I am so grateful for every opportunity we have had to explore the world and all the adventures, both planned and unplanned, that have taken place on this trip. But in many ways this is not the trip I would take if I were alone. As I put the trip together, I thought about what would be good for the kids or us as a family. I sought out things everyone would find interesting. I looked for the opportunity for us to share in culture, art, economics, politics, nature, etc. If this trip were all about me, it would include many more outdoor adventures and some crazy foods. It’s not my trip, but for three days of the trip, I decided to do something just for me. There was an adventure I wanted to experience; I wanted to free dive again and I wanted to do it deeper than I ever had.
Whenever Anne and I took trips as a couple, we would work in a little beach and ocean time. She was certified to dive, and I was not. I was proud about not being certified, especially when we would get on dive boats and everyone was working on their dive computers or tanks, and I just put on fins and my mask and jumped off the boat. Our underwater travels took us to the Red Sea, the Caribbean, the Great Barrier Reef and my favorite, Komodo. I would fill the day diving 10-12 meters down where I could wave to the scuba divers. Floating silently at those depths, I found a silence or peace beyond any I have experienced anywhere else. Hugged by the extra pressure and floating in the earth’s amniotic fluid, I watched fish the size of my legs, or my entire body in Komodo, swim by undisturbed by my presence. I could look up at the sun shining through the water and the longer I paused there, the more I felt time slow down and the cares of the world fall away. Anne never employed her dive card and would snorkel the surface and keep an eye on me. I loved these days. However with freediving there is a serious risk; every year about 40 people die from some form of free diving. When I was young and felt immortal, I could easily see how those deaths were the mistakes of “other” people. After losing Anne, I felt much more mortal. Even though I felt like I knew my limits, the risk of 4 orphans was too high to let me enjoy free diving again, at least until I was properly trained.
The truth about freediving is it is especially dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing. All the tricks you learn on your own which make you feel superhuman, like hyperventilating or resisting the urge to breath, are the exact things that get people into trouble. That was me. I was the worst kind of freediver – the kind that gets distracted and chased every fish, turtle, eel or lobster – I was too confident in my abilities. I was the kind of person who dove alone, and I was the kind who would get themselves into trouble. This trip was a perfect opportunity for me to become the better kind of freediver. I wanted to take time and learn how to do it correctly, and much more safely. McKane agreed to take a class with me, and he and I signed up for classes on Gili Island in Indonesia.
Gili isn’t exactly the kind of place we usually go. Kieran hated it; it is filled with 20 somethings who are there for the beach, the sun, and cheap beer. Fortunately for him, he was behind on school and he used the days we were there to sit in the bungalow and finish up some of his classes. We didn’t make him go in the water, but we did make him ride bikes around the island with us. Asher said the bikes were one of her favorite parts of the trip. The entire island takes about an hour to ride around, and there are lots of roads into the interior through the palm tree lined roads, passing pastures and small neighborhoods.
Mac and I started our class and found it both educational and entertaining. The curriculum is set up to inform you about all the aspects of freediving. We learned the proper technique to breath on land, to calm ourselves down, to hold our breath without hyperventilating, to understand how pressure impacts our bodies, how to stretch and prepare and how to equalize. On the afternoon of the first day, we were ready to go out to the open water and test some of our new skills. It was a humbling experience. Our beginner class, which consisted of me, Mckane and Winnie from Hong Kong, was one of 3 groups headed diving in the open ocean. Each group of divers had a buoy with a set of weights hanging a specific number of meters below the surface. The other groups had ropes of 30 and 50 meters, and we had a rope of 10 meters. At this depth, it wasn’t any deeper than I had been going on my own for years. However as we practiced at 10 meters, it was harder when I wasn’t allowed to purge my body of Co2 with massive hyperventilation. (The reflex to breath doesn’t come from low oxygen it comes from high Co2) The 3 of us all practiced the different forms of descent and worked on equalizing. While we were playing around on the kiddie line, you could see the other groups sinking to 30 meters and beyond.
The second day our rope started at 10 meters and with each dive our instructor Victor, who can hold his breath for 7 minutes and has gone 80 meters, would let out a couple more meters of rope until we reached 20 meters. None of the other distances had been difficult for me and I was the first to try 20 meters. As I descended, I made myself as streamlined as possible and started kicking. I looked straight ahead at the rope. I saw the 5 meter, the 10 meter and then the 15-meter marks go by. Something happened at 15, I don’t know if it was because I was having trouble equalizing or I was scared but my competitive swimming background kicked in and I lost all calmness and started to sprint towards 20 meters as if it were the wall at the end of a race. As I sped up equalizing my ears became harder, and I hated the feeling of that much pressure on my ears, on my mask, on my lungs. I touched the weights, but it wasn’t like the wall at the end of a race. As a kid finishing a race, the air was never 66 feet above me. I paused for a moment trying to calm myself, I stupidly had used up way more oxygen than I needed and had pushed my heart rate unnecessarily high. I started to drift up, I did a couple slow long kicks and then tried to calm myself. The glide up felt so good; the pressure lightened on my ears, I extended two fingers and made an O with the other hand and flashed it to Victor. When I got to the top, I took a couple of fast recovery breaths the way he had taught me. “I am glad I am done with that,” I said. “I went 20 meters; goal accomplished,” and rather than love it, I thought it kind of sucked.
McKane was up next. On his first attempt, he went 15 and then he went 18. Victor asked me if I wanted to go again. I did not, but I figured this might be my last chance to go that deep again and I agreed. I didn’t feel great, and I started to go down, it felt horrible, I couldn’t equalize my ears and I gave up at 10 meters. As soon as I returned to the surface, I told Victor I would go again. I was not going to end on a failed dive. This time I relaxed, I did my proper breathing and started the descent. I went slower this time. I passed the 5 meter, the 10 meter, the 15 meter and then the 20-meter weights and I didn’t want to stop. I felt so good. This was what I wanted. At this depth my lungs were 1/3 the size they were on the surface, the light was diffused into long rays from the burning sun above and I felt that peacefulness for which I had been hoping. I went a meter or 2 past the weights and stopped, looked up at them and Victor about 10 meters above and a calmness washed over me. However peaceful I felt, I didn’t think I should hang out long 70 feet below the surface, and I started my glide back topside.
After our open water diving we went to a reef and McKane and I both dove up and down to 10-15 meters chasing fish and enjoyed the freedom that comes with knowing you aren’t going to kill yourself, and you are well within your limits. After my first dive to 20 meters, I didn’t think I would ever sign up for the next class, where you learn to go to 30 meters. But by the time the boat returned to the island, and we were riding bikes around, I started thinking to myself that maybe level 2 would be a great 50th birthday present to myself. Going twice as many feet deep as your age isn’t a big deal at 15, but at 50 it’s an achievement and a statement that you are still alive.