The clear blue waters of Egypt’s Red Sea give Richard Fleury the chance to test his freediving skills and, on deck, learn yoga techniques to help him dive deeper
The SS Thistlegorm ranks among the world’s top 10 shipwrecks. Blown in half by a German bomber in 1941, the second world war supply ship sank near Ras Muhammad on Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. Thousands of scuba divers come every year to explore the Thistlegorm’s superstructure and photograph the marine life colonising her ruptured hull.
But today freedivers are greeted by an unexpected sight. Descending on a single breath, they glide across the decks and weave through the ship’s cargo bays. Silent and streamlined with no bulky air cylinders, they freefall 30 metres to the sea floor. Sod the fish, say the underwater camera flashes … get a load of this.
“I guess they’ve never seen the lesser-spotted freediver in its natural habitat before,” quips freediving instructor Simon Reid, on the Mistral, the first Red Sea liveaboard boat to be chartered exclusively for breath-hold diving. Liveaboards are a mainstay of Egypt’s scuba industry. Sleeping and eating at sea for a week or more, divers can reach sites beyond the range of most day boats. “I like liveaboards,” says Simon: “There’s nothing like stepping off the back of the hotel into the water.”
This week-long freediving and yoga trip is a venture from dive holiday specialist Scuba Travel. Recognising the popularity of freediving – especially near the town of Dahab, where breath-hold diving students come to train at the 130m Blue Hole – the UK-based operator has teamed up with Emma Farrell, probably Britain’s best-known freediving instructor. Together they have created the first bespoke freediving cruise in the Red Sea.
“Not many can say they’ve freedived on the Thistlegorm,” says Derek White from Southampton. A 55-year-old ex-oil rig diver wearing a silver dolphin fluke pendant, vest and baggy “MC Hammer” yoga pants, Derek has watched the sport increase in popularity since the 1970s when he trained with French freediving pioneer Jacques Mayol.
Mayol achieved fame by becoming the first human to reach a depth of 100 metres on a single breath and earned the nickname Dolphin Man for his studies of marine mammals. Luc Besson’s cult movie The Big Blue – a fantasy version of Mayol’s life released 25 years ago – inspired a new generation of freedivers.
“Mayol was into Pranayama yoga in the 1960s and popularised the idea of freedivers using yoga,” says Emma. Since then, most serious freedivers have incorporated yoga into their training to improve breathing, flexibility and relaxation. Emma has made numerous TV appearances and trained more than 1,000 people, including actor Terence Stamp and chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. She’s also a qualified teacher of Hatha and Sivananda yoga, and so alarmingly bendy that she can cross her legs behind her head without a hint of a grimace. “It doesn’t matter what [yoga] discipline you do,” she says.
“You will benefit from learning how to breathe properly and the exercises and poses help stretch your lungs and diaphragm.”
Twice a day Emma leads yoga sessions on the Mistral’s sun deck. The Mistral is a large motor yacht sleeping around 20 guests in 10 wood-panelled cabins. It’s not luxurious, but it is comfortable, clean and well-equipped. The friendly crew and staff take care of everything, the food is excellent and, when land is in sight – which it often is – there’s even Wi-Fi.
At night, after dinner and the sun have gone down, and the day’s pictures of fish have been downloaded, it’s time for more yoga. This time it’s Yoga Nidra, a relaxation technique so potent it borders on voodoo. As we lie on our backs under the stars, Emma’s mesmeric tones invite us to imagine the crowns of our heads as lotus flowers, “shedding thousands of golden petals”. I’m not sure what a lotus flower looks like, so visualise a sort of psychedelic dandelion. The yogic equivalent of opium leaves the deck littered with bodies snoring in blissed-out oblivion.
Relaxation is key to freediving. With 100 feet of water between you and your next breath, anything that raises your heart rate and, therefore, oxygen consumption is bad news. It’s a mind game, the only adrenalin-free extreme sport. With practice, I’m told, the urge to breathe no longer registers as discomfort, just another state of being. Some even enjoy it. And the sport attracts people from all walks of life. Among the divers on board the Mistral are a barrister, carpenter, a medical doctor, a warehouseman and a soldier.
“Everyone here is happy to push themselves outside their comfort zone,” says 28-year-old naval engineering officer Mike Emptage, who started freediving just last year and now has a 42-metre dive under his weight belt.
“I didn’t start freediving with any expectations,” continues Heather, a 35-year-old environmental consultant. “But depth is addictive and once you’ve got a personal best, you just want to go deeper.”
Not everyone on board has previous freediving experience. London artist Elena Brebner, for instance, begins the week as a nervous novice and ends it diving to 15 metres and learning to rescue a blacked-out diver. “It’s a tremendous feeling of achievement,” she beams.
At least one dive session each day is a “line training” session. Clipped to weighted ropes attached to buoys for safety, we dive through shoals of electric blue fusilier fish congregating around the line.
But the recreational dives are what freediving is all about: freedom. With equipment stripped down to a mask, weight belt and long fins for extra power, freedivers are more agile than scuba divers. Unlike green, and often murky, UK dive sites, the water here seems endlessly clear and blue. Visibility of 30 metres is the norm and there’s plenty to see. There are many fished-out Mediterranean diving destinations but the Red Sea remains full of life. From reef sharks to turtles to tiny but colourful nudibranch molluscs, you never quite know what you might bump into next. Like the night the dolphins come to visit.
We are relaxing after our Thistlegorm dive and a pair of bottlenose dolphins swim alongside the boat, playing in its lights. A scramble for fins and masks follows, as divers, one or two still in their underpants, plunge into the water. The dolphins are unfazed by our idiotic, overexcited antics as we thrash about after them. In fact, they seem delighted, swimming and diving with us, squeaking and clicking, mimicking our movements, plunging and corkscrewing through the dark water. Long after they exhaust us, these wild creatures want to carry on playing. The encounter is surprisingly emotional and two divers leave the water in tears. Back on board the Mistral, we watch the two dolphins swim away into the night and freediving feels, suddenly, like something more than a sport.
• The trip (including return flights from Gatwick to Sharm el-Sheikh) was provided by Scuba Travel (0800 072 8221 scubatravel.com). One week Red Sea freediving holidays with Emma Farrell cost from £1,550 per person, including food. The next trip is from 19-26 April 2014 aboard the Mistral. For more information on the sport of freediving visit: gofreediving.co,uk