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Freediving: Immersion and the Cultivation of Belonging

My ethnographic research is concerned with understanding the human-environment encounters on Lord Howe Island, Australia. The concept of belonging emerged throughout my fieldwork as a key theme relating to both human and non-human life on the Island. I consider the notion of belonging as it emerges through practices including ‘pest’ and ‘weed’ eradication; biosecurity protocols; endemic species conservation; environmental tourism; and articulations of kinship-based ‘nativeness’.

Being a small Island, the lifeways of people on Lord Howe are intimately bound to the surrounding ocean which is a force that shapes their daily lives. The waters surrounding the Island are listed as a conservation Marine Park and they are a key site for leisure and commercial activities including fishing, scuba diving, snorkelling, beachcombing, boating, and freediving. Freediving is the sport of diving under water without the use of breathing apparatus, instead relying on breath-hold techniques. During my fieldwork, freediving offered a particularly interesting practice through which to observe how people might cultivate relationships with, and feelings of belonging to, the ocean. These photographs explore the practice of freediving and how relationships of belonging are cultivated and articulated through the sport on the Island.


Apnea: Without Breath        

A freediver is pictured ascending from a 20-meter dive ‘on the line’. In a process of becoming, she is transformed by the equipment  she has donned that assists her immersion. A hooded wetsuit clings to her body – a second skin allowing her to stay in the water longer without getting cold. Long fins morph her human legs into a mermaid-like tail – the fibre-glass curves with each kick against the water, propelling her through the water. A weight-belt, with several kilograms attached, is worn low around her hips – it counter-acts her natural human buoyancy. At around 10 metres below the surface she will reach a neutral state where, with no effort, she will neither sink nor float. A mask fits tightly to her face, allowing her to see, though she closes her eyes at points during the dive to relax. Compared to scuba divers laden with heavy tanks, who take breaths that reverberate bubbles and noise – she moves quietly, freely, and gracefully. ‘It makes you feel like you are from the sea’, she says.


We, for I am freediving next to her to capture this photo, are in a state of ‘apnea’ – the voluntary suspension of breath. It is a state which we have entered after minutes of mindful relaxation, preparing for the descent by becoming mentally and physically present while floating at the surface. We rely on the mammalian dive reflex – a set of physiological reactions triggered by breath-holding while immersed in water – our heart rates decrease while our capacity to preserve oxygen increases. ‘The line’, a rope dropped to the ocean floor, guides her slow descent, as she pulls herself down and back up – equalising her airways as she gets deeper and the pressure in her body builds. During apnea, carbon dioxide builds in our bodies, symptoms such as contractions in our stomach setting in as we replace the instinctive, human urge to breath with a freediver’s desire to get deeper, to stay in the sea longer.








‘Exploration on a single breath’: The Potholes



‘This is our underwater playground’, Liv the freedive coach says as she introduces recreational freediving – the practice of freely exploring the underwater environment on a single breath. Through underwater caves, openings in coral-covered rocks called ‘swim-throughs’ and grottos filled with kaleidoscopic seaweed – we freedive, duck-diving below the surface pulled down by curiosity, to encounter the sea life on its own terms.

Pictured here are freedivers exploring ‘The Potholes’ – long finger-like gutters of coral reef, interspersed with sand patches on the southern edge of Lord Howe Island’s lagoon. Here, the unique interplay of warm and cold ocean currents that typify the surrounding waters of Lord Howe Island bring together coral and seaweed in rich diversity nowhere else seen. Curios Galapagos Whaler sharks circle in closer, pursued by freedivers with underwater cameras. Endemic double-header wrasse, deep blue in colour with sea urchin spines pierced in their lips dart between rich-brown algae covered boulders. Large hawksbill turtles glide, pushed and pulled on the same ebb and flow of the tides that move us in motion with them. Closer attention draws us to the minutia of sea life also present here – small nudibranchs, colourful sea slugs, shells, and miniscule fish. Enabled by freediving, these close encounters with the more-than-human sea life are what we seek – here at sunset, when the light beams and seeps.


Reflections: Reciprocity with the Sea 


Pictured here is a freediver, retrieving an old tyre which she had found wedged in a coral structure. Diving down, she tugged at the tyre, which, seemingly having been on the reef for a while, had started to be occupied by sea urchins. Dragging it behind her on the swim back to the beach, she hauled it from the water, determining that the rubber – toxic in its inevitable breakdown in the ocean – did not belong amongst the coral. A transient seasonal worker who has bounced between places frequently, she described never really having a sense of ‘home’. ‘Underwater is where I feel truly accepted though, at peace, there is absolutely no judgement. Maybe that is what ‘home’ means to me’, she reflected. 

How might we understand this retrieval of the tyre as a form of more-than-human reciprocity between people and the sea? What might freediving immersion among other like activities, and the enjoyment that this brings, do to form relational bonds – a sense of belonging – with a place and its environment. How might these bonds translate to an ethic of care – a ‘giving back’ in exchange for the joy of immersion. Acts such as picking up plastic can be seen as acts of care that simultaneously preserve environments and the future experiences in these places, through which people find happiness and belonging.   

In this photo, the mirrored reflection of the freediver in the underside surface of the sea represents how these reflections on belonging, cultivated through immersion might be brought back above water and translated into care for the marine environment.