Diving Free

Confronting history and human limits in the deep.

By Ben Stubenberg

You are alone with yourself.
Even your body slips away so that it feels like
a speck of consciousness that’s floating in the abyss.
—William Truebridge, World Champion Freediver

More than sport, freediving transforms the men and women who surrender themselves to the sea, leaving behind the realm of humans and entering a world where they cannot breathe. Descending on a single gulp of air, divers hear only the sound of the beating heart. The light dims. Time stops. For a few minutes, but what feels like forever, divers glide untethered, vulnerable and free. In a heinous turn of historic irony, however, the joyful liberation freediving bestows also prompted ruthless subjugation that wiped out one people and redefined another.

From time immemorial, human tribes living along the coast around the world trained to dive deep and stay under as long as possible in the quest for survival. The divers took risks and accepted peril to hunt for sustenance below the surface. Diving’s natural elation led to an addictive joy, where being in the water became more natural than being on land and in time, a way of life. The the best divers of these aquatic communities, the ones who took the biggest chances and dodged the greatest dangers, became heroes and even spiritual leaders of the village, looked up to and revered.

This is a truly magical Big Blue moment, as captured by photographer Philip Shearer.

Lucayan freedivers
The spectacularly clear turquoise ocean of the Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI) has produced its own extraordinary divers, beginning with the Lucayan Indians. More than 2,000 years ago, their ancestors began a long migration from the river deltas of South America, island hopping the 1,000 mile Caribbean archipelago until reaching TCI and the Bahamas. Before ships arrived from across the Atlantic, before their world vanished and they ceased to exist, Lucayans lived in their huts of thatch and woven reed next to the same beaches where we now sunbathe, gather for a picnic or watch the sunset. They too glided gracefully through the translucent sea, diving for dinner or just for the thrill.
Christopher Columbus, who likely made his first landfall in Grand Turk in 1492 (See “The First Columbus Landing,” Times of the Islands Fall 2017) and the early Spanish colonists that followed, took note of the Native Indians’ exceptional natural ability to hold their breath for long periods and dive deep. This observation coincided with the discovery of vast beds of oysters containing pearls around the islands of Margarita and Cubagua off the coast of Venezuela. The poor swimming and diving abilities of the Europeans at the time, however, precluded retrieving the pearl oysters except in the shallowest waters. Driven by the prospect of quick riches from an abundance of pearls tantalizingly close but beyond reach, the Spanish in 1500 began to raid TCI and the Bahamas for natives to enslave and exploit as freedivers.
In just 20 years, according to TCI historian H. E. Sadler, some 40,000 Indians had been taken captive and, along with disease and outright slaughter, were completely depopulated from the Islands. The first European colonizers rationalized their abduction and enslavement of the Indians by reasoning that as heathens, not Christians, they had no souls.
Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish priest outraged at the horrific treatment of the native peoples, recorded the astounding brutality of the island raids from what he had learned. “And verily, as a Spaniard told me, their ships in these regions could voyage without compass or chart, merely by following from the distance between the Lucayos Islands (TCI) and Hispaniola, which is sixty or seventy leagues, the trace of those Indians’ corpses floating in the sea, corpses that had been cast overboard by earlier ships.”
Upon arrival in the dry, low-lying islands of Margarita and Cubagua surrounded by turquoise sea not unlike TCI, the abductors forced the surviving Indians to dive down for the pearl oysters for extended periods without rest. The demands of the work often led to internal hemorrhaging from ascending too quickly and burst eardrums causing blood to gush from mouth and nose, as well as being exposed to shark attacks. On occasion, pirates kidnapped the Indian divers for use in their own pearl diving operations.
Las Casas again documented the atrocities committed against the native pearl divers in searing reports to the Spanish monarchs, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. “The tyranny exercised by the Spaniards against the Indians in the work of pearl fishing is one of the most cruel that can be imagined. The pearl fishers dive into the sea at a depth of five fathoms, and do this from sunrise to sunset, and remain for many minutes without breathing, tearing the oysters out of their rocky beds where the pearls are formed. They come to the surface with a netted bag of these oysters where a Spanish torturer is waiting in a canoe or skiff, and if the pearl diver shows signs of wanting to rest, he is showered with blows.”
In one generation, the Spanish and other Europeans had sealed the extinction of the Lucayans by working them to death. The tragic irony of the Lucayan’s demise near the very waters where their ancestors had begun their journey north for a better life is not lost. And the hard shiny spheres that so many Native Indians died for, the pretty little pearls that decorated the necks and ears of nobility, were hardly more than the product of scabs that protect the oyster from tapeworms.

Javed Shearer enjoys the ocean’s beauty and bounty in a cave on a single breath of air.

African freedivers
With the Indians gone, the pearl traders looked for replacements in the budding slave trade in Africa. European explorers had seen and recorded impressive feats of swimming and diving among the Africans since the mid-1400s. As with the Native Indians, the African divers had spent years adapting their minds and bodies to apnea (breath holding), oxygen deprivation and water pressure at great depths through repeated and prolonged immersion.
According to Dr. Kevin Dawson, Professor of History at the University of California, Merced, “Many [African divers] could dive ninety-plus feet deep. How divers acquired their abilities is unclear. But the lung capacity and the composure required to work at such depths suggest that they had learned to swim at an early age. When diving, many held rock weights to help them descend quickly without expending valuable air.” Although slave traders did not understand the physiological process and changes, Professor Dawson notes, the traders specifically targeted ethnic groups of Africans for capture in riverine areas.
When the African slave divers arrived in the Caribbean, however, the slave masters could not be quite as brutal as in the case of the Native Indians. The premium cost for African slave divers required better management of the investment, so divers received more rest time and fewer beatings. The dependency on slave divers fostered a complex relationship of power and privilege. In one telling account, slave masters frequently rewarded African slave divers with a glass of wine and a pipe of tobacco between dives. Of course, slaveholders conferred favors to extract more labor, and in turn more wealth from the slave divers. Historians refer to this as “privileged exploitation” that gave the African slave divers a measure of influence over their situation that most other slaves did not have.
In her research of enslaved pearl divers of 16th century Caribbean, Dr. Molly A. Warsh, Professor at the University of Pittsburgh, studied their bargaining power. She writes, “Although pearl divers performed exceedingly dangerous work and endured difficult living conditions, evidence suggests that they nonetheless managed to exert considerable control over their own mobility, as well as a degree of control over the pearls they were forced to harvest. The divers frequently kept pearls for themselves, either hoarding them or trading them for food and other necessities.” In some cases, slave divers were able to purchase freedom, leveraging the very expertise that prompted their enslavement, in yet another irony, to secure liberation.
During the initial period of colonization in the first half of the 16th century, Native Indian and African slave divers generated the greatest wealth in the Americas, Professor Dawson points out. When the Spanish discovered the rich silver mines in Bolivia and Mexico in the mid-1500s, the economic focus shifted towards the mainland of the Americas. By then the pearl beds had declined substantially from over-harvesting, but a new demand for divers emerged to recover lost cargo from increasing numbers of shipwrecks on the reefs off Florida, the Bahamas, and TCI. In particular, the Spanish treasure galleons departing Havana for Spain laden with gold and silver that wrecked on the reefs created the best opportunities for wealth for salvage wreckers. A few Native Indians had already been forced into salvage diving, but as they were killed off, slaveholders called for more African slave divers to do the work. Salvagers would sometimes use diving bells big enough to fit two men with trapped air to breathe. The bell, suspended from a cable to the ship, could be lowered 60 feet (19 meters) below the surface. But the bell, just a few feet in diameter, limited the range of vision, so salvagers much preferred slave divers who could physically cover more ocean floor.
When a hurricane sank a Spanish fleet of 28 treasure ships off the Florida Keys in 1622, the salvage manager in Cuba brought 20 slave divers to locate the wrecks. At first, the slave divers recovered only a few bars of silver, but not the flagship Santa Margarita. Undoubtably worried that freelance salvagers and pirates closing in would find the ship first, a Spanish official offered emancipation to any slave diver who could find the wreck. One of the slave divers did in fact discover the ship and was freed on the spot. However, such good fortune rarely befell a slave diver.
Perhaps the most prominent use of African slave divers for salvaging was from the 1641 wreck of the Nuestra Señora de la Pura y Limpia Concepción on the Silver Banks located between Grand Turk and the Dominican Republic. (See “Whose Treasure,” Times of the Islands Summer 2018.) William Phips and experienced Bermudian salvagers organized the treasure hunting expeditions, bringing 60 slave divers from Bermuda, Jamaica, and Barbados to look for the wreck. In 1687, they found the wreck and recovered more than 30 tons (15 metric tons) of silver bars, making vast fortunes for Phips and his investors.
African salvage divers, as with pearl divers, fully understood the value of such diving abilities and leveraged them to improve working conditions. The divers also gained a special status in the slave communities and a measure of dignity through pride in work not afforded to field slaves. Though still considered property by slave owners, the African slave divers were able nonetheless to accumulate earnings from work that created opportunities for themselves and their families within the constraints of bondage.
Salvage diving by slaves, and later freemen after Great Britain outlawed slavery in 1834, appears to have continued through the first half of the 19th century in the Bahamas and probably TCI. Around this time, local TCI people formed their own salvage enterprises to watch for ships wrecking on the surrounding reefs and recover the cargo, possibly using freedivers. Blue Hills on Providenciales provided a well-known vantage point for wreckers.
Amazingly, all of the divers performed without goggles or masks, which had yet to be invented. They did underwater work using only their naked eyes and may have developed an ability to “see” underwater. The eye muscles of divers can adapt by constricting the pupils that alter the lens shape in turn, thus changing the light refraction for increased visibility. Unfortunately, excessive exposure of the eyes underwater can cause long-term vision damage when out of the water.

Sea nomads and spleens
Putting the face in cool water triggers an automatic response by the body called the mammalian dive reflex to lower the heart rate and conserve oxygen. Humans share this reflex with all mammals. Even newborn babies instinctively know how to hold their breath when submerged. During lengthy breath-holding, the veins and arteries in the extremities contract to divert more red blood carrying oxygen to the more vital organs—the heart, lungs, and brain. Typically, the diver feels contractions in the diaphragm, signaling these changes.
As a diver descends deeper, the lungs compress to the size of fists, but blood continues to rush in. When the diver ascends to the surface, the lungs expand again and need to be filled with oxygen. The brain detects the oxygen levels dropping and tells the spleen, a spongy organ that recycles red blood cells, to release fresh oxygenated blood into the circulatory system. If the oxygen level gets too low, the brain puts the body in a sleep mode to save more energy and what oxygen is left. This can cause the diver to black out, usually in the last 10 meters (33 feet) of the ascent, and require rescue to bring the diver to the surface. Acutely aware, divers train to acclimate and accept the risk as the price for a life-changing experience.
Though virtually all humans are capable of basic freediving, a tiny minority of humans, it turns out, have evolved to manage the rigors of breath-holding for long periods underwater. In particular, genetic researchers have found major body differences in the Bajau people living in small coastal villages of Indonesia, southern Philippines and Malaysia that make them truly natural divers different from the rest of us. For more than 1,000 years, the Bajau have depended on the sea for their livelihood and spend most of the workday in and under the water hunting fish with spear guns. These “Sea Nomads,” a poor, marginalized ethnic group native to Southeast Asia, can hold their breath and dive to 100 feet using only wooden masks with a glass plate and sometimes a plank of wood as a fin and hold their breath for an astounding 10 minutes.
In 2017, Melissa Llardo from the University of Copenhagen measured the spleen sizes of Bajau and nearby populations of non-Bajau people. Using an ultrasound machine, she found that all 59 Bajau people she measured had spleens 50% larger than the 43 spleens she measured of non-Bajau people. The larger spleen served to store more oxygenated red blood cells in Bajau divers than average divers. In this way, the spleen becomes a biological oxygen tank that allows divers to stay underwater for much longer periods. Even more astonishing, Ms. Llardo found that divers as well as non-divers among the Bajau people had the same 50% larger spleen, indicating a likely genetic mutation just from being related to the Bajau diving communities.
The notable physiological changes among the Bajau, of course, raises a compelling question: Did Lucayan and African slave divers also possess this unique genetic trait given their own long history of freediving in the West Indies or in Africa? It seems plausible, and some evidence supports at least body changes in the Lucayans. Dr. Michael Pateman, current director of the Turks & Caicos National Museum, examined Lucayan skeletons recovered on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas and discovered substantial bone growth on the stapes, the smallest bones in the body that are attached to the ear drums. The constant pressure of the water while diving creates stress on ear drums and the stapes leading to an increase in bone mass consistent with frequently deep divers. While some Lucayans manifested permanent physical modifications, we do not know if it was genetic.
In any case, Lucayans and African slave divers definitively shaped the early history of the Americas following the European arrival with demonstrated superhuman aquatic abilities derived from their native cultures.

Freediving’s renaissance in TCI

South Caicos boat captain Timothy Hamilton (far right) enjoys a drink with famous freediver Jacques Mayol (at left) in the 1970s. Hamilton, a talented diver, showed Mayol the best places to dive in South Caicos.

A few fishermen in TCI and other West Indies islands retained freediving skills over the generations, but this was the exception not the norm. The art of freediving, as well as swimming, eroded considerably in the region over the past two centuries, even though having survived in scattered pockets. The reason remains uncertain. However, the freediving prowess first brought from Africa five centuries ago saw a revival in the 1950s and 1960s when confident, enterprising TCI fishermen strapped on masks and fins and jumped into the water. Until then, fishermen usually collected sponges using ten foot (three meter) poles with hooks and glass boxes to see clearly underwater. When the sponge industry collapsed, the fishermen applied the pole and hook technique to snaring conch, but the practice proved too slow. So, many local fisherman simply taught themselves to freedive to collect conch more efficiently and learned to spearfish with their make-shift spearguns.
One of the first to switch from collecting sponges by poles and hooks to freediving and spear fishing was Jeffrey Handfield from the Belmont part of Bottle Creek, North Caicos. Back in the day, the well-known Handfield, now 87, would take his boat all over TCI to dive deep for the biggest and best fish. When TCI got its first major bank, Barclays, in 1981, Handfield and other fishermen saw no need to open an account. As Handfield explained, “I only got two banks, Ambergis Cay Bank and French Cay Bank,” thereby summing up the local banks that mattered.
Fisherman William “JR” Delancy, another self-taught freediver from Grand Turk, learned the skill as a teenager in the early 1960s. He and his friends would blow up tire tubes with their mouths and put a net or bag in the center. They floated them off Front Street to the wall dropping into the 7,000-foot trench and speargunned for fish. After meeting and marrying beloved schoolteacher Henrietta Gardiner in Bottle Creek in 1966, JR decided to stay in North Caicos and pass on his freediving skills to other island fisherman.
On one of his early days on the North Caicos barrier reef, Delancy, along with his friend and fellow freediver Albert Higgs, dove down deep and speared a giant Atlantic goliath grouper (also called jewfish). The goliath grouper, which is known to attack divers as well as sharks, fought hard and pulled Delancy through the water while he held his breath in a classic contest of man against beast. Delancy hung on and refused surrender. After a long struggle, the huge fish finally gave up, but weighing around 500 pounds, was too big to put in the boat. So the fishermen had to tow the fish back to Bottle Creek. (Shades of Moby Dick and The Old Man and the Sea, but with a happier ending!) Word got out quickly, and everyone in the settlement, including schoolkids let out early, showed up at the dock to witness the largest fish anyone had seen. In the festive atmosphere, Delancy gladly shared pieces of the huge fish with anyone who wanted some to take home for dinner.
In the 1970s and 1980s, world class freedivers Jacques Mayol from France and later Umberto Pelizzari from Italy made their way to the warm transparent waters of TCI. Both loved the easygoing ambiance of the Islands, before resorts and paved roads, when everyone knew everybody and people had time. For a sport where total calm forms the most critical element, the laid-back vibe of TCI suited them perfectly.
These larger than life, yet humble men in their prime, gladly shared their gentle gusto, making many friends. Pushing themselves to the limits of human endurance, they daily straddled the divide between life and death. Confronting the extremes of the deep gave them a sense of supreme humility. From time to time, Mayol and Pelizzari hitched rides on scuba boats going out to the walls. On such occasions, the daring divers would lower themselves over the side of the boat and surprise the scuba divers by descending far deeper without a tank. Undulating through the blue in their long fins alongside rays and sharks, they departed the world above, and became creatures of the sea.
Mayol had already been the first human to break 100 meters (330 feet) in 1976 at the age of 49 in the “No Limits” discipline, as well as other world records. In No Limits freediving, the diver holds on or attaches to a ballast weight, known as a sled, connected to a cable. The diver controls the rate of descent of the weight pulling him down, but tries to go as fast as he can “clear” the ears in response to the change in pressure, typically 3–4 meters (10–13 feet) per second. The idea is to go as deep as possible on a breath of air and then use a balloon or other inflatable device to return to the surface before running out of oxygen. Freedivers consider No Limits to be the most extreme of the eight categories of freediving and the most dangerous.
Mayol liked TCI so much that he bought a house on South Caicos in the 1970s and became great friends and dive buddies with South Caicos mariner and boat captain Timothy Hamilton. Hamilton, already a self-taught and quite adept freediver, took Mayol out to Ambergis Cay, Fish Cay and Long Cay for deep, clearwater challenges, often encountering dolphins along the way. “Before descending,” Hamilton related, “Jackie would start meditating, like he was praying, and be completely at peace.” Hamilton and his wife Vonn regularly invited Mayol over for dinner, sometimes with his freediving friends who came from all over the world to share the diving and tranquility of the Islands.
Mayol would break another No Limits world record at age 59 by descending 105 meters (346 feet) and would go on to co-produce a film on his life, “Le Grand Bleu (The Big Blue)” in 1988, and write a book, Homo Delphinus: The Dolphin Within Man, published in 2000.
When Pelizzari arrived in Provo in the 1980s, he had yet to begin his streak of breaking world records. He became good friends with Dean Bernal, who offered to introduce him to Jo Jo, the human-friendly dolphin of Grace Bay. Both men motored into Grace Bay on Bernal’s boat, and when they arrived out in the deep, Dean used a special signal to “call” Jo Jo. At first, the dolphin wasn’t interested in Pelizzari, but Bernal told him to be patient and just ignore him while doing his training dives. Soon enough, Jo Jo warmed up, and the two of them dived down deep together, becoming fast friends. Jo Jo became very protective of Pelizzari, frequently shunting away barracudas, sharks and turtles with his nostrum (nose), possibly out of jealousy too. Afterwards, Jo Jo would look at Pelizzari through his mask, smiling with satisfaction and pride.
Bernal had warned Pelizzari never to feed Jo Jo so the relationship could remain purely one of friendship. But a few days before leaving TCI, Pelizzari broke the rule and cracked open a lobster he had found and gave it to Jo Jo as thanks for the wonderful experiences. Jo Jo happily ate the lobster and then nudged Pelizzari to follow him far down to a cave bristling with lobsters, apparently in hopes that his human friend could pull out more for him. Jo Jo sensed Pelizzari’s imminent departure, and on the last dive, kept pushing Pelizzari away from the boat in hopes of keeping him there in the sea, an intense affection that filled the great freediver with “indescribable happiness.”

Freediver Samantha Kildegaard, of Free Dive With Me, practices her graceful craft.

In 2002, Tanya Streeter from the Cayman Islands came to Providenciales to attempt a new “No Limits” world record. (See “Free Falling,” Times of the Islands Winter 2002/03.) Streeter had already broken nine world records in different freediving disciplines. Supported by Big Blue and other safety divers, Streeter brought herself into a relaxed state of mind and gulped in as much air as her lungs could hold before letting the sled pull her into the abyss just beyond the reefs of Grace Bay. As her heart rate slowed to just 10 beats per minute, she defied all her male and female rivals and went down to a new world record of 160 meters (525 feet). [The current No Limits record is 253.2 meters (830.8 feet) set in 2012 by Austrian diver Herbert Nitsch.]
Streeter returned to TCI the following year and broke the world record for men and women in the “Variable Weight” discipline, diving to 400 feet (122 meters). In this category, divers descend on a sled, but must return to the surface under their own power. She also broke the world record for Constant Weight No Fins, the most difficult discipline done without aids, only muscle power, descending to 115 feet (35 meters). Streeter dispels the death-defying image of freediving saying, “People who think that freediving is life-threatening misunderstand the sport. It’s entirely life-affirming.”
Philip Shearer and Mark Parrish, excellent freedivers in their own right, started Big Blue (named after Mayol’s movie “The Big Blue”) in 1997 as an eco-friendly watersports operation that embraced the purity of freediving. They taught snorkeling guests the basic techniques of freediving, such as how to relax and descend easily from the surface, so they could enjoy the reef up close, as well as those magical encounters with dolphins and whales. On Big Blue’s staff, Captain Brent Forbes from North Caicos has become an outstanding freediver as well, and true heir of TCI’s freediving revival more than a half century ago.
TCI has its own professional freediver, Samantha Kildegaard, who is committed to teach as many people as possible in the TCI community, as well as visitors, the joy of diving down on a single breath of air. “TCI is easily one of the top places on the planet for freediving with exceptional water visibility, depth and marine life,” says the Argentinian-born Kildegaard, with a passion for protecting the ocean. “When I am down there, I am at peace. I am nobody and everybody at the same time, so much so that I want to stay in the sea forever.” Kildegaard teaches all levels of freediving and organizes freedive camps to encounter whales during the season.
Almost anyone at any age can learn to freedive, dispelling the notion of an extreme, exotic sport meant for an exceptional few. A diver needs only to mentally prepare, equalize pressure in the ears and pack air into the lungs to sever the bonds of our terrestrial home and float freely through an oceanic cosmos.
The paradox of freedivers once sold into slavery and exploited for ephemeral riches, however, should give us pause. They, too, felt the euphoria of relinquishing earthly shackles for freedom in the sea. For today’s divers who find serenity below the surface, and for anyone who cares, the liberty denied to those divers long ago should serve to remind that tranquility in the deep extends beyond the self, even through the ages.

Ben Stubenberg is a contributing writer to Times of the Islands with a passion for TCI history. An avid ocean man, he is co-founder of the sports/adventure tour company Caicu Naniki and the annual “Race for the Conch” Eco-Seaswim. Ben can be reached at ben@caicunaniki.com.

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South Caicos was once a major exporter of salt harvested from its extensive salinas. Award-winning Master and Craftsman Photographer James Roy of Paradise Photography (myparadisephoto.com) created this vertical composition by assembling a series of six images captured by a high-definition drone which was a half a mile away from his position.

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