“Dur dum, dur dum…” The two opening bars of the theme tune to Jaws reverberate in my head. This is not the best melody to have in my mind, as I jump into the waters of the Indian Ocean, in Mozambique. Together with my fellow students, I am about to take a week’s course in freediving, led by South African freediving champion Hanli Prinsloo – aided by the rest of the I Am Water team.
When I think of freediving, I think of the movie The Big Blue, featuring one of my favourite actors, Jean Reno. The freedom he had as he dived down into the deep blue waters, without the need of a scuba tank, always appealed to me. Now, with my very own dive mask and flippers – no, “fins”, as I keep being reminded to call them – I am about to explore The Big Blue for myself. I am about to become a mermaid. Perhaps not a particularly graceful mermaid, but a mermaid nonetheless.
Holding onto a buoy, I put my head into the blue waters, and then I hear it again: “…dur dum, dur dum…” This time, though, the throbbing theme tune is more appropriate, as I look down and see a bull shark swimming deep below. Its gentleness and the way it glides through the water beneath me takes away the fear. Scared thoughts of sharks and freediving with them melt away as it glides peacefully off into the deep.
Beth, one of Hanli’s team and, in my mind, a professional mermaid, starts to explain the techniques required for a rope dive, as well as the importance of equalisation. Holding onto the rope, she slowly pulls herself down in a sloth-like motion. Sinking deeper into the water, she equalises after each movement. Upon reaching the bottom of the rope – today set at five metres – she slowly makes her way back to the top.
Now, it’s my turn. Again she runs through the process: take it slow, equalise each time, tuck your chin in if you can’t equalise, just look at the rope, reach the bottom, turn back and take it slow back up to the top. Slowly, and not as elegantly as Beth, I start pulling myself down.
It is amazing how quickly I forget what I have just been told once I’m underwater. Thankfully, the professional mermaid is not far away – swimming down beside me, showing me what to do. I almost reach the bottom of the rope, but my equalisation is not working as I would hope and my ears are hurting. Somewhat panicked, I swim my way back to the top.
Taking a few moments to relax and catch my breath, I try again. Taking a big deep breath, I fill my lungs with air from the bottom to the top, and anywhere else if may fit in. Slowly and carefully, I pull myself down in the sloth-like motion, getting ever closer to the bottom. Finally, with one last pull, I make it to the bottom of the five-metre rope. Beth is by my side the whole way. With a gentle flip of my fins, I start making my way back to the top, feeling as if my inner mermaid is about to be released.
Over the course of the next few days, each morning starts out on the buoy, with the rope dropping a few metres deeper each time. After three days, I comfortably make it down to 10 metres on one breath. I even have a bit of time to look around, taking in the stillness of the ocean around me.
After each session on the rope, we head off in search of bottlenose dolphins. On finding a pod, Hanli and her team assess how they are behaving, to see if they will welcome us into their world. We are soon all in the water, swimming and diving into the depths below, accompanied by these wonderful creatures.
It is amazing how the dolphins swim all around us. They flit under us, before gliding overhead as we dive below them. They seem just as interested in us as we are in them. Under the water, I can hear the clicks and squeaks they make, talking amongst themselves and, I presume, to us.
On my final dive with the dolphins, I start thinking about the countless safaris I have been on. In a safari vehicle or even walking in the bush, I have always felt like an outsider. But when freediving, I feel part of the underwater world around me. Perhaps with freediving, for a moment, I do become a mermaid, welcomed into the world beneath the waves.