I’m a freediver. I dive deep into the ocean without scuba gear. The ocean is where I work and, for most intents and purposes, where I live.
On one breath I leave the surface and kick my way down to where the liquid turns black. The sun is only a memory. Water presses in on me from all sides squeezing me harder than I think I can survive. But it’s still only water. Kicking, I fall deeper and deeper. Down there, the ocean feels like my private ocean. I’m reminded: I am water.
Your body is around 70 percent water, same as our planet. And your body remembers a time of total submersion beyond what our terrestrial antics can explain. You have a deep-rooted, age-old mammalian diving response that kicks in as soon as you pop your face in the water.
The underwater reflex is a series of adaptations for ocean submersion that water-loving Homo sapiens shares with whales, dolphins and seals. We are perfectly adapted for time under water. We have an inner seal living inside of us. Like cogs in a vast machine, this response is set in motion as soon as your face is submerged in water.
To freedive is to feel the deep ancestry of our species—and to know that our species is still adapted to life under water.
Prinsloo freediving in Cocos Island.
‘Aha,’ the aquatic mammalian inside you says, ‘ we are freediving!’ and whoosh bradycardia sets in: brady– slowing down, cardia– of the heart. The heart rate drops dramatically slowing down the circulation and usage of precious oxygen! As the carbon dioxide levels in the blood rise, the aquatic mammal gears up for auto-vasoconstriction. Blood vessels in the arms and legs constrict, shunting blood back to the core of the heart-lung-brain combo where oxygen is used more essentially and efficiently.
The breathing reflex of our terrestrial body is making itself heard. Your diaphragm contracts to try to force you to breathe. But you don’t have to. It’s not a final reflex we have to obey. And the aquatic mammal knows this is a false alarm! You still have lots of oxygen, hidden oxygen reserves—especially in the human spleen, which like that of deep diving seals, responds to heightened carbon dioxide levels by contracting and releasing the oxygen rich reserves of hemoglobin into the blood.
And it’s when you’ve discovered your inner aquatic animal that you can experience the ocean as just another creature, not an interloper with a big, bubbling gas tank. The beauty of our oceans—even in their current overfished, polluted state—becomes yours to explore.
Today is World Oceans Day, which is a moment to recognize the place where we came from, and where we can return at least temporarily.
You don’t need a lot of equipment, money or time to reconnect with our beautiful oceans. Just grab a mask, snorkel and fins and walk on in. Feel the weightlessness of your body in water, enjoy the quiet, the solitude and beauty of total submersion.
In honor of World Oceans Day, we’re asking you to take one step—big or small—toward saving your ocean.