If you want to see a mermaid, go to South Korea. Only don't expect to see any shell bras on these ladies; the "mermaids" living on Jeju Island off the coast of South Korea are actually haenyeo, female freedivers who swim down to 60 feet on one breath to collect clams, shellfish, and seaweed from the bottom of the ocean. And if you think that's impressive, just wait until you meet Mandy-Rae Krack.
Krack (formerly Cruickshank) is one of the most accomplished and daring freedivers in the world, an inductee to the Women Divers Hall of Fame and the holder of seven world records, including the one she set for diving to 289 feet on a single breath. Her deepest self-powered dive was 288 feet, her longest breath hold six minutes and 25 seconds. She even rescued stage magician David Blaine after his failed nine-minute breath-holding stunt.
"As someone with a competitive spirit, I love that every time I go out and do a few more seconds of breath hold or another meter of depth and come up feeling fine, it leaves me wondering, 'How much more can I do?'" says Krack, who was introduced to the sport by her husband, Kirk Krack, another world-record-holding freediver and the founder of Performance Freediving International.
Freediving is nothing new--in ancient coastal cultures, swimmers dove to reclaim sunken treasures or find food--but it wasn't until the 1940s that it became part of the competitive arena, after an Italian pilot plunged almost 100 feet on a single breath, launching a sport that eventually grew so widely that it required an international governing body (the AIDA, the Worldwide Federation for breath-hold diving).
So how can someone dive so deep unassisted? Genetic mutation? Superhuman strength? In reality, with the right training and proper form, anyone can become a freediver. Using proper breathing techniques, it's possible to use the muscles in the diaphragm to access the lower third portion of the lungs, an area not typically used during rest. Proper breathing lowers your heart rate, thus reducing carbon dioxide levels in the body, meaning you can go longer on a single breath.
But the dangers of pushing your body to an extreme are very real: ruptured eardrums, scarred lung tissues, drowning, and blackouts are all part of the equation. "Most freediving fatalities happen to recreational freedivers who think they aren't pushing themselves," explains Krack. "They also don't have direct supervision of a buddy. We wake up from blackouts quickly provided a buddy keeps your head above water until you wake up and take a breath. If your buddy isn't there to protect your airway, you will drown."
To get back to the surface after a deep dive, divers inflate a balloon that carries them upward. However, as one returns to the surface, the body senses low levels of oxygen and basically shuts off to conserve what's left, resulting in a blackout. Kirk Krack told "Good Morning America" that blackouts account for almost all of freediving deaths. But it's not only recreational divers who are at risk; even seasoned competitors are subject to disorientation and mechanical failures. Late last year, competitive freediver Nick Mevoli died attempting to set an American record, and champion freediver Audrey Mestre tragically died while attempting to break a world record set by her husband, blacking out at 300 feet (the equivalent of a 30-story skyscraper).
"Most people don't take it as far as me and do records," explains Krack. "Most people do it as a way to get closer to marine life and enjoy the water." These days, it's common for freedivers to cross over from other underwater sports like scuba diving and spearfishing, with seasoned vets looking to shed gear, challenge themselves or even feel more connected to their prey. Krack herself has experienced a marine life encounter when a wild dolphin played with her for 45 minutes, an incident captured in the wildlife documentary “The Cove.” "The biggest misconception is that freediving is dangerous," says Krack. "There are countless other sports and daily activities that result in more injuries or death than freediving does."
If you're ready to take your snorkeling trysts to the next level, Krack insists on taking a Performance Freediving International course to learn what the risks of freediving are so you can learn how to minimize them and deal with them properly. "The biggest mistake would be people thinking they are taking it easy and therefore don't need direct supervision from a buddy," Krack says. Taking a course also helps you learn how to do something the right way from the start so you don't develop bad habits like diving with a snorkel in your mouth or hyperventilating.
"You are your own worst enemy," she explains. "This sport really shows you that. If you can't get control of your mind, it will stop you from breaking new ground. But once you do, you will amaze yourself."
To build up your freediving kit, Krack suggests buying pieces made specifically for freediving. Invest in a freediving mask that is lower in volume than scuba or snorkel masks, a pair of long fin blades--which help you swim farther with fewer kicks, meaning you save oxygen ("Big bonus when you're on one breath!" says Mandy-Rae)--and a warm wetsuit, which acts both as an oxygen saver (shivering uses up air) and a safety feature, allowing you to float at the surface to breathe. With the right gear and proper training, you could reach a depth of 100 feet after your first lesson.
"[Freediving] forces you to focus on yourself and not on everything else that is happening around you," Krack says. "You learn to become a part of the water; that is the calming part."
Find a freediving course at PerformanceFreediving.com.
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