One by one, we pull ourselves down a weighted line suspended from the ocean’s surface, moving steadily toward a pod of dolphins swimming beneath us. Two hundred and fifty yards off the Big Island of Hawaii’s South Kona Coast and 50 feet down—that’s where we’re supposed to linger, letting our bodies adjust to the ocean’s squeeze. If we do what we’ve been taught, our heartbeats will slow, we’ll clear the pressure in our ears, and we won’t freak out. But this is merely a warm-up, a prelude to what’s coming next: using fins to kick ourselves another 50 feet down on a single breath, all while avoiding blacking out and dying, of course.
I started snorkeling in New York City, in my bathtub, at age 6. By 7, I was exploring the living room, gazing at couches and end tables through my mask. The shag carpet looked like coral. There weren’t any fish, but our cairn terrier was the size of a snapper. I first tried scuba in my high school’s pool and got certified in upstate New York, during college, in the vichyssoise waters of Skaneateles Lake, which William Henry Seward, the 19th-century governor of the Empire State, called “the most beautiful body of water in the world.” We saw trout.
Over the next 20 years, I became a passionate diver, lugging 40-plus pounds of scuba gear around the world as I ventured into deeper realms of wrecks and reefs. But recently I’ve returned to my snorkeling roots. Perhaps because when I snorkel, the ocean feels like my personal enormity, while scuba diving makes me feel less like a swimmer than an astronaut sealed up in a suit, following rules. Don’t stay down too long; don’t move too fast; don’t hold your breath. That’s not what I want.
So I’ve come to Hawaii to shed the diving equipment. While snorkeling means staying at the surface, free diving means entering the ocean as a kind of aquatic mammal, jettisoning the scuba diver’s trail of bubbles and Darth Vader wheeze. Some people free dive to spear fish; others enter competitions (using a weighted sled and a specially designed lift device, in 2007 the Austrian Herbert Nitsch set the mind-boggling record of 702 feet). As a growing extreme sport, free diving rivals BASE jumping. Of course, in that other high-risk endeavor, you don’t have to trouble yourself with getting back up. I’m simply drawn to feeling freedom in the water, and to the dreaminess some divers call the “flow.” Imagine Zen breath-holding meditation—in an isolation tank large enough to cover 70 percent of the globe.
Well-suited to this pursuit are the warm, clear waters off Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, or “Place of Refuge,” where generations of Hawaiians sought sanctuary after running afoul of kapu—the ancient island laws demanding death sentences for such infractions as walking in the chief’s footsteps. A fitting spot, then, for doing things that could get one killed.
I’ve enrolled in the four-day intermediate class run by Performance Freediving International, a school owned by Kirk Krack, who appeared in the documentary The Cove, deploying underwater surveillance equipment to record Japanese dolphin slaughter. We begin with six pages of liability waivers. My nine classmates include triathletes, Brazilian-jujitsu instructors, a marine-science student, and a father-and-son spearfishing team in camouflage wet suits. When we pair off, I draw a wildland firefighter from Northern California. Even in neoprene, he looks like Thor.
Holding your breath like a free diver requires relearning to breathe. This means letting the stomach expand, stretching the chest’s intercostal muscles to maximize the space for the lungs, inhaling deeply while topping them off like fuel tanks, and then packing in still a bit more air. The urge to breathe that comes from our diaphragm is, to Krack and his instructors, “the lying bastard.” What are the consequences of ignoring that urge for too long? Blacking out, and then maybe drowning. “Okay, some tools you’ll learn come with risks,” Krack conceded to us. “Just as, if you use a saw, you can saw your finger off with it, too.”