The pain in my right ear was excruciating. Another foot deeper and I was certain my eardrum would rupture. I shook my head and flipped upright, gave a single kick and felt myself rise, slowly at first. The pain subsided as the water pressure decreased, and I was able to enjoy the serenity of the scene: an endless canvas of blue sliced in two by the yellow rope right in front of my mask. Then, out of nowhere, a man appeared, his eyes wide, fingers looped in the universal diver’s “OK?” symbol. I nodded and pointed to my troubled ear and continued to kick, my speed increasing as my lungs re-inflated and my buoyancy increased. Now my diaphragm started to convulse, an autonomic response indicating I needed to breathe. I was prepared for this and relaxed through the sensation, allowing physics to do its work. A few moments later, I broke the surface, exhaled sharply and sucked in a breath. Across the red safety buoy, Carlos also broke the surface and, hardly breathless — as if he’d been snorkeling in a pool — said, “How was that?”
This was my fourth trip to Bonaire, an island in the southern Caribbean. I hadn’t returned for its starkly arid interior or historical Dutch town, nor for the iguana stew, but for the diving. Indeed, Bonaire is perhaps the finest place in the world for underwater sport, a fact reinforced by the planeloads of divers that land here daily from Europe and the Americas. Every battered pickup truck on the road has a license plate that reads “Diver’s Paradise”.
Most of the people who come to Bonaire are SCUBA divers, hauling heavy bags of gear—buoyancy vests and regulators. But on this visit, I decided to try something different: freediving. No tanks, just a breath of air. I wanted to experience the transcendent silence and freedom freedivers talk about. And though the minimalist form of diving has been practiced by humans for centuries and isn’t a complicated sport, I wanted some help. The best man to learn freediving from is in Bonaire, and I was about to get a one-on-one lesson from him.
No tanks. Just a breath of air.
That would be Carlos Coste, a professional freediver who’s set numerous world records in several of the arcane disciplines of this niche sport. He was the first person to break the 100-meter mark in Free Immersion (no propulsion, only pulling on a rope) and has held world titles and depth records in the Variable Weight and Constant Weight disciplines. In 2010, he swam 150 meters through Mexico’s Dos Ojos cenote, a flooded cave, setting a world record for the longest underwater swim on one breath in open water. If you don’t recognize Coste from his freediving accomplishments, he’s also a face for the ORIS watch company, who has honored him with three special edition dive watches since 2006. Though he still competes (he recently set the North American record for Constant Weight with a dive to 61 meters), Coste has recently set up a training center in Bonaire to impart some of his skills to anyone interested, from vacation snorkelers to aspiring competitors.
Coste greeted me at his home in a quiet gated community near Bonaire’s only airport. With his imposing height, close-cropped hair and chiseled physique, he would be intimidating if he wasn’t such a nice guy with a quick smile. He led me through the house to a breezy outdoor veranda, where he spread out two mats and proceeded to walk me through some basic yoga postures and breathing exercises to limber up my body and my lungs. While I’ve never been a fan of yoga, it has natural ties to freediving; success in the latter depends largely on relaxation, flexibility and extremely full lungs. Coste taught me the importance of “belly breathing”, filling the lungs first from the diaphragm and then the chest to maximize the capacity. Though it’s not the way most people breathe after infancy, once I learned the technique, I was surprised at how much air I was able to suck in.
After sweating through downward dogs and sun salutations, I was ready to practice holding my breath in the pool. The discipline of static apnea takes advantage of the body’s natural “mammalian diving reflex” said to be inherited from our aquatic ancestors: put your face in the water and your heart rate slows and blood moves to the core. After a demonstration from Coste, I practiced my newfound belly breathing and then floated prone in the pool, trying to relax every muscle. Every 30 seconds the chronograph-watching Coste would tap me on the shoulder; I would flick him an OK sign to let him know I was still alive. On my first attempt, I made 1 minute and 30 seconds. The next, 2 minutes 15. Then, 3 minutes. I was feeling good about myself — until Coste told me the world record for static apnea is just shy of 12 minutes.
We broke for lunch and a nap and re-convened at the boat dock at 3 p.m. A 10-minute motor out to the reef and it was time to go deep. Though a stiff 20-knot wind was ripping flags on the beach, the sea was relatively calm; because the prevailing wind comes from the east across the island, there’s rarely a choppy day on the west coast, making it prime for diving. We suited up, which is a considerably easier process than for scuba diving: only a wetsuit, mask and fins, and a grippy rubber weight belt with just enough lead to break the buoyancy barrier but not enough to make floating on the surface a chore. No heavy tanks or breathing apparatuses necessary. While I cleaned my mask and adjusted my snorkel, Coste effortlessly dove down to set the mooring line, and I was able to observe the ease with which he descended and spent a minute fiddling with the line 50 feet below. It is a privilege to watch a gifted athlete do what he does best, and I savored this view.
A FREEDIVER’S WATCH
ORIS has long been known for its no-frills functional diving watches from its regulator-style Meistertaucher to its ProDiver series, designed with input from a commercial diver. Distinguished by their grippy bezels, bright lume and unique lugs, ORIS watches are a favorite brand of dive watch enthusiasts who actually dive.
Carlos Coste has been an ORIS ambassador since 2006, but he’s no mere pretty face for the brand — he actually wears and uses the watches. On our day of training and diving, he used his limited edition chronograph to time my static apnea; during dives, we both wore the Aquis Depth Gauge, which makes use of a simple principle of physics to indicate depth. A hole cut in the sapphire crystal allows water to flow into a channel. As pressure increases, the water inside the channel indicates depth against a scale printed around the dial. No moving parts, and water is its own depth gauge. It’s a fittingly simple instrument for such a simply pure sport.
It’s another thing entirely to jump in and learn from one of the best; to learn freediving from Coste is akin to learning to shoot free throws from LeBron James or getting guitar lessons from Clapton. First up on Coste’s lesson plan was the duck dive, a simple maneuver: aim your arms for the bottom, duck your head down, bend the body at the waist and flip the legs straight up to do a pike dive to the sea floor. Coste made it look effortless, time and again turning into a human javelin and touching the reef below without a single kick. I was less successful. My duck dives looked more like a duck trying to fly, my arms flailing, legs akimbo as I desperately clawed for the bottom. All of my expended energy negated any of my yoga-honed serenity and used up all the air I had won by belly breathing. I splashed to the surface gasping, my mask full of water. It would take several more attempts for me to get even marginally better.
Next up was pulling down the rope. Coste set a floating buoy behind the boat and dropped a stack of lead weights on a long yellow rope, suspending it above the reef that lay maybe 50 feet below us. From above it looked like the Mariana Trench, the line all but disappearing into the blue. Aside from holding your breath long enough and getting the technique right, the other big piece of freediving is equalization. As you descend, water pressure pushes in on your eardrum, causing what divers call a “squeeze”. The only way to relieve the feeling is to pinch your nose and blow out to equalize the pressure inside the eardrum. I was used to this from scuba diving. To practice, Coste had me pull myself down the rope hand over hand, upside down, all the while equalizing. Time and again, I would make it halfway down and feel the crushing weight of the ocean on my inner ear. I had never experienced this pain before while scuba diving, but according to Coste, the more vertical angle of the body and the rapid descent of pulling down a line makes things worse on the ear.
Above me, shafts of sunlight were broken by the silhouette of the round buoy that suddenly seemed so far away.
After a few more attempts, with mixed success, we took a break on the boat —- an apple, some water and small talk about Bonaire— — and then it was time to dive. This time, instead of pulling myself down the rope, I would dive down, using the rope only as a visual reference, trying to stay as vertical and hydrodynamic as possible, and equalizing all the while. Again and again came my less-than-graceful duck dive, a few kicks, then pain in the ear, followed by a merciful and quiet ascent. I was getting the hang of it, but my right ear was letting me down in my moment of need.
At the surface, I blew snot from my nose, worked my jaw, reset my mask and tried again. This time I tried a slower descent and more frequent equalizing, and I soon found myself looking at the lead weights knotted at the bottom of the rope. There was Carlos, smiling. I’d made it to the bottom — not exactly a world class effort, but at that moment I felt like a champion. Above me, shafts of sunlight were broken by the silhouette of the round buoy that suddenly seemed so far away.
I flipped around, aimed upwards and started kicking, all the while enjoying the silence and feeling the sheer immensity of the ocean that I never had before with a tank on my back. This was like returning to the womb or some prehistoric age, diving with the whales on a lungful of air, waiting until my body told me it was time to breathe again. I glanced over at Carlos but he had gone further down, swimming along the reef like a man-fish, blowing bubble rings, at peace in this watery world that I had shared with him briefly. Now my diaphragm started to convulse, telling me I was no fish. A few more kicks and the pressure released its grip as I burst forth into blinding sunlight and took my first breath. I was born again.