“Building confidence as a freediver is about becoming aware of the innate abilities we have as humans," say South Africa's freedive Champion Beth Neale, as she continues to breathe much-needed life into Ocean Conservation.
The continental record holder, has once again defied the odds by breaking her own existing freediving record - and taking the South African Freediving Championship for the fourth time – all in the name of ocean conservation.
On Sunday, 25 August 2019, the South African-born Master Instructor broke her 47-meter ‘no fins’ freediving record in Bermuda by a further three metres using nothing but a nose clip. Beth set the previous ‘no fins’ freediving record in Sodwana Bay last April.
"As humans we have the ability of mammalian dive reflex", says Beth, "Which allows us to experience life underwater. These physiological responses allow us to relax, lower the heart rate, conserve energy and move blood flow to the vital organs when holding the breath. It is truly magical!”
It is truly magical
Her latest daring attempt is raising funds for ocean education programmes which teach the next generation of ‘Ocean Guardians’ about the importance of conservation. This is being done through corporate donations and her GoFundMe campaign - the largest freediving GoFundMe campaign in history.
“Conditions couldn't have been much better! I had a 20-person support team out on the water with me 12 miles offshore of Bermuda. This was the most relaxed performance of my career, despite having a wardrobe malfunction at 50 meters!”
She explained that the velcro band on her leg, which holds the bottom tag she needs to present to judges on completion, slipped right off her leg because of the compression at depth.
“I had then tucked the tag in my wetsuit - which fell out again at 40 meters,” she continued. “According to my dive computer, these incidents added 15 seconds to the dive, which was a total of 2 minutes 50 seconds.”
“Freediving allows you to connect not only with the ocean, but the body on a deep level, without the cumbrance of gear and distraction of technology,” explained Beth.
Her freediving journey started a decade back in London when, during a particularly low point in her life, Beth happened to watch the film, The Big Blue, and immediately started searching for freediving courses.
Two weeks later, she started on what would become her underwater journey.
Miles Cloutier, Beth’s coach and partner says, “Beth has tremendous athletic talent and ability that she is only just beginning to explore. One of the things I most admire about her is the energy she puts into conservation, with athletics coming a distant second. The dive event was three months of preparation and we had more than 50 donors, supporters and friends out on the water with us.”
Incredible experience, many dangers
Beth follows the CNF – constant weight no fins – diving discipline whereby she swims breaststroke for both descent and ascent, using no equipment. Commenting on her preferred diving technique, Beth says, “I think it’s the purest form of diving and I absolutely love it!”
Diving to such depths, while an incredible experience, also poses many dangers to divers.
However, Beth has learned that relaxation is key to succeeding in any freediving attempt. Explaining the process of diving to 50 metres, she says, “Initially there are thermoclines on the way down, which is a layer of water that has a significant change in temperature. I am swimming breaststroke for the first 25 meters and my hands are occupied, so I wear a nose clip that I blow against to equalize the pressure in my ears.”
At these depths, the pressure makes wearing a mask challenging and Beth has to rely on a blur of lines and her dive watch to assist her in reaching her target depth. After 21 metres, her lungs are compressed and her body goes into freefall and, after the 60-second point, she begins her ascent.
Asked why she decided to attempt this record now, Beth says it was a combination of needing to improve herself as an athlete while raising awareness of the work she’s doing.
Develop conservation initiatives in Africa and abroad
“Competitive freediving is far from my ‘mission’ in life, but it is a talent and discipline I have worked to develop. I have never been sponsored as an athlete or competed professionally – my focus is simply to use my athletic accomplishments to develop conservation initiatives in Africa and abroad.”
Commenting on her choice of location, Beth explained: “Bermuda really is a phenomenal place to dive. My hope is that every resident and visitor has a chance to experience the beauty for themselves. The ocean has many challenges, but I think there is so much to be excited for and look forward to from a conservation standpoint.”
The owner of Aqua Souls, Beth has dedicated the last five years of her life to ocean conservation in South Africa, Mozambique and Bermuda. Through her work as a Master Instructor, she has taught more than 500 adults the art of freediving, as well as more than 3 000 children – all of whom are instructed in ocean conservation as well.
The Kids on the Reef programme, a 2-day programme run in partnership with the Bermuda Zoological Society, teaches children how to snorkel and freedive while empowering them with ocean conservation awareness. She also runs freediving camps, a five-day programme for children aged eight to 15 years.
During this time, the children are taken to various diving sites, learning about reefs and freediving as well as challenges facing the ocean, yoga, breathing and stretching techniques.
“I love changing the perceptions of children who are fearful of the water, as well as being able to identify children that are gifted or interested in a future of conservation and may develop themselves to become ocean guardians,” said Beth.
*Compiled by Selene Brophy