trying to make you breathe. Interestingly, most people can go very quickly from a breath hold of a minute or so to more than three minutes, just by understanding more about their body. Both of these aspects require both physiological and psychological training – they are symbolic and emotional, as well as physical – getting them right is a study in embodied geography.

I’ll blog again when my first paper is published on this issue. That paper moves past the interesting issues of what happens to your mind and body when freediving, to engage with freediving as phenomenological research about place and belonging. Sarah Wright (2014 drawing on Larsen and Johnson 2012) describes belonging as ‘an engagement at the edge of the lifeworld, an engagement with radical difference underpinned by an acknowledgement of our shared condition of co-existence and co-emergence.’ Deep in the ocean’s embrace, on one breath, feeling your mind and body transform, engaging with the possibility of death, freediving is transformational encounter.

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