THERE’S a saying among freedivers that they are all lousy swimmers.
While swimmers move fast in water, freedivers – those who dive underwater without breathing apparatus – do quite the opposite; they dive vertically into the deep blue and hold their breath for as long as they can. When they sense that the oxygen in their lungs is starting to deplete, they swim upwards and breathe again.
Syafidatul Azua Shafii, 38, does this for leisure and also for a living. A freediving trainer, she currently holds the national record for freediving, at 41m without fins, which she accomplished at the International Association for the Development of Apnea (AIDA) Freediving World Championship in Limassol, Cyprus in September.
That’s about three minutes of holding her breath underwater – 90 seconds diving down and 90 seconds going up again. She can go down to 61m with a monofin (that looks like a mermaid’s tail) or 51m with bi-fins (fins with long blades).
An adventure seeker, Azua says she loves to explore what the world holds, and what her body can master.
“I have done trail running, road races, hiking and open water swimming and I just love moving outdoors,” she says.
For as long as she can remember, she has always loved water.
“I grew up in Muar, Johor and almost every week, my father would take my siblings and I to Gunung Ledang waterfall where he would teach us how to swim. I was probably three or four then,” she says.
Azua never went for any swimming lessons.
“It was just something I did for fun and I loved it.”
Her love for swimming evolved into scuba diving, which she started in 2009. The underwater world has opened her eyes to new perspectives and she is determined to delve deeper into it.
She wanted to study Marine Biology in Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) but could not secure a place.
“That’s the only course where students get to spend time learning underwater, but it I did not get in,” she says.
She went on to learn Environmental Biology instead and in 2012, began freediving because she wanted to know how freedivers hold their breath for so long.
Pushing the limit
What really got her into freediving, Azua says, was her curiosity: She wanted to know the limits of the human body and mind.
“What is our limit and how do we push them? These are the questions I have asked myself and that I have tried to answer by exploring what my body is capable of in freediving,” she says.
“Research is still ongoing about what we can and cannot do and the studies are not exhaustive. That’s the most exciting part about freediving. We learn new things about what we are capable of,” she says.
Some people, she says, are just natural swimmers. However, the size of one’s spleen could be an advantage.
“The Bajau Laut people, for instance, have been found to have larger spleens. A bigger spleen means a bigger reservoir of oxygenated red blood cells which results in more oxygen in the body, allowing them to hold their breath longer underwater,” she explains.
The research, published in the journal Cell in 2018, found that these sea nomads, who live along the coasts and off the islands of South-East Asia have spleens 50% larger than the average, which could explain their ability.
“It’s genetic adaptation that stems from them living around water and I find this to be very interesting and exciting. We’re not Bajau Laut, but can we condition our bodies to have that capability too? I think that with good and gradual training and conditioning, we can,” she says.
In 2015, freediving world champion Natalia Molchanova, 53, vanished when she was freediving near Formentera, a small island south of Ibiza, Spain. Reports said she went diving without fins to a depth of 35m. She never came up, and her body was never found.
Azua says while freediving is an extreme sport, it doesn’t have to be dangerous. “And one of the things a freediver must never do is to freedive alone,” she says.
She always trains with someone who is skilled enough to be able to rescue her in case of any emergency.
“A competition is the safest time to freedive because safety precautions are all in place,” she says. “Outside a competition, you would need to have a reliable freediving buddy.”
One of the risks of freediving is a blackout, or loss of consciousness caused by insufficient oxygen in the body. Usually, laryngospasm, or the closure of the voice box, which happens on reflex, will prevent water from entering the diver’s lungs.
“A blacked-out freediver will suddenly stop swimming so his or her diving buddy needs to bring the diver up before laryngospasm relaxes and water starts filling the lungs which may result in drowning,” she says.
“That’s the biggest reason why you need a diving buddy. The diver won’t realise that he has lost consciousness and won’t be asking for help. It’s the diving buddy’s job to closely monitor and initiate ascent,” she says.
Despite the perceived danger surrounding this sport, for Azua, freediving is meditative and therapeutic. It is when she dives, she says, that she is happiest.
“When I freedive, it’s just me and my thoughts; and nothing else. I can relax and bring my heart rate down. I can gauge if my heart is okay, if my lungs are okay and if my mind is okay,” she says. “It’s the one time I listen to my body.
“Once you reach the surface, everything starts entering your head, intruding that peace you had before,” she says as she lets out a loud laugh.
But she maintains that these meditative qualities only come after years of training.
“You cannot do this too fast, too soon. There is that delicate balance about what your mind wants to achieve and what your body can take and these two should always work in tandem,” she says.
Azua says that it takes about 10 years to master the sport and so she often meets many freedivers in their 40s and 50s when she competes.
“This is not the sport of youth. In fact, I think freedivers get better as they get older. The training, outlook and ability to relax and let go all contribute to this,” she says.
When she teaches, she tells her students to “not chase numbers” but to take time to condition their bodies.
“Sometimes, when you chase the numbers, you ignore the basics and turn a healthy pursuit into an unsafe activity. We only have one life; so don’t risk it,” she concludes.