Female Free Divers Take Conservation To New Depths, Exploring Our Relationship With The Sea
Throughout history, the ocean has been referred to as a feminine entity—the mother, where all life began. We, and all mammals, are more connected to the ocean than we realise—even before we’re born. The amniotic fluid in a woman’s womb is remarkably similar to seawater, containing the same salts in almost exactly the same proportions. When babies’ legs begin to form, they start off as one fin-like limb. Our first movements are similar to those of fish; swimming, living and growing in an ocean-like fluid.
“A lot of people have said that free diving is like being reborn or being back in the womb,” says Chelsea Yamase, better known to her 928,000 Instagram followers as Chelsea Kauai. Chelsea is part of a growing community of female free divers plunging to the depths of the ocean, free of any life-saving equipment.
As a sport, free diving is often described as one of the most dangerous in the world. It defies our expectations of human ability, or what we thought were our limitations, as these real-life mermaids spend six to eight minutes under the water, alone, on a single breath.
“In my experience, diving is 90 per cent mental and 10 per cent technique or physicality,” says Yamase. “Some days it’s easier, or I’m so amazed by wildlife that it’s easier to forget about the discomfort of not breathing. Other days, my brain tends to shout very loudly at me. You have to be willing to be uncomfortable. I try to focus my mind on being present. I can feel it like a switch in my brain, where everything gets very quiet. I think science would call it being in flow state. I guess it’s similar to meditation.”
The strain that free diving puts on the body is a jarring contrast to this seemingly serene activity. The heart slows by 50 per cent at 30 metres, lung capacity shrinks from six litres to one and, finally, the brain begins to shut down to conserve oxygen. Blacking out is common and, unfortunately, so is death. But for these women, it’s about more than how deep they can go. It’s the journey down, and what they discover about the world, and about themselves, along the way.
Sofia Gomez Uribe, a Colombian free diver and three-time world record holder, says, “I feel a divine connection with the water. When I’m in the ocean I feel so small and insignificant, in a good way. When I enter the ocean, I surrender to her power and strength, I remember how small I am and I remember that the ocean is the one in charge. I feel free.”
Our love for, and our closeness with, nature, particularly with the ocean, is a language that is becoming lost. But these free divers around the world are looking to deepen that connection. There are competitive divers, like Gomez Uribe, and those who do it for leisure, like Yamase. Finally, there are the deep-sea heroes who use free diving as a way to save our oceans. One seen here is named—aptly—Ocean Ramsey. Her grandfather was a submarine captain and her father a diver. “When I was a kid, we’d hit golf balls into the water and dive into the ocean to try and pick them all up, and swim through the lava tubes,” she recalls.
Today, Ramsey operates One Ocean Diving in Hawaii, where she takes curious divers on expeditions to swim with sharks, with the hope that through a better understanding of these fascinating species, they’ll do more to protect them. She has travelled the world to spread this message, including to Hong Kong multiple times to tackle the shark fin trade.
She says, “Since the ocean is the environment that covers the majority of the world, I think it’s important to help people get to the ocean to see how beautiful and incredible that world is.”
Sofia Gomez Uribe
“You have to train hard and make your body fit for the stress you put it under, but if you are not mentally prepared, that physical preparation won’t be useful. I use a mantra to take me to a peaceful place. In Spanish it is: paz, amor, tranquilidad, azul (peace, love, tranquility, blue). Those words make me feel focused and help me let go of bad feelings and thoughts.
“I feel like the water is feminine, and the ocean, to me, is this powerful and caring mother.”
“I fell in love with how unremarkable a spot might look from the surface, yet under there I’d see dolphins, turtles, schools of fish or caves to explore—so many things you would have no idea existed from being on the beach.
“The ocean is an entity that I feel a special kinship to. It’s been my greatest teacher and an ever-present factor in my life. I don’t know what kind of person I would be had I not grown up on an island. The ocean is the place I go to for healing and for fun.”
“For me, the feeling of free diving is a feeling of freedom. Being immersed and connected in that medium, free from weight, it feels like the lines of my body on land end. It feels more infinite in the ocean.
“Sometimes, it actually feels like when I free dive, I’m getting to breathe. When I’m on land, it’s go, go, go nonstop. My mind is racing and there’s so much to do. When I get the chance to go free diving, that’s when I get to take a big breath for myself. I get to relax and get back to myself and the bigger world.”
Along the coastline of Jeju Island in South Korea, elderly women in heavy, homemade rubber suits and makeshift tempered-glass goggles, armed with little more than primitive tools and tangled fishing nets, free dive to harvest seaweed and fish for sea cucumbers, urchins, abalone and other seafood. These women are known as haenyeo, which translates to “sea women”, and some of them are well into their 80s.
Depending on weather and tide conditions, haenyeo dive between six to eight hours a day, one to two minutes per dive, approximately 18 days per month. It’s dangerous work—in 2014, nine haenyeo died while diving—but an old saying keeps them going: “Making money in hell to support children in the world.”
Based on their abilities, haenyeo are divided into three groups. The top level includes the most experienced divers, who work in deeper, more treacherous waters. The bottom two groups include beginners and the elderly who work in shallower areas.
Today, there are much easier ways to fish for a living. But shortcuts don’t appeal to haenyeo, affectionately known to locals as the “grandmothers of the sea”.
Being a haenyeo is more than just a way for these women to support their families; it is an honourable tradition and a symbol of rebellion against the country’s otherwise rigidly patriarchal society. They wear their weathered faces like medals of dedication and independence.
Despite growing interest in this unique subculture, their numbers are dwindling. According to the island’s Haenyeo Museum, in the 1960s there were some 23,000 haenyeo working around Jeju. Today, fewer than 5,000 remain.