“The simplest way I can describe freediving is that it’s being aware of all of your senses at once,” stated one of our tour leaders Dylan, as Lara, his partner in business and life, cut us through an especially wavey Jervis Bay.
“You have to focus on your breathing so it’s incredibly meditative. How often do you spend an hour of your day thinking about your breathing?”
The morning was cold, I had been awake too long, waves pummelled the bottom of the boat, and after hearing Dylan’s freediving speech I wasn’t quite sure what sort of hippy free-for-all I had been sent on. I was already facing my fear of open water: did I really have to have my reluctance towards meditation challenged too?
Having never been dumped in my late 20s, I’ve never really given freediving a proper chance. It doesn’t help that the ocean terrifies me. When you step into the sea you’re stepping into the home of every deadly ocean creature with their claws, fangs, teeth, barbs, and debris-generating mating rituals. Beyond the green abyss lies lifeforms unknown, which conjure a certain imaginative fear of species with sharp teeth, primed to remind me why my species evolved on land and how bobbing around alien in their domain would always lead to my demise.
Yet, I was about to attempt to snorkel with a whale and be zen while doing it.
For four years Jervis Bay locals Dylan and Lara have run Woebegone Freediving, offering snorkelling and freediving expeditions as well as leading a bunch of green initiatives including beach cleanups and planting a she-oak tree for every passenger to offset the emissions from their boat. Their most famous offering are the whale swims which they run four times a week during whale season (May to August).
Due to the wild nature of wild animals (funny that), there are no guarantees you will actually get to swim with a whale. On the day of our dive, conditions were so rough the call was made early on that we would not be able to swim with whales. Luckily Woebegone offers an amazing seasonal back up: seals.
After cruising past the sheer and stunning Jervis Bay headlands, we pulled into a cove where we saw seals and pups lounging on rocks, basking in the warmth of the sun. We popped on our masks, fins, and wetsuits, the latter of which are thick, high-quality numbers perfect for winter temperatures.
Meandering as long as I could, I finally made it off the boat and swam out to greet the seal colony.
Even though I couldn’t see the bottom of the water I found the whole experience very calming. I felt very safe, in part due to how I struggled to comprehend what I was seeing – seals darting shapes around me, leaving a jet stream of bubbles in their wake. Not on a TV screen but metres away from me.
I’ve often thought it cringey when people give animals human traits but I have to admit they really seemed curious and playful, almost like they understood that we were a group on tour and wanted to show off their moves.
Some seals mimicked the moves of those who wore a weight belt so they could free dive down into the depths. I played it safe on the surface, only realising how knackered I was after our 40 minutes with the seals was up and we were safely back on board.
Delightfully, as we made our way back into the bay we saw a few humpback whales, one of which that put on a breeching masterclass in the distance.
Back in the calmer (and by then sunnier) confines of the bay, we had some of Lara’s suitably warming pumpkin soup before Dylan offered freediving lessons to anyone who was interested. I was not interested. I was terrified. Swimming three metres down with weights tied to my waist? No thank you.
Twenty minutes later I was lying like a sting ray on the sandy bed of Jervis Bay, four metres underwater, running my fingers over critically endangered sea grass that was positively dancing under the sun. With no prior experience I was able to achieve this feat after a brief tutorial about duck diving, proper breathing techniques, and how to pop your ears as you descend.
Turns out that meditative stuff about holding your breath underwater being relaxing is pretty much true. With oxygen only attainable through a three metre dash to the surface you must trust yourself not the panic. In a sense you are forced to relax, which at the time of writing seems to be the only form of meditation that’s ever worked on me.
Exploring the area we spotted several types of eye-catching fish and I even got to swim with a sea turtle who let me follow it for a little while before he legged it (finned it?).
Later, Dylan took me aside to coach me, testing me to see how long I could hold my breath. After a little coaching I learnt I could hold my breath for a full minute. Even though I’d seen whales breeching, snorkelled with seals, and swam with a sea turtle, holding my breath for a minute was the highlight of my day.
I learnt something about myself through pushing myself physically and mentally. I overcame my fear of the ocean and my lifelong disdain for meditation. What’s more, I had an amazing time doing it. And I can now hold my breath for two minutes and I can’t wait dive again. With Jervis Bay only three hours from where I live in Sydney (four hours with a stop in Berry) the idea of booking another free dive is very tempting.
Getting out of my comfort zone allowed me to see Jervis Bay from angles previously unknown to me. I’ve been many times, but never before have I seen the bronze headland shining in the sun, warming the colonies of seals that stay hidden from tourists and locals alike. I had witnessed the stunning biodiversity in the bay itself with deep, clear waters that make it such an intoxicating freediving spot.
Freediving allowed me to see a hidden world – not just outdoors but inside myself and discovering what I was capable of. Yep, I’ve near completely morphed into the shakas throwing coastie hippy I was so frightened of becoming. All that’s left to do is complete my metamorphosis by uttering a cliched call to action: “dude, you gotta free dive sometime, it changed my life.”
Writer travelled as a guest of Visit Shoalhaven.
Benny is a travel, food, and comedy writer from an up and coming seaside town called Sydney.