WORDS: IAN BELCHER
A frisson of fear guarantees a pupil’s attention. I’ve been in the Indian Ocean less than 30 seconds when my free-diving instructor issues a warning in a soft, reassuring voice. ‘Don’t look down if you’re easily freaked. We have a little visitor.’ I can’t resist peeking, of course.Who could? Around 15m beneath my fins, slinking through the Prussian-blue depths, is a fat 2.5m bull shark – a muscular torpedo with a punchy reputation, full set of teeth and slightly unnerving interest in the tennis ball at the end of my dive-training rope. He is clearly not, by any stretch of the imagination, a ‘little’ visitor, but the instructors don’t just have my attention – they have my total trust. Hanli Prinsloo has established or broken 11 South African free-diving records, including swimming without fins to a depth of 56m, while Peter Marshall, a former professional swimmer and Los Angeles lifeguard, has broken eight world backstroke records. If they’re happy the alpha predator isn’t a threat, then so am I. It’s the start of a five-day course that teaches the sport’s nuts and bolts in tandem with offering extraordinary encounters with marine life. And the bull shark is just the start.We’ll be mingling with the 250 bottlenose dolphins resident in southern Mozambique’s Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve – a peach of a classroom. Although there’s some theory – we’re taught the effects and potential dangers of depth pressure – the week is all about practical experience, with four mornings in the sun-soaked ocean. Each day kicks off at 5.30am with a ‘sunrise smoothie’ and, within an hour, we’re training in the early-morning, Zen-like calm of the open sea, following in the footsteps – or rather slipstream – of Polynesian spear fishermen and Greek sponge divers.
The idea is to pull ourselves at a snail’s pace down a 5m rope. We’re getting to grips with the art of equalisation, trying to exhale through a pinched nose to relieve pressure on the inner ear. The manoeuvre is repeated every few seconds to prevent the eardrum being ruptured. An hour later, just as equalisation is starting to become intuitive, the dolphins arrive. They swim alongside, dive below and swirl around us, like several collies herding sheep.Three of them flick an unfortunate puffer fish around as if it’s a football, passing it from mouth to mouth to enjoy the high from its toxic emissions. Later, I watch them mate and hunt for small fish in the sandy sea bed – an aquatic version of getting stoned, having sex and satisfying the munchies. We spend lengthy periods in breathtakingly close proximity to the streamlined creatures, occasionally locking stares with their mesmerising eyes. It’s early days, of course.We’re an inelegant contrast to Prinsloo, who spends effortless time among the dolphins, her long fins and sinuous movement suggesting an ethereal mermaid. The session ends with an encounter with a blacktip shark, honeycomb ray and shoal of kingfish: nature’s final flourish before we return to our white, bright beach house for fabulously healthy food.When we’re not swimming, sleeping and eating, we’re bodysurfing – Marshall calls it the ‘world’s best groundhog day’ – and enjoying yoga sessions on the oceanfront deck.
As well as making us aware of our breathing, the stretches increase flexibility in the intercostal muscles, creating more room for the lungs to expand. The deck also offers a ludicrously photogenic setting for working on our breathing. Back in my South African guesthouse pool, I’d managed to hold my breath for one minute and 20 seconds, earning alarmed looks from other guests. Now I’m aiming to increase that by using triangular breathing – inhaling for six seconds, exhaling for eight, slowing down my heart rate and oxygen consumption. After several such ‘triangles’, I take a final massive breath.The effect is startling. I can now hold it for three minutes and 15 seconds. I put it to good use the next day. After doubling our descent to 10m and working on diving techniques, we join up with a pod of around 50 dolphins. They shimmy, twist and circle around us. At one point, I find myself swimming next to a 20-strong cluster, 7m beneath the surface, all on a single breath. It’s incredibly liberating. Of course, it doesn’t have to be dolphins.You could head elsewhere for a similar experience with Maldivian manta rays, Mexican jack fish or Cape Town seals. Offering the same blend of free-diving and extraordinary marine encounters, the trips will raise funds to support the work of I Am Water, the foundation established by Prinsloo in 2010 to promote ocean conservation through transformative experiences – notably, swimming and snorkelling, for underprivileged African and South American children.
The free-diver describes her business model as ‘Robin Hood of the sea’. Prinsloo – Halle Berry’s body double in the movie Dark Tide – has even taken her conservation message to Davos, where she addressed the World Economic Forum. She also uses her breathing expertise to help ultra-distance runners and Springbok rugby players, and big-wave surfers who face the daunting prospect of being pinned to the seabed by thunderous water. She certainly helps me.Two days later, I’m in the villa pool, supported face-down in a ‘dead man’s float’. Calm to the point of comatose, I absorb my body‘s tiniest reactions. When I stop, I take my first breath for four minutes and six seconds. I now understand the expression ‘scuba divers dive into the ocean and free-divers into themselves’. It’s an incredible meditation. On the final days, we descend to 15m, cavort with the dolphins for a full hour and finish over Techobanine reef, with its corals, turtles, grouper and snapper. There isn’t a bull shark in sight. It’s enough to make a novice free-diver feel completely in sync with the sea. ‘You’re holding your breath just as the dolphins, seals and whales do,’ smiles Prinsloo as we head back in the Zodiac. ‘You’re down there on their terms. You’re in complete harmony with the ocean.’