I have written about freedive research on this blog here, here and here, but only just now managed to publish about it. Freediving is at its most basic just holding your breath and diving underwater. It is likely as old as humans. But in its modern recreational and competitive formation, it has been described as the second most dangerous extreme sport. It is undergoing a dramatic rise in popularity, with PADI, the largest global dive organisation describing it as the fastest growing segment of the dive market. I have been using ‘full-immersion’ methodologies (becoming as close as possible that which I am researching) to try to understand why.
My essay on freediving, ‘Salt Blood’ has just won the 2017 ABR Calibre Prize.
Mirroring our time in the tiny sea of the amniotic sac, freediving is the most profound engagement between humans and oceans: the unmediated body immersed and uncontrolled in saltwater. It is simultaneously planetary and intensely intimate – the ocean is both all around us and within us. That breadth of scale can be terrifying or reassuring. It is not about discovery, it is about recovery: we can freedive expertly from the minute we are born, but slowly forget.
And fundamentally we engage with the saltwater itself: we taste it, swallow it, rinse it through our sinuses, feel it flow across our skin – it is both all around us and within us. The tears in our eyes, the sweat on our skin, the blood in our veins, arteries, organs, have the same salt concentration as ancient oceans, reflecting the time when the ocean water itself served as the fluid transport in the bodies of our biological ancestors.
While I have been researching freediving for several years, I had not found an effective voice in which to describe and analyse what I was experiencing. Using the essay form, rather than conventional academic writing, freed me to explore. The essay is rising in prominence and relevance. The journal Text just devoted a full issue to a writing form that traces its origin to Michel de Montaigne, whose ‘Essais’ were first published in 1580, became an immediate best-seller, and are still in print. Montaigne wanted to decolonise writing, liberate it from convention and formality, and in its modern interpretation, the essay defies definition, in fact subverts, resists and transgresses the idea of genre. The French verb essayer means ‘to try’, so it is about opening up, questioning, acknowledging limitations, rather than nailing down a subject with expertise. Montaigne’s motto was ‘Que sais-je?’ – ‘what do I know?’
Analysis of the essay often suggests that it is a meandering, wandering walk through a landscape of ideas and meaning: the route of the flâneur. The 2015 Calibre winner, Sophie Cunningham, based her essay on a literal walk through New York. I wanted to take the fluidity of the form literally, to take it to the water. In oceans you can swim, moving deliberately with purpose, and you can drift, surrendering to the planetary power of currents, tides, waves.
I first trained in the conventions of modern freediving in Indonesia, with floats, guide ropes, depth plates, safety instructions and detailed understandings of the body’s physiological capacities. Later, in Hawai’i, legendary diver Carlos Eyles taught me ‘the ocean is not a linear system’ – that I needed to abandon my attachment to linear thinking, to measurement (metres of depth, minutes of breath-hold), to risk assessments and calculations, to actually ‘dive free’ in the deep blue water over the undersea slope of the sacred volcano Mauna Kea.
In ‘Salt Blood’ I take Ariel’s ‘full fathom five’ song from The Tempest, about the supposed death of Ferdinand’s father, as the bridge to thinking about the suicide of my own father on a beach when I was fourteen. Through the discursive currents of the essay, apparently tenuously related elements – The Tempest, Montaigne’s anti-colonial essay ‘On Cannibals’ (a major influence on Shakespeare), my own sojourns on islands, my learning from Indigenous peoples – are glimpsed and refracted. Little of this is explicit in ‘Salt Blood’ but what I hoped was that the associative, mosaic nature of the form would allow the emergence of meaning, or at least feeling, from these woven currents. Australian writer Patrick Holland, some of whose words open my essay, suggests that ‘In a sense, writing is a kind of prayer. You offer it up saying, “Is this what You meant? – Is this the truth?”’
I didn’t start freediving to understand mortality, but that is where it has led me. Freediving takes you to a liminal place, between light and dark, between earth and air, between life and death. One of my teachers lyrically described it as ‘the eternity between moments: freediving as Bardo state.’ Freediving has helped me towards finding the place in my life where I can at least look with awareness at loss, even when I do not understand it.
Diving is the window that, for Simone Weil, ‘makes visible the possibility of death that lies locked up in each moment’. Herman Melville puts the same thought into the whaleboat, ‘it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life’.
Since publication, some readers have shared their own experiences of suicide and loss with me: the writing of the place of suicide in my life opening an opportunity for gentle communication. Albert Camus considered it the central philosophical question, and there is a tragic history of intergenerational literary and other suicides. Sylvia Plath ended her haunting early poem about her own father’s death, also called ‘Full Fathom Five’ with the words, ‘Father, this thick air is murderous./I would breathe water.’
Once born, we can’t literally breathe water, but in freediving we can reengage with our deep evolutionary origins in the ocean, and our humility as just one among the uncounted myriad beings living and dying on the Blue Planet.
I would like to acknowledgement the Bundanon Trust for a residency in 2016 where I drafted the first version of the Calibre essay.