In late 2016, my friends and I planned a trip to East Timor, an island nation in the heart of Asia’s Coral Triangle. The specific reef area we wanted to explore did not have a scuba dive center nearby. To see what existed beyond the ocean’s surface in this part of the world, we’d need to learn to freedive.
Freediving is an advanced variation of snorkeling, where each dive is completed with only the air inside of your lungs. The best freedivers in the world can go deeper than 300 feet and hold their breath for over eight minutes at a time. For perspective, Elizabeth Tower—home to Big Ben in the UK—is 314 feet tall.
I enrolled in a freediving course led by Agata Bogusz, a Polish freediving record holder who is capable of holding her breath for over six minutes and can dive as deep as 275 feet on one breath. She taught me the physics of freediving, how to take a full breath, and how to kick using long fins made of carbon fiber.
Before we went into the water, I felt anxious. Would I be capable of freediving? What if I inhaled water and drowned? What if nobody could save me? Humans are meant to be on land, not holding their breath underwater. I imagined my body sinking deeper and deeper until nobody on the surface could see me.
Agata, the other students, and I swam out to a deep slope off the coast of Amed, Bali, and I bobbed nervously on the surface and watched as Agata let down a rope that straightened out with the help of a lead weight.
“Pull yourself down the line with your hands,” Agata instructed. I watched as she disappeared below me. When she returned, I followed her command and reached arm over arm down the line and into the sea below me. After a few rounds, I let go of the rope and swam down.
Freediving appealed to me because of its reliance on the breath. Breath marks both the first and final moments of life, and it’s rare that a person holds it for more than a few seconds at a time. To freedive, the diver takes one large inhale and dives beneath the surface of the sea, where all senses are muted. They hear nothing, smell nothing, and feel nothing, except the surrounding pressure they are trying to interpret as comforting, rather than confining. I wanted to know what being alive would feel like if I deprived all senses of stimulation, reduced to the simple issue of breathing or not breathing.
On land, I often feel as though I’m drowning from the weight of social expectations. I must be energetic, successful, loving, funny, charismatic, and beautiful. I ruminate on things I’ve done in the past, and stress about happenings in the future. I am guilty of looking at the forming wrinkles around my eyes and cursing them as a blemish, rather than viewing them as a representation of my experiences and mortality.
During a dive, water is heavy. The deeper I go, the smaller my lungs become from external pressure. When I take a full breath and dive down to 30 feet, my lungs become half the size they were at the surface. If I were to dive to 130 feet—less than half of Agata’s record—my lungs would shrink to one fifth of their size at the surface.
On every dive, it’s critical for me to be hyper-aware of my body: position, movement, oxygen level, and the depth of the water around me. I am surrounded by blue split by rays of sunlight dappling between plankton particles. Within seconds of submerging underwater, my body experiences what’s known as the mammalian dive reflex, which causes the heart rate to slow and blood from the limbs to shunt to the torso, enriching vital organs with oxygen. At some point, I become weightless, suspended as if I were floating in space. Tension leaves my muscles. After this, my body becomes negatively buoyant and freefalls towards the ocean floor. It feels like I’m flying.
I know how much oxygen is left in my lungs by taking cues from my body. First, my throat prompts me to swallow. Then, a buildup of carbon dioxide that is exhaled in every breath triggers my diaphragm to contract. Once the contractions start, my mind feels hyper-present. These contractions are used as an internal timer that tells me how much longer I can stay underwater. Missing these cues or ignoring them could be fatal. Panic, something that can deplete oxygen like a match to gasoline, can have dire consequences. Once I turn back and swim towards the surface, my chest expands and relief overcomes me. I become buoyant and my body is lifted as if there were an air balloon attached to my shoulders. At the surface, I breathe and signal the end of the dive.
I kicked steadily down the down the line. My chest compressed. For the first thirty feet, holding my breath felt easy. A dozen feet later, my throat involuntarily swallowed. As the first minute ticked on, I felt my diaphragm contact, urging my body to breathe. After the second contraction, my mind raced. How long had it been? How deep am I? What if I pass out? I looked towards the surface and searched for my safety diver.
After three days of training, I relaxed in the water with each dive, reaching deeper targets each session. I passed a series of tests that included rescuing a blacked-out freediving partner. I received my AIDA** certification. With these newfound skills, I could explore any body of water on one breath.
As young girls, we are not taught to be kind to ourselves. Growing up, my sense of self was often tied to the digits reflected on a scale or the waistband of my jeans. I’d yo-yo within the same ten pounds, crash diet by eating the bare minimum and running miles on the treadmill during the day, only to ravage spoonfuls of chocolate frosting at night. This is despite believing that my friends at all sizes were truly attractive. At no point in my teenage years or early twenties did I see my reflection and think, “Wow, I love my body.”
On the dives that followed, I became mindful and present. Underwater, nobody could tell me what to think, what to buy, or who to be. My body entered its most primitive state with my heart, body, and mind working efficiently in sync, with no room to hate or critique any of its flaws. I refused to think of my body as ugly or unworthy of love just because my thighs have cellulite or because my skin folds around my eyes in ways I wish it didn't. It’s a newfound sense of beauty that can’t be wiped away at the end of the day or manipulated by numbers on a scale.
One day, I went freediving with a friend who pushed me to dive down to a hundred feet—what would then be my personal record. That morning, my stomach churned and adrenaline coursed through my veins. I struggled to relax during my “breathe up,” the minutes leading up to a dive where you focus on nothing but calming your mind and body.
I swam down to the marker below me. At the halfway point, I felt a sense of dread. I peeked towards the water’s surface, where the silhouette of freedivers above me looked like toy figurines. “I trust you,” I told myself. “You’re going to stay calm. You can do this.” I developed a mantra of saying, “I love you.” As someone who is not into self-affirmations, expressing self-love underwater was the first time I felt comfortable telling myself this. I was present. I grabbed the hundred-foot marker and turned back to the surface.
Though I’d been underwater for less than two minutes, the fear of not knowing if I could return safely to the surface made it seem longer. My urge to breathe got stronger with each foot I ascended, until my face finally felt a warm rush of air. I exhaled. I inhaled. I did it.