I understand you started first as a scuba diver…
I started scuba diving quite a long time ago and I hated it at the time. I was with my boyfriend and we said: “OK, we’ll go to Antigua and we’ll go diving.” So we went and started the course with a local scuba club and you know when you have to fill-up the mask? I could not. I just could not. There was no way to just breathe through my mouth. In the meantime my boyfriend was told: “Oh, you’re a natural, you’ve done this before!” He said: “No, it’s my first time.” The owner of the diving center, Richard Bull, maybe you’ve heard of him, he’s making documentaries for the BBC, he said to me: “Next week – you and me.” “Oh, my God, I can’t…” “Yes, you can.” And the following week he took me to the water, he didn’t give me my mask and he just made me swim up and down on the surface with the regulator in my mouth and no mask. After much spluttering I finally said: “OK, I can do that.” Then he made me swim underwater like that, so I could do it. I still didn’t like it, but “OK, I can do it.” On this trip to Antigua I found my favorite fish, the clown triggerfish. I managed to buy a wooden version of the fish and when I went back to work I placed it next to my computer. I still have it and it was like it told me: “Go back to the sea, go back to the sea!” This was all a reminder.
You actually dedicated yourself to becoming an Instructor…
Again it was by chance. My ex-boyfriend cannot believe it. He’s Advanced Open Water and he cannot believe I’m an Instructor, because of all the problems I had in the beginning. How did this happen?! I got the option of redundancy from work and I said: “Oh. They want to give me lots of money? OK. Thank you.” So I said: “OK, I need to do something new.” By this time the boyfriend and I had separated and the idea was to come to Egypt and work on a safari boat: “With so many fantastic dive guides the only way I can make money is if I’m an Instructor.” So I came back to Hurghada to do my Scuba Instructor Course.
How did you start to freedive?
You know, I started freediving also by chance, like the rest of my life. We had an auction for one lady and her child, who were in a car accident and they didn’t have any insurance. So everybody from the community got together and gave all kinds of things to auction off: a freediving course, an Open Water course, a safari, a ride on somebody’s motorbike, a wetsuit etc. The girl I was living with, Sam Kirby, asked me to bid on the freediving course for her. As the night went on I bid more and more and came away with lots of great offers and a freediving introduction. So I had this “Introduction to Freediving” for me and my friend. We went to a swimming pool, it was freezing, and the instructor told me to do belly breathing, like a baby. The first experience of holding my breath I kept it for two and a half minutes. My friend was also good so we went to the sea, on a line in the middle of the sea and it was current like hell. It wasn’t the safest way to learn how to freedive by any stretch of the imagination, but it was an experience! I could do the breath hold, but I couldn’t equalize past 5 meters, with my ears, no way. After some time a spear fisherman, advised me: “When you go down, look at your toes.” So I was diving and I looked at my toes and I could see the surface, then I hit my head on the sand! “OK, I think that worked.”
If you’ve told me 11 years ago that I would do this I would say: “Me? No way. I don’t even like snorkeling!” And now, I’m the only person offering AIDA freediving courses in Hurghada.
How did you meet Patrick Musimu?
I met Patrick [Musimu] when I first started freediving 10 years ago. He came to do some training at Fort Arabesque. We were diving on lines off the beach and Patrick did a dive to 80 meters and he saw a shark. I was like “Cool!”, but Patrick said “Not cool.” He didn’t like sharks, especially at 80 meters when he wasn’t expecting it!
How did you start to participate in freediving competitions?
My friend Sam Kirby, the one from the auction, decided she wanted to go to England to try out for the English team, so I went as well to keep her company. The water was black and cold, but I did a dive to 21 meters and I had a good Static [Static Apnea] of four minutes and something, so I was fourth in rank. However, for a competition they want the top three. But one of the girls was working in the Maldives and she couldn’t go. So this is how I ended up on the UK team and travelled to Hawaii to represent the UK in the Pacific Cup!
Tell us about your trip to Japan…
In 2010 the World Championships were being held in Okinawa, Japan, and I knew I wanted to go, but didn’t really want to compete, as I know there are other girls who are much deeper than me. I wanted to go as coach and help the team get the best possible results. So I put myself forward as coach and, I don’t know why, but at the last minute I also put myself down to compete. In case for whatever reason I can’t coach maybe I can compete, I just really wanted to go to Japan. I haven’t been taking part in competitions, so when the list came back I was ranking number 7 in UK women. When it came down to it though, everybody started: “Oh, no, I can’t, I have to work” or “I can’t go because I don’t have the money.” So it came to the point where there wasn’t going to be a team because there weren’t enough girls. So this girl, Marie-Teresa, told me she really wanted to go to Japan and I said I also really wanted to go. So we started to ask people about who can go and what we can do to help, but all the guys said no. But I knew this guy, Sam, from Dahab and he also accepted.
It was very last minute when we decided we were going. And I didn’t have the money, so I said: “OK, I‘ll put it on my credit card. I’ll look at it later.” And then my mum phoned me and said: “This trip to Japan, how much is it?” “Oh, it’s about 1500 pounds, with the flight, the accommodation and the food.” And then she said: “I just closed one of your dad’s accounts”, my dad died three years ago now and my mum, it’s taking her some time to organize his affairs, and she said: “I’ll put it into your account; it’s 1500 pounds and you can go to Japan.”
And before Japan I thought: “Shit, I’m going to compete. I haven’t done any training.” OK, there’s a competition in Greece and I have a friend there who was organizing the competition. I said: “I don’t know. I think I should come because I don’t know what training I can do in Japan, but I don’t have the money.” It was coming close to the deadline and I decided: “OK, I’m going to book it. I don’t know how I’m going to pay for it, but I’m going to book it.”
The competition in Greece was in June and in May I had courses like crazy! My busiest month ever! So the courses from May paid for me to go to Greece in June, the accommodation, the food, the flight. So once I made the decision, the money came.
You like competing then?
What happened was I basically decided I was happy where I was. I did 38 meters in Greece, even though I had problems with equalization.
Freediving is not really about competing for me now, is more about enjoying the feeling of being underwater, being close to the fish. I went with a friend to dive with the whale sharks. They had a mixed boat with scuba diving and snorkeling. The marine life was the same as in the Red Sea, but the visibility wasn’t so good. And they didn’t understand why I didn’t want to go scuba diving. I woke up, had my morning tea and wished them to have fun. Later, we went freediving with the whale sharks and in the water I could hear the divers breathing heavily and getting out of breath easily; I didn’t have the same problem, I was breathing normally, I was timing my breathing to the waves, so I was keeping up with the whale sharks. Then I hear a guy on the boat yelling: “It’s behind you!” I was surrounded by four whale sharks, but could only see three of them. This was an amazing experience!
But is competing so much different from just doing it for fun? Is it hard to have friends in this community?
It’s a very tight community, inside the same team and between teams. I will just tell you a few things from Japan: it was during a competition day, all three of us members of the English team were scheduled to compete on the same day, so we were coaching each other; one of my colleagues, Marie-Teresa, suffered a ruptured eardrum. Sam, our other colleague, and I we were having our dives on different lines, 5 minutes apart. I was doing my warm-up and my fin strap snapped just before my dive. I asked Marie-Teresa for her fin, which was a bit small for my feet, so they cramped. So I was having a conversation with my feet going: “Please, it’s only ten minutes, I promise you, as soon as the dive is finished I’ll take it off, just don’t cramp.” So I’m on my competition line, line A, Sam is on his, line B, getting ready for his dive and I’m coaching him from my line. He does his dive, he’s coming back up, he does his surface protocol and then I’m doing my relaxed breathing. Sam was coaching me from the water; this is not usual to coach each other so close between dives, but we didn’t have a choice. As with a ruptured eardrum Marie-Teresa had to stay out of the water. Amazingly, with all this, it was the easiest dive of my life, ever. My feet didn’t cramp until I said the OK for my surface protocol, after finishing the dive, and then they cramped.
Why do you prefer a monofin and not two long fins?
The two long fins (stereo fins) use muscles mainly from the legs, while with the monofin you’re using your whole body doing a bigger movement just as the dolphins do. For me, with the stereo fins I normally travel at 1 meter/second, while with the monofin is 2 meters/second.
The nice thing about the monofin is that the dolphins will play with you; they will think you’re like them. But they will play with the stereo as well. They like freedivers – they don’t have any tank, no bubbles. They like to play “catch the coral”: they’ll take a piece of coral and throw it and you have to catch it and another dolphin will come to take it. They’re so cute. With dolphins, if you put your hand away from your body, they will swim next to you, if they want to interact. It is very important to let them come to you. If they are not interested then they won’t come closer.
You’re also judging competitions, is it much different from competing?
It’s very different, when you’re competing you’re very focused on yourself, when you’re coaching you focus on the team and what the team can do, and when you judge you focus on everybody and on making it safe, making it official. It’s much more an organizational role than just freediving for fun.
You have a website and you are offering freediving courses and courses for scuba divers in Hurghada. Breathing (or not breathing) is very important for freediving; are there people coming to you just for the breathing techniques course?
I will tell you a story about this: there was a Dutch lady, very sweet, who wanted to come with her husband and do the Breathing Relaxation course. Eventually, on their last day, she came to me and said: “My husband doesn’t want to do the session now and anyway I use more air than him” – so it was like a competition. We did the relaxation in the classroom and then moved on the beach – it’s very much breathing exercises to improve their [scuba divers’] air consumption, to improve their relaxation in the water. For this two hours time, she didn’t have a cigarette and she actually relaxed.
We were also talking a lot about the life and she said she had problems with her back. “OK, what’s your work?” I asked; she said “Oh, the work is very stressful, I get big headaches” and she said like, “constantly”, so she would give presentations for maybe 100-150 people. She’s involved in the background, organizational details and the actual delivery of the presentations, the rest of the time she worked from home. Then, we were talking about the telephone, just something small: she said she was on the phone and typing. I said “Why?”, “Because I’m typing”, “Yeah, but you’re at home. You have a speaker phone?”, “Yes.”, “Put it on the speaker phone”, she went “OK, I never thought to do this.” And then we were talking that she has the phone 24h a day and she deals with lots of countries, so people call her like at 7 in the morning or 11 at night, because they’re on a different time zone and she always answers the phone. “Why?” “Oh, because, you know, maybe it’s important.” “If it’s important they will phone you in your time.” “I didn’t think of this…” and you could see really that she didn’t.
This is a repeat guest and after some time this woman came back. I happened to be at the dive center again, on her last day. This was also the day that Patrick [Musimu] was coming, in September , for his first Clinic in Hurghada. So, I saw her at the diving center and she went: “Ah, thank you!” and she gave me a big hug and she just looked to me and said: “You changed my life!” “What do you mean?” She said: “You changed my life!” And really I am starting to get, you know, a bit emotional and… “I have set hours to do the work. I’ve come on holiday and the phone is off. For two weeks the phone is off.” She said: “I had a big seminar”, and this seminar it had something to do with a boat and with catering. And they told her: “The caterer is not here yet.” And she’s like: “Don’t worry, it will be!” And all her colleagues were like: “OK, who is this woman?” So, not only did she change inside, she changed and everybody else noticed. She drew the line, and this was just from this small thing, but I’m sure that when she went back she thought of more things that she was doing in her life creating her own stress and she changed them.
Normally with scuba diving it gives you an idea of how you can optimize your air consumption. I had one guy, he was about 45 years old, he was diving on 15 liters tanks and he had a diving time of about 20 minutes. After he had the Breathing Relaxation course with me and we talked about his buoyancy, his weights and everything, he went on the boat the next day with a 12 liters tank. And he reduced the weights; it was obvious, it was clear he was carrying too much weight. Three days later one of the Instructors came to me and said: “What did you do to him? He’s a different diver!” He’s now doing 50 minute dives on a 12 liters tank!
Is the Breathing Relaxation available for groups as well?
What is so nice is that you can do it after a day of diving. It takes just one hour if you are one-on-one, if it’s more than one person it takes longer, maybe one and a half hours. I am not working exclusively with one diving center, so this course is available for all.
So you are also scuba diving; you haven’t given up scuba diving…
I don’t usually work with it. Unless it’s with somebody special, like my friend who was coming from England with her son and her son is 10 years old, so she asked me to take him for the open water dives of his Junior Open Water course.
I have a friend with whom I go scuba diving when she comes every year for one week. On the first day I go scuba diving with her it’s like: “Why am I doing this? I have all this heavy weight hanging on my back…” The first day with the tank and everything I feel really… heavy, you know. Day two I’m like: “OK, I’m getting there.” Day three with her I’m like: “Mmm, OK.” She’s a good diver, she just had her Rescue course, she’s good in the water, she stays close, and she’s not one of these buddies that run off for miles. And then, like day four, she’s got a camera and I’m pointing: “Look at this little shrimp and look at this one.” And we went maybe, I don’t know, 5-10 minutes from the boat, and this was a one hour dive, just on the pinnacles, looking at all the little things.
I’m still an active Scuba Instructor, so I can still teach… I have friends for whom I still do the Scuba Review or advanced courses, but I have no plans to go back to scuba diving everyday.
What do you feel when freediving? What is different from scuba diving?
We say that when you go scuba diving you are looking outside, when freediving you are looking inside. I can freedive between two scuba divers, and sit between them and they wouldn’t even see me. You will not be aware that somebody is between you. You are so concentrated on breathing, you will not pay attention. And when you are freediving you can follow the marine life everywhere… I’m free; in scuba I’m restricted to a dive profile.
A freedive takes around two minutes, it doesn’t seem long, but if you look at scuba divers how much time they spend looking at something it’s 10-20 seconds.
Why are you in Hurghada? You have the Blue Hole in Dahab – a paradise for freedivers…
I like Hurghada, I don’t like Dahab. I don’t know why, every time I go there something happens to me: I twist my ankle, get a bad stomach, and get sun burnt. I don’t know what’s in Dahab, but something always goes wrong for me.
But in the Blue Hole you don’t have safety, you have to be careful because the lines move and you can actually hit your head on the wall; you also have a lot of scuba divers that put their hands on the lines. And there it takes you half an hour to get to the main road. I’m very conscious about safety. So for me, in Hurghada I have everything: I have a boat, I have a crew, I have oxygen, I have the coast guard’s number; in case of emergency you have a 10-15 minutes wait for a speed boat to arrive equipped with a medical team who will have the chamber already on alert if it is needed.
Is freediving dangerous without a proper education?
It is dangerous. You have to have a license to practice it. But there are people who haven’t had the training and they will try it anyway, that is dangerous.
Talking about safety, have you ever had a blackout while freediving?
I’ve never had a blackout and I’ve only had a “Samba” one time. After a freedive there’s a reaction when you are shaking – this is like the first stage and if you breathe enough, then you will be OK. If not, then you can go into a blackout. So it can be a stage before blackout. In this stage, if you have somebody with you, that person will save you. That’s why you need a training partner/freedive buddy.
Do you have a role model in freediving?
I don’t have a role model as such, but I have definitely been inspired by a lot of freedivers and also received lots of hints and tips along the way. During the training with Patrick [Musimu] last year, he said: “I’m not perfect”. Many people look to him as if he is a God and yes, he is a great freediver, but he says “I don’t know how to tie knots and I don’t want to know, I don’t need to know everything!” He is very much like fish, he does it because he feels like he’s part of the water – it’s like you lose your body. While riding tandem on the sled with Patrick we went down to 40 meters and I said I wanted to stop; when we debriefed the dive he said: “Why did you stop?” “I felt the crush and didn’t like it.” “But it doesn’t get any worse, you just have to get used to that feeling.” No-one had ever told me that and I just thought it was more and more hideous the deeper you went, but now I know that’s it, I can work on going deeper. I like the feeling of being underwater, interacting with the marine life, in another world.
If you watch the scuba divers, when they get to this group of yellow fish, all the fish go away. When you’re freediving the fish stay, you are in the middle of all of them and they are not hiding. As a scuba diver you say “Look at all these fish”, as a freediver you know “It’s only half of them!”
Is freediving for everybody?
If you are too much in the head, thinking and stressing, then no. With training and a desire to relax and be calm it is possible to quiet the mind. A lot of students find the first night after a freedive day they get an amazing nights sleep! One student who suffered with insomnia found he slept from 9pm straight through to 7am the next day.:)
What do you need to be able to do freediving?
Be open-minded. If your mind is open, you can do anything. This first Clinic with Patrick, I got rid of a lot of things I knew about freediving and I said: “OK, start again. I need to look at this differently.”
Normally for me, any dive over one minute is a good dive. It means you’ve relaxed, you’ve done proper breathing. With Patrick, we were doing some exercises on equalizing, and we did an exercise where we exhaled and you just take the air in the mouth and you go diving. I did this and then I got scared and I came back up again. Dave Tranfield, who was also on the course, asked me if I’m alright and I said: “Yes, but I got scared.” “But it was good?” “Yeah, I just didn’t know if I had enough air to come back up.” “But you didn’t have the contractions?” “No.” “So then you had enough air to come back up.” “Oh, I didn’t think about that.” It was just a new feeling, a new experience. And then I did it again, I went to 20 meters, I’m looking around, I’m relaxed, I’m enjoying it. So you do the deep breathing, you breathe out, but instead of inhaling you just take air in your mouth. Your brain doesn’t understand, it’s a whole new experience.
It’s really hard sometimes to go back up. What happens to me is the contractions start and are saying: “Come on. You need to breathe now!”
Which is your most beautiful experience in freediving?
It was in Vancouver for the World Championship in 2004 and we went to a platform in the middle of this deep lake (200 meters) with mountains all around. In this area they have lots of logs and these logs make their way through the undercurrent and then just pop up in strange places. They also have these big jelly fish, really big jelly fish (I really don’t like jelly fish, even the purple ones we have in the Red Sea that don’t sting). This was our first training and acclimatization day, I’m in the water trying to get my face used to the cold and I could feel the rain on my back: “OK, this is a bit new”, I’d never been diving in the rain before. I went down and was totally in awe of this unknown world, there were logs and jelly fish and the rain drops coming through the surface of the water. After the dives in the Red Sea… it’s totally different. I came up with a huge smile, my buddy was watching me really closely as she thought I must be narked! It sounds like a dive that would be completely wrong – it’s cold, it’s raining, there are big jelly fish that sting and it turned out to be a perfect dive.
Now I have the amazing experience of freediving with whale sharks to add to the mix, but Vancouver is still the one dive that stays special to me.