When you were a kid, did you sometimes take a really big breath in the bath, pinch your nose, close your eyes and sink in under the water? Do you remember the quiet as sounds became muffled, the shifting colours and shapes inside your eyelids, that feeling of being quite contained... You were freediving!
When I was nineteen I decided to become a kid again and never grow up, to step back into water and live for that silence. Freediving as a competitive sport is about diving as deep as far or as long as possible on one single breath of air. Pushing their bodies far beyond what researchers thought was possible, freedivers have made one breath be enough to below 200 meters when assisted and breath hold beyond eleven minutes.
For me, freediving is the perfect expression of my love affair with the ocean. Just like a whale or a dolphin or a seal, I take one breath, kick down and explore the magical fairyland that lies beneath the waves. The human body is perfectly created for diving on one breath. We share an adaptation called the Mammalian Dive Response with all aquatic mammals, we have a small seal living inside us waiting to come out and play. As your face touches the water, your heart rate slows down, blood gets shunted away from your arms and legs to make sure your brain has enough oxygen, your spleen constricts flushing new haemoglobin rich blood into the system and more as the little seal sits up, shakes out it’s fur, yawns and gets ready to dive!
For deep dives I wear a monofin that is like a mermaid tail, where my feet are together and a large fin propels me down… one two three four… twenty kicks until I pass my neutral buoyancy and start falling. Letting go of light, air, doubt and fear I let my body fall into the ocean. It is so still here. I close my eyes and let my fingers glide along the rope. Equalise, equalise… relax. A small mantra I play over and over in my head. Below fifty I feel the pressure increase, like a vast ocean embrace my chest gets compressed, my equalisation is key now, don’t miss a beat. Then I’m there, the bottom of the rope. I open my eyes, give one pull to start my ascent and let my safety diver at the surface know that I have turned and start kicking up. I am heavy down here. Kick kick kick, relax, I am strong, I can do this. I love this. The water gets brighter, I get lighter and there she is, my friend meeting me at twenty, she smiles at me and swim the last bit up together. Break the surface, deep breath. I want to go deeper!
For every training dive, for every hour spent in the water I become more aquatic. I practice on a rope so that I can easily play with the majestic creatures that live in this big blue that covers out planet. How not to bore a spinner dolphin, how to meet and greet a great blue whale, how to entertain an acrobatic seal, how to glide with a manta… get back in, pinch your nose and sink below
Of course it’s been a dream of mine to travel to the far away Cocos Island for many years!
Who wouldn’t want to go there, right? They say there’s hidden treasure, Jurassic Park was filmed there (!!!) and it’s in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and a hotspot for amazing shark diversity and WORLD CLASS DIVING!
Ah, but see, this is not why we’re going there right now. Right now a small group (led by the ever inspiring Dr Sylvia Earle - Mission Blue) of ocean advocates, scientists and celebrities are packing their bags to meet tomorrow in the town of Puntarenas in Costa Rica because decision makers are once again failing sharks and there really isn’t that much time left to sit back and watch bad decisions destroy our oceans.
But the long and the short of it is, everybody knows we need to be protecting sharks. (If you’re still on the fence about this, just Google ‘are sharks endangered’… ) Just like back in the day when everybody knew we needed to ‘save the whales’. The problem with sharks is that they create bad press for themselves by … well, by being sharks!
And as we flock to live the coastal dream and more and more people enter the water swimming, surfing and diving we encounter these animals, and yes, sometimes things go wrong (read: sharks do what sharks do and bite) and suddenly we throw all common sense out the window and make decisions where money speaks the loudest. Be it for tourism (the ongoing Australian shark cull being a great recent example of idiotic behaviour by educated individuals) or as is the case in Costa Rica, trade and politics.
Costa Rica is and has been a world leader in conservation for many years (being one of the nations to fight hard for the inclusion of their hammerhead sharks in the CITES Appendix II) but the last six months has seen the light dim on this glowing example of shark understanding and protection.
You’ve certainly heard of shark fin soup (again… if not, Google!) so you know this tasteless, wildly nutrient lacking but somehow status-enriching gloop has become the biggest threat to these incredible apex predators. It is not allowed to fish sharks for their fins in Costa Rica… unless… unless… you have a complicated and science okayed NDF – Non Detriment Findings (harder to Google, so link here: CITES - NDF Stuff)
Costa Rican authorities managed to wangle this exceptional NDF and hey presto shark fins got exported to Hong Kong end of last year and another exception is active as I write for more exports… Some of which may or may not have been caught around the amazing marine reserve of the Cocos Island.
And so the splitting of hairs begin, claims that the sharks were bycatch and therefore not illegal… but as the Tico Times so eloquently states:
‘No one wants to see a dead animal go to waste. But the extraordinary value of shark fins – highly prized in Asia for making shark fin soup – is an inevitable temptation for fishermen. Conservationists say allowing exceptions to what should be tight restrictions on the shark fin trade, boosts that temptation...’
‘even if those sharks were caught unintentionally, as officials claim, a process known as bycatch, CITES mentions bycatch as one of the top threats to hammerhead shark populations worldwide’
‘poverty-reduction is also a poor excuse for enabling the shark fin trade, where exporters earn up to four times the amount fishermen are paid for fins.’
So, yes. It’s complicated. But it’s also fantastically simple.
Sharks are important for our ocean’s wellbeing. Our oceans wellbeing is important for our planet’s wellbeing. And this is our home. Good planets are hard to find.
So here we are, in Costa Rica, getting over jet lag to get on a boat and go explore, document and share stories from a magnificent underwater wilderness that is threatened by our inexplicable need to feed our egos and our status with a soup made from fins that have no nutritional value for the human body.
And I’m going because it’s not just about sharks and shark fin soup, or the eating habits in Asia. It is about a world gone mad for status and material wealth and losing touch with being kind to ourselves, each other and the planet.
"If you’ve grown up with Labradors and then get to spend some time with a Jack Russell terrier, it’s apparent that these are two very different creatures! For me, this has been a fun game I play with the sharks I dive with; seeing how very different they are and then translating that into dogs! It’s a language many people understand better than philosophical descriptions of the nature of specific shark species. So here goes…"
This is an excerpt from a fun little piece I wrote for Submerge Magazine last year about freediving with sharks, have a read and a think!