– Freediving Stories –
This part of the blog is a space for listeners and fans of The Freedive Café to share their own freediving journeys with the world. Everyone is welcome to share their story, their thoughts, feelings and experience with our wonderful sport and pastime. If you would like to contribute, just get in touch with Donny.
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This is Part One! Listen to Part Two HERE Aharon Solomons is a man with a rich and fascinating past, and a freediving career spanning many decades. His accumulated knowledge and wisdom are a great gift to the freediving community and our two part special will take you...
Read Part 1 here! The Dream is Reborn Early in 2016 I was planning to return home to Europe to visit family and friends. I planned to visit in the summer for a couple of weeks. The truth is, I didn't really want to go back, but felt obligated since so much...
George Panagiotakis is a world champion freediver and national record holder from Greece. He has achieved a 300m distance in DYN which is the current AIDA World Record! He currently lives in Cyprus and now works as a personal trainer and AIDA freediving instructor....
Sheila Hanney was born in the UK and has now been resident in Dahab for 4 years, and also volunteering for Sea Shepherd for the same time. She spends about half her time in Egypt and half her time on ships in Mexico feeding the crew. She's a free diving instructor and...
A very long story, very short... I haven't been diving very long, but in a sense I've been a passionate freediver all my life. You see, I was a 'freediver in waiting', for a very long time. The waiting began when I was twelve or thirteen years old. My...
Goran Čolak started his amateur free diving career in 2006, less than one year later, he won his first Croatian championship and broke several national records, he turned professional in 2011 and joined the exclusive group of free diving professionals around the...
Nanja van den Broek has been freediving since 2001. She currently has 40 Dutch records and 1 world record, in VWT, diving to 130m. In daily life she is a freedive instructor, business trainer and coach. She uses the water and freediving as tools to make people aware...
Stefan Randig was born in Germany, but spent a lot of his childhood living on the islands of the Seychelles. In 2006 he moved to Dahab, Egypt to teach Scuba Diving. He eventually became an AIDA insructor at Freedive Dahab, and Since 2012 he's been living in the...
Adam Stern is an Australian freediver based in...well everywhere. Adam competes and teaches freediving all over the world. He first started competing in 2011 and since then he has broken 5 Australian records and won a bronze medal in Vertical Blue (2015) and a bronze...
JP is like the godfather of freediving in Asia. He comes from Belgium and his school Freediving Planet is one of the top schools in South East Asia. He has been freediving for more than 25 years, participating in many international freediving competitions and World...
A few nights after a dive I had with the Australian freediving champion Adam Stern, I found a link in my Facebook feed that led to a podcast called the Freedive Café. I had no idea that there was an entire podcast devoted to the art of freediving, so I downloaded the most recent episode, which coincidentally featured one of my idols: Daan Verhoeven, the world’s premiere freediving photographer. I couldn’t tell what I was fascinated more by — Daan’s story and philosophy, or the way the interview was conducted — but it was enough to get me to subscribe to the podcast immediately, and learn more about the cast of characters within the freediving community. I eventually got in touch with the founder and host, Donny, and we became fast friends with lots to talk about. Donny encouraged me to write something for the Freedive Café website, and that is what persuaded me to share my freediving story with the rest of the freediving community.
My three lifetime passions all begin with the letter M – music, marine, and movies. Music became a passion when I heard the Miles Davis album Kind Of Blue when I was only four months old and was absolutely spellbound by the sounds created on that record. As a kid, I tried out as many instruments as I could get my hands on, and I would frequently sneak into the music rooms at lunchtime to just play and have fun. Eventually, I studied music more formally with a focus on both electric and double bass, but despite encouragements to be a professional musician or composer, I chose to keep music as a strict hobby and private source of joy instead of making it into a career. To this day, playing the electric bass while listening to jazz and rock records is my number one method for recharging my batteries and finding myself.
Another passion that developed through a consumption of media was marine biology. Weekly viewings of David Attenborough’s The Blue Planet, combined with regular library raids to read books about sharks and whales, generated an insatiable passion for all things ocean-related. On top of that, I was lucky enough to live in a part of Sydney that was two minutes away from the beach, so I would regularly spoil myself with snorkelling trips on the weekend. It was during these snorkelling trips where I would try to dive deeper than the other snorkellers and hold my breath as long as I could. Unbeknownst to me, this was my first ever taste of freediving, and I had no idea that it was a legitimate sport until I saw YouTube videos of Guillaume Néry and William Trubridge, and that made me even more fascinated with the underwater world.
However, my life took a huge turn at age 12, when I completed a school project that revolved around the question “Why are the oceans in danger, and what can we do to stop it?” One of the components of this project was to make a film that summarised the entire 30-minute presentation. Although it was my first ever attempt at making a film, I’ll never forget the moment where that lightbulb went off in my head, and I knew that being a filmmaker was what I wanted to do with my life. Throughout the remaining six years I had left in school, I slowly abandoned plans to become a marine biologist, and instead followed the path of a filmmaker addicted to movies. By the time I graduated from high school, I had directed four short films that won a total of 20 awards, and I had reached my goal of seeing and learning from 1000 films and television shows.
Where It All Began….
Whenever I get asked when my commitment to freediving began, I often point to an event that occurred halfway through my first year at film school in 2016. I was working as an underwater cinematographer on a student film directed by a classmate of mine that was set to be shot in the middle of a 14 degree Sydney winter. At that point, I didn’t even own a wetsuit or a weight-belt, nor had I taken a formal freediving course, but I knew enough about the sport and diving in Sydney waters to feel confident enough to say yes to the gig. Despite the cold water and rough currents, it was perhaps the most enjoyable experience of my life, not only because I had finally figured out how to combine filmmaking with diving, but also because I was able to experience the main reason why freedivers love freediving — the weightless, liberating feeling that is associated with it. Right after I had gotten the final shot, I asked the director if I could go for one last dive in the cobalt blue water beneath me. Diving down to roughly seven metres, sitting on the sandy floor in total silence and feeling absolute peace is a moment that I will remember fondly for the rest of my life.
After I returned home from the gig, I had a flashback to when I was six years old, watching an episode of The Blue Planet that showed these rebreather-clad divers filming hammerhead sharks, and later loudly declaring, “That’s what I want to do!”. I then vowed to finally make that declaration from 12 years ago a reality, and spend the next few years improving three specific skills – cinematography, scuba diving and freediving. Freediving was the first of the three I pursued, given how much joy I experienced on that fateful day. I later joined the official freediving club in Sydney, but I had to pass a safety induction in order to do so. Although it took several attempts to get the hang of rescuing an unconscious diver (I’m 5’8” and 61 kgs while my ‘victim’ was 6’5” and 85 kgs), I eventually passed the test, and was able to participate in pool training with various other divers who were also newcomers to the sport.
My first ever freediving course, however, was an experience that left me with mixed feelings. Although I had earned a certification and got to revisit several concepts I had taught myself years ago, I left the course with many bad habits and a burst eardrum, and it was all taught within a cold, murky estuary that was essentially pea soup with 3m visibility. Fortunately, the increasing number of friends I was making, along with the rewarding shore dives I was experiencing, kept my enthusiasm for the sport well and truly going. By the end of 2016, I had progressed from 12m to 21m in constant weight with bi-fins, and I pushed my dynamic with fins record to 68m. I should note that before I started freediving, I was probably the least athletic person on the planet – I skipped school sports carnivals, I wasn’t a fan of going to the gym, and I loathed swimming. It’s a huge testament to the transformative power freediving can have on anyone who practises it.
2017 – The Year of Freediving
2017 proved to be the most auspicious year for me as a freediver, not only because I was starting to see gradual improvements in my technique and PBs, but also because it proved to be a brilliant foil to what I was experiencing in my academic life. The first half of our second year in film school was a unanimously stressful and frustrating experience for virtually every student, and although I never dropped out, I definitely contemplated doing so multiple times. Fortunately, freediving, scuba diving and underwater photography were the perfect antidotes for me to exorcise all the negative, draining feelings that I brought home from campus.
Once I purchased an underwater housing for my camera, I organised and led several freediving expeditions to a site known as Shelly Beach, which, during the colder months, boasts exceptional visibility and an abundant ecosystem of animals that includes wobbegong, Port Jackson and dusky whaler sharks, giant cuttlefish, octopuses, stingrays, blue groupers, dusky flatheads and many more fabulous critters. To the best of my memory, there was not a single dive during this period where we did not come out of the water with giant grins across our faces.
One of my fondest memories was being able to take a PADI Advanced Freediver course with Adam Stern. Anyone who’s ever taken a course with Adam knows that he is a natural-born teacher that is incapable of making students feeling confused or bored. I think it has something to do with his gregarious demeanour, likely influenced by his past life as a theatre student. On our second day, out in the open water, we were spoiled with crystal clear cobalt blue water with 15m visibility and a depth of roughly 27m. After a few warm-up and rescue dives, Adam instructed me to “appease the freediving gods” by bringing up sand from the very bottom of the sea. After 3 minutes of breathing up as relaxed as I possibly could, I took one final deep inhale through my snorkel, and swam down to the bottom. Although I didn’t have a depth gauge on me, I could tell how deep I was going by watching the marks on the line, and when I reached 20m, I was in for my first ever freefall. It was even more surreal and invigorating than that dive I had a year ago on the film shoot, and I could only imagine how epic it would be if the water were deeper. Once I reached the bottom, I picked up a giant handful of sand, and started swimming up. It took me roughly 30 seconds to get to the top, and surprisingly, I didn’t feel that suffocating feeling that comes with those dreaded CO2 contractions.
As I surfaced, I took my first few breaths, and calmly went through the AIDA surface protocol, but with a little twist: I quoted Adam’s now-famous words from when he surfaced from his 104m dive in Dominica – “I’m okay…you motherfucker.” As everyone around me burst out giggling (especially Adam with his signature laugh), I slammed the tiny remainder of sand I had in the palm of my hand onto the float, and was met with applause from everyone in the water. However, I felt even more pride for my fellow classmates, all three of whom reached the same depth and came up feeling just as fresh as I did.
I was lucky enough to be invited to dive again with Adam a month later. Although the conditions were ridden with Sydney’s infamous ‘trifecta from hell’ (rough currents, cold water, poor visibility), it was still an incredible dive that saw me get engulfed in a massive school of ladder-finned pomfrets between these two towering underwater mountains. Best of all, I could hear the distant sounds of humpback whales singing to each other while on the bottom, and let me tell you, hearing them when you’re diving underwater is an infinitely superior experience to hearing them via a hydrophone.
Over the remaining six months, I would experience many more incredible freediving adventures in the cold waters of Sydney, and I would also begin to push my limits as a pool diver. In addition to making 50m my default warmup dive in the pool, I also started advocating pool training without a wetsuit; I find them to be incredibly claustrophobic and an antithesis to what freediving is all about – feeling free in the water. I also find that diving with only a noseclip sans goggles allows me to perform far better on a long dynamic than I would with a regular dive mask, due to the onset of the mammalian dive reflex. I’m a firm believer in finding a method that works well for you rather than blindly following what everyone else is doing, which is probably why I enjoy pool training so fervently and frequently!
So, what’s next on the horizon? Although I will never pursue the life of a competitive freediver, I’d love to do my Master Freediver course and reach 100m in dynamic and 40m in constant weight. However, my workaholic nature and demanding work schedule will make it challenging to achieve those goals. I’ve got one more year of film school left, which will see me write and direct two feature film projects, while, of course, growing as an underwater cinematographer. I still work as a freelance filmmaker, but I also work as a photographer and graphic designer to support myself. When I rejected the idea of working for someone else in a 9-to-5 job, and instead embraced the notion of being my own boss, it changed my life for the better. Although being a freelancer is definitely not a cakewalk, it’s what inspires me to work hard and make every day better than the last.
I feel very lucky that one of the things I specialise in professionally allows me to combine my two biggest passions of all time – film and oceans. But I won’t be able to work for long if the carnage we’re already inflicting upon the oceans continues over the next few years. Despite this, I do have hope that if everyone on the planet comes to their senses and puts an end to all these problems (plastic pollution, noise pollution, overfishing, poaching, climate change, etc.), the oceans will recover. There are many instances of certain sites transforming from lifeless ghost towns to bustling, beautiful underwater ecosystems, and there are signs of people taking action and facilitating this metamorphosis.
Naysan Baghai is an independent filmmaker and underwater cameraman from Sydney, Australia.
His website is HERE
Hers is Nays’ showreel….
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