2017 Calibre Essay Prize (winner): 'Salt Blood'

‘There are no words that fit tragedy. Nothing we can say. We do not want to be told everything is all right. It is not.’

Patrick Holland, ‘Silent Plains’ (2014)

‘Its constituents are – everything.’

Victor Hugo, Toilers of the Sea (1866)

It is quiet and cool and dark blue. At this depth the pressure on my body is double what it is at the surface: my heartbeat has slowed, blood has started to withdraw from my extremities and move into the space my compressed lungs have created. I am ten metres underwater on a breath-hold dive, suspended at the point of neutral buoyancy where the weight of the water above cancels my body’s natural flotation. I turn head down, straighten my body, kick gently, and begin to fall with the unimpeded gravitational pull to the heart of the Earth.

Freediving, or breath-hold diving, forms at once a commonplace and unique relationship between humans and oceans. Commonplace because we can do it from the moment we are born (having already floated in amniotic fluid for nine months), and because many native and local cultures in coastal areas around the world have long practised breath-hold diving. But also unique because ‘extreme sport’ competitive divers are now exceeding depths of two hundred metres on a single breath, and there are divers able to hold their breath underwater for more than eleven minutes. Freediving is both liminal and transgressive, taking place in a zone where few humans venture, and subverting norms about perceived natural boundaries. The practice of freediving mobilises what has been called the most powerful autonomic reflex known in the human body: the mammalian dive response.

While I have been a casual spearfisher for many years, I have only recently engaged with freediving in its contemporary expression. My first time freediving, I trained with divers from a centre in Bali. A small group of us spent the mornings alternating between dive theory and yoga practice, and the afternoons diving and talking. My instructors were Matt and Patrick, and my diving partner was Yvonne, young, German-born, with degrees in journalism and American Studies, and working locally as a scuba instructor. She had clearly spent a lot of time in the ocean, whereas for me it was never a profession or even an intense hobby.

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