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  • Writer's pictureJulia Donath

Beneath the Surface and Into Yourself: Come Freediving in Hawaii with Kona Freedivers

Updated: Jan 20, 2022

Equipped with colossal fins, small masks, and the resilience of the human body, plunging deep beneath the ocean’s surface on a single breath -- freediving is often viewed by curious observers as a sport reserved for the intrepid and insane. How the human body can hover vulnerably underwater beneath immense pressure, for minutes at a time -- and more importantly, why anybody wants to do this in the first place -- are reasonable questions that arise when considering taking the plunge in your first freediving course. But while freediving is often perceived as a “thrill-seeking,” fanatical and dangerous obsession, many of the people you’ll meet while freediving in Hawaii are enamored with the sport in a deeply profound, spiritual way -- there’s a reason our Sunday morning freediving group is nicknamed “Church.” Like surfing, sailing, SCUBA diving, and other aquatic endeavors grow around community and fascination with the sea, freediving evokes a similar feeling of profound aquatic worship among its devoted participants. Like most people who have discovered the surreal magic of breath-hold diving, the practice of freediving breaks barriers -- between the sea and within yourself. While my first exposure to the wonder of apnea began along central California’s frigid, rugged coastline, immersed in panoramic kelp forests and coastal islands, Kona’s water contains a magic that is hard to imagine through anything other than experiencing it for yourself. Just over two weeks ago, I embarked on an early morning freediving session with a few girlfriends off the coast of Honaunau Bay, also known as “Two Step.” Swimming a freediving float equipped with lines, pool noodles, mermaid fins (known as “mono” fins) and all kinds of other fanatical toys that are truly a testament to how dorky and wild this sport looks from the outside, we departed for our regular Sunday morning “Church” routine in the sea. One of the greatest aspects of this sport is the community it introduces you to -- freediving in Hawaii, and everywhere I go, has introduced me to a collective of Ocean queens who love and honor the sea, driven to explore by curiosity, devotion, and passion for the ocean. On this day, however, I wasn’t feeling like such a “queen,” as I struggled to get my wetsuit over my head and simply function through the day. Somedays, it’s hard to leave life’s worries behind on the surface — but within minutes of immersing in Hawaii’s cleansing water, with only a wetsuit, fins, and weightbelt, thoughts and feelings inside me began to shift. Even watching the bottom transform as we kick the float out to the deeper water is a beautiful transition — Kona is famous for its clear blue water and dramatic variations in depth, surrounded by a pelagic zone that comes starkly close to the shore in most locations. When you swim across the coral reef as it drops off into expansive blue, it feels like you’ve truly left humanity and all of its worries behind. It’s only you and the blue -- a world filled with unexpected surprises. After securing our float to the mooring line and adjusting our equipment, we began several minutes of “facial immersion” -- a warm-up activity consisting of laying face-down in the water and practicing relaxed, deep breathing. This teleports you to a dream-like state, and it isn’t imagined -- it’s science. Submersion in water triggers our “Mammalian Dive Reflex” and a chain of physiological processes within the human body that slow the heart rate, conserve oxygen,

and biologically tune us to slow down and relax. So much of freediving is simply learning how to tune into these complex physiological processes that we adapt away from and forget in our busy, stimulating, disconnected lives on land. It’s not an adrenaline-stoking feeling of “conquering” some great depth beneath the ocean, but actually, quite the opposite. Freediving in Hawaii is guided by respect for something deeper -- the human ego stands no chance against the power of the ocean -- but when we let go, accept our stifling vulnerability, and embark beneath the surface with openness and respect, that’s when we meet the magic of breath-hold diving. I didn’t have high hopes on the line that day -- even after minutes relaxing into the beauty beneath us, I struggled to fully escape the ties I felt to my worries on land. But lately for me, freediving hasn’t been about “depth” or measures of numerical achievement -- it’s been about experiencing the process of connecting to myself and the sea. It’s exciting to watch new divers get a personal best breathhold or reach a depth they never thought they could achieve -- but the most magical and gratifying moment is watching this connection unfold, as barriers break within themselves and to the ocean. As I prepared for my first free-immersion dive of the day, fighting to release, trying to relax, stressing about stress -- I told myself, “just do what feels good.” Reaching out my hand and taking my first pull down the line from the surface, the pressure confronted me and my body constricted -- I continued going, relaxing through it. Unlike many high-intensity sports, like surfing, where you can release the week’s load of stress, deadlines, and other emotional debris through adrenaline and force, freediving asks us to not only sit in that discomfort and breathe through it -- but dive through it. Relaxation is key. At ten meters, I stopped, slowly turned upright, and clung to the line through imminent discomfort. This warm-up ritual has become a favorite moment of silence and bliss in my busy week. For many newcomers, the idea of vulnerably drifting in deep water can evoke fear, particularly over the lack of control over our surroundings. But as you discover while freediving in Hawaii, it’s the ultimate bliss -- there’s no better release from whatever you were dealing with 20 minutes ago on land than being confronted by the immensity, timelessness, and power of the ocean. It’s like meeting the sound of real peace and possibility. It fills my soul to be so vulnerable and small -- it reminds me that our planet’s present, as well as its legacy -- our planet’s story -- is much larger than humanity and the problems we carry with us across land. Just a few seconds into my humbling first dive of the day, something on the immediate horizon moved and caught my eye. The feeling of exposure and vulnerability expanded in that brief second, as I tried to identify the group of figures slowly moving towards me, materializing out of the blue like a dream. As they slowly drifted towards me, their forms became clear: sleeping Hawaiian spinner dolphins. They weren’t playing, spinning, or even fully conscious -- spinner dolphins rest during the day with half of their brain activated -- and these ones had an entire bay, and coastline, to choose where to rest. For some unexplainable reason that I couldn’t understand but appreciated for the rest of my day, the conscious side of their brain chose to join me. They swam forward, met me at 10 meters as I continued clinging onto the line, and then, they just stayed. Locked in a state of literally debilitating emotional awe, I settled into a state of relaxation I hadn’t dreamt was possible that day in the water. I think I hit my longest breath hold

on the line ever -- time ceased to exist. If the mammalian dive reflex and our body’s physiology aren’t enough to overcome the hurdles we give ourselves on land, there’s always the unique creatures you see while freediving in Hawaii to help facilitate the process. I can’t imagine a more therapeutic way to decompress after a long week than resting with a pod of sleeping dolphins. I broke the surface from my first dive of the day in an explosive and joyful glee. I almost went in and called it a day -- what more did I need? For all they are chased, harassed, and relentlessly pursued by humans, I have no idea what compelled the dolphins to join me in their restful sleep. But I believe that sometimes, the beauty exists in simply not knowing -- freediving in Hawaii has introduced me to so many moments like this, that my imagination couldn’t fathom or seek to re-create. Although it washed away my worries from the day, I’ve learned that unlike many of the other aquatic sports I enjoy, freediving isn’t an “escape,” it’s an “immersion” -- into everything we’re feeling, the vastness of the ocean, the enormity of our biological capabilities as humans -- the most magical interactions and experiences of our lives await on the threshold of what we’re willing to let ourselves discover. It’s taught me self-trust and discipline, to move through daily challenges with calmness and conviction, to go through life guided by love instead of fear. It’s deeply invigorating to delve beneath depths we never imagined possible, and witness sights that humanity could simply never anticipate or create. Down here is where you meet yourself -- are you ready to dive in? Kona Freedivers teaches regular F.I.I. freediving courses for all levels, to teach skills, safety, and technique. Please see our website for course availability.


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