At Home Beneath the Waves
Freedivers find a natural calm under water.
I float on the surface, face down, looking at the shipwreck through my mask. Glints of sunlight sparkle through the ocean, mesmerizing me with undulations of blue and green. It’s 8:30 in the morning on what promises to be a brilliant July day, and the conditions are exactly what I want — no waves and 76-degree, gin-clear water.
I can see the sand and the remains of the Carl Gerhardt 20 feet below. She was sunk in 1929, 100 yards offshore of what is now 2nd Street in Kill Devil Hills. During a storm, she ran into another ship, the Kyzickes, which had run aground on the same sandbar two years earlier. Her loss is our gain. The shipwreck is filled with sea life.
Wearing a mask, fins, a 3 mm wetsuit and a weight belt with 4 pounds of lead weight, I relax as I float on my stomach, taking long, full breaths through my snorkel, exhaling twice as slow as I inhale. I take a last deep breath and try to pack as much oxygen into my lungs as possible.
Ready, I jackknife and rise my feet up out of the water and give a couple of big flutter kicks to start down, then scissor-kick wide and slow, almost stiff-legged. The surface area and flexibility of my long plastic fins push against the water, giving me the power to descend using the least amount of energy and oxygen possible. The deeper I go, the more compressed the air spaces in my body become, allowing me to descend faster using less energy.
It only takes a few seconds for me to reach the bottom and level out, lying prone, parallel to the sea floor and holding my pole spear out in front of me.
I loop the band on my thumb and grab the pole about half way with my hand, stretching the band. I float unmoving for a few moments, looking for a fish and setting up my shot. Peering into the bow of the ship, I see a few triggerfish inside the structure, silhouetted by the light streaming in behind them. I extend my pole spear, take aim and open my hand. The spear flies forward and hits the triggerfish in the side.
I quickly swim forward, grab the spear with one hand and put my other hand over the spear end, preventing the fish from wriggling off. I start my ascent, using long, powerful kicks, streamlining my body and looking up as I go. My body’s airspaces start to expand, pushing me upward. Once on the surface, I exhale, take a deep breath and feel the euphoria that always goes along with freediving. The whole dive has taken one and a half minutes.
I see my husband, Matt, in the kayak. Even though I’m a scuba instructor with over 20 years of experience and would love the freedom of diving alone, he’s come along as a dive buddy for safety reasons. Too many things can go wrong and it’s just not safe to dive alone. We paddled out on sit-on-top kayaks, which makes it easier to carry all our gear, and tied off to the wreck, planning to spear a few fish for dinner and maybe even pick up a few blue mussels, which blanket the wreck like a fur coat, to steam for an appetizer.
I discovered freediving (diving without scuba apparatus) when I was 8 years old. My family used to vacation in Buxton and every day we would drive up to Pea Island to swim. With seven brothers and sisters all trying to dunk each other in the waves, it was necessity to develop the ability to hold my breath under water.
I realized how much I like being under the water when I was older and took a scuba diving course. During the pool portion of the course I had to hold my breath underwater for a short time. I can still vividly recall the feeling: an intense calm like I’d never felt before. I was weightless, floating, my body compressed. I was hooked.
When I’m freediving, I feel like a dolphin, sleek and fluid. I am incredibly at home beneath the waves, like I am being rocked in the strong arms of God —calm, safe and belonging with all the other aquatic creatures. I am surrounded by such beauty — sea turtles, rays, eels, crabs and a wide variety of fish, all going about their business — and they don’t swim away once I remain motionless for a few moments. My favorite part is when I look up at the surface of the water from below; it’s like looking through a mirror from inside, and it’s magical.
I’ve since learned to spearfish, which is one of the main reasons that Outer Bankers freedive.
“It’s an escape from everything,” says Dan Roughton, a local freediving and spearfishing legend. Dan grew up freediving and spearfishing on Hatteras Island and is now a resident of Kill Devil Hills. He is the expert on the local wrecks and fishing holes and has traveled to Hawaii and the Bahamas to dive. He enjoys the challenge of freediving as much as the fish he spears.
“It’s just you and the ocean,” he says. “I compare it to surfing. It’s fun to get good at it, to challenge yourself, but it’s just you versus yourself.”
Roughton is one of the most humble guys you could ever wish to meet. He doesn’t brag or boast, but he is the one whose name comes up the most when it comes to the skill and knowledge of local spearfishing. He’s simply one of the best on the beach. And he won’t give away his secret spot.
“My favorite spot would about 40 feet in depth, crystal clear water, lots of structure to attract marine life and lots of fish,” is all he’ll say in his calm, easy-going voice.
He does not hesitate about his favorite species, though: “Flounder is my favorite. Flounder and then triggerfish. But I shot a 20-pound hogfish a couple of years ago and that is my fish of a lifetime.”
Reese Newman spends a lot of his life under water as a commercial diver with NCDOT and as a recreational freediver and spearfisherman. Newman is the two-year-in-a-row champion of the local Trigger King Spearfish Competition (see sidebar). While he is a certified scuba diver, Newman prefers to spearfish without tanks.
“I like to hunt, so I love spearfishing,” he says. “It’s almost a primal feeling and more of a challenge than regular fishing. You are equal with the fish and meet them in their own territory. I also like the timelessness of it. People have been spearfishing for thousands of years.”
Russell Blackwood of Hatteras Island is also a well-known local freediver.
“It all started when I wanted some fish,” says Blackwood. “I noticed that the fish let me get closer without the bubbles from my scuba tanks. That progressed to taking pictures, then video.”
Blackwood is now a world-renowned underwater videographer and photographer. His images have appeared in Hawaiian Skindiver, International Freediving, Surfers’ Journal, Surfer, Surfing, Windsurfing and many other magazines, books and websites. He has also worked for numerous film and television productions as a freediving underwater videographer. Blackwood has been freediving for at least 37 years and shows no sign of stopping. He currently works as a safety diver on a local dive boat in Hatteras. He’s also passing on the passion to his teenage son, Wolfie, who freedives with him.
There is camaraderie among local freedivers, and while they don’t tend to dive in crowds, they do like to discuss equipment, conditions, favorite spots and catches when they run into each other at local dive spots or watering holes.
In addition to diving for fun, fish or photography, freediving is an international competitive sport. The world record for freediving with fins (dynamic freediving) is 895 feet deep. The record for holding the breath while stationary (static apnea) is 11 minutes and 35 seconds.
And while freediving is safe as long as the practitioner is well-trained, it does have risks, shallow-water blackout being the most common. This is when divers pass out when approaching the surface after a dive due to lack of oxygen. Other risks include getting tangled in old fishing lines or your float lines, hitting your head on parts of shipwrecks or bridge pilings and getting caught in currents. Knowledge of not only freediving safety but also local dive locations can be the difference between a good dive and a deadly mishap.
Blackwood tells of a near-death experience: “We were diving on the Lancing [a local shipwreck] when this guy who was diving with no professional training wanted to spear some fish. He went into a part of the Lancing that had a bubble of oil trapped in it. He became coated in oil and he almost drowned. We were able to get him onto the boat, but all that oil created a big mess on board as well.”
Knowledge, education and practice are the keys to safe diving. In the Freediving 101 course I teach at College of the Albemarle’s Dare County Campus, students learn freediving physiology, breathing techniques and water skills that allow them to safely begin to freedive. If you want to compete or progress at a faster rate in freediving, there are multiple agencies worldwide that offer advanced training, Performance Freediving, AIDA International, SSI, to name a few.
While equipment is minimal, it is very important. You don’t have to spend a fortune to freedive, but you will need several key items: a low-volume mask, a snorkel, long fins (not boogie board fins), a weight belt with lead weights, a wetsuit and a float. However, the most valuable piece of equipment is your body. Train it by staying active and maintain it by not abusing drugs, alcohol, tobacco or food. Reduce risk by not taking chances.
Interest in freediving is gaining in popularity in part due to the fact that if you are near water, you can freedive. Spearfishing, photography, competition or just the joy of being underwater are all great reasons to freedive here on the Outer Banks. Whatever the reason, I guarantee that when you try it, you’ll wonder why it took you so long to experience its natural euphoria.
Safety Tips for Freedivers
• Never dive alone. One diver up and one down.
• Make sure you have the necessary equipment and that it’s in good condition. Don’t dive over-weighted.
• Never drink alcohol or use drugs before diving. Don’t dive with a hangover either.
• Observe the conditions and plan your
• Never exceed your personal comfort zone.
• Never dive faster than you can equalize your ears and sinus.
• Stay hydrated and wait two to four hours after eating before you dive.
• Use a float and diver-down flag.
• Plan your dive, dive your plan. Let someone know where you are going and when you are expected back.
• Breathe correctly, don’t hyperventilate.
The Trigger King Spearfish Competition is a spearfishing tournament that my husband and I put on each summer through our shop, Roanoke Island Outfitters and Dive Center. It’s open to anyone who wants to enter. The way it works is this: You register at the shop anytime from April through July 31. Then you go spearfishing for a select list of species and sizes. You can only shoot fish while freediving, no scuba tanks. When you shoot a fish that you think is a winner, you get it weighed at our shop or a legal weigh station, bring the weight slip to us and we keep track. The diver who shoots the biggest fish by the end of the season wins the Trigger King Award. There are other winners for various categories as well, and at the end of the season we have a cookout and get-together with all the competitors. Join us! — Pam Landrum
story by PAM LANDRUM photographs by RUSSELL BLACKWOOD