September 17, 2016
We’re still in Puerto Refugio and absolutely loving it. We have had the perfect weather window to be here. We’re pretty remote right now, so the weather is critical. This is no place to be if a norther blows through or a chubasco (a local fierce thunderstorm that can roll through at night). There are so many coves, islands and reefs to explore here, that we can see why a boat would choose to stay a month or more, or until the groceries run out!
The two other cruising boats who made the journey up here with us are Kenta Anae and Adios, both Canadian boats. We’ve gotten to know the folks on both boats pretty well and are having a really nice time hanging with them. It’s always fun to share the experience of exploring with more people.
Aside from the perfect weather, the visibility in the water has been fantastic. It is probably 60 feet of visibility, which is the best we have seen all summer. It certainly makes us want to take to the water every day. So far, we have found some amazing reefs and rocky outcroppings that have let us seen so many new species of fish and turtles, as well as all of the sea life which clings to the rocks of the reef. Sometimes you just have to stop and stare at the cracks in the rocks to see all the fish, starfish, sea urchins, crabs and other creatures I don’t have names for.
Two boats had recommended a book to us called Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves by James Nester. We both devoured the book, and I highly recommend it. The book is about a lot more than freediving, but I found what some of the experts said about freediving to really resonate and connected to it. The author really eschews competitive freediving, but he connects with scientists who are studying the oceans and sea life by free-diving.
If you started reading this blog before we left California, you might remember that I struggled with my Open Water certification for scuba diving. I’ve come a long way since then, and even dove with bull sharks in Cabo Pulmo 60 feet down! That is not something that I thought I would ever do. But, even though I’m more comfortable scuba diving than I was in the beginning, I don’t know that it will ever feel natural to BREATHE UNDERWATER. But, freediving is completely different.
In Deep, the author goes through the science and history of freediving, but one of the things we learned was that it is actually very natural and your body knows how to react. You’re first reaction to sticking your head underwater is going to be to hold your breath. You will do it involuntarily. Apparently if you put a baby underwater, they will naturally hold their breath without instruction. Interesting. And, we can hold our breath for much longer underwater than we think we can.
One of the things that I like about freediving, opposed to scuba, is that you don’t have all that gear strapped to you. If you’ve ever done scuba, you’ll know that the heavy tank and weights restrict your movement. If you free dive, you are just swimming with nothing holding you back. The scientists in the book that are studying whales by freediving explain that the animals are often scared off by the bubbles of scuba, but if you are just swimming, they are much more likely to let you approach. I think this is probably true of most of the sea life. When I dive down and don’t make too much movement, the fish and turtles don’t seem afraid of me.
So, how did we get here? When I first started snorkeling with Mike, he would always dive down 10 or 15 feet to check out something below, but I just couldn’t do it. I hadn’t learned to clear my ears at all, and so I was a bit nervous taking our scuba certification class that I wouldn’t be able to do it. But, I actually learned to do it quite easily with scuba, and that gave me a bit more confidence to do it freediving. The difference, of course, is that with scuba you have additional time and air with which to clear, but freediving you just have that one breath.
My only advice in learning to do this is practice. At first I could get 15 feet down, then 20, then 25, and today I was more than 40 feet down on a single breath! I didn’t even realize I was that far down until I started my ascent. I had been following a turtle around with my Go Pro and just followed him deeper and deeper until I was basically out of air. When I turned to go up, it took quite a while to kick to the surface. But, I did it! And, the more times I do it, the more confident I get that I can go down a bit deeper and stay down longer.
Mike likes to dive with a few pounds of weight on, but I’ve been choosing not to free dive with a weight belt. The water is about 84 degrees, and I can stay in for quite a while without a wetsuit. (I dive with a skin suit to keep off jellyfish.) It really is only the first 20 feet or so where that weight helps you get down. So, I just bend at the waist, point down, stick my fins straight up and start kicking. Once you get down far enough, there is a neutral buoyancy that happens to let you stay down without having to keep kicking to fight your way to stay at that depth. If I had a wetsuit on, I’d have to have weights to combat the buoyancy of the wetsuit. But without it, it seems completely natural. You can swim underwater and become part of the sea life!
One of Mike’s motivations for getting better at freediving is spearfishing. He doesn’t have a spear gun yet, but both of the other boats here have let him take some shots with theirs. In order to get those nice size grouper, you have to be able to dive the 30-40 feet down and wait them out for the perfect shot. Merle on Kenta Anae has been picking up some nice grouper every day with the spear gun.
Mike goofing off under water…
I’m not a hunter, so I’ll skip the spearfishing. But, I love to try and capture this experience on video. What I noticed is that when you are snorkeling at the surface, you are only seeing a small fraction of what is going on below you, even if it is only 15 or 20 feet deep. Once you dive down, everything seems to come to life. So, I’ve been on a diving quest for that great video footage. Right now I have so many snorkeling and diving videos that it will take me months to sort through and find the best clips to piece together. I’ll get it done eventually
The next time you are on vacation to some tropical island and someone suggests you go snorkeling, say yes and try that freediving! You will be amazed at what you will see. In Deep, the author meets with the ama, the ancient culture of Japanese diving women, who free dove for centuries to harvest sea life and whose techniques have been passed down. After he tries to dive with the ama, he asks them if they have any ancient freediving secrets to share. They laugh and say “You just dive. You just get in the water.” I like that.
Aside from the fabulous snorkeling and diving here in Puerto Refugio, we’ve been hiking around the hills looking at rocks and caves. Like so much of Baja, it is raw and beautiful. Last night was the full moon and the air was still. The three boats gathered on shore at sunset, and the kids on Kenta Anae searched for firewood. We built a great bonfire and cooked fresh caught grouper over the coals. We shared stories and were all grateful for the incredible opportunity to be somewhere that so few people get to visit. It was the perfect evening.