1: BREATH OF FRESH AIR
Freediving is one of the fastest-growing water sports in the world, but what makes it so popular? And can anyone do it? AARON ‘BERTIE’ GEKOSKI leaves his regs at home and heads for Indonesia.

SOMETHING DOESN'T FEEL RIGHT. I’m 20m under the Lombok Strait, holding onto the same breath I took (what feels like) an eternity ago. Without a tank, BC or regs.
As the realisation kicks in, so does the urge to breathe. At first it’s a swallow, then contractions in my gut. I shouldn’t be down here – well, not without a delicious tank of sweet, sweet air.
It’s time to head up, my liaison with the elusive 20m mark all too brief.
I try to remember the instructions: loooooong fin-strokes, relaxed swaying shoulders. In fact, relaxed everything. None of this fluttery frog-kick crap you’ve been honing all these years.
Just don’t look up, whatever you do. It’s a long way to the surface, and peeking makes those darned contractions worse. Eyes on the prize (in this case my instructor Denis, who glides upwards, rolling his shoulders, caressing the water with his elongated fins).
Nearly there, nearly there. And suddenly I’m at the surface again, my safe place. Recovery breaths: fast exhale to purge the CO2, forceful inhale to flood the body with yummy O2. And repeat… don’t want to black out.
That wasn’t so difficult, was it? Can we go down again? I want to go deeper…

The origins of freediving
I’m floating in waters just off the Gili Islands, an archipelago of three small islands not far from Bali, Indonesia, and I’m participating in a Level 1 SSI freediving course. And I’m not alone – surrounding a group of tethered buoys are four instructors and 10 pupils, who take it in turns to yoyo down lines weighted to different depths.
It’s a quizzical scene, and I can’t help but ponder what the ancient Greeks, the first known commercial freedivers, would have made of it.
Around 300BC, these oceanic gods would dive to 30m to harvest sponges, and the word “apnea” – which now means diving on one breath of air – comes from the Greek word a-pnoia, meaning “without breathing”.
However, the Greeks were far from the first to practise freediving. The first accounts date back some 10,000 years to the “Clam Eaters”, a group of shellfish-hunters operating in the Baltic Sea.
For thousands of years, freediving has been practised by fishing communities around the globe. Recently I spent time documenting a nomadic seafaring group, the Bajau Laut, as part of an online series I’ve been presenting, Borneo From Below.
These “sea gypsies” spend almost their entire lives on the ocean, and their eyes can focus under water in ways we can barely comprehend.
As children, many burst their eardrums to facilitate a life of freediving to extreme depths for minutes on end.
For the Bajau and other fishing communities, freediving is about survival. When I put it to one Bajau man, Minayak, that people do this as a sport, he laughs and says simply: “Why would anyone do that?” Next time I see him, I hope to provide some answers.
It wasn’t until 1949 that freediving began life as a sport, when Hungarian fighter-pilot Raimondo Bucher reached 30m on one breath.
In the 1950s a friendly rivalry between Enzo Maiorca and Jacques Mayol increased interest in this new extreme sport. Their exploits led to the 1988 film The Big Blue, perhaps the most famous freediving feature of all time.
Fast-forward 60 years, and the sport is unrecognisable. Thousands of people compete in events all over the world, regularly finning down beyond 100m.
Freediving has become cool, it’s popularity fuelled by social media, with French freediver Guillaume Nery’s slick videos receiving millions of hits.

Why the hype?
“Every year we have seen an increase in the number of people learning to freedive, and we’re certifying more instructors,” says Michael Board, founder of Freedive Gili.
Board has set 13 British freediving records, his most notable achievement being a Constant Weight plunge to 103m in 2014, using a fin to swim down and straight back up again.
He set up Freedive Gili in 2009 as the first dedicated freediving centre in Indonesia. In only six years, eight other centres have cropped up around Bali and the Gili Islands. And I’m keen to find out why.
“Imagine being able to take a deep breath and dive down under water, experiencing weightlessness and the sensation of flying, without any discomfort or urge to breathe, and combine this with an almost meditative feeling from being totally focused and present in your mind,” says Board.
There are numerous reasons why people learn freediving. For some it’s a pursuit of inner peace, or to feel a greater connection with the ocean. For others it’s about pushing one’s body to the limits, setting goals, beating personal bests and witnessing improvements (much like a marathon runner).
And more and more people – often scuba-divers – want to have better, bubble-free interactions with marine life, minus the bulky equipment.
My reasons to take the course fall more into the latter group. As an underwater photographer, some of the best photo opportunities, particularly with cetaceans, are to be had while snorkelling.
Breath-hold divers have a huge advantage over floaters, and will inevitably take better pictures. So after a couple of months of procrastinating, I book a ticket from my home in Borneo and head to Gili Trawangan.
I arrive grumpily into Gili Trawangan after a cramped, sweaty boat-ride from Bali, packed with what appears to be the entire cast of The Only Way is Essex.
Gili T reminds me of a small-scale Koh Tao, the island in Thailand where the young and frisky learn to dive by day and drink by night.
On the main beachside strip, bars, restaurants and dive-schools are sardined together, punctuated by horses – many with ribs protruding from their chests – that drag along cartfuls of tourists. Zen it most definitely isn’t.

Freedive Gili T
Luckily Freedive Gili is set back just enough from the main strip to block out most of the din. “Freediving is 95% mental, 5% physical,” says instructor Denis on our first morning. Lean and with a serious demeanour, Denis exudes calm from every yogi pore.
We begin with some relaxation techniques, including a “body scan”, a meditation technique that trains the mind to observe bodily sensations and release any tension.
A poor yogi, I lack focus and am unable to release pain from a recently stubbed toe. Perhaps a session on freediving breathing techniques will help. The key, says Denis, is to breathe with the belly, which slows down the heart rate.
After a couple of minutes we’re taught how to take our three final breaths: inhale to fill the stomach, then chest, then release the chest, followed by the stomach with the exhale. Deep. Slow. Calm. After these, a freediver would begin a descent.
Next up, equalisation. For the purposes of Level 1, we’re taught the pinched-nose Valsalva technique. This comes naturally to the scuba-divers in our group.
The Frenzel technique – achieved by using the tongue as a piston to force air upwards – is often employed when diving deeper than 30m. It requires less oxygen.
We move to the pool for a confined session and to learn proper freediving form. The body should be straight and streamlined, with the chin tucked in so that you look directly at the line, arms by the side, long fin-strokes, fluid movements, relaxed shoulders.
I have trouble with the unfamiliar finning technique, and continuously face-plant into the pool-floor.
I hope it comes more naturally out in the open ocean, where we head after all the students manage to swim 30m under water in the pool. Here we take it in turns to progress up and down buoys to complete different tasks.
To pass this stage of the course, we must complete two exercises at 10m: firstly ascending using arms only, and then repeating this but after removing our masks.
Our group completes these exercises with little difficulty, and by the end of the day I already feel improvements in my form, breath-hold and ability to relax.

Mammalian reflex
Our second and final day starts with a lesson in freediving physiology. This includes learning about the mammalian diving reflex – the natural reaction mammals experience when they’re submerged in water.
This response puts the body into oxygen-saving mode so that we can spend more time under water.
We also learn about shallow-water blackout and how to avoid it. This loss of consciousness – experienced normally at the surface or in the top 10m – is caused by cerebral hypoxia, when oxygen stores fall below the level required to maintain consciousness.
Denis is keen to stress that, despite its label as an extreme sport and the recent high-profile death of the world’s most decorated freediver, Natalia Molchanova, it is incredibly safe when practised with a competent buddy.
Even if freedivers black out in the shallows, it rarely leads to complications when dealt with in the correct manner.

Rescue & duck
Next step is to learn how to deal with an unconscious diver in the ocean, following a yoga session and some techniques to stretch the diaphragm.
At 10m we have to lead a blacked-out Denis safely to the surface and then practise rescue breaths. We’re also shown proper duck-diving techniques.
The drill goes: breathe up, three final breaths, take snorkel out, pre-equalise, put arms straight out for a 90° angle, lift the hips so that the legs follow the body’s downward momentum, followed by one stoke with the arms, constant equalisation, then finning.
Once we’ve practised this a few times, the rope is lowered to 15m, and then to 20m, a symbolic mark that instantly induces unwanted tension.
In water the colour of Frank Sinatra’s eyes, the weights appear a long way away. Twenty metres is approaching a deep dive on scuba. I manage to relax just enough to flirt with the bottom of the line. And it feels great.
Sadly, this spells the end of our session, and we head back to the centre for the token exam. My appetite for freediving has been sufficiently whetted. It’s been an absorbing couple of days learning the techniques needed to dive deeper, for longer. Now all that’s required is a little practice… right, where are those whales?

To learn more, or participate in a freediving course, visit www.freedivegili. com. You can watch Aaron’s diving adventures in Borneo on the weekly online series at www.borneofrombelow.com

2: CAVES OF KEFALONIA

Phreatic as a bird, instructor MARCUS GREATWOOD extends his fascination with freediving in overhead environments to explorations while on holiday in Greece

KEFALONIA IS THE LARGEST of the Ionian Islands, but it has escaped mass tourism. After a season of “phreatic” diving (that is, freediving in underground lakes) we were looking for a last-minute holiday in the sun, and just off the west coast of Greece, with a typical rocky coastline and crystal water, Kefalonia seemed the perfect late-summer destination.
Apnea equipment was packed as a matter of course, and we called into the local scuba centre to hire some weights. Aquatic World is a friendly shop on the island’s east coast, and its staff provided us with some lead and pointed out a few dive-sites. In passing they mentioned the ban on diving in Mellissani Cave Lake.
Cue humorous double-take: “Is there any way we can dive this amazing place?”
“Not without permission – diving is forbidden.”
The next two days of “exploring” the island just happened to follow the route of Mellissani Cave Lake, the local police department and municipality offices, culminating in a meeting with the Mayor of Kefalonia.
Luckily, he was a jovial chap who was tickled by the idea that we might want to freedive his cold underground lake. So, after taking a couple of selfies with us, he agreed to swap some photos of us in the lake for his permission to dive.
The absence of mass tourism was evident in the small unmarked car-park and tent-like structure housing the café, souvenir shop and entrance gate of Mellissani Cave Lake. The staff also seemed amused about our diving plans when we sampled the tourist-boat trip around the cave lake. Then we jumped in.
The seawater in the lake is sucked from the Ionian Sea into sinkholes on the west side of the island, near Argotoli, and expelled into the Bay of Sami.
The brackish water takes two weeks to travel across the island in huge karst conduits (phreatic tunnels).
In several places these have collapsed to form cenotes, pits resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath, similar to those in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.
The roof of the Mellissani cave collapsed during the 1953 Ionian earthquake, after which a tunnel was cut for an entrance. Local guides paddle tourists around both sections of the lake, one open to the sunlight and the other dark and mysterious, despite the incandescent floodlight flickering behind a mound of fallen roof rubble.
The cold water forms a permanent mist, imparting a damp chill to the air, but the crystal turquoise of the water almost takes your breath away. We were itching to dive it.

The coldness
The 10-minute boat-trip gave us ample opportunity to acquaint ourselves with the cave before finally getting our chance to explore. Wearing wetsuits we climbed into the lake, and got our first real impression – one of coldness.
UK caves are cold, and subterranean lakes are something we’re used to, but the shock of dropping from bright sunshine and T-shirt-and-shorts weather straight into 14°C water took our breath away, as did the colour, size and beauty of Mellissani cave.
The chamber is huge, dropping quickly off to 30m with water so clear that diving feels like flying. Cave-divers have surveyed the entry and exit tunnels on either side of the lake (these overhead environments are unsafe for freediving), but we were in awe of the splendour of the main chamber.
Huge speleothems (stalactites and stalagmites) have been left from the time when the cave was dry, thought to be thousands of years ago.
Surprisingly, considering the amount of sunlight falling on the open section, there is very little life in the water. Eels, however, seem to thrive there, and are not afraid of divers.
The cold eventually stopped our fun after about an hour – but what an unforgettable hour it was!
We were told that the water from Mellissani lake flows into the sea via a lake in Karavomilos. So we went to find it, and were greeted by a duck-pond.
Very clear, teeming with life – but a duck-pond nonetheless.
Human activity is forbidden in the lake because it supports a unique eco-system. However, we were given permission to swim through to investigate a small crack in the surrounding rock.
The lake was amazing, with life springing forth in every direction, but we weren’t permitted to hang around to film.
The crack turned out to be the entrance to an amazing cave system, the first two chambers accessible to us surface-dwellers. Fun doesn’t cover it. This was the best phreatic dive we have done.
Armed with a Light-for-Me 4XPG torch and 3XML video light, we had plenty of illumination for exploring and taking photos. The water was stunningly clear (and still cold) and we were in no danger of losing visibility in the strong exiting current.
I must warn people thinking of entering this cave that, apart from the entrance being a nature reserve, some ceilings were unstable, with a lot of tablature breakdown.
We had heard that as many as five of the 17 caves in the area contained lakes, with various degrees of accessibility or suitability for swimming, but it was water all the same.

The coldness
Not ones for sitting on the beach, we decided to do some cave-hunting. Agalaki is a vertical-access cave that’s easy to locate and awe-inspiring to view, but without our Petzl caving kit we weren’t about to risk entering. Next time!
On our last day we located the gem in the Kefalonian cave list. Zervati, eerily like a Mexican cenote with jungle leading down to the by-now-expected crystal-blue waters, was a joy unto itself. By far the smallest lake, it drops quickly to 10m, leading to a tunnel not destined for apnea exploration.
Again our compact travel lighting was perfect for the 30-minute dive. We spent a relaxed 40 minutes enjoying the view, water and location.
I have always believed that wherever you find yourself in the world there is amazing beauty just around the corner – you just have to look. Phreatic diving is just an extension of this philosophy, albeit with a few more safety procedures.

NoTanx is now running phreatic diving courses in the UK, www.notanx.com


3: HARMONY IN THE RED SEA

Last year HELENA BRENER and her team of Odessa freedivers formed part of a mixed band of Ukrainians and Russians, freedivers and scoobies, with classic Red Sea wrecks in their sights. Photos by ANDREY NEKRASOV

OUR UNDERWATER ODESSA GANG was in Egypt, spending a week on a cosy dive-boat named Brina that contained a cool mixture of 10 divers and freedivers from both Ukraine and Russia.
Despite these being uneasy political times Brina soon became a haven of international harmony, an amazingly friendly, cheerful and empathetic atmosphere prevailing. The heads of both groups were successfully managing the complicated task of ensuring the safety of both scuba- and freedivers.
We were brought together by the Red Sea all around and beneath us… endlessly blue, its transparency dangled before us and attracted us.
In fact the Odessa team had been in Dahab a couple of days earlier than the others to warm up before the trip. Hospitable Dahab had hugged us as usual, and two days spent at its famed dive-sites had helped us to tune up our minds and bodies for freediving.

Transition period
After a long time out of deep water, a freediver always needs time for mental and physical re-adjustment, to remember how to switch the diving reflex on. Eel Garden’s transparent water, dazzling white sand and actual garden eels, which it’s possible to watch quite closely while breath-hold diving, served that purpose.
A great turtle suddenly surfaced from nowhere to take a breath of air along with one of our team. Then slowly, with regal dignity, it went deep along the reef, inducing in us that satisfying sensation of complicity.
Freediving is a unique sport in which a participant’s psychological condition, calmness, confidence and ability to relax count for more in achieving one’s goals than physical shape or lung capacity. There are no age restrictions – pro freedivers range from the under-20s to the over-50s.
Our safari trip itinerary included wreck-sites we love to visit. One of the most vivid Red Sea wrecks is the Greek ship Giannis D, built in 1969 and sunk in 1983 after crashing into the submerged reef at Abu Nuhas.
The crew was rescued but the ship has become a scenic wreck, broken in three and lying at 27m.
The rough sea was not helping us to relax but our curiosity and unsatisfied diving addiction soon overcame this. It helped that the wreck is near the surface – you can get to the deck-house at 10m and approach other parts at 5-6m.

And relax
Little by little we would warm up and make it to the bottom, but first we had to achieve that basic freediving condition of relaxation.
So we lay on the surface holding onto the buoys, calming down our breathing after all the hassle of fixing ropes and buoys, and tried to let ourselves become a part of the sea.
We meditated on the wreck, which we could see clearly below us – and then the first diver went down, slowly flying along the gangways, taking a look into the upper structure, disappearing for some time and then suddenly coming back into sight and finning back up to the buoy.
The next diver turned around the mast, entered the deck-house, glanced inside some huge pipe sticking out of nowhere and swam along picturesque coral-covered plates.
Dive by dive we explored the whole ship, and left with great memories of a beautiful wreck still full of life. Scuba-divers love historic or mysterious sites but freedivers just need places that are calm and deep.
We will never forget the sun breaking through the calm warm water on our easy reef dives, which removed all worries and sometimes even physical pain.
We’ll always remember with a smile the eyes, rounded in astonishment, of our RIB captains, two Bedouin boys of about 18. They couldn’t believe that we needed all these long ropes to freedive, because they had always assumed that nobody could dive that deep without scuba.
It’s impossible to go up and down a rope all the time in the Red Sea. Both physically and psychologically breath-hold diving is a great challenge, serious work, and sometimes you just want to fool around in the water, enjoying the beauty and variety of the reefs.
You race across the sea holding onto a scooter, keeping pace with blue fusiliers and meeting the gaze of an awesome great moray sitting in a big crack 15m below.

Thistlegorm freedom
Travelling the northern route, you can’t miss out on the Thistlegorm. This British military cargo ship was sunk by the Luftwaffe in 1941, having made only three full voyages in its short battling life.
Her bursting boiler led to detonation of most of the ammunition on board and a massive fire. Nine crewmen died and 30 were rescued by a convoy ship.
Thistlegorm cracked in half and lay on the sand in 30m until the wreckage was found by Jacques Cousteau in 1955. Full of intact WW2 artefacts, it would become Egypt's and one of the world’s most visited underwater objects.
Experienced scuba-divers know that conditions are rarely calm at the Thistlegorm site – in such a wild spot there is always a wave, big or small.
So we had to be careful of the weather, manoeuvring all the time in a bid to hide from the wind, which was unusually strong for the season. Scuba-divers don’t have to worry so much about surface conditions, but freedivers spend a lot of their diving time lying on a buoy and meditating to prepare themselves.
Waves and currents are unhelpful – just when you think you’re ready for your relaxed and beautiful dive, you may suddenly realise that you also feel sick from rolling about. It’s not a good idea to freedive if you feel like that.
The waves were pretty high when we reached Thistlegorm – conditions were difficult even for the scuba-divers.
I rarely suffer from seasickness, but this time I didn’t feel happy, and the idea of getting back on the boat kept returning.
In these conditions the 25m depth seemed extreme, and we had to hold onto the rope all the way down to resist the strong underwater current, but some of us did manage to overcome these complications, and even enjoyed the wreck and the underwater photoshoot.
Incredible feelings lap over you as you reach the upper deck, hover above the old rolling stock and tanks standing on both sides, and slowly fin down to the hold.
Here at 23m there is no current, no rolling – just absolute calm and silence.
Those freedivers who managed to get over the first very uncomfortable 15m were able to relax and glance inside the ship. At first you just stare into the darkness and, because your eyes are not used to the light levels, you catch nothing more than a pile of metal.
But after some seconds you can discern the stacked motorcycles and vehicles that have been parked there for the past 74 years. You feel privileged to be within touching distance of these wartime relics.
Our luck held as we avoided touching an invisible but huge stonefish that looked as if it had grown out of the stern.

Time soon passes
Briefings, daily dives at site after site, nightly parties, sunbathing on deck, all that rolling about at the surface, reefs and wrecks, deck jumps into bioluminescent night waters – the week went fast.
After arriving home, some of the more sensitive freedivers would still be seesawing for a couple of days – that’s how our vestibular apparatus readjusts to the normal rhythm of life on land, and reminds us that it’s time to return to our families, work and life.
But getting together on winter’s nights, we will recall hospitable Egypt with gratitude and (flights permitting) plan to return there again… and again.