Take a deep breath . . .
In a departure from the usual arty fare on offer, here is a piece on freediving in Ireland that I wrote for The Irish Times, as part of its Sligo supplement. Those allergic to outdoor activities and outstanding experiences should look away now.
HOW LONG can you hold your breath? It’s the kind of question most people haven’t troubled themselves with since they were about seven, along with who in your class would win a race, and could you beat him in a fight? Right now though, the answer seems crucial. And the reason is Feargus Callagy.
If I’m being generous, I reckon I can go 30, maybe 40 seconds. This, it turns out, is wildly inaccurate. Callagy can hold his breath for around five and a half minutes (I’m also sure he would beat me in a race, and I’m not dim enough to pick a fight – he’s not small).
Callagy runs the Irish Apnea Academy, the only freediving school in Ireland, which is based in Mullaghmore, Co Sligo. The village is well-known for its monster wave, but freediving is an altogether more serene experience.
“Freediving is a posh word for snorkelling,” laughs Callagy. The sport involves descending to barely believable depths with the minimum of equipment. No oxygen tanks, just a wetsuit, weight belt, mask, fins and snorkel. Freediving training usually concentrates on competitive diving of the kind made famous by Luc Besson’s 1988 film The Big Blue.
However, Callagy’s approach is more holistic, aimed towards the recreational diver who wants to enjoy the sights and silence of being underwater.
Our day starts in Callagy’s classroom, with a safety and equipment run-through followed by yoga and breathing exercises to relax the body and mind and make divers more conscious of their breathing and heartbeat.
Callagy shows us how to fill our stomach and chest with air and breathe out slowly, slowing our own heart rate down, minimising our energy expenditure and inducing a state of focused, calm awareness. On sunny days, these sessions take place on the grass outside with the boom of the waves for company.
Then it’s across the road to the Pier Head hotel’s swimming pool where we put the theory into practice before heading out for open water. We suit up and “breath up”, taking long deep breaths in and out for three minutes before gently letting our bodies float in the pool’s water, face down, while Callagy keeps a close eye on proceedings and checks every 30 seconds to make sure there is no danger of anyone blacking out. The idea is to hang in the water, focus the mind and see how long you can stay underwater on a single breath.
The idea of being underwater is anathema to most of us, but, as Callagy points out, our bodies are well built for it. We are the only species on the planet that gasps when surprised or shocked – the theory is that this is a remnant of when we still lived in the sea and were taking a breath before ducking under the safety of the water’s surface.
On the first go, I get a mild panic and last a spluttery 20 seconds.
After another three minutes breathing up, I go again, and float down into the pool before coming up for air; after a moment I’m breathing normally. On this second go, I hit just over a minute. I’m genuinely shocked, and even more so when on the third go I manage a minute and 27 seconds. Callagy says that the average punter on one of his three-day courses can get their time underwater up to three minutes or even three minutes and 30 seconds.
With this in the bag, it’s out to sea, and the sun has decided to burst out upon the Sligo seashore. Callagy paddles out with a buoy with a line and anchor that he drops down to the bottom of the Lobster Pot, a hollow close to the seafront that has a depth of four or five metres. We swim out, easily buoyant in suits and fins, taking turns to breathe deep and plunge below, guiding our way to the bottom, or as close as we can get, by pulling on the line.
Even at this relatively minor depth, the need to equalise your ears is acute, and in the struggle to get the pressure level, most of my effort on breathing and remaining calm goes out the window. After a few thrilling plunges down we take to swimming the banks and reefs below.
Visibility is poor on this day – it has less to do with the sun and daylight, and more to do with other environmental considerations, such as wind, rain and the seasons. But even so, once you have got your mind and body into a state of suspended calm, it’s a rare thrill to watch the seaweed wave pristinely in the water, with coley fish flitting amid the fronds, and a large starfish, a semi-precious blue amid the shaley grit, holding fast to the floor. This is a sport that is full of thrills and surprises. The first shock is how easy it is to hold your breath underwater for an extended period, once you’re shown how. The second is the realisation that almost nobody else in the country is doing this. And once you’ve given it a go, and learned to hold your breath for that bit longer, it’s easy to see how it could become an addiction.
My inner seven-year-old would be impressed.
Freedive Ireland holds individual lessons and three-day courses which start at €100 per person, with all equipment included. freediveireland.com